May 13 In Our Minds

There aren’t many creative works which explore the riot that broke out on May 13, 1969 in Malaysia. Ibrahim Hussein’s 13 May immediately springs to mind, as do Datuk Noordin Hassan’s play Bukan Lalang Di Tiup Angin and Lloyd Fernando’s novel, Green Is The Colour.

Of course, that’s not all there is. If you’ve read your theory, you would know that history too is but a form of creative re-telling of events and shifting perspectives – it all depends on who is holding the court, I mean, holding court.

Reading even a fraction of the extant material on the Riots will leave you with diametrically opposite interpretations of the events leading to the May 13 Riots, and make you realise that Moulder and Scully really should have said “the truths are somewhere out there”.

One such truth came to a theatre near you a couple of weeks ago. Desa Purba 13 Purnama was written by Jins Samsuddin (not yet a Dato’) in 1971 and staged for Malaysian students in the UK to explain to them the reasons behind the riots. Kota Idaman 13 Sempadan, essentially the same play but reworked by director Kamarul AR, was staged for a home crowd at the old Town Hall from March 10-13, 2004.

The idyllic Kota Idaman is disturbed by news that outsiders, having come to the land and reaped its benefits, are now trying to wrestle power from the original inhabitants. The city is in mayhem. The outsiders hold a celebratory procession through the city while agitating for the indigenous inhabitants of the land to return to the desa and leave the kota to them. As the inhabitants try to defend their rightful place, the rivalry between two young warriors, Putera and Rantau, over Datuk Perdana’s gorgeous daughter, Mala (Suhaila Sulaiman), threatens to weaken the village at the very time when unity is paramount.

Official figures left 196 dead, 439 injured, 39 missing and 9143 arrested, although speculation puts the mortality rate much higher. While sporadic violence continued until July 1969, the damage inflicted upon the psyche of the nation has had a much longer life. There should be more attempts to examine the events leading up to the Riots. What better way than through art, no?

Ibrahim Hussin’s 13 May featured an actual flag, painted over in black paint, an evocative image of the fractured dreams of Merdeka. Bukan Lalang Di Tiup Angin by Datuk Noordin Hassan used the past to examine the realities of modern Malaysia, while Fernando’s novel looked at the personal costs of race politics. Each of these works is significant because they represent attemps by individuals who lived through the tragedy to examine, express, and enlighten.

Kota Idaman however, fails to offer anything beyond a one-dimensional view of events.

The central theme of the play, represented by the Putera-Rantau rivalry over Mala (Malaysia, gettit?) is inward looking, urging the Kota ldamanians to end factionalism. At its core however, it employs the tried and tested formula of “us against them” in order to convey this message of solidarity.

We’ve all lived through the “foreigners jealous of our success” years to know that external enemies can make us blind to our own failures and create a sense of solidarity faster than you can say Wag The Dog. It’s an easy way to overcome internal conflicts. The prerequisite for unity is a designated enemy, the Other who is distinguished by difference – either racial, political, sexual, cultural – the list is as endless as humans are diverse.

According to Kamarul AR, up to 40% of the script in the present production was changed to reflect the altered circumstances of our times and to avoid offending.

Indeed, Kota Idaman carefully steers away from specificity. Kamarul has fashioned a play which depends on purbawara conventions, popular in the post-war period, to distance itself from the particulars of the riots itself, no doubt in the interests of ‘racial sensitivity’. The historical source of the play, its celebration of Malay culture, epitomised in the opening scene of Mala standing wordlessly holding aloft a keris, and its didactic tone are purbawara staples. Kamarul further embellished the form into what he terms “purbawara kontemporari” with scenes which are illusionary in nature, for example when 13 “tree roots” (representing the 13 Federated States) come alive as a chorus of doom.

The use of such theatrical devises does help locate the play in an imagined reality. However, mention of the victory celebration as the flashpoint of the riots, coupled with the producers’ own admission that the play is inspired by the events of May 13, negated the fictional aspects to the extent that it becomes obvious who the ‘us’ and ‘them’ refers to.

Furthermore, the representation of the pre-colonially-constructed-masyarakat-majmuk world of Kota Idaman is in itself problematic. Ancient trade routes had created an intensely rojak Malay peninsula long before the bad white man arrived. It would therefore be more accurate to say that the fictional world of Kota Idaman as seen in the play represents a sort of fantasy island of cultural homogeneity.

While the director explained that the play is more about the threat of communism, personified in the kasar arrogance of Rantau, than about racial conflict, lines such as “orang yang tidak sedarah kita ingin merampas kuasa kami” do nothing to dispel the feeling that unity for some comes at a heavy price for others. And unfortunately, the roles are entirely interchangeable.

I would like to believe that the restaging of Kota Idaman, even in its amended form, is out of touch with the current mood of the country. Dismiss the proclamations of Bangsa Malaysia as political rhetoric if you will, but surely, we have come a long way from the days of defaced Jawi road-signs and banned Lion Dances.

However, as I left the theatre that night, I could not help wondering if 34 years of surreptitious whispering about May 13 has left all Malaysian locked into their own private realities, where “we” are always the victims, and “they”, ever the aggressor.

First Published: 29.03.2004 on Kakiseni

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