Looking Backwards

Recent coverage in Kakiseni about the phenomenon of censorship in private sector Malaysian arts may seem like a new thing to some. But to a keen Kakiseni reader, these articles conjured up a past era of Malaysian arts, when the seeds of interference were sown and the trend of individuals setting themselves up as cultural and moral guardians was rife.

I had arrived to take up a drama lectureship at the University Sains Malaysia in late 1977. USM had established itself as a thriving centre of theatre practice in the early 70s under the Belgian director Tone Brulin, whose play Naga Naga Dimana Kau? Naga-Naga Siapa Kau? had critic Salleh ben Joned writing in Dewan Sastra in February 1974, “I could safely say that Naga Naga is the first production of a modern Malaysian theatre. But it is ironical to think that such a creation is the product of a foreign theatre man.” Brulin also reworked Sophocles Antigone, inspired by the Vietnam War. That was a rare venture into politics for the Malaysian theatre of the time, which was normally more private, often focusing on absurdist theatre.

At the time, all the talk was of a national culture policy, of the desirability or otherwise of implementing Muhibbah in theatre, with a decree that Malay culture would be the basis of Malaysia’s arts. Some dire dance productions resulted, featuring rojak costuming where saris, cheongsams and baju kurungs adorned performers at random. But frankly, in those laid-back times, nobody took all that much notice and got on with whatever they were doing anyway.

Send in the Clowns

Mind you, there were a few sinister rumblings. At the 9th Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1977, dancer Zamin Haroon (now Chandrabhanu) and Ezane Azanin Ahmad wowed audiences with their virtuoso dancing, while the late director Krishen Jit had a whole army of kuda kepang galloping across the stage in an unprecedented spectacle. A triumph, until a critic in the local press turned a critical eye on Zamin’s use of Balinese movement in this dance — un-Malay, it was charged. It was enough to send Zamin dashing back to Melbourne, where he finished off his Ph.D. on the Terinai. He then set up the Bharatam Dance Company, which attracted considerable Australian government funding and went on to achieve success with huge productions like Buddha, The Light of Asia in bharatanatyam style.

Shortly after, Brulin, who had returned to his native Belgium in 1975 and founded Theatre of the Third World (TIE3), which performed a multicultural repertory of African and Asian theatre, returned to Malaysia in 1979 to direct Paul Marr’s play Tak Kota-Kotak. The production, which was undertaken at the request of the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports for the International Year of the Child, soon fell afoul of critics.

One such was M Hanafiah A Samad, journalist for Berita Harian, who became a defacto critic of cultural practice in his regular column. Hanafiah criticised Brulin for introducing elements likely to have dangerous effects on the young Malay children attending Tak Kota-Kota performances in big school halls, and kampungs from Genting Highlands to Ulu Selangor. The charges were three-fold: Brulin’s main characters were two clowns dressed in motley — very un-Malay. “But wasn’t the pelawak raja a clown?” some countered. The second charge: a very unseemly inclusion of the clowns filling their mouths with water and spitting at each other in an adversarial game. No Malay child would do that, we were told. Finally, one of the clowns called the other “babi”. Impossible.

Incidentally, Encik M Hanafiah continues to be a voice in the cultural scene, saying as recently as last year in his blog “I would like to think that I know about art and all the farty people around it.” Indeed.

Spiritual Geometrics

But back to the past. 1979 was a bad year for cultural paternalism. In my own production of Dinsman’s Ana for Pesta Drama Melayu, the set designer, English architecture lecturer Dean Sherwin and costume designer Ben Tan, opted for a Theatre of the Absurd interpretation, after I had consulted with the playwright. We got a few decent reviews, including one from Indonesia’s Putu Wijaya representing the prestigious Indonesian magazine Tempo.

The set was a twisted geodesic dome, necessarily made up of triangles. In a spirit of fun, the costumes also featured triangles and the telephone, the most important prop in the play, was a series of triangles. Alas, a watchful journo from Utusan Melayu spotted what we hadn’t — Christian symbolism in the triangles, which he claimed were a well-known symbol of the Trinity. In all my childhood days at Sunday school classes, I had never been told that. Happily, a correspondent to the letters page of Utusan pointed out that the Mesjid Negara also featured triangles. Phew.

Of course, performing artists have always been more suspect than their less verbal counterparts. One of my many encounters with the Kuala Lumpur constabulary over licensing of productions involved the suggestion that Jean Paul Sartre may have been a Communist. I was there as production manager for Anak Alam’s staging of Sartre’s No Exit (Pintu Tertutup) starring Ahmad Yatim, Faridah Merican and Rogayah Hamid. I managed a wide-eyed, innocent response to the desk sergeant’s questions about Sartre’s politics. After he took a look at the script, he obviously decided it was a load of intellectual rubbish and stamped the permission papers.

Catching the Conscience of the Dean

But forget Sartre, there was “metal more attractive” to the cultural watchdogs of Malaysia — Shakespeare. In late 1979, Teater USM had embarked on the project of a lifetime — a massive Bahasa Malaysia production of Hamlet to be launched in an actual fort – Fort Cornwallis and then to tour the peninsula. Armed with a published UM version which was based on an old Trisno Sumardjo version translated from Dutch (that led to some fun) and with Latif Mohidin, artist-in-­residence at USM at the time, as dramaturg, the production at first aroused nothing but positive comment.

Dean of the University Humanities Faculty, Shahnon Ahmad, took no offense. He even took Hamlet (Musa Masran) and me to lunch at Mak Minah’s kedai makan in Penang with the US Ambassador to celebrate this mighty cultural event. Radio TV Malaysia representatives flew to Penang for opening night and started drawing up contracts for all artistic and technical personnel to participate in a TV production. A huge opportunity for the students and the first time we understood that such an offer had been made.

With a multi-regional, multi-ethnic cast, it was a working example of Muhibbah, and the only nay-sayers were a few crusty English teachers from the nearby Malay College at Kuala Kangsar, who came down on it for interfering with the sacred language of the Bard of Avon.

That is until the USM Muslim Students’ Association got hold of the matter, condemning the play for its immorality, particularly in a scene where Hamlet is in the bedroom with the character they assumed to be his stepmother. It is true that that scene and others with Ophelia, were pretty racy but the critics might have stayed long enough to learn that Gertrude was Hamlet’s ibu not his ibu tiri. The association’s argument was that this production highlighted a negative and nihilistic play. The Dean, Mak Minah’s lunch forgotten, joined in, suggesting that the words “to be or not be” must always be the preserve of the Almighty.

The University eventually withdrew its permission to televise the play. RTM, which had been advising on matters like the feudal titles in the play, pulled out. And disappointed theatre students held futile meetings at which angry Hamlet cast members accused their opponents of being “clowns”. But then again, as we knew by then, there were no clowns in Malaysian culture.


First Published: 21.02.2008 on Kakiseni

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