Portrait of a president (The Straits Times)


Family connection: Playwright and director Zizi Azah is the grandniece of Yusof Ishak, Singapore’s first President.

Growing up, Zizi Azah did not tell her friends that Mr Yusof Ishak was her granduncle.

“I was convinced no one would believe me. It’s a weird thing to say – it doesn’t mean you are royalty or anything,” says the noted playwright and director. “As I got older and started making the connections, I became more interested.”

It stars (from far left) Erwin Shah Ismail, Najib Soiman, Sani Hussin, Dalifah Shahril, Farah Ong and Siti Khalijah Zainal. PHOTO: ESPLANADE – THEATRES ON THE BAY

Zizi, 34, decided to write the script about Mr Yusof for Esplanade’s Pesta Raya as she wanted to work on a biopic that would be relevant and timely to celebrate Singapore’s jubilee year.

He is the uncle of Zizi’s mother and the eldest of nine children. She knows him as “Tok Sulung”, which means eldest granduncle.

Yusof will be staged from Aug 13 to 16. The titular character will be played by seasoned Singaporean actor Sani Hussin while actress Siti Khalijah Zainal will play his wife Madam Noor Aishah Salim.


WHERE: Esplanade Theatre Studio

WHEN: Aug 13 to 15, 8pm, and Aug 16, 3pm

ADMISSION: $30 from Sistic

Najib Soiman, Farah Ong, Dalifah Shahril and Erwin Shah Ismail make up the rest of the cast. The play will be performed in Malay with English surtitles.

The two-hour-long play spans the years 1933 to 1970 and will look at both his achievements, such as founding the Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu, as well as the more personal side of him as a father, husband and brother. “He was a key figure in our history. Yet we know very little about him and about who he was,” notes Zizi.

She never got to meet Mr Yusof in person as he died in 1970 before she was born. In researching the play, she read his biographies and conducted interviews with family members, including Madam Noor Aishah, in order to uncover stories about him.

She was particularly interested in him and his two brothers Aziz and Abdul Rahim, who were all involved in politics.

Mr Yusof was the head of state of Singapore from 1959 to 1965, when he became the Republic’s first President, a post he kept till his death in 1970.

Mr Aziz Ishak was the Minister for Agriculture in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, while Mr Abdul Rahim Ishak was Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I wanted to know what is it about this family that three of the brothers wanted to be politicians. What made them want to contribute to nation-building?” she says.

Her mother told her a story about how the brothers would get riled up when they talked about politics, almost coming to blows over their different opinions.

She also learnt that behind Mr Yusof’s apparently stern demeanour was a man who liked to joke.

“The first draft of the play was dead boring,” admits Zizi.

“After I spoke to my family members, I filled up the characters with their accounts. These are stories you would hear only if you talked to the family,” says the playwright, who is back in Singapore from the United States till the end of this month.

She is based in New Haven in Connecticut, where her husband is doing a postgraduate degree at the Yale School of Drama. They have a five-year-old daughter.

Zizi says she feels immense pressure to represent Mr Yusof Ishak the man fairly. She says somewhat nervously: “My mother told me not to say anything untrue. I really want to do it justice and uphold the family legacy, so to speak.”