Thinking Outside The Box

Confrontations between the State and artists are a fact of arts practice. Whether it is the Church and Court in medieval Europe suppressing the bawdy antics of commedia del arte, the Soviet Union assigning 70,000 bureaucrats to monitor the works of 7,000 writers, or the US Senate rising up against an artist taking the piss out of Christ, the encounter can seem like a battle between David and Goliath. But as South African writer J.M Coetzee points out, it’s almost a sure bet that when the Sate begins to institutionalise censorship, “it’s a sign of weakness in the State, not strength.”

Evidence closer to home seems to support this view. During the Japanese Occupation sandiwara plays in both Indonesia and Malaya were subject to strict controls. Scripts had to be vetted and approved by the Japanese Army first, and some companies were pressed upon to stage plays to serve the Japanese propaganda machine. The mechanics of staging plays in Malaysia today is a legacy of the British colonial administration, which introduced the performance permit as a means of controlling growing anti-colonial sentiment expressed through popular theatre. Both the Japanese and British were powers, which needed desperately to legitimise its presence here, and in addition to more overt forms of control, attempted to manage the cultural capital of the people.

More recent examples range from the sinister to the ludicrous. In the early 90s, kiddie flick The Mighty Morphing Power Rangers was banned by then Minister of Information because apparently, the word “morphing” would induce our youth to makan dadah. Did none at the Ministry have a dictionary at hand? Next was boy band KRU’s concert tour, Krumania, forced to rename itself because ‘mania’ was a bad, bad word. To assign taboo status to a word is to say that the word is dirty, shameful, unnatural, and dangerous. Interesting what the choice of words stigmatised can tell you about the health of a nation.

In the early 80’s Chin San Sooi’s play about boat people, Refugee Images was refused a performance permit. It was six years before the play, significantly renamed Morning in Night was given the green light. When Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin is too Big for the Hole which challenged the oppressive presence of the Singapore government was first brought to KL in 1986, it was also denied a permit. This was largely due to the Singapore government’s view of Kuo as a subversive element, but the relevance of its message within the Malaysian context cannot be entirely dismissed as a contributing factor. In 2001, Coffin was performed in KL as part of a high-profile celebration of Kua, who had in the intervening years, come to been lionized by the Singapore government. When Datuk Nordin Hassan’s Di Mana Setangginya was shelved as the curtain raiser at the new lstana Budaya, speculation was rife that the play’s political allusions were problematic in post-1998 Malaysia.

The shifting attitude towards these plays indicate that the content of these plays are not intrinsically undesirable. Rather its status is determined by the wider socio-political context. Each of these plays became the location where the State was able to assert its power, and in doing so, reinforce its legitimacy to control the corresponding area of contention.

In recent weeks, Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues has joined the ranks of plays which have run into problems here reportedly over sexual and religious content. The play itself is enjoyable, even empowering, although it is in the end a product of a particularly Northern American milieu, marketed as a franchise internationally. Local plays, such as Bernice Chauly’s Three Lives (1998) which explores sexuality in Malaysian society unblinkingly, Dina Zaman’s Penggangur Terhormat (1995), which featured a tudung-clad protagonist and The Five Arts Centre’s Rama and Sita (1996) all caused rumblings from certain quarters as well.

The official response to these plays was inconsequential however. Each received permits and in the case of Three Lives, was supported by the Ministry of Culture Arts and Tourism. The Vagina Monologues though has elicited a strong reaction from the State. Following two successful stagings earlier in the year, two further permit applications by two different organizations, The Five Arts Centre and All Women’s Action Movement, were either rejected or conditionally approved, apparently after DBKL received a complaint from a religious group. It would be easy to treat this as an isolated case, and lay the responsibility at the feet of DBKL as the approving authority, or the religious group as part of a lunatic fringe. And it would be too easy to place this controversy into a little box marked “vulgar”, and file it away. Easy, but inaccurate, and ultimately, dangerous.

At the heart of these encounters is a contest over the power to prescribe. State interventions in the arts are seldom about a particular poem, novel, play or movie. Culture and art can be seen as symbolic capital, which must be managed, if not controlled by the authorities, as all commodities must be.

When an arts event or art form becomes the subject of controversy and censure, it’s inevitably a red flag for some deeper, wider issue effecting society. The arts can be a battlefield of contending views, one with the least amount of socio-political fall-out, but with fairly substantial symbolic significance. The ability to define what is and what is not permissible in a society is a mark of power, and it’s precisely for this reason that both State institutions as well as interest groups of all persuasions enter into battle over seemingly irrelevant artistic products.

And when the State reacts with overt or subvert repression of the arts, either on its own violation, or under pressure from “the people”, it’s a sure sign of a society in flux, with competing civil and political groups fighting for the right to redefine the parameters the nation. The Vagina Monologues, is only one in a growing number of locations where this battle over what can and cannot be said, over who has the right to a voice and who does not is being fought.

In a debate governed less by reason then by political agendas and narrow concepts of faith, it is he who shouts the longest, and the loudest who is in danger of winning.


First Published: 11.03.2002 on Kakiseni

Related items

For Translation

The 8th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…

The 7th Annual BOH Cameronian Arts Awards — Results!

dance Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize of RM1,000 Prize…