Bicara Titian Budaya last Saturday saw a panel discussion take place in the morning, right after the Malaysian premiere of award-winning Singaporean play Serunding. Boasting theatre-makers Claire Wong and Jo Kukathas, as well as Singaporean poet Gwee Li Sui and local author Uthaya Sankar SB, the panel was themed Stories Without Borders.
One of many programmes held under the Titian Budaya umbrella, Bicara Titian Budaya was organised by My Performing Arts Agency (MyPAA) and CultureLink Singapore, comprising a day of forums and screenings which brought together Malaysian and Singaporean creative professionals.
In this particular session, panelists were asked to share how they “transcend boundaries of art and nation” in telling their stories without forsaking their own unique Asian identities.
In our hands, storytelling is a tool that not only entertains but also breaks down barriers, enabling empathy and inspiring us to think beyond our own world. How and why should we work together? What stories do we need to take us there?
— Bicara Titian Budaya, Facebook
In slightly more than an hour, Stories Without Borders gave panelists opportunity to share their experiences. We highlight the input provided from playwrights and theatremakers Jo Kukathas and Claire Wong in this review of the discussion.
A huge proportion of Stories Without Borders centered around the endless battle between artist and censor.
Jo Kukathas for example brought up her critically-acclaimed collaborations with Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at, which was refused support from authorities when it was first proposed.
“We had no funding for Parah because in Malaysia, you cannot do a play about race, or the issue of interlock,” explained Jo.
Formerly a component of compulsory reading for secondary school students, Interlok was written in 1997 and was included in the Form 5 Malay Literature (KOMSAS) syllabus for selected regions. The title of the book was based on the English word “interlock”.
Interlok incited furore since its release because it utilises the word “pariah” in describing Indians, even if the novel aimed at exploring the relationship between its three main characters: ethnic-Malay Seman, ethnic-Chinese Chin Huat and ethnic-Indian Maniam.
The Ministry of Education removed Interlok from school syllabuses by the tail end of 2011, and replaced it with Konserto Terakhir, also by Hussain, a dramatic tale of music and familial relationships.
According to Jo, nobody dared fund a project which the government could deem as inflammatory, for fear of impending consequence. As such, Parah had to be paid for through the team’s own pockets.
“Our shoelace budget made it possible, but it showed that the real obstacles are the government and corporations. We couldn’t possibly fund a play about religion either, which we found out when we wanted to do Alfian’s Nadhirah,” continued Jo.
The worsening climate for relevant, message-driven content (or political art) is not only felt by our own practitioners. Checkpoint Theatre‘s Claire Wong from Singapore resonated.
In the span of five years, the application process to re-stage Huzir Sulaiman‘s Election Day had changed considerably.
“We staged it in 1999 and everything was fine,” spoke Claire, “but in 2004 we weren’t allowed to without major changes. Names like UMNO and Anwar Ibrahim could no longer appear in the script.”
In Election Day, each character is named after actual politicians — yes, it’s hard to believe that the Malaysian art scene was once as outspoken! Despite using the exact same script to apply for a 2004 re-staging, authorities refused commencement unless all real names of people and brands were redacted.
Huzir Sulaiman explains the issue in detail in an interview with Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS).
This ranged from (former Malaysian Prime Minister) Dr Mahathir and (former Deputy Prime Minister) Anwar Ibrahim right down to Guardian Pharmacy and Volkswagen. This was an obvious attempt to disembowel the play and excise any relevance for the audience, and I was determined not to let this happen.
— Huzir Sulaiman, QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008
Huzir’s changes to the script was a prime example of taking a story beyond limits set by external parties. He changed names into epithets: Wan Azizah for example was changed to “Our Gentle Lady In The Tudong”. Audiences were intelligent enough to understand who he was referring to, even if the names were no longer there.
But before he even gets there, Thuan Chye points out the absurdity of being Malaysian and being forbidden to explore our own truths.
As you know, we now cannot discuss Article 11 of the Constitution. The Constitution, mind you. That piece of writing on which our whole nation is founded. And the gag order comes from no less than the Chief Executive Office of Malaysia. Because he says, such discussion can cause tension in our society. OK, as authority-fearing Malaysians, we won’t say that such an order goes against the spirit of Article 10 of that same Constitution, the article 10 which guarantees freedom of expression. We won’t say that. But then, if we think hard about it, isn’t the Government sending out confusing signals? We are all Malaysians, but the government does not seem to treat us equally.
— Kee Thuan Chye, No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians. Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2012.
Claire explained that heavy censorship also has potential to worsen matters, using Thuan Chye’s 1994 play We Could **** You Mr. Birch as an example.
The word “kill” was replaced with four asterisks when Malaysian publishers deemed “kill” too strong. As a result, many today simply assume there was once an expletive or derogatory term in place of the asterisks.
Jo Kukathas then turned to audiences and asked, “What was the name of that movie where they changed the title… Perempuan, Jalang dan…?”
Unaware of her own gaffe, she inadvertently proved Claire’s point — U-Wei Haji Saari‘s critically-acclaimed film was initially titled Perempuan, Isteri dan Jalang, but “jalang” was removed from the title years later, replaced with an ellipsis.
In dealing with censors however, Jo provided a particularly challenging experience dealing with the Japanese government over 2001 stage play Pulau Antara.
A collaboration between Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre and local theatre company Instant Café Theatre, the project premiered in Malaysia in Istana Budaya.
Despite receiving funding from The Japan Foundation, all artists involved were told to be “free” and uncensored. But upon its debut, Japanese officials were taken aback by the content in the play and wanted to change or remove elements connected to the war.
After a number of meetings, both sides came to an understanding that none of the content will be changed, as all involved artists were promised creative freedom.
In closing, we’d like to bring up the fact that much of the experiences shared by today’s panelists were highly relevant — even if censorship was not meant to be the main issue.
Stories Without Borders made it apparent that Malaysian artists still have a lot to fight in order to bring personal truths to the stage, but there were still triumphant examples in an ecosystem riddled with obstacles. Retaining the potency of our storytelling despite all the limitations is possible, as seen in Huzir Sulaiman and Instant Cafe’s experiences.
Most of all, it is important that we continue striving to find new ways to present our stories. We’d like to leave our readers with this particular insightful comment from Claire Wong.
“The voice of the government is different from the voice of the people,” Claire pointed out, “artists speak the voice of the people.”
It’ll probably take some time until Malaysians get their voices heard loud and clear, but we trust it will happen.
Bicara Titian Budaya took place on 12 December 2015; for more information about the programme make sure to check out our previous write-up and visit My Performing Arts Agency (MyPAA). Featured image courtesy of MyPAA.