The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
Presenter Interview
The activities of the Five Arts Center, toward the creation of contemporary Malaysian theater
The activities of the Five Arts Center, toward the creation of contemporary Malaysian theater
Manchester United & The Malay Warrior
Manchester United & The Malay Warrior
Five Arts Centre celebrated your 20th anniversary last year. How has the theatre scene in Malaysia changed in 20 years?
As I mentioned, 20 years ago, local English language theatre was so rare. But now so many companies are doing that - most of them came along around late 80s and early 90s. And the status of local performing arts has been changed a lot. Talking about dance, 20 years ago, only classical ballet enjoyed high status. Things have been changed completely — classical Malay dance and Indian dance has achieved high status as well now. When I started to dance — it was before Five Arts was established — my personal intention was to create contemporary dance in Malaysia that is not traditional, but not Western modern either. I was so concerned with the vocabulary of east / west and traditional / modern then. The meaning of "modern" in Malaysia does not necessarily mean "Western" — I feel that Asia still has this problem. Japanese Buto may be the only exception as it is the only non-western contemporary dance form that has spread around the world.
In early 80s, some important dancers came back to Malaysia from overseas such as Ramli Ibrahim who is an Indian classical dancer. I myself came back from New York in 1981. We performed very actively first 6-7 years to prove the fact that contemporary dance can exist in Malaysia and we can combine east and west. Some experimental shows were slammed by local papers saying, "this is not dance" or "Marion D'Cruz is not a choreographer". But they were necessary to empower Malaysian creativity. Our composers, our choreographers, our playwrights are as important as — or more important than - the foreign ones. And at the end of the day, we have to tell our own stories — whether it is theatre, dance, visual arts or music — about our lives as Malaysians. The theatre, besides as the entertainment, should be provocative and make people think.
The number of audience surely increased. For example, our last year's production, Election Day which was one woman show, dark and heavy gathered packed audience for all 14 shows. 20 years ago, if we could have 5-day show at 200-seater theatre, it would be considered a big success. Audience comes to identify their story — they would say, "Oh, this is my story!" Interest in the local theatre is much higher than before.
Over last 20 years, there are higher production values as well. Productions were much more ad hoc basis before, but we have got a little bit more clever now in terms of marketing or publicity. Professionalism is emerging. We are trying to pay as much as possible because now a lot of people are trying to survive solely as artists. We are trying to support industry. Corporate sponsorship is definitely much more than before too.

I think the establishment of the new ministry - Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage (MOCAH) - is a remarkable event for Malaysian artists. MOCAH has started the dialogue with local artists since its establishment last year and is setting up grant programs which we couldn't expect from the former Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism. While many artists seem to welcome this movement, some are still skeptical and afraid that the Ministry would not help much. Do you agree with them? How do you think the government should support local artists?
Right now, I'm very optimistic. Having made huge public announcement, they cannot just turn around. Actually this is the very first time to see the Ministry showed their strong will to support local artists in this way. In fact, we have been getting support from the Ministry for years although it was not huge amount of money given, though. For example, whenever we use theatres owned by the government, we appeal to get minimum rental fee. But something is happening now — they even try to set up an arts council.
The question is how long it will last. Are these things going to be a policy that is clear, understood by everybody and last forever? Or do they last only as long as these people are there? Problem of this country is that a lot of institutions, whether government or not, depend much on the individuals.
Establishing an arts council is one way. Once a concrete institute is established, at least it lasts even if the founders leave the positions. It will make it easier for private companies to think about donations because they will enjoy tax exemption and recognition from the government. I think the arts council in Singapore is doing very well — some artists say that it is not functioning well and they should try other resources, though. All arts councils around the world have pluses and minuses and I'm still wondering whether it is the best solution or not.

When Five Arts Centre staged Election Day, a story about Malaysian general election, last year, you had to fight with Kuala Lumpur City Hall's censorship committee to get the permission. How do you think about the censorship in Malaysia?
We are bringing the issue of censorship to the dialogue with the Ministry. This is going to be a big battle because we really have to begin to see if Malaysia is a matured society. We have already been doing a lot of self-censorship and are very aware of Budaya Kita (our culture) but there are so many different thinking about so-called "sensitive issues" like politics, religion and race.
What we suggested once was a rating system for theatre. We announce in the publicity material that this show contains adult material and people can make decision by themselves. Another idea was leaving it to practitioners. You can do whatever you want, but if you go against the rules, you have to face the consequences. But this is very tricky — you don't know if you are against the rules and what is the consequences — and very dangerous idea for us.
But, in a way, whole Election Day battle was better because the story came out on the paper, we put every correspondences in the lobby of the theatre and had discussions with audience every night. It was interesting for me that this became a huge public discussion. Audience discussed among themselves and was really involved in the process. The response was not always supportive. Some artists blamed us for agreeing to amend the script as requested by the censorship board.
I'm not quite sure about the recent development, but I think you don't have to submit scripts to the censorship committee any more — Kuala Lumpur City Hall has dissolved the committee after the Election Day.
Censorship is a very evil thing. Whenever I talk to my students at National Arts Academy, they are so scared to talk about "sensitive issues". The only reason why the issues are sensitive is that we don't talk about them. If you talk about them, they are not sensitive any more.
But it is very difficult. For example, talking about the racial issues in Malaysia, we are in much more racially charged society than the time when I was 10 years old. At that time, when I went to my primary school and secondary school in Johor Bahru, all Malay, Chinese and Indian students mixed together. If you go to the schools today and watch students during the break, you will see that Malays gather in a group, Chinese gather in a group and Indians gather in their own group. The situation is really bad. The only places the cross over may happen are rock concerts, football games or any national games at the National Stadium and the contemporary theatre.
Now many Malay people identify their culture with Islam. But Islam came here only in 1400s. They have no memory about any Malay society and culture existed before Islam. Actually, Malay culture has all Hindu elements and animistic elements. They are trying to ignore that fact and I feel very scary about it. A Malay dance practitioner once said to me, "Budak India tidak boleh menari Melayu (Indian kid cannot perform Malay dance)." Such racism is still there even in the field of arts.
Recently, Malaysian government started the national service program with the aim to achieve "national unity". But how can those young people who have been educated in the racial system for 18 years change their attitude with 3 month's national service? Whenever we request a support from the Ministry, they ask us "How many Malays in your company? How many Chinese? Indians? Lain-lain (others)?" For me, this is disgusting. But their rationale is that they have to promote the mixture of the races. We must stop thinking that way.
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