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Grief and Memory: Challenging Malaysia’s Historical Narratives

Three Malaysian artists take turns scribbling symbols and motifs in chalk on a blackboard floor that doubles as a stage, singing and telling stories. The screen behind the stage shows live interview footage, helping to take audiences on a multimedia journey beyond traditional theatrical performance to highlight skeletons in the treasury of Malaysian history.

“We wanted to critically highlight the tools of the documentary or the supposed ‘truth-making’ world – cameras and various media technologies like the green screen,” director Mark Teh, a member of the Five Arts Collective Center in Kuala Lumpur, founded in 1984, told Al Jazeera about his recent play Assumed date (2019). “The performers do everything in our show: there are no blackouts or backstage to hide it, and there are no stage directors to come in and change the set.”

An assumed date debuted in Malaysia earlier in July at completely sold-out venues after a two-year delay due to COVID-19 performance restrictions. It includes performer and musician Faiq Syazwan Kairi of the punk terrier, journalist Rahma Baozi and prominent political graphic designer and illustrator Fahmy Reda.

Blending audio-visual aids, shared viewpoints, and what teh defines as “social representation” – non-actors who perform a version of themselves – the play digs deeply into Malaysian history of inherited memories and official narratives, and what happened during the Malay Emergency.

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The 12-year conflict, which began under colonial rule and ended in 1960 after Malaysia became independent, remains a controversial topic. The war was largely fought in the jungle between communist pro-independence fighters from the Malaysian National Liberation Army, and soldiers of the British colonialists.

A group of women worked as cooks and nurses with communist fighters during the Malay emergency
Photographed young women who worked as cooks and nurses in the Malaysian National Liberation Army after emerging from the jungle to surrender in 1953 [File: AP Photo]

“I can attribute this to the contested narrative and the ongoing campaign designed by both the British colonial government as well as the ruling government after independence with the ultimate goal of suppressing any elements of the progressive and left political fronts in the region,” said Zakari Rahman. , the program coordinator at Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, an independent organization based in Kuala Lumpur focused on archiving and disseminating various forms of historical material from a people’s perspective.

“Not only that, but the issue remains contentious as it takes a racist turn over who can claim to be a victim during the emergency period,” Zekri told Al Jazeera.

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Many of the country’s ethnic Chinese were moved to so-called “new villages” so that fighters in the jungle could not come to them for food and other forms of support, while the Malays were the target of what Zechari says’ a more subtle campaign of land redistribution and economic reform. Both communities were experiencing a violent act of displacement and dispossession.”

Teaching history

History is a compulsory subject for high school students in Malaysia, Theoretical History was inspired by the publication of new school history books released in 2020.

The process of “modernization” began under the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)-dominated National Barisan Alliance that dominated Malaysia for more than 60 years after independence, but the books were not published until after the 2018 general election when the alliance first lost power. time.

Performers from
Theoretical history puts the tools of the “truth-making” world on stage and was shown in Europe before being shown in Malaysia [Bea Borgers/Courtesy of Kunstenfestivaldesarts (Brussels, 2022)]

“It happened that the revisions to the Fourth Form book — which focuses on the period that includes World War II, the Japanese occupation, the Malaysian state of emergency, and Merdeka independence — coincided with the fall of the United Malays National Organization and the rise to power of the Pakatan Harappan,” Teh told Al Jazeera, the Mahathir-led coalition. Mohamad.” Mahathir himself was a former UMNO leader and Prime Minister of Malaysia for more than 20 years.

“This textbook was published in 2020, and we were really keen to compare what changed between the reviews and, most interestingly, consider what remained unchangeable or ‘unforgivable’ – even in the shadow of the new Malaysia.”

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The show makes use of original video interviews with former Malaysian communist revolutionaries in exile. The Malaysian National Party (UMNO), the ethnic Malay party that has long dominated Malaysian politics, has opposed the militants since its founding in 1946, and when in power promoted the narrative that the communists, who were mostly but not entirely of Chinese descent, posed a threat to security and order. patriots. .

Revealing historical erasures, exceptions, and the official narrative of the communist fight, Theoretical History is yet another collaboration by a close-knit group of friends and enduring collaborators who have produced a variety of theater performances, documentary videos, art exhibitions, curatorial projects, participatory interventions and online initiatives over the course of the five past ten years.

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Previous projects have also focused on history – after years of careful research – including Baling (2015-18), Edition 2020 (2017-18) and Fragments of Tuah (2022).

A portrait of Malaysian communist leader Chen Bing from 1956
Communist leader Chen Ping, pictured in 1956, was the number one public enemy in the Malay colony. Died in exile in Thailand [File: AP Photo]

A somewhat precursor to theoretical history, Baling immersed himself in the big unanswered questions of Malaysia’s bumpy road to independence by reconstructing and analyzing the historic December 1955 negotiations between Tunku Abdul Rahman (who would soon become the newly first prime minister). Malaysia), David Marshall, who represented the then crown colony of Singapore, and Shen Ping – the feared and demonized leader of the Malaysian Communist Party and the Malaysian National Liberation Army.

Reading directly from public texts, Balling’s performing scholars pondered the meaning of freedom, loyalty, “terror” and surrender.

“One of the threads in Baling was to revisit the character of Chen Ping and demystify or demystify this public enemy number one – the wanted man in the British Empire, or the last communist,” Teh told Al Jazeera. “Instead of focusing on his life story, we investigated how the brutal ghost of Chin Bing was activated by the British and then the Malaysian/Malaysian government through propaganda and fear-mongering.”

Teh thinks the national hysteria around Chin Ping is ironic – the communist leader was exiled across the border in southern Thailand, the communist leader was physically absent from Malaysia, but the nation went to great lengths to make him feel ‘present’ and ‘dangerous’. Even in 2013 after Chen Ping’s death, the then government refused to allow his ashes to be returned to the country.

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The dangers of naming communism

Theoretical history follows a similar trend to Baling through the interweaving of monologues, songs, and music by Terrer’s Faiq, and Fahmy’s detailed interpretations of sections of national history textbooks misrepresent historical facts from the crucial decade before Malaysia’s declaration of independence on August 31, 1957.

A screen behind the performers enhances the perspectives of non-actors with interview footage from Revolusi ’48, Fahmy’s unreleased documentary on 11 communist rebel fighters who disappeared in the Malaysian northern jungle in 1948—a companion piece to his earlier documentary 10 Tahun Sipilum Merdeka ( Ten Years Before Independence), which marked the day of Malay-wide protest against Britain’s undemocratic proposals to create the Malaya Federation, and the rise of the Malay People’s Democratic Movement.

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Video of an interview with a communist revolutionary in exile playing behind an artist in A Notional History
Interviews with communist fighters, some of them Malay, were shown on a screen at the back of the platform [Courtesy of Bryan Chang]

We have seen these as the various threads that contributed to Malaya’s struggle for independence, along with the UMNO-Barisan National. But as Fahmy mentioned on the show, he wasn’t able to complete the documentary because he was worried it would be misinterpreted as glorifying gun violence, and he was also worried about the backlash – from being labeled a communist sympathizer,” Teh told Al Jazeera.

Theoretical history also includes footage from the 2018 Public Forum in Kuala Lumpur Should we rewrite history textbooks? Fahmy was publicly attacked by the Malaysian right-wing groups.

This incident provoked a violent reaction on social media, in which the activist was called a “communist”.

“In certain contexts – such as Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia – the label ‘communist’ has been diverted by the state and its supporters to discredit, imprison and even eliminate and kill people,” Teh said.

Prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, “Theoretical History” was successfully presented at a performing arts meeting in the Japanese city of Yokohama, as well as in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Hundreds of thousands of people accused of being communists in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, were killed.

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“In Indonesia, the subject of communism is more charged than other places where we have performed,” Faeq told Al Jazeera about the performance at Teter Salihara. Public reaction to struggles [Malaysian] The communists felt more profound and immediate.”

Once the world began reopening, the play made its debut outside Asia in May 2022 at the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels – one of Europe’s leading contemporary performing arts festivals – before finally returning to Malaysia.

Words written in chalk on stage during a performance
Theoretical history delves into the Malaysian history of inherited memories and official accounts [Courtesy of Bryan Chang]

“It was a blessing to be able to perform in different countries, and I felt the slight differences in the reactions from different places,” Faik said.

“What I learned from this process is that although the subject matter of our work has its own characteristics of Malaysian history, it is also universal. […] What I hope the audience will feel and think of the performance, at least in my view, is to take into account the personal choices, encounters, desires, grief, and memories of these old communists based on a decision they made long ago.”

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