Malaysia, Truly Asia? Courtesy of Associated Press
“It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up.” ~ Huzir Sulaiman, Notes on Life & Love & Painting (1999)
“When I hear someone talk of Culture, I reach for my revolver.” ~ Hermann Wilhelm Göring
MALAYSIA is known as Bolehland by Malaysians inclined to snigger at heavy-handed bureaucratic efforts to propel the nation into “fully developed” status by the year 2020. Boleh means “able” or “can do” in Malay. In the late 1990s, having spent several decades – and a massive amount of financial reserves – on infrastructural development in single-minded pursuit of rapid industrialization, the Malaysian government began to realize that “clothes do not a man make,” no matter how exclusive the brand. Thus the “Malaysia Boleh” campaign was launched to bolster national self-esteem – and there was a grudging acknowledgment that cultural output is perhaps a more meaningful measure of a society’s maturity than multimillion-dollar monuments and car factories.
Having been part of the British Empire for over a century, the post-colonial Malaysian remains Anglophilic to a noticeable extent. English is still the preferred language of the middle and upper classes, despite strenuous attempts to promote Malay as the official first language. Although Malay has been the language of instruction in schools and universities since the late 1960s, and all young Malaysians today can claim fluency in the official language, the majority of non-Malays persist in using either English or their mother tongue – or both – especially in the arts.
This has given rise to a multicultural parallelism in that each language stream tends to exist and operate along its own lines – rarely, if ever, intersecting with the others. The worlds of Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Malayalam and English theater, for instance, are distinct and separate realities. The same holds true for Malaysian literature – there is, in fact, no such entity as “Malaysian” literature, unless one classifies all literary works by Malaysian citizens or permanent residents as being “Malaysian.” In locally made films, the dominant language has been Malay, but there are signs that the new generation of independent filmmakers are experimentally crossing boundaries, if only because their low-budget productions are targeted at a more international audience (and film is one medium in which language barriers are easily overcome by good subtitles).
My own cultural perspective may be described as eclectically cosmopolitan – with a residual American influence which, like the reek of cheap perfume after a busy night at a bordello, is rather difficult to deny.
I was born Chinese, in 1950, to middle-class, English-educated parents. My childhood in a small, mercantile town called Batu Pahat was spent soaking up Hollywood movies (my father was a health inspector and had a free pass to all the cinemas, which I exploited with utmost glee). At 17 I spent a year in a New Jersey high school as an exchange student. Ironically, I returned from that experience fairly disenchanted with mainstream American culture, although I did acquire a taste for funky subcultures.
This explains why an otherwise “normal” Malaysian kid would be so au fait with American subcultural icons like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Bill Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lenny Bruce, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, Tim Leary, Baba Ram Dass, Buckminster Fuller, and Tiny Tim.
My personal involvement with literary and theatrical affairs took shape during my year at West Essex High School: I got a tremendous amount of positive feedback from my Creative Writing, Drama, and English teachers. I earned a lot of A-pluses while I was studying in America (but only in subjects I enjoyed). It was inevitable that I would channel my passions into writing, theater, and music. So these are the specific areas of culture I can discuss – particularly the more “westernized” artistic output aimed at the English-speaking Malaysian middle class.
The Literary & Dramatic Hall Of Fame
There are more good writers in English than can be counted on both hands (and possibly both feet too) – but Malaysians are not generally renowned for their interest in reading. A national survey in the 1980s concluded that, on the average, each Malaysian reads only half a page of literature per annum, apart from newspapers, textbooks, and magazines. I wonder if, thirty years later, the statistic is still valid. At any rate, it’s virtually impossible to earn a living as a full-time writer here – unless one hacks it in advertising, public relations, coffee-table books, or TV sitcoms.
The suave & irascible Rehman Rashid
Nevertheless, A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid (self-published in 1993 because no publisher wanted to risk official disapproval) enjoyed record sales and has been reprinted several times. The book itself deserves a place in every home: each chapter is a masterful vignette of the Malaysian ethos, in all its glorious perplexity.
Journey earned Rehman Rashid enough to buy him a Mitsubishi Pajero, but he eventually returned to a day-job as a leader writer and editor at the regime-owned New Straits Times. Rehman’s superb command of the language and his incisive intelligence are a potent combination. However, his patriarchal bias and the Apollonian bombast of his political columns often reveal him as an apologist for a loathsome establishment. In any case, Rehman Rashid richly deserves his reputation as a Titan among notable (and exportable) Malaysian writers.
Byronic bilingual poet Salleh Ben Joned: larger than life
Salleh Ben Joned is a living legend in Malaysian letters. His swashbuckling style belies a fierce dedication to spiritual and intellectual freedom. One of a few truly inspired bilingual writers and poets, Salleh achieved national notoriety with his acerbic column, As I Please, which ran sporadically in the New Straits Times – and which has twice been published as a collection of essays: erudite, witty, and often risque. A second collection of his spicy essays and columns was published in 2003 under the title, Nothing Is Sacred – a bold statement of his iconoclasm, as well as an allusion to the mystical view of Allah as the Primordial Void.
In recent years Salleh Ben Joned has become a godfather figure of sorts to a whole new generation of punks and disenchanted urban youth who flock eagerly to his poetry readings. Educated in Australia, Salleh returned to lecture in literature at Universiti Malaya, where his passion for words earned him iconic status with his students, especially the female ones.
Salleh Ben Joned’s genius has never been acknowledged in Malay literary circles (perhaps they aren’t amused by his affecting the Hebraic “Ben” in place of the Arabic “Bin”). Indeed, Salleh has endured venomous attacks by Malay sasterawan (literati) whose ethnocentric concerns and smug mediocrity grate against him. His readers, however, are grateful for the hilarious spoofs Salleh has penned, inspired by these parochially-inclined, poetry-declaiming sasterawan. I would unhesitatingly classify Salleh Ben Joned as a national treasure.
Claire Wong & Huzir Sulaiman, an enormously gifted pair
Actor/director/playwright Huzir Sulaiman – enfant terrible and prodigy nonpareil – wrote a dozen brilliant plays before he turned 30, and has tried his hand at filmmaking. Graduating summa cum laude from Princeton in literature and philosophy, Huzir successfully integrates his Ivy League education with an intrinsically Malaysian sensibility. Among his most noteworthy achievements are Atomic Jaya, Hip-Hopera, Notes on Life & Love & Painting, and Election Day.
Fortunately for those who missed these superb plays when they were staged, Eight Plays, a collection of Huzir’s highly readable playscripts, was published in 2002 by Silverfishbooks. Disenchanted by the lack of official recognition and inadequate funding of the arts in Malaysia, Huzir relocated to Singapore some years ago and married his favorite leading lady, the beautiful and talented actress, Claire Wong (ironically, another Malaysian-born cultural émigré). It would appear that Malaysia’s loss has been Singapore’s gain.
Jit Murad, brainy & puckish Oscar Wildesian griot beloved by all
Anybody who has seen more than six plays in Kuala Lumpur would surely know of Jit Murad – a scintillating luminary of the performing arts, commuting between acting, stand-up comedy, and playwriting. Apart from his puckish and ageless charm, Jit is endowed with the mind of a sage and the wit of a court jester extraordinaire. He returned in the mid-1980s from the U.S. where he studied acting and stagecraft, and almost immediately began to make his mark on the local theater scene – initially as a superb character actor with a distinct genius for comedy and, subsequently, as a playwright when his first major play – Gold Rain and Hailstones – was staged.
His most recent play, Spilt Gravy On Rice, won the Cameronian Arts Award for best script of 2003 and was later performed in Singapore. It has since been made into a film, under the robust direction of Zahim Albakri. Though completed 2 or 3 years ago it has yet to be screened at this writing, owing to local censorship and other petty complications.
Jit’s sympathetic insight into the Malaysian psyche, his verbal sophistication, his madcap but gentle humor and his warmth-of-soul have made him one of the best-loved performers and playwrights in the country. Jit Murad is a founding member of the outstanding Instant Café Theatre Company (currently led by the immensely gifted actor-director-playwright Jo Kukathas), and he is also a director/writer-in-residence with DramaLab, which he co-founded with his childhood buddy Zahim Albakri.
Amir Muhammad, literary entrepreneur
Another “Young Turk” of Malaysian culture with an American education is Amir Muhammad, who started contributing waggish arts critiques to the New Straits Times when still an undergrad abroad. After establishing his reputation as an exceptional essayist, Amir began flirting with theater, and then film. Together with James Lee and Osman Ali, Amir instigated an independent film movement which has rapidly grown in momentum, riding on the advent of affordable digital videocams. His first low-budget feature, Lips To Lips, was a refreshing breakthrough despite patches of sophomoric humor: Amir roped in some of the best acting talent to add lustre to the zany proceedings. His next video venture was 6 Shorts – a quirky attempt to translate 6 essays into cinema. More recently, Amir struck a resonant chord with The Big Durian, which earned wide acclaim and has toured the international video festival circuit. He also edited the first Silverfishbooks anthology of New Writing and subsequently became a publisher of cutting-edge local literature. Amir Muhammad is, in effect, a formidable young man about town on the cultural front.
Jo Kukathas as former beauty queen Ribena Berry
Now, from the partial inventory above of significant personalities in Malaysia’s literary and dramatic life, it can be noted that they possess Malay names (except, of course, Jo Kukathas who deserves a book all to herself, and James Lee whose dogged determination is worthy of more detailed documentation) – but not necessarily the typical Malay psyche, even though some of them may be full-blooded Malays. Rehman Rashid, for instance, is only one-quarter Malay; the rest of his genetic makeup consists of Portuguese, Indian, and Pathan. Huzir Sulaiman is part Malayalee, while Jit Murad is half-Welsh.
Salleh Ben Joned can claim to be a full-blooded Melayu from Melaka, but he has publicly adopted the philosophical stance of the apostate, and greatly admires Salman Rushdie’s work. Amir Muhammad is genetically a Malay-Malayalee – however, his wide-ranging love of world literature and his early exposure to cutting-edge arts in America have taken him far beyond ethnocentric perspectives. Why do I pause for a moment to reflect on this question of ethnicity?
After the May 1969 “race riots” (which, in truth, were instigated as a cover for a long-planned political coup) Malaysia entered the era of the NEP (New Economic Policy), which subsequently led to the NCP (National Cultural Policy), and the constitutional legitimization of the doctrine of “Malay Supremacy” (Ketuanan Melayu).
Not only was the population divided arbitrarily into Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera (literally, “sons of the soil” and “migrants”), special privileges and preferential quotas for Bumiputera were enacted into law. The tightly-controlled mass media would decide whom to glorify and whom to ignore. Thus it was immensely advantageous to sport a Malay name, since the creation of a new breed of cultural heroes was very much aligned with the political thrust towards ethnocentric nationalism. A handful of Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian names was, of course, permitted entry into the game, if only as tokens of racial tolerance and cultural diversity.
Wong Phui Nam, banker turned poet
I am by no means implying that those I have mentioned thus far did not deserve their recognition; on the contrary, their individual talents are impressive indeed and make the whole issue of ethnicity irrelevant. Nevertheless, from 1970 onwards, it was certainly more “politically correct” to promote the cultural achievements of someone with a Malay name over any other sort of name.
Other reasons for the relative scarcity of non-Malay cultural heroes can be cited: the Chinese stereotype of materialistic pragmatism that would make them opt for more “solid” professions (like architecture, engineering, medicine, or business management) than a career in the arts; and, among the Indians, the pronounced preference for law, accountancy, and academia as career choices.
Shirley Geok-lin Lim, academic & prolific writer
Thus we have a scattering of non-Malay poets and writers who initially began as academics, bankers, and lawyers: K.S. Maniam, university lecturer turned novelist and playwright with a specific focus on the Tamil ethos; Wong Phui Nam, who broke away from a successful career in banking to produce poetry, essays, and short stories characterized by a rarefied mandarin aesthetic; Shirley Geok-lin Lim, professor of English literature in California who has earned international recognition for her prolific writings; Chuah Guat Eng, who withdrew from a lucrative career in advertising to write and publish her first novel (Echoes of Silence, 1994, a metaphysical whodunnit); Kee Thuan Chye, whose professional resumé includes editor, actor, playwright, and political columnist; and we must certainly mention Cecil Rajendra, lawyer and soccer enthusiast, better known for his polemical poems (which have never been published or promoted in Malaysia).
Cecil Rajendra: soccer fan & polemical poet
Going back to a slightly earlier era in Malaysia’s cultural history, there was Lee Joo For – academic turned playwright turned painter – who subsequently emigrated to Australia. He was certainly an inspired pioneer and might have lingered on had he been given the recognition he deserved.
Another academic turned writer and filmmaker, Patrick Yeoh, was gravely disenchanted by the lukewarm reception he received from the Malay-dominated local film industry in the early 1980s, even though his maiden cinematic venture, Kami (which starred the late Sudirman in his first film rôle), proved far more interesting than the banal and formulaic films of that period.
And, of course, we have Lloyd Fernando and Krishen Jit – two academics who threw themselves heartily into the new Malaysian cultural nationalism of the 1970s, only to be rebuffed as “outsiders” by territorial ethnocentricity.
Lloyd Fernando, playwright & professor of English lit
However, Krishen proved an indomitable force (abetted by the artistic ambitions of post-modern dancer-choreographer Marion D’Cruz whom he later married), tirelessly plodding on to carve a dramaturgic niche for himself as the venerable and celebrated doyen of Malaysian theater. Krishen and Marion assembled three other colleagues and founded the Five Arts Centre in 1983 – and, though their artistic output has tended to be ingrown and incestuous, their sheer stamina and perseverance have been impressive. Five Arts Centre’s greatest contribution to cultural ferment has been its inspirational effect on and affectionate nurturing of youthful talents, many of whom cut their artistic teeth by getting drawn into Five arts Centre’s countless productions over the decades.
Sounding “Malaysian” On Stage
Bangsawan revival of Sinbad’s Adventures
When I moved to Kuala Lumpur in 1970, the local English-language theater scene was still dominated by amateur groups like the Liberal Arts Society and the Selangor Philharmonic Society, which had been around since the British colonial era. These were also the last days of Malay Bangsawan – a popular theatrical style akin to vaudeville – but I confess to only the skimpiest knowledge of this subcultural zone, although a deeper scrutiny is bound to unearth a colorful and intriguing history.
This post-colonial cultural hangover was experienced largely by the urban, middle and upper middle class membership of the amateur dramatic groups, who clung to old habits by staging and restaging well-worn theatrical and musical hits from the West End.
Theater doyen Krishen Jit (1939-2005)
Those were the days when Indian, Chinese, and Eurasian actors and actresses endeavored to speak BBC English on stage, playing mostly English or European rôles. KL theater was dominated by the likes of Bosco D’Cruz, K.K. Nair, Leslie Dawson, Mano Maniam, Faridah Merican and Krishen Jit. Bosco and K.K. were already giants in the fringe Malayalam theater fraternity – and both were comfortable commuting between English-language theater and the vernacular.
The early 1970s also witnessed the advent of culture heroes like the brilliant cartoonist Lat (Dato’ Mohd. Nor Khalid) whose work refreshingly and coherently depicted the emerging “Malaysian” ethos, breaking through previous ethnocentric barriers. More than any other cultural icon, Lat succeeded in articulating a truly syncretic Malaysian perspective – and his influence can be seen in the rise of a new genre of satire with a distinctly Malaysian flavor and a spicy cross-section of Malaysian accents – and even some political bite.
In the mid-1980s, Thor Kah Hoong (Lat’s colleague in the New Straits Times) staged an engaging sitcom series – Caught In The Middle – in which a handful of promising young actor-comedians were featured, among them Jit Murad and Jo Kukathas who, a few years later, inaugurated the infamous Instant Café Theatre Company.
Thor Kah Hoong, actor-director-writer, retired food reviewer & bookseller
Thor’s Caught In The Middle series would have been a smash hit on local TV – but he was bogged down by various political constraints pertaining to TV programming. The ruling party has always tolerated a modicum of political satire – so long as its audience is confined to the major urban areas which have traditionally voted for the opposition. However, TV reaches into almost every household in the rural heartland, the ruling party’s main voter base.
Thus, as has also been the case with The Instant Café Theatre, what might have been an immensely successful TV sitcom series (à la Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Not-The-Nine-O’-Clock News, or Yes, Minister) was deliberately confined to sporadic stage productions catering to a comfortable and complacent urban elite.
To achieve this degree of control over public performances, Malaysian law has armed itself with a plethora of antiquated legislation left over from the Communist Insurgency era (1948-1960): all TV stations are government-owned and closely monitored by the Home Ministry, or operated by those with close friends in high office; every play staged must have its script vetted by City Hall’s censorship board and the Police Special Branch. Any public assembly of more than five adults used to be arbitrarily classified by the police as illegal and forcefully dispersed – until April 25th, 2014, when an Appeals Court ruled that such a restriction was unconstitutional.
And, of course, the (recently abolished) Internal Security Act which allowed the government to detain anybody on mere suspicion, without trial, for an indefinite period. Taking over where the ISA left off, the Sedition Act 1948 (another colonial relic) is now wielded as an “ultimate weapon” against any and all species of political dissent.
Zahim Albakri, consummate actor & director
Nevertheless, from the mid-1980s onwards, dramaturgs began experimenting with local plays about local folks speaking English with Manglish accents. Today we have consummate actors like Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas, Jit Murad, and Zahim Albakri portraying a kaleidoscopic chorus of characters, employing a colorful spectrum of local and foreign accents. Finally, Malaysian theater has come of age, having outgrown the usual incubation period of “cultural cringe.”
The establishment of the Actors Studio Academy in 1989 by veteran actress Faridah Merican and Lebanese-Australian actor/director Joe Hasham has been an important factor stimulating the development of professional stagecraft in Malaysia. Faridah and Joe not only share a passion for theater, they are both also major players in the advertising business – and are thus in a powerful position to promote their art with sufficient marketing savvy to make an impact on the public consciousness. Their positive links with the corporate sector and officialdom enable them to move mountains where others can hardly move molehills, as demonstrated by their most outstanding achievement to date: the inauguration of KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) – which will house several theaters and auditoriums as well as a performing arts academy, thereby serving as a national hub for ongoing cultural ferment.
Facing The Music
Minah Angong, celebrated ceremonial singer of the indigenous Temuan tribe
It may be said that all culture is derivative to a lesser or greater extent, but when one considers the musical front in Malaysia, scarcely any originality is audible. Even “traditional” Malay court music is a legacy of Hindu-Buddhist influences: the Sri Vijaya and Majapahit Kingdoms extended from Sri Lanka to most of Malaya and Indonesia, between the 7th and 16th centuries.
Indigenous music is an integral element of healing rituals and consists, for the most part, of chanting accompanied by pitched bamboos. It goes beyond “original” to “aboriginal” in its basic organicity, content to generate repetitive, trance-inducing aural mandalas that often go on and on. Aboriginal tribes traditionally do not perform for “outsiders” – although in recent days some groups have adapted to the concept of public performances. To my knowledge, only Akar Umbi – an ethnic fusion group based in Ulu Selangor – has released an album for commercial distribution and, even so, the market for such music is negligible.
Michael Veerapen, jazz piano virtuoso & composer
In terms of pure technique, however, Malaysia has produced an impressive number of excellent musicians who can hold their own anywhere in the world. I know of a few classical soloists who would be welcome in most orchestras; and when it comes to jazz, we can boast the likes of Michael Veerapen, an ace pianist whose chief inspiration has been Bill Evans. Paul Ponnadurai (whom I dubbed P.P. King) was hailed as one of the world’s top blues guitarists, Malaysia’s very own B.B. King. He could do things with the guitar you wouldn’t imagine possible, but his scintillating career was abruptly terminated when he died at age 51 in July 2012.
Sunetra Fernando is an ethnomusicologist specializing in gamelan music; her Rhythm In Bronze ensemble has set new standards of performance for contemporary gamelan. Over the years it has evolved into an astoundingly versatile and inventive gamelan ensemble, willing and able to explore exciting new musical and performance frontiers. With the departure to the UK of Sunetra Fernando, Rhythm In Bronze has in recent years been democratically led by various veteran members of the ensemble like Jillian Ooi, Shahanum Shah, Susan Sarah John, and Lorna Henderson-Omar, ably supported by jazz guitarist Isyam Swardy Daud and percussionist extraordinaire Kamrulbahri Hussin.
We now have well-known names in avant-garde composition: Saidah Rastam gave up law to devote her energies to exploring a different musical aesthetic. Her work – quirky, evocative, sophisticated – has been showcased in major theatrical productions, film soundtracks, musical revues, Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra performances, contemporary dance, even a full-scale operatic extravaganza (M! The Opera) staged at Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture).
Unbeknownst to the public at large, there has also been a miraculous flowering of hardcore talent in contemporary symphonic music as personified by extremely serious academic composers like Teh Tze Siew, Tazul Tajuddin and Chong Kee Yong – the latter born to a farming family and raised in a southern town called Kluang. After graduating in music from the Malaysian Institute of Arts, Kee Yong continued at the Xian Conservatory in China, and subsequently at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels, Belgium. He has since acquired an impressive catalog of commissions from renowned orchestras around the world and won a string of awards for his unique compositional approach.
Yii Kah Hoe is another outstanding name among symphonic avant-garde composers in Malaysia. An accomplished traditional Chinese flute player, Kah Hoe has won a string of local and international composition awards and is a dedicated researcher of ethnic music from around the world, apart from being a conscientious music educator and festival coordinator. Indeed, there are many more contemporary Malaysian composers blossoming quietly, with minimal visibility, but with astonishing focus and passion, ready for international, if not local, recognition.
Hands Percussion: spectacular theatrics & precision drumming
Among the new generation of music-makers you’ll find grunge, garage rock, techno, hip-hop, ethno-fusion and metal groups – alongside electronica and techno-ambience freaks who perform with laptops. These fringe performers haven’t been around long enough for me to remember all their names – but some exciting work has emerged from Bernard Goh and Deborah Tee, who did the original score for the Actors Studio production of Rashomon. Bernard Goh subsequently formed a highly disciplined, widely acclaimed touring company called Hands Percussion which has really gone places.
Weijun Loh: dancer, choreographer, composer
Goh Lee Kwang often collaborates with Chinese avant-garde dancer Lee Swee Keong, churning out trance-inducing tape loops and arty soundscapes; and Weijun Loh, a dynamic young dancer-choreographer-composer-audio engineer, returned from Australia a few years ago bursting with ideas and energy.
The irrepressible Jerome Kugan
Jerome Kugan is another dynamic young presence: writer, critic, electronic composer, visual artist, and songwriter whose evocative debut album (Songs for a Shadow) set stunning new standards for the burgeoning indie music scene.
Malaysian musicians, for the most part, tend to gravitate towards either pop or the “indie underground” (which has a surprisingly large following among the urban youth).
Jazz musicians who have ventured into ethnic fusion include Lewis Pragasam, whose group Asiabeat was perhaps the first to combine exotic percussion and oriental instruments (like the shakuhachi) with western jazz modalities. Unfortunately, our radio stations are not interested in pushing the musical envelope and prefer to play it safe by airing only commercial mainstream sounds.
Lewis Pragasam, master percussionist & initiator of Asiabeat, a pioneer world music group featuring John Kaizan Neptune on shakuhachi
Breaking into the world music circuit isn’t a simple task either, especially with absolutely no support from Malaysia’s notoriously ethnocentric cultural agencies. Local record companies are predominantly interested in making money by distributing international recording artists, especially those topping the pop charts. In short, a great deal has been happening on the Malaysian musical front – but not many have been exposed to it, unless they’re hip to The Wknd – a vibrant music portal founded by Fikri Fadzil, showcasing up-and-coming musicians, especially local and regional acts. And there are indeed some truly gifted singer-songwriters in our midst, such as Azmyl Yunor, who engagingly represents what some might call the “neo-existentialist Generation Y” ethos.
Take for instance the recent emergence into global prominence of a world music fusion band called AkashA whose members come from a broad spectrum of ethnicities and cultures. Its musical soul is essentially Carnatic – with Kumar Karthigesu on sitar, Vick Ramakrishnan on tabla, and Sivabalan S.Shanmuga Sundram on mridangam – they all honed their superb musical prowess at the Temple of Fine Arts, performing classical Indian music with a contemporary feel. The silky funk of jazzy Latino blues is provided by Australian-born guitar ace Jamie Wilson with the help of seasoned keyboardist Eric Li and bassist Greg Henderson. Following its sensational debut on the international stage at the 2008 Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak, AkashA released a couple of CDs and swiftly evolved into class act greatly sought after around the world.
My own experiment with attempting to introduce novel sounds into the local music scene has made me uncharacteristically pessimistic. In 1984 I produced a solo album with folksy “protest” songs on Side A and ambitious avant-garde soundscapes on Side B. The album (Solitary Vice & Other Virtues) received favorable reviews – but no record company was interested in a distribution deal. Indeed, one of the songs (“City Hall”) was played on the radio once or twice before the DJ (Patrick Teoh) was told to stop by the program’s corporate sponsor. Still, I was able to recoup my modest production costs over the course of a year or so, and actually sold out my limited stock of 600 cassettes. Subsequently, I released only 500 copies of my second album (2nd Coming) which was almost entirely instrumental. Again, it received generally good reviews, but no offers of distributorship. Record companies are happy selling 150,000-200,000 copies of a popular Malay album; why should they waste their time trying to promote a complete unknown, writing songs in English, to a potential market of less than 10,000?
Amir Yussof, rock god, nature mystic, animal lover & conservationist
A decade later, Amir Yussof encountered similar problems with his groundbreaking debut album (Some of this is Real) – which won awards for best local album (in the English song category) but sold no more than 5,000 copies. His second and third albums met pretty much the same fate, although they all achieved new levels of musicianship and technical excellence. Amir eventually dissolved his record label and worked at various other things, including a stint as entertainment manager in the KL Hilton; later he relocated to Sabah and took over a small restaurant cum pub, designing and selling chic gear on the side. However, he continues to play gigs around Southeast Asia and is popular at music festivals.
Sabahan Pete Teo released an arty album in 2003 called Rustic Living For Urbanites which he marketed independently as well as online. The prospect of exporting Malaysian music is hardly bright, simply because much of it does sound like already well-known western music: in Amir Yussof’s case, he has been compared with Mark Knopfler, Cat Stevens, and Sting; while Pete Teo often sounds like his heroes, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Tom Waits. Vatudu? (as they say in Malaysia) – nobody knows what “Malaysian music” ought to sound like! So how…? Well, the odds against making real money in music locally has compelled many musicians to become extremely resourceful and enterprising. Pete Teo has since gone on to make a splash as a screen actor and independent film producer.
The incredibly talented, tough-talking, street-savvy Brian Gomez
Speaking of versatility, Brian Gomez warrants at least a brief mention here. He has been dubbed “Guardian Angel of the Indie Scene” because he runs a cozy pub called Merdekarya where young musicians, stand-up comics and storytellers can gain experience and exposure. Not only is Brian an accomplished singer-songwriter with a penchant for wry, earthy humor, he also happens to be a damn good writer and all-round intellect. His 2008 debut novel, Devil’s Place, blew me away with its sheer gall and gumption – and his facebook notes have acquired an avid following.
Stepping Lightly Into Dance
I could say a few things about the dance scene in Malaysia – if only to include Ramli Ibrahim’s name in this overview. Much has already been written – even a documentary film made – about Ramli Ibrahim, who has attained godlike status as a cultural mover and shaker. Ramli began dance lessons in Australia where he was studying mechanical engineering. Inspired by Chandrabhanu (a native of Perlis who changed his name from Zamin Haroon after he embraced Classical Indian Dance and its attendant philosophy, and migrated to Australia),
Ramli started out with Bharatanatyam and Odissi when he returned to Malaysia in 1983, and later extended his choreographic scope to Contemporary. Three decades later, Ramli Ibrahim’s Sutra Dance Company is dynamically alive and well – and the man himself has got involved with acting, playwriting, painting, and sociocultural commentary, besides being an energetic and urbane impresario. I once described Ramli Ibrahim as “Malaysia’s answer to Diaghilev and Nijinsky” – which greatly pleased him.
Sadly, as a Malay performing and promoting Classical Indian Dance, Ramli has had to battle accusations of being a cultural traitor; until fairly recently, he received virtually no official support for his laudable work. Today Ramli Ibrahim has achieved what seemed impossible when he returned to Malaysia in the early 1980s – he is now the globally acclaimed artistic director of Sutra Foundation, leading his talented dancers in spectacular performances around the world and regularly winning accolades. A bona fide Malaysian success story.
Butoh dancer-choreographer Lee Swee Keong in ‘Green Snake‘
It was western classical and jazz ballet all the way till the mid-1980s when postmodernism was introduced to Malaysian dance audiences by Marion D’Cruz, co-founder of Five Arts Centre, who studied under Martha Graham and later delved into Javanese dance. Nobody was doing stuff like this at the time, so Marion managed to get a fair amount of mileage out of her avant-garde choreography. In the 1990s, dancer-choreographer Lena Ang brought butoh to Malaysia and it infected the likes of Lee Swee Keong, whose monkish discipline and ascetic dedication to sublime aesthetics as a performer more than compensates for his exasperating tendency to mystify as a conceptualizer.
In 2003 Sutra hosted a Contemporary Dance Festival which showcased several exciting new talents in Malaysian dance – among them Aida Redza, who has spent a lot of time in Copenhagen, and whose wild, unpredictable, and shamanic choreography is always thrilling to watch. Syed Mustapha Syed Yasin is another innovative “trance-dancer” whose company Tandak Dance Theatre explores the magical roots of Malay culture in a highly theatrical modern context.
Interestingly, political events in recent years have significantly impacted on the cultural scene. The Reformasi movement led by sacked deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim spawned huge street protests against the Mahathir regime in October 1998, and these continued sporadically for a couple of years until almost all prominent opposition leaders, particularly the younger ones, had been arrested and detained without trial under the anachronistic ISA (Infernal Security Act). The ruling Barisan Nasional party banked on the Chinese voters’ desire for business-as-usual (and fear of abrupt political changes) to stay in power during the 1999 general election – which deliberately disenfranchised about 700,000 newly registered voters who might have dethroned the despotic Mahathir from his 22-year run as prime minister.
Political cartoonist Zunar (Zulkifli Anwar Haque) constantly faces police harassment
A significant spin-off from Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest, mock trial and subsequent 15-year jail sentence has been that a large number of arts practitioners began to get involved in political activism – with quite a few, like conceptual artist Wong Hoy Cheong, actually joining opposition parties or campaigning on their behalf. Artis Pro Activ (APA) was formed in 1998 as a response to the escalating political oppression and continues today as a virtual forum for the arts community, even though most of the steam has been discharged with Mahathir’s retirement on October 31st, 2003.
What became increasingly clear was that the greatest threat to the power structure came not from the Chinese and Indian minorities, but from among the new generation of Malays. After more than three decades of special privileges, a large section of the Malay population had become sufficiently educated and self-confident to demand more accountability from their public servants.
Recognizing this in late 2003, the new administration led by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi proactively began to promote the notion of multiculturalism and multiethnicity – rather than foolishly attempting to suppress languages and cultures other than Malay. Indeed, the Tourism Ministry began its “Malaysia, Truly Asia” campaign, promoting Malaysia as a colorful microcosm of Asia. This “rainbow of cultures” marketing strategy was accompanied by a series of government-funded concerts featuring Chinese, Indian, and Western cultural performances.
A massive political awakening that can neither be silenced nor suppressed
A positive upshot was the reversal of narrow prejudices, and the relaxation of ethnic tensions – at least for a few blessed years. The Barisan Nasional government under Abdullah Badawi was aware that it needed the loyal support of the ethnic minorities to remain in power; while those in opposition discovered that the desire for justice and good governance transcends all racial boundaries – particularly when they found themselves arrested, interrogated, tortured, and detained alongside their Chinese, Indian, and Eurasian compatriots.
Alas, when Najib Razak took over from Abdullah Badawi in April 2009, the psychic atmosphere turned toxic almost instantly with political intrigue of the most despicable order. Instead of inspiring a culture of innovation, initiative and greater excellence, Najib’s obsession with clinging desperately to power eclipsed all other national considerations – and this inevitably led to the return of jackbooted jingoistic Mahathirism in defence of an entirely corrupt status quo and the systematic privatization of public wealth through scandalous abuse of.power.
Instant Cafe Theatre skit featuring Jo Kukathas as YBeeee, deputy minister of desperately smug incompetence & constant denial
Within the ranks of the predominantly Malay bureaucracy, there is a great divide between the more cosmopolitan and westernized faction, and those still carrying a provincial, parochial chip on their shoulders. Thus, a welcome surge towards liberalization of official policies and active encouragement of the arts is often followed by a reactionary backlash – invariably instigated on quasi-religious grounds, in self-interested defence of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy).
A case in point would be the Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s heavy-handed attempt to punish the Instant Café Theatre in June 2003 for mercilessly lampooning thick-headed flat-footed bureaucracy. Spitefully, City Hall revoked Instant Café’s performance permit one day before their production of The Baltimore Waltz was scheduled to open. This ill-advised move backfired when Malaysia became a laughing stock on the global stage, with ICT’s banning mentioned on the BBC World Service and snidely commented upon in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the International Herald Tribune, and Time magazine. In the end, the mayor of Kuala Lumpur personally intervened, allowing the show to go on. However, a few months later, an ad hoc censorship committee was set up to vet all future theater productions.
And so, in typically Sisyphean fashion, a few steps in the “right” direction are often nullified by several steps in the “wrong” direction. However, the artistic impulse cannot be thwarted or stopped, at least not for long – and those who would stand in the way of cultural evolution and intellectual maturity are doomed to terrible disappointment – unless they open themselves to a spontaneous awakening, and begin to embrace a deeper, broader, and wiser worldview.
3 February 2005, updated 2 December 2014. Originally published by Goethe-Institut as part of collection of essays commemorating 50 years of German-Malaysian cultural exchange.