How much do you add up to?
(Photo: NUS Arts Festival)

How much do you add up to?

In their rawest forms, numbers are simply arithmetical values – symbols, figures used to count and measure things. But often, consciously or unknowingly, we imbue these digits with personal meaning and significance, and this in turn shapes our identities and behaviours.

From a coveted PSLE score and the first 4D numbers one bought, to the memorable birthday of one’s firstborn and the ideal age for retirement – numbers play a much more important role in how we live our lives than we dare to acknowledge. This idea is explored in the new play, The Child Who Loved Numbers, by Singapore director Judy Ngo and 14 students from the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Chinese Drama group.

The play is part of this year’s NUS Arts Festival, themed A Game of Numbers and conceived in partnership with the NUS Department of Mathematics, Faculty of Science. The performances in the festival explore the parallels and resonance between the two seemingly disparate disciplines of study.

Indeed, as director Ngo went about devising the play with the students, they became aware of the pervasive influence of numbers in their everyday lives, and eventually settled on presenting nine, instead of one story set across different time periods, with love as the enduring link between the stories.

Read on to find out the numbers that matter to director Ngo and two students acting in the play – Li Guoyuan, a Year 1 Life Science undergraduate, who plays a mother, a restaurant owner and an auntie in the production, and Chua Wei Qian, a Year 1 Environmental Studies undergraduate who plays a father, a local student and an investigation officer.

What number affects how you view yourself?

Ngo: The number I identify with has changed over the years. I used to see myself as an extremely independent theatre person, a “1”. After marriage, I associated with the number “2” – my husband and I. Things changed when I gave birth to twins. Suddenly, everything revolved around the number “4” – cooking for four, travelling overseas for four, even planning the bathroom schedule for four. Also, friends no longer asked after me as an individual. Instead, they enquired about my family of four.

Li: The number “4.5” is my ideal cumulative average point for grades. I have always been extremely concerned about my exam scores. To me, they were important in determining my academic future, and I presumed that a remarkable score would impress the people around me. As a result, I subconsciously allowed my emotions to be dictated by my exam scores. When I had relatively good results, I would feel cheerful and optimistic. If I scored badly, my confidence would plummet and I would be devastated.

Chua: The number “38”. When I was younger, my weight influenced the way I looked at myself; lower numbers on the scale meant that I was attractive. To attain those numbers, I would force myself to exercise and burn more calories than I consumed, to create a calorie deficit. At one point, I weighed 38kg at 168 cm, putting my health at risk. As I grew older, I realised that the number on the scale doesn’t define who I truly am. Now, maintaining a healthy weight matters more to me than being consumed by the need to be lean and to feel accepted by others.

What do you think is a number, or set of numbers, that Singaporeans are most affected by in general?

Ngo: The COE price, because it is an indicator of the current economic situation and we all know how much emphasis Singaporeans put on money.

Li: I think it would be “9.8.1965”. This set of numbers is the date when Singapore became an independent republic and Singaporeans were empowered to create a brand-new future for themselves and for the country.

Chua: I think Singaporeans, including myself, are often affected by numbers that define achievements, such as grades, salary, fitness results, etc. I feel that these numbers exert influence over most Singaporeans because of our desire to become better versions of ourselves. But, I think it is important for us to constantly reflect on what is truly important so that we do not lose ourselves to a mindless pursuit for excellence.

The replies were edited and condensed. Details about The Child Who Loved Numbers here.

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