Arts and Bards, Political Branch

It may be primitive theatre at best, but the rise of opposition politics in Malaysia seems to be driving an awakening of sorts in the arts, sparking experiments exploring alternative history as opposed to the official version, which dominates the country's mainstream media.

Take, for example, a harsh and uncompromising playlet, staged in the Malaysian Bar Council auditorium over the last two weeks. titled Bilik Sulit (Private Chamber,) written by Hishamuddin Rais, an activist, author, film director and ex-journalist, which deals with a fictional interrogation under the country’s Internal Security Act and which ultimately turns into racial harassment.

The blindfolded prisoner, decked in bright orange, stays silent as three Special Branch officers humiliate and harass him. The constant psychological and physical abuse finally break the prisoner and he goes into a frenzy, screaming back to his tormentors over their own Malay-Islamic edentity.

Organized by the Bar Council of Malaysia and human rights non-governmental organisations, the sketch tells of the torment that political dissidents experience while detained under the ISA, which allows for detention without trial. The dialogue juxtaposes the incongruity of the police's actions as professed champions of Islam and the Malays and the calls of the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant ethnic party in the ruling Barisan Nasional government, for Malay racial supremacy in the country.

Malaysia’s arts scene is touchy, with artists gingerly feeling their way along. Earlier this year, a parody of the national anthem which poked fun at the Malays was a hit in cyberspace, garnering over 1 million views. The title of the hiphop song, Negarakuku, is a derogatory play on the national anthem's title, Negara Ku (My Country). The meaning of Negarakuku is relatively obvious. The government made the 25-year-old Wee Meng Chee apologize amid public outrage. Wee has since moved on to more controversy with a new song that ridicules the standard of English in Chinese-language schools. Furious school officials threatened to sue Wee but he refused to apologize. He has, however, removed the video from YouTube.

The Barisan's electoral debacle in the March 8 general election has also led to pointed political fiction on the establishment side. Chamil Wariya, the chief executive officer of the Malaysian Press Institute, last month wrote a short story, "The New Politics Of The Honourable J", published in Utusan Malaysia, the leading Malay newspaper, which is controlled by the United Malays National Organisation. The story is styled like a high school essay and narrates events leading to the assassination of a narcissistic and racist woman politician. A member of parliament alleges the piece is about her and has filed a RM30 million (US$9 million) defamation suit against Chamil and Utusan. Chamil reportedly said that the characters in the fictional work represent ideas and denied it is about the parliamentarian.

Otherwise, in the quieter, bohemian part of town, the Central Market Annexe, the new hub of alternative art, is carving a niche by using art as a form of political activism. Recently, for instance, a ceremony honored five people including indie filmmakers, playwrights and others who, according to the citation “have gone above and beyond in the pursuit of free speech this year.”

The Annexe has a growing arts bazaar called “Art for Grabs,” in which local venders sell anything and everything in the way of arts and crafts. It screens art-house films, hosts public lectures and forums and runs exhibitions that are not necessarily art your mother would like. The outreach programs are heavy on socio-political themes and aren’t scared to deal with what are loosely called alternative sexualities – something the tightly-wound conventional Malay and Chinese communities shy away from.

Interestingly enough, the Annexe is the vestigial remains of the Chinese-dominated Central Market, once a teeming wet market in the middle of Kuala Lumpur that was the center of commercial and social life for thousands of Chinese. It was closed in the 1980s against their wishes and turned into a shopping mall with a heritage theme, selling local art and handicrafts.

The gallery has also hosted a range of political exhibitions, including photo montages of politicians reinterpreted as celebrities by Hishamuddin Rais. For instance, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, president of the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat, was kitted up, as the 19850s American sex goddess Marilyn Monroe. Azizah is the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, the sacked and jailed former premier who reemerged as a political force to be reckoned in March with by leading disparate opposition parties to deny the ruling national coalition its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since independence, and winning five states.

In October, the Annexe held what it called the Emergency Festival, showcasing a play that retold the Emergency of 1948 from the perspective of four Malaysians expecting a revolution, and proposes another role of the communists in the struggle for independence. The official story is that the emergency was declared to quell the communist insurgency although Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party, wrote in his autobiography that the party had worked with the British to fight against the Japanese but when the Japanese left, the British discarded the communists.

Produced by the Five Arts Centre, the exhibition marked a departure from the usual subjects in the indie art scene by daring to bring to the public sphere the suppressed history of Malaysia. School history textbooks are heavily censored. The tragic race riots in 1969, in which hundreds of people died, are almost totally omitted save for a few sentences.

But talking politics in the arts is still limited to the fringes. It has yet to go mainstream, with almost no local productions or exhibitions that challenge the status quo on subjects or themes like immigration, citizenship, race, equality and humanity. Other than the indefatigable bloggers who mount daily assaults on the government, there is little in the way of literature or art to challenge authority. Malaysia, so far, has no samizdat.