Reflections by Nabilah Said

16 July 2016, recalling the key milestones of her Boiler Room journey:

7 July 2015

Boiler Room officially begins. Liting and I meet Casey and Dr Loon for the first time. We set objectives and expectations for the programme – mainly that the process would be rather self-directed. Casey and Dr Loon would take on a more advisory role, helping to guide us to where we want to go, rather than dictating what and how we should write. I am reassured by this promise of flexibility, especially with a day job that has an unpredictable schedule. I know Liting, and am a bit sad to learn that our journeys after this meeting will be separate from each other. Dr Loon asks us to read Angels in America by Tony Kushner and Three Children by Leow Puay Tin by the next meeting.

13 August 2015

We discuss the two texts. I come away with two thoughts – your play need not be objective but it should have a strong point of view; and in doing our research, we should try to explore multiple angles and excavate as much material as we can. I guess that’s why the research phase for this programme lasts for 3 months.

As my proposal centres on the idea of land and former islands in Singapore, Casey and Dr Loon suggest a number of research threads I can explore including but not limited to:

  • Land Acquisition Act of 1966 and the disappearance of our kampongs
  • Old maps of Malaysia and Malaya

 We also talked about researching “on the side”, of issues such as:

  • Dying trades in Singapore
  • Inuit children taken away from their homes in Greenland to be raised as Danish citizens in the 1950s

29 August 2015

I borrow some books from the library.

Some choice quotes and findings from my research:

“To residents, who would otherwise recall kampongs with nostalgia, HDB housing was not only a shelter but also an asset with a positive resale value. To the state, it was an instrument of nation building and development.”
“Housing crisis in Singapore was influenced by planning ideas post-war Britain.”
“With proper planning, man could unmake the slum.”
~ From ‘Squatters Into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore’ by Loh Kah Seng

“Older PAP leaders now sought to enlist history – as memories start to fade and the wartime generation began to pass away – to show why only the PAP’s approach could have worked for post-war Singapore”
~ From Singapore from Temasek to the 21st Century: Reinventing the Global City (edited by Karl Hack and Jean-Louis Margolin, with Karine Delaye)

“At its founding in 1819, Singapore had about 70 offshore islands. Today only about 50 are clearly mapped out.”
“Before reclamation, many of these islands had schools and community centers, and the people led communal kampung lifestyles.”
“The process of land reclamation… resulted in increased sedimentation that further affected surrounding coral reefs and the life they supported.”
“On nearly every weekend from 1993 to 1995, divers, snorkelers and other helpers went out on boats to collect and transfer the corals. A total of 450 volunteers spent around 10, 000 hours underwater shifting the corals.”
~ From The Lost Islands of Singapore (

3 September 2015

We discuss things that I found interesting about my research.

I was given other suggestions to explore:

  • “old spaces” in Singapore such as Tuas, Marsiling, Choa Chu Kang, Lim Chu Kang
  • Traditional occupations linked to land and property, eg. jaga and rituals and superstitions related to land
  • The trauma of the separation between Singapore and Malaysia

I feel a tad overwhelmed. I suggest to them that I will start speaking to some former islanders. I think this appeals to me because it gives me a chance to hear more personal stories, rather than just read about things in books or online.

 23 October 2015

I interview a small group of friends and parents of friends who have lived on Singapore’s offshore islands. I ask about what their homes looked like, what they did for fun on the islands, who they lived with, when they left. Not only do their accounts provide rich detail on life on the islands, I come away feeling like I opened a door in them that didn’t really close at the end of our sessions. It made me feel a little guilty.

 Something interesting to note: I do a word association exercise at the end of the interviews, and they tend to pause for longer after I say words associated with “city”.

27 October 2015

I share about the interviews that I’ve conducted. Some interesting points:

  • when people talk about their past, they’re really talking about their present
  • when you are young and attend school in Singapore, you always recognise other islanders. There is always a saltiness in their skin
  • the only way to destroy a boat is to burn it.

 I have to write three monologues by the next session, with different voices and different spaces for each.

Also, Casey and Dr Loon give me more than a month’s break so that I can get married and go for a short holiday. :)

8 January 2016

I took some leave from work to write my monologues at Changi Airport. It’s strange but the words actually come pretty easily, which I guess must be because of my research process. Without realising it, I had collected all this info and textures that I could use when I actually started to write.

11 January 2016

I get positive feedback for my monologues. One particular character stands out from the rest – Azman, a 20-something-year-old former resident of St. John’s Island who is battling the stereotype of the lazy, Malay island boy.

They advise me to keep on writing that story and to introduce new characters.

20 March 2016

I’ve been struggling with the Azman story. It just doesn’t want to come out. As a result, I think of a whole new story called Pulau Land, a satire on Singapore society and how we exoticise our former islands without really acknowledging their beauty and strengths.

I send the scene breakdown of my new play to Casey and Dr Loon. Azman is still in there, but so are a bevy of new characters including an eccentric called Samad L Jackson. It sounds absurd, and maybe it is.

 21 March 2016

As expected, Casey and Dr Loon seem surprised by this new play Pulau Land. Still, they remain quite supportive of this new direction. They ask me to explore the idea of place-making in Singapore, and how absurd that sometimes can be.

We explore a number of new ideas, such as Sang Nila Utama being a place manager for an island.

Also they ask me to start thinking about how I might stage this new play. I honestly don’t have any idea, because I tend to think of words first and staging second.

13 June 2016

It is not surprising but I am embarrassed to admit that I just cannot seem to write Pulau Land. I think at the heart of it, it does not seem authentic to my voice and what I want to say about the topic of space and islands, especially going back to my original idea which I proposed when I applied for the programme.

 I go back and revisit my proposal:

The seed of the play is the idea of rootedness and displacement, or what is at stake when people are made to move, sometimes against their will.

Nope, it does not seem to be the same play at all.

At the same time, because I am also involved in other theatre projects, I find myself physically unable to write more than one play at one time. I write to Casey and Dr Loon and suggest to change my story idea once again, to accommodate my multiple projects. It seems like a cop-out, but at this point I am not too sure what I can do.

14 June 2016

Casey emails me and says that they cannot let me change the story because it deviates too much from the original proposal. Instead, they suggest that I take a 6-month break from the programme.

I am deeply saddened though touched by their magnanimous offer. I write a reply accepting the decision with a heavy heart, but because it is very tough decision to make, I actually falter and forget to send out my reply.

15 June 2016

I click “send” on my email.

 Dr Loon writes back: “We believe in the piece you’ve been working with us and we are willing to let you take time off and come back to it with more focus and intent.”

My heart squeezes a little and I feel terrible.

1 July 2016

Officially on leave-of-absence from Boiler Room.

 It is a strange sort of heartbreak.

20 March 2016, on the Research and Construction Phase of her Boiler Room journey:

The Boiler Room programme, for me, could not have come at a better time. I had come off from writing a number of scripts, mostly in Malay, but I have always felt that I had more to say. I just didn’t know where to start.

The initial months were about doing intensive research – reading as widely as possible, around my topic of land use and Singapore’s islands, and researching “on the side”, of topics which were not directly related but would inform my understanding of the issues I wanted to explore. I read books about the modernisation of Singapore, about the Bukit Ho Swee fire, stories about elderly residents made to move to HDBs. I read blogs about our former islands, saw how former islanders reunited in the comments section, looked at Facebook pages where former islanders shared old photographs and tried to identify one another.

This helped me amass a lot of information and ideas, which could later be drawn from when I started to write. During this time, documentation (mind maps, random notes) was very important.

I also started to speak to former islanders that I knew. This was fascinating, because they shared with me stories filled with rich detail and human emotions – which had been somewhat missing from my first round of research. I recorded these interviews, and later transcribed them. For most of these interviewees, I never knew that they had been islanders, and speaking to them revealed a whole other side of their experiences that I had never known about. This was endlessly fascinating to me.

I supplemented these with written and video interviews of former islanders, which can be found online. The information from all these sources was precious resource which I would later have to mine when I started writing.

About four months into the programme, I was finally told to write. Though writing a script still remains quite daunting to me, I found that the months of research really helped to prepare me for this stage in a way I had not realised until now. And even then, it was not a case of Dr Loon and Casey just sending me off on my way to go off and write, and come back with a script. Instead, they started me off by asking me to write three monologues from the perspectives of three different characters. After the months of preparation, the writing was like catharsis. I had been working up to this very moment.

And now, I must write the rest of it. This is the most difficult part, and where I feel there can be no more handholding. This is where the playwright must find her voice on her own. I guess they did not call it “Boiler Room” for nothing.