First multilingual play in Singapore

Singapore Infopedia


Staged on 10 August 1988, Kuo Pao Kun’s Mama Looking for Her Cat was Singapore’s first multilingual play. Performed by the Practice Theatre Ensemble, the play focuses on the theme of Singapore’s multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society, brought out by English, Malay, Mandarin, TamilHokkienCantonese and Teochew dialogue.

Kuo’s Mama Looking for Her Cat was Singapore’s first multilingual play. Staged by the Practice Theatre Ensemble on 10 August 1988 at the Singapore Conference Hall,it was the first play to reflect Singapore’s reality as a multiracial, multicultural and multilingual society.2

Mama Looking for Her Cat is about the breakdown in communication and estranged relationship between a Hokkien-speaking mother and her bilingual-speaking children, who could only express themselves in English and Mandarin. It was the first multilingual play on the language barriers facing the different generations of Singaporeans. The play was created through Kuo’s workshops with a multiracial ensemble of 11, including T. Sasitharan, William Teo, Verena Tay and Neo Swee Lin – familiar names in today’s theatre scene as actors, directors and critics.3

Thematically, Kuo was articulating the marginalisation of older generations of Singaporeans as a result of the country’s bilingual policy that began in 1959.4 The pragmatic decision by the authorities then was based on the perception that people could communicate more effectively using only one or two main languages. As a result, the aged who spoke mostly in dialect became marginalised as the country phased out dialects in favour of English and Mandarin.5 Grandparents and even parents now have trouble communicating with the younger generation because of these changes in language trends.6

Mama Looking for Her Cat is a symbolic social commentary on the language and cultural issues experienced by Singaporeans arising from the bilingual policy. As language is seen as a vehicle of a whole system of culture, there is concern that the official phasing out of dialects would eventually erode the entire personal and collective history of the older generations.7

The achievement of Kuo’s play lies in its integration of form and content.8 He used Brechtian and Eastern ideas such as songs and cross talk, as well as performance techniques pioneered by Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, to demonstrate Mama’s alienation from her children.9

Conceptually, Mama Looking for Her Cat was deemed the first truly Singaporean play as Kuo used several local languages and Chinese dialects – Mandarin, English, Cantonese, Teochew, Hokkien, Malay and Tamil – to reflect Singapore’s multicultural and multilingual environment.10 This was a significant departure from the general perception of theatre being a monoculture and monolingual enterprise.11 Through his play, Kuo questioned the typically accepted notion that a genuine post-independence Singaporean theatre had to be an English-language one.12

Mama Looking for Her Cat paved the way for the use and acceptance of Chinese dialects within the arts and entertainment scene. No playwright before Kuo had presented this undeniable and fundamental nature of a multicultural and multilingual society that Singaporeans were adapting to. Since this seminal play, more multilingual plays and films have been produced to better reflect contemporary Singapore society.13 The play was also reported to have partially inspired Thomas Lim’s Grandmother Tongue (2016), a play based on Lim’s struggles in communicating with his Teochew speaking grandmother.14

Nureza Ahmad

1. Pauline Loh, “Has the Cat Got Your Tongue? “ New Paper, 26 July 1988, 38. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “A Leader in the Theatre Scene Here,” Straits Times, 27 June 1995, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Clarissa Oon, “Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar,” Straits Times, 7 October 1998, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Oon, “Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar”; Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew, My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey (Singapore: Straits Times Press, 2012), 50–51 (Call no. RSING 306.4495957 LEE); Diane K. Mauzy and R.S. Milne, Singapore Politics under the People’s Action Party (New York: Routledge, 2002), 103. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 MAU)
5. Oon, “Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar.”
6. “PTE Has Wide Influence Through,” Straits Times, 6 December 1996, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Oon, “Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar.”
8. Clarrisa Oon, “Take Risks, Go for a Rock Band Instead,” Straits Times, 7 January 2000, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Elizabeth A. Kaiden, “Toy Winds Up for Play,” Straits Times, 30 July 1998, 5 (From NewspaperSG)”; “A Leader in the Theatre Scene Here.” 
10. “A Leader in the Theatre Scene Here.”
11. C. J. Wee Wan-Ling, “Has S’pore Drama Gone Parochial?Straits Times, 20 December 1998, 40. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Selina Lum, “Glimpse of Cultural Roots in Geylang,” Straits Times, 19 August 1997, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Oon, “Many Voices Make the Lion City Roar.”
14. J. X. Lee, “Singapore Theatre Festival Showcases Three New Plays,” Straits Times, 16 April 2016 (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website); Dylan Tan, “Celebrating Singapore Theatre in Style,” Business Times, 15 April 2016, 27. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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