Antares is surprised to encounter no long queues at Alfian Sa’at’s CAUSEWAY
“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.” ~ H.L. Mencken
“If people behaved the way nations do, they would all be put in straitjackets.” ~ Tennessee Williams
Unlike most Malaysians I have no chip on my shoulder about Singapore and everything it represents. Nor do I view the Island Republic as the very epitome of middle-class success the way my dad did. But, then, my dad used to fish off the Causeway as a kid, and he misses the good old days when people could just cycle from Johore Bahru to Singapore without travel documents and there was no currency difference.
I was 13 when Singapore married into the newly formed Federation of Malaysia and 15 when the partnership broke down amidst ethnic insecurities and petty politicking. The event meant little to me at the time, but being essentially a small town boy, I enjoyed our frequent trips to the big city where I relished browsing for books and records unavailable in the sleepy hollow of Batu Pahat.
Just as some enterprising Dutchman named Peter Minuit bought Manhattan off the natives for 60 guilders (about $24) worth of gewgaws, Stamford Raffles was able to purloin for the British Empire the strategic island of Tumasek, inhabitants and all, simply by buying off the local panjandrum with flattery and bribes. And not unlike Manhattan, Singapore attracted a rapidly growing cosmopolitan population of artisans and merchants. By 1963 Singapore was already an established shipping and business center, with a predominantly Chinese population, while Peninsular Malaysia was largely still an agrarian economy with a Malay majority.
Therein lies the root of the inter-Causeway sibling rivalry and sporadic tensions which no amount of shared history or noble artistic intentions can eliminate. Or so it might seem, considering the official resistance to the staging of Causeway in KL, soon after its run at the Singapore Arts Festival.
At first, it was the Singapore government balking at endorsing a play they thought might annoy their immediate neighbor, especially in view of the recent spats erupting over nearly everything, especially water. Then, after a lot of diplomatic groundwork by the Actors Studio, Causeway was allowed its KL run – but not before the script was subjected to numerous cuts by the Malaysian censors. Indeed, Teater Ekamatra (from the Sanskrit, meaning “one vision”) was earnestly advised to drop all references to Malaysia and Singapore, which would effectively rob the play of its political relevance and neutralize, if not negate, its potential therapeutic effect.
As it turned out, the play suffered somewhat in its flow and pacing, although the bureaucratically enforced structural glitches were amply compensated for by the exuberance and vitality of the lovable and talented performers from both countries (comprising Ami Haryani Abdul Hamid, Emanorwatty Salleh, Muhd Najib Bin Soiman, Natasya Yusoff, Mohamed Fita Helmi Tahri, Nurhashida Mahadi, Rosli Bin Mohd Taib, and Sani Hussin).
Significantly, 25-year-old playwright (and award-winning writer and poet) Alfian Bin Sa’at, is a student of medicine. As theater was traditionally the domain of medicine men – at least in its cathartic aspects – no one is more qualified than Alfian to attempt, via this timely cultural collaboration, a reconciliation and healing of a generations-old wound caused by a painful and abrupt political separation following on an all-too-brief marriage of economic convenience.
Writing from the perspective of a cultural and ethnic minority, the Singapore Malay, Alfian deftly transcends any possible accusation of being a narrow-minded communalist by imbuing his work with a warm, humanistic spirit and the intellectual integrity of all true art. His is a complex psyche indeed: as a young Malay writer in Singapore whose remarkable mastery of English has earned him wide acclaim as a bona fide prodigy in Asian literary circles, Alfian Sa’at has of late become conscious of his need to reclaim his Melayu roots, even if only symbolically, by restoring the “bin” to his name so that it reads Alfian Bin Sa’at with a capital B. (Let’s see him apply for a job in the FBI, now that anyone named Bin Anything is under immediate suspicion of being an Al-Qaeda agent.)
But Alfian’s brave new “Melayuness” is an attribute one can wholeheartedly admire and applaud – unlike the arrogant, obscurantist and virulent species of “Melayuness” that has developed like a tumor in Peninsular Malaysia since the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which constitutionally created, or at least reinforced, a division in the populace along strictly demarcated ethnic lines. Any attempt at reasonable argument or discussion was summarily dismissed by labeling this topic a “sensitive issue” – and anyone flouting the order was subject to arbitrary detention under the Infernal Security Act (and still is, after more than three decades).
Sweeping the dirt under the rug is no way to earn the universal seal of good housekeeping. It takes conscientious artists like Alfian Bin Sa’at to venture where no politician would dare to tread. For this reason alone, Causeway is a cultural mission worthy of unmitigated support by all those genuinely desirous of abiding peace and harmony within the human family, through the open-hearted understanding that only unbridled and spontaneous cultural expression can facilitate.
The fact that Causeway was wonderfully entertaining and always provocative (with lots of chuckles generated by sitcom style situations arising from family visits on both sides of the Causeway) and also deeply moving at the same time makes it worth turning into a film or TV series – so that it can hopefully reach a wider audience than the 15 heads counted at the matinee performance I attended.
Alfian as playwright is an authentic multimedia generation kid come of age: his rapid-fire neural connections are non-linear, and his powers of free association – throwing a sometimes bewildering mix of ideas, insights, and gags in as subtext – are truly awesome. Regrettably my limited grasp of Malay did not permit me full access to his effervescent wit and the many clever twists and turns of the tale. A few conceptual links were lost on me, but the theatrical impact of seeing one of the cast videotaping his colleagues as they each exercised their superb lachrymal control (crying actual tears on stage, magnified on the twin projection screens by the zoom lens) was truly impressive – and somehow anchored the frivolous elements in a serious sociocultural (in other words, human) context while creating an illusion of perceptual objectivity.
In a recent interview with Kakiseni, the playwright stated that he felt a greater kinship with the Malaysian Chinese than with Peninsular Malays (in that he could empathize with their humiliation and pain of being treated as second-class citizens). But being born into a cultural and ethnic minority sometimes serves to strengthen one’s psychic links to the ancestral memory, sharpen one’s survival skills, and accelerate one’s mental development (I am by no means an advocate of the hard-knocks school but, as they say, there’s always a silver lining to be found).
Ethnic chauvinism is ugly no matter where it appears. When the Singapore government recently ruled that tudung-wearing female Malay students were to be barred from school, I was incensed, even though I’m no proponent of any form of cover-up. After all, Catholic nuns are free to wear their habits, which look pretty much the same to me as the tudung (we’re not talking about full purdah, which is a different kettle of fish or can of worms, if you prefer). In fact, the tudung can be rather appealing – but that’s beside the point, which is respect for individual liberty. One doesn’t have to be a Turk to wear a fez or a Malay to don a songkok; or, for that matter, a baseball player to sport a baseball cap. The urgent need to preserve biodiversity on this planet must include ethnic, cultural, and ideological differences.
Having got that off my chest, let’s briefly return to the production (this is, after all, a review, not an opinion piece, although by now you couldn’t tell the difference). The post-Mondrian, modular set (designed by Malaysian painter Bayu Utomo Radjikin) evoked images of HDB flats and cubicular lives. The units were easily movable and could be transformed like a Lego set into an endless variety of settings. The cubicles also served as nifty receptacles for various props and costumes. It was perhaps the most elegant and pragmatic set Bayu has yet to come up with. The prerecorded soundtrack assembled by Goh Chee Beng was very effective in creating an audio environment for the unexpected asides, inserts, and cutaways – which lent the entire production a highly cinematic quality.
I missed Teater Ekamatra’s maiden venture in KL last year, the critically acclaimed Bulan Madu (also written by Alfian Bin Sa’at and directed by the dynamic Aidli Alin Mosbit) – but if Causeway is anything to go by, I’d certainly put my money (if I had any to spare) on this dedicated and resourceful young outfit. The next time around I wish Teater Ekamatra a proper audience, meaning, full houses – and no silly censors, please!
29 September 2002