By Toni Kasim
If you haven’t kept up with the brouhaha over Five Arts Centre’s permit to stage Election Day, do read Pang Khee Teik’s write-up Dealing with DBKL. Election Day, written by Huzir Sulaiman, directed by Krishen Jit, and performed solely by Jo Kukathas, eventually made it to opening night. It is due to run till the 29th, with revisions to the script (the revisions were made specifically to the words that DBKL had kindly highlighted in orange) and a verbal permit issued three days prior to opening night. By opening night Five Art’s had yet to receive their permit in black and white. Why? Your guess is as good as mine, but the sword of Damocles jumps to mind; the blade may fall at the least suspected moment. That’s why verbal approvals are so convenient to issue.
Hats off to Five Arts Centre, Huzir, Krishen and Jo for their ability, dexterity and tenacity in dealing with City Hall’s shenanigans to get Election Day off the ground. The pen is verily mightier than DBKL’s orange highlighter.
The permit saga is but a microcosm of the general state of politics in Malaysia. Whether it is Five Arts, the NGOs or opposition parties, offering something different to the public seems to come at a cost. The public is apparently not to be trusted to make the best choices for themselves, so the state helps the public decide, sometimes with an orange highlighter, sometimes with a baton. Either way, our freedom to express and our freedom to information is yanked from us, the right of the individual to exercise free choice is undermined and our democratic space continues to shrink.
It is this that drives Dedric, the Chinese NGO activist character in Huzir’s play, to help out with the election campaign of that “Indian human rights lawyer standing for election as an opposition candidate.” Dedric is thinking that perhaps its time to “take the old god from the heaven and put the new god in their place.”
Enter Fozi. Remember the four opposition parties in Barisan Alternatif in 1999 – the ‘Well-Dressed Fler’s Party’, ‘the Religious Party’, ‘Thousand Chinese and One Sikh Alliance’ and ‘Red Party’? Well, it is this alliance that puts the grog-swilling, womanising, ex-PAS, Malay-architect Fozi on the same side of the political fence as Dedric. At home, though, they seem to bristle at each other, in particular over the presence of a certain Natasha.
The third component of this muhibbah household is Francis, the Indian guy who has an admiration for Dedric’s passion for social justice and Sivarasa’s Rhodes scholarship. That said though, Francis is not entirely turned on by Malaysian politics and is in fact suspicious of both the ‘reformasi’ crowd and the ‘Long Live Our Visionary Leader’ crowd.
Unless your grasp of Malaysian politics is C+ or better, you might want to read the revisions that are posted in the foyer of Actors Studio before the show. Otherwise, it might take take you a few seconds to figure out who the ‘Suddenly-Decides-Not-To-Be-Quiet Son of the Noisy Father’ was and by the time your brain processes the list of possibilities and decides if it was an important bit of information – zzzupp, you miss the punchline. Even the Kakiseni guest editor, who had the pleasure of dating me that night, needed a bit of a hand in figuring Guan Eng and Betty Chew (the reason I missed the punchline).
Anyhow, Francis and Dedric arrive at the campaign headquarters. And this is where the play brings back memories for me: of the thrills and spills of the 1999 elections. For those of you who actually voted or helped with election campaigns, the scene at the polling station and vote counting from Election Day will be familiar too. You will remember those last desperate, obsequious attempts by the perayu undi at the pondok panas to muscle you into voting for their camp – annoying yet mildly comic at the same time. But don’t go looking for the pondok panas in the coming elections though – apparently only the independent, non-partisan Elections Commission can set up their pondok panas.
I never quite worked out how the ‘other side’, managed those high-quality plastic posters, banners, buntings and stuff, mineral water bottles with party logos and still have change leftover from the RM50,000 that you were allowed to spend on any one parliamentary constituency!
But just between you and me though, I think someone from ‘that side’ has complained about how RM50,000 is chicken feed. Because the election laws now allow candidates to spend up to RM200,000 per parliamentary constituency. Personally, not having been able to raise RM50,000 myself in the last elections anyway, this new figure seems moot. In any case, ‘that side’ may not need to worry too much because if indeed the election deposit (the money you have to raise to get registered in the first place) gets pegged at the maximum rate of RM30,000 (from the original RM5,000), there is a high chance that opposition folks may have to think twice about whether or not to stand (run?) anyway.
This money business leaves a real sour taste in my mouth because elections are a means for us to elect principled wakil rakyats into office, people who will represent us in making important decisions that affect us all. Putting a price tag on elections clearly puts many people out of the running regardless of how good a candidate they might be. Worse still, wither thy Parliament for we may be stuck with moneybags who are clueless about what it means to be an MP.
And wouldn’t it be luverly if we could actually elect City Hall councillors instead of having to put up with the folks who get appointed by the state? The bugger of it all is that local elections were eventually banned in 1973 because the opposition was doing their job a little too well in local council, so now City Hall is left unchecked.
Anyway, in spite of hopes for change, the 1999 General Elections ends without much of a surprise (though there were some near upsets), while Election Day ends with a bit of twist on the home-front.
Just a comment on the added dimension DBKL brings to the play. The 1999 production of Election Day took a dig at Malaysian politics, called a spade a spade and called ‘Sharizat’ a ‘Sharizat’. The 2004 production, though not intended to be a parody could not help but have that effect- it delivered the digs of 1999, and the revisions leaves you somewhere between wanting to laugh at the lines (as some of the revisions were rather funny) and wanting to slap your forehead repeatedly and laugh at DBKL for being so ‘rear-end’.
Under the intense circumstances and last minute changes, the hiccup in Jo’s rhythm on opening night was understandable. If anything, I was disgusted with City Hall for undermining a brilliant performer. But from what I hear from others who attended the last couple of nights, Jo is back in top form.
Five Arts Centre mulled long and hard on their strategy before deciding to go ahead with the staging of Election Day. How far do you let the powers that be crank up the heat and tighten their grip on your vocal chords? How do you stay viable, stay true to your principles and push the envelope for the freedom to speak and express?
I think the decision to go ahead with the production and turn the challenge into an opportunity to conduct post play discussions (both about the play and about our basic freedom) was a good decision. Though, were it left to me, I’d lock the doors and give a five-minute blurb on the state of freedom of expression in the arts before giving the audience a chance to leave, but there you go, Five Arts are way too kind.
Here’s hoping Malaysian voters (you have registered, haven’t you?) will mull just as long and hard over the choices before them when they go to the upcoming polls.
That is if you have the luxury of mulling over candidates worth their salt. Selamat Membuang Undi, folks.
‘I swore never to be silent whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented’- Elie Weisel
Toni Kasim is a freelance trainer, consultant and activist. In 1999, Toni ran in the Federal Elections as an independent women’s candidate; the current Transport Minister won only by the skin of his teeth.
First Published: 18.02.2004 on Kakiseni