By Kathy Rowland
“Bukan budaya kita.” It’s a phrase that crops up in the oddest of places. A municipal newsletter denouncing satire, a political speech vilifying men and women singing on stage together, a police officer dumping the rising crime rate on immigrants.
With so many people telling us what our culture is not, one can’t help but wonder what Malaysian culture is exactly. Well, wonder no more, for while it may have slipped from public consciousness over the past 20 years, we do actually have a national policy on culture.
Officially known as the National Cultural Policy of 1971, the NCP was called into being by the Riots of 1969. In the blame-fest which ensued after the Riots, Tunku Abdul Rahman believed that the absence of a singular national identity amongst a multi ethnic population was in part responsible for the violence. As a result, a Director of Culture was appointed within the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sports and tasked with organising a congress to formulate a unifying national culture.
The National Cultural Congress was held from 16-20 August 1971 at University Malaya, jointly organised by the Cultural Division of the Ministry and the Malay Studies Department of University Malaya. Artists, academicians and intellectuals presented a total of fifty-two seminar papers exploring the concept of national, from music to architecture, film to dress, theatre to language. The papers were published two years later by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports as Asas-Asas Kebudayaan Kebangsaan (Asas).
While all fifty-two seminar papers were included in Asas, the sum total of the NCP was reduced to three principles, as outlined in the Foreword. The first states that National Culture would be based on that of the indigenous inhabitants of the region. The second asserts that elements from other cultures, which were suitable and reasonable, might be incorporated into the national culture. Finally, the third principle affirmed that Islam would be a crucial component of the National Culture. A caveat clarified that, “Suitable and reasonable referred to in the second principle must be understood in the context of the first and third principle, and not from other values” (KKBS, vii).
The 1st principle was based on the rationale that the country’s culture should reflect the culture of the indigenous communities, which was interpreted as the Malay-Polynesian culture of the region. Indeed, it was a civilisation with a unique ethos shaped by centuries of contact with a variety of cultures both Eastern and Western. Its adaptability to, and absorption of other cultural and religious influences made it, therefore, an appropriate culture for a multiethnic state. The second principle made provisions for the acceptance of non-indigenous cultures, in recognition of the multi-ethnic make-up of the country. The pre-eminence of Islam in the third principle in turn, was supported by its 600-year presence in the region, and its position as the Official Religion, as enshrined in the Constitution.
Unfortunately, anyone who believes that culture is the glue to repair a fractured nation has probably been sniffing too much glue. The view of culture as a non-political, neutral space where man can achieve commonality with others, unencumbered by race, gender or class is no longer tenable. Add the appendage “national”, and all pretence goes out the window, as a selection process, which, invariably, favours the cultural characteristics of the political elite, kicks in. With the State focused on consolidating its power after the political crisis at the root of the so-called Race Riots, culture became a tool to legitimise and reproduce the dominant/subordinate structure of politics and economics rather than to transcend it.
Prior to 1969, the State was largely absent from the arena of arts and culture. For example, no provisions were made for culture and the arts in the Federal Constitution, although religion and language were prominent features. Concepts of national culture, where they did appear, tended to be more inclusive. At a seminar entitled “The Cultural Problems of Malaysia in the Context of South East Asia” held in 1967, the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of an inclusive form of national culture, achieved through consensus amongst a multicultural polity. Even his opening address at the National Cultural Congress of 1971 emphasised the reality of Malaysia’s multicultural society in the formation of the Policy.
In effect, the distillation of the Congress into the three principles by an unnamed editor in Asas, created what Bauman calls a hierarchy of culture, which placed expressions of Malay/Muslim culture at the apex of Malaysian culture. Under the NCP, a Tennessee Williams play, performed in Bahasa Malaysia was seen as conforming to the principles of national culture, but an original play written by a Malaysian, with Malaysian characters speaking in a mixture of English, Malay and Cantonese, was not. Yet, just months before May 1969, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Encik Senu bin Abdul Rahman, released a statement in which he praised the Malaysian Theatre Arts Group’s staging of Syed Alwi’s The More We Get Together as “contributing to the Culture of Malaysian society and the development of a Malaysian theatre” (Malay Mail, 2 Jan 1969). Not surprisingly the NCP failed to gain credibility amongst those who were suspicious of and excluded by its definition of Malaysian culture.
In 1981, when the Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sport called for a 10-year review of the NCP, aimed, not at modifying the principles, but at reforming its enforcement, the Chinese and Indian communities were quick to register their dissatisfaction over the NCP. At the time, the cultural arena was already fraught, particularly between the State and the Chinese community, precipitated by a statement from the Minister of Home Affairs in 1979 that the Chinese lion dance was not compatible with the NCP. Controversy erupted following allegations that the police would not issue permits for Lion Dances, which are an integral part of the Chinese New Year celebrations. This ban caused an uproar in the Chinese community. Criticism against the directive, and the NCP cut across the political spectrum, with some of the strongest objections coming from within the MCA, a member of the ruling-coalition. In a political system structured along ethnic lines, the MCA’s survival was linked to its ability to win the support of the Chinese community. This support became increasingly conditional on the issue of culture, as the contestations over the limits to national culture imposed by the State grew.
A Chinese Cultural Congress was organised in 1983, followed by the Indian Cultural Congress in 1984. At these separate Congresses, each community presented its case for a more plural approach to national culture. Significantly though, both these Congresses were still tied to an ethnicised framework, and neither were therefore credible alternatives of a more inclusive view of national culture.
Given the notions of group identity embedded in expressions of culture, the battle over the nature of ‘national’ culture was particularly uncompromising with each ethno-political group asserting its culture and language as distinct markers of identity. The perception that minority cultures were under threat in the post-69 period caused a renewed interest in forms such as Chinese Opera and mother tongue education, which in fact had been in decline since the early years of Independence. Thus, a policy ostensibly aimed at unifying through the construction of a common national identity, in fact further entrenched the ethnic divide, and induced a particularly petty cultural chauvinism in both those privileged and marginalised by the NCP.
Depending on which side of the power divide you stand, culture is either an untapped oilfield, or an active minefield. In October 1987, over 100 people were detained under the Internal Security Act in the infamous Operation Lalang. Among the detainees were those accused by the Government of politicising culture and language. Not surprisingly, the National Cultural Policy receded from the arena of public debate, replaced by a culture of silence.
When culture did return to the news again in the early 1990s, it was an animal of a very different stripe that was caught in the glare of our headlines.
The 1990s opened with a readjustment in the ethno-political discourse of the State, which led to the displacement of the bogeyman of ethnic conflagration by the promise of economic wealth. The Barisan National successfully recast itself as the custodian of prosperity across ethnic lines, and embarked upon a political strategy that appeared to move away from the rationality of ethnicity. Vision 2020 was promoted as the new blueprint for national identity. Announced in 1991, it consists of nine policy challenges, addressing social, economic and nationalist objectives. It envisioned a nation “made of one ‘Bangsa Malaysia’,” in which “Malaysians of all color and creed are free to practice and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feel that they belong to one nation.”
The state’s apparent shift towards plurality, as expressed in the idea of Bangsa Malaysia, was welcomed by those who had previously opposed the NCP. In 1996, sixty-nine Chinese associations agreed to “assume a more accommodative stance vis-a-vis the National Cultural Policy” citing the more “liberal government policies towards Chinese education, cultural activities, improved inter-ethnic relations, and the new thrust to achieve the national goal of a developed nation by the year 2020,” as the reason behind the softening of their hard-line position as expressed in the Chinese Cultural Congress of 1983.
While there were reservations amongst some in the Malay community over their constitutional rights as the indigenous inhabitants of the nation, there was nothing approaching the heated debates of the preceding decade between those for and against Vision 2020.
This is not to say that a utopian multiculturalism had been achieved simply through the articulation of a new ideal as encapsulated in Vision 2020, or via the revamping of a number of Government departments. Sociologist Francis Loh signals the emergency of a new discourse of cultural liberalisation, which encouraged minority groups to carve out their own private spaces of community identity. This “privatisation of ethnicity” allowed the State to maintain in principle, the existing ideological framework that reserved the prestige of “national” for its own political power base, while addressing the grievances of those disadvantaged by the post-69 policies.
Minority groups had fewer grounds to press for more equitable policies, and conversely, their expressions of culture became less susceptible to attacks of being un-Malaysian. Public confrontations between competing political and ethnic interests were minimised, and the State was able to win the support of segments of the polity which had previously been oppositional to, and marginalised by it.
Another significant marker of change in the 1990s was the repositioning of culture within the context of the nation’s drive towards industrialised nation status by 2020. The Government began a concerted effort to develop the tourism industry, and by 1996, it had become the second largest source of foreign exchange in the country. The coupling of culture and arts with tourism was an ideological reconfiguring of culture from an internal concern to an external one. If before, culture and art were the cookie cutters used by the State to produce the officially prescribed “Malaysian”, it was now a commodity. The multicultural nature of Malaysian became an area to be cultivated a la “Malaysia Truly Asia” for external use, and not merely an area of contestation over national identity.
But take a look beyond the giant billboards, and multi-cultural performances during the Merdeka Parade. You’ll realise that while the spirit of Vision 2020 appears to have eclipsed the NCP, the political imperatives of the past decade have imbued the National Cultural Policy with a new, if unexpected power to reshape the cultural landscape of the nation.
The resurgence of Islam had already begun to modify the reading of the NCP principle, which gave Islam the veto power over national culture in the 70s. At first, it was expressions of culture and art at the center of the NCP, which were subjected to the religious litmus test. The dynamic Malay-language absurdist theatre movement of the 1970s was denounced as nihilistic and anti-religion. In Kelantan, traditional forms such as Wayang Kulit, Main Patri and Menorah were under sustained attack as being un-lslamic and were banned outright between 1991 and 1995.
The revivalist movement’s widening influence, and its entry into the political and social mainstream soon brought the heightened moral vigilance of Islam into forms of culture at the margins of the national as well. Actors Studio Theatre’s production of Tennessee William’s A Street Car Named Desire (1994), Dina Zaman’s Penggangur Terhormat (1995), and Five Arts Centre’s production of The Vagina Monologue (2002) have all experienced the intrusion of a particularly literal interpretation of religion upon creativity and become highly publicised sites of contestation. Popular culture too has felt the wrath of the fundamentalist, most recently with the denouncement of TV shows such as Malaysian Idol and public concerts such as ‘Sure Heboh’.
While the reenergising of the NCP can be traced to the popular resurgence of Islam and the Islamist-based opposition party, PAS, the State too has been complicit in the narrowing of the cultural space. Under the influence of the Prime Minister Mahathir’s Islamisation of Government Policy (1983), religion became a visible part of the State machinery. The policy, designed to dilute the moral power of PAS, put the Government in competition to prove its religious credentials. Consequently, the parameters of what was “suitable and pertinent” became narrower, as culture once again became the terrain of political conflict.
The arts rumour-mill whispered of government art colleges where students were encouraged to only use certain colours, and to eschew sculpture and figurative art, in the name of religion. In schools, dance and drama co-curricular activities were deemed incompatible with Islamic values and stopped. On a more insidious level were the attempts to reconstruct indigenous culture, to fit the Islamic principle of the NCP. For example, although traditional theatre was not officially banned in Government controlled states, there were attempts to “cleanse” its ritualistic energies in performance. In similar vein was the alleged removal of the label “Pre-Islamic” from an exhibition of artifacts; for fear that a historical fact might offend in an atmosphere of reinvigorated piety.
Today, 33 years after the NCP, and 16 years to 2020, we find ourselves in a kind of cultural no-man’s land, bordered by the permissiveness of Vision 2020, and the cultural ‘industry’ on one side, and the increasingly assertive voice of Islamic fundamentalism on the other.
What does the future hold for budaya kita? The new administration seems eager to carve a distinct identity for itself by assuming a rhetoric of moderation. The strategy seeks to reclaim Islam from its political opponents, not by playing them at their own ‘holier than thou’ game, but by promoting a deeper understanding of the principles of Islam. Not surprisingly, the new Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, in his first few weeks in office, admonished those who have tried to suppress or reinvent indigenous cultural practices for their uncritical and uninformed view of Islam. He has even gone so far as to suggest that the NCP is tainted by its originating context, and needs to be examined anew.
If the past is any indication however, pronouncements on culture by politicians and bureaucrats, no matter how well meaning, offer no guarantee of resolution. Only the certainty that culture, in the hands of the State, is but a servant to the highest of gods, politics.
This article was first published in Options2, The Edge, on August 30, 2004.
First Published: 08.09.2004 on Kakiseni