Benny Lim*, Chua Lian Choon (Richard)**

Despite having a Malay-Muslim majority and a declared religion of Islam, Malaysia is known today as a multi-racial and multi-religious country in Southeast Asia. It is one of the fastest growing developing nations in the region, and Kuala Lumpur, its capital city, is often regarded as a global city, serving as a hub for international business, finance and education. Peninsular Malaysia (then known as Malaya) was part of the British colony between 1824 (though British influence began much earlier) and 1957. The performing arts in post-independence Malaya would focus on decolonizing the stage, dominated by British expats prior to independence.[1]

Given the complexity of Malaysia’s sociocultural and even political situation, exemplifying the theatre ecology of this nation has to go beyond a mere description of the work done by the various stakeholders. The argument here is that Malaysia’s theatre ecology (or “scene”) is ultimately a product of culture, with its own unique cultural practices and traits developed over time. Yet, it is the inputs and exchanges of these stakeholders that facilitate the evolution and reinforcement of this culture.

The Circuit of Culture, introduced by Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall and other British cultural theorists in 1997, can therefore be used as an analysis tool to account for the current of state of Malaysia’s theatre. The word “circuit” suggests a course of movements or a web of connections, further reiterating the complexity and dynamism in its approach towards understanding culture. This essay is structured according to the five interdependent elements that make up the circuit.

Regulation: Cultural Policies and Governance of Malaysia’s Theatre

The National Culture Policy of Malaysia, enacted in 1971, was based on three core principles. First, the national culture of the country should be based on that of the indigenous people (or bumiputera). Second, other cultures can be incorporated into the national culture as long they are “suitable and reasonable.” Third, Islam should be and remains the core element in the national culture. These principles effectively marginalized performing art forms of other languages (and cultures), such as English, Chinese and Indian, which were then considered as independent theatre.

It is worth noting that, despite the policies, the Malay agenda was not necessarily succinct back then. There were debates about Malay performing art forms that had already been prevalent pre-Islam, and some had Hindu-Buddhist influences (for instance, stories were adapted from Ramayana). This also led to the controversial banning of Wayang Kulit and makyong (a form of Malay dance-drama) in the Islamic state of Kelantan back in 1991.[2] In order to further the Malay agenda and promote modern Malay theatre, the Ministry organized drama competitions and a national theatre festival in 1970s. However, the festival was cancelled in 1984 by the Ministry, citing high costs of organizing as well as the seeming lack of distinct contributions to the development of the nation’s theatre.

Since then, theatre performances, independent theatre productions in particular, have been highly regulated. Prior to any performance, a performance license must be obtained from the police. Without this permit, organizers were not allowed to even proceed with the sales of tickets. The police also had the right to request for more information during the review process, such as the script, and to make corrections or cuts on the artistic work. Needless to say, the police could also completely deny a license to a performance, if they deemed the work as against the principles set out in the policies.[3] One example of such restrictions was the work of Malaysian playwright/director Chin San Sooi, Refugee Images, which depicts the plight of Vietnamese boat refugees and how the Malaysian government treats them. Today, censorship for the performing arts is seemingly less rigid simply because the government has pushed for a self-censorship process by the arts organizations/ artists themselves. Licensing for theatre productions is now being managed by the respective city halls.[4]

Over the years, the Ministry has undergone several major revamps. The current Ministry of Tourism and Culture (MOTAC) has been in force since May 2013, with specific departments managing different aspects, such as museums, tourism, cultural heritage, arts.[5] At present, the Department of National Culture and Arts (JKKN) is a department under MOTAC, which takes charge of the conservation and development of cultural arts.[6] The department also hosts a physical resource centre at its headquarters, allowing stakeholders to access materials relating to the arts and culture. JKKN identifies one form of modern theatre in the country, namely, Musical Theatre, thus pointing to the lack of development of other forms of theatre.[7] Despite JKKN’s support towards the development of theatre, there is a lack of funding structures and policies. In general, theatre groups do not receive any form of government funding, except for projects in collaboration or commissioned by the government. Besides JKKN, MOTAC also runs the Istana Budaya (Palace of Culture), which is the national theatre of the country, consisting of a 1410-seater theatre hall and a 280-seater theatre for more small-scale productions.

Theatre Hall of Istana Budaya. Photo: Istana Budaya

As a ministry incorporating culture and tourism, one of its objectives is to create synergies among the arts, culture and heritage to function as “catalysts” for Malaysia’s tourism. A case study of one such synergy was Malaysia’s longest running theatre production of MUD: The Story of Kuala Lumpur (MUDKL), a musical depicting the development of Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, told through the stories of three good friends. The 45-minute musical ran in the 320-seater Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) City Theatre for almost three years, between 2014 and 2017, with two ticketed shows per day, seven days a week. The actors involved in MUDKL were given contracts and paid monthly salaries. This was rather unique because no other theatre companies and productions had been able to provide stable employment to the actors for a substantial duration prior to MUDKL.

Video 1

 

A production photo of MUDK. Photo: available in the public domain (from MUDKL’s facebook page)
Production and Consumption: Various Stakeholders of Malaysia’s Theatre

Production venues could be classified according to the agencies that manage them, such as MOTAC, which runs Istana Budaya. Another agency, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall manages the DBKL City Theatre. State sponsored and large commercial theatre productions choose these venues, given their perceived prestige and size. In the private sector, mid-sized performance venues provide alternative stages, such as the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPAC) and the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC). There are also many community driven performance spaces, such as the KuAsh Theatre, Five Arts Centre Blackbox and NOW Theatre, to name a few. Performances presented along diverse linguistic and cultural lines give to these venues distinctive characteristics and identities. Istana Budaya has presented many musicals and theatre performances in the Malay Language; the DBKL City Theatre houses a resident performance company, which present Malay traditional performance arts performances, one of them being the Bangsawan.[8]

DPAC Theatre. Photo: JS Wong (from DPAC website)

KLPAC is a landmark of Malaysia’s performing arts scene. The venue provides to the English speaking theatre community a space to present classics, such as Shakespeare, as well as Malay productions, primarily targeted to the middle-class Malay community in Malaysia. Similarly, DPAC was developed as part of the commercial development empire, Damansara. Beginning as a venue for dance, it has developed over the years into a venue for dance, music and theatre, largely catering to an English-educated Malaysian-Chinese audience, judging from the majority of performances presented in languages spoken by the Malaysian-Chinese community in Kuala Lumpur and satellite city, Petaling Jaya.

To date, there is no conclusive study on the nature and characteristics of the theatre venues, based on audience demographics and profile. However, based on the languages of the performances staged by these venues, not to mention programming and marketing choices made by theatre companies, a motif could be observed. The preferred languages have their own target audiences. For other performance art forms, such as dance, music and other non-verbal language performance art, reception hinges on the cultural sensibilities and aesthetics of the performances.

KuAsh Theatre. Photo: PKK Tuanku Bainun

Independent performance spaces, such as 284-seater KuAsh Theatre and Now Theatre, draw alternative performances for non-mainstream audiences. Independent artists who do not operate as companies present smaller performances in these venues. Trainings and workshops are also regularly carried out in these venues. The flexible-seating NOW Theatre is a customized blackbox space adapted from an office space in an industrial estate in Sungei Besi, Kuala Lumpur. It is founded by a group of theatre practitioners with the aim to provide artist residency programmes for interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary artists. NOW Theatre is privately maintained by the founders. The lack of research into theatre-going audiences in Malaysia makes audience development difficult for presenters. As such, performances in these venues rely on informal networks of founders within the community of theatre practice they work in. Performances are small-scale and attended by audience with special interest in these alternative performing art forms.

A snapshot of the performance venues in Malaysia informs us with regard to the type of performances in different languages; the prospective audiences to which the performances address; the artists who might be affiliated to these performance venues. Each and every performance venue could be read as a Bourdieusian “field” of its own.[9] In each and every “field” (performance venue), performance artists take on dispositions and behaviors required by the “doxa” (rules of the game) in the field. These dispositions and behaviors make up their “habitus” (a way of being related to the performance practice in these performance venues). Performance artists who attend performances of their choice may constitute a lesser number in comparison to the majority of performance goers in Malaysia, but, no doubt, they form part of the theatre ecology.

Theatre/drama[10] education in Malaysia is born out of the need to preserve traditional indigenous art forms. As defined by the Cultural Policy, indigenous art forms must relate to the geographical location Malaysia is sited, molded by the national religion of Islam. State institutes of tertiary education, namely University of Malaya, National Academy of the Arts (renamed ASWARA in 2004), University of Technology, University of Education of Sultan Idris and University of Malaysia, Sarawak, provide academic programmes in drama, theatre and performing arts. They have been tasked to preserve and promote the national culture policy.

Recognition was granted to private higher education institutions in Malaysia in 1996, and private universities obtained autonomy to offer alternative academic programmes in the performing arts in Malaysia.[11] Private universities, such as Sunway University, Limkokwing University, KDU University College (KDU) and New Era University College (New Era) have introduced drama/performing arts/entertainment arts academic programmes and offer courses that do not strictly subscribe to the national culture policy. With the exception of KDU’s Diploma in Entertainment Arts, which is founded on the basis of providing training to performing arts students for the entertainment industries, the other courses mainly focus on performing arts, creativity and media, as well as communication. New Era’s Diploma in Drama and Visuals is taught in Chinese and has become widely recognized within the Chinese theatre community in Malaysia. These public and private academic programmes indicate the types of “field” that exist in Malaysian performing arts, with the exception of Musical Theatre, an increasingly popular western performing artform with educated and middle-class Malaysians.

Currently there are no state-sponsored or privately run academic programmes in Musical Theatre in Malaysia. However, in response to demands by increasing affluent middle-class Malaysians, theatre companies, such Gardner and Wife Theatre Company, Pan Productions, Enfiniti Vision Media and Monday Show Entertainment, have provided the necessary platform to stage productions from the United Kingdom and America, as well as to provide training in musical theatre for young talents who aspire to pursue this performance art form.[12] These students tend to travel to the United Kingdom and America for further training in musical theatre. In summary, musical theatre in English and Chinese is a rising trend, with the latter being religiously driven by Buddhism (one such performance is The Autobiography of Shakyamuni).

Over the years, discourses on the development of a performing arts scene/ecology have emerged, albeit in fragments. Critical discourse on performing arts takes place in mainstream newspaper as reports and columns. For instance, radio programme BFM (FM 89.9) has been a forerunner in providing in-depth discussion and analysis of Malaysian performing arts.[13] Online portals, such as Kakiseni, The Daily Seni, Theatrex Asia, Arts Equator and Eksentrika, have provided reports and reviews of performances in Malaysia.[14] Social media constitute a mainstream platform for theatre reviews and discussions, in addition to serving as publicity platforms for upcoming performances. Meetings among performing arts critics have been carried out, but they have not been as regular as they could have been.

One such meeting was Criticism or Review: Setting the Scene, organized by Theatrex Asia, in July 2017. In the meeting, which was chaired by Chua (co-author of this essay), Lim (co-author of this essay) reiterated the importance of cultural capital in performing arts critical discourse.[15] Every performing arts event is a form of cultural capital for the city, including performing arts spaces. Another speaker, Kanter, also reinforced the importance of keeping the passion in the arts, not just as active producers of cultural products, but also active audiences that continue to lay claim to the works presented on stage. International theatre critic and academic Saiu emphasized the importance of dialogue and discussions before and after a theatre performance, which will deepen the understanding of the performance. As theatre critics and practitioners come together to discuss issues related to Malaysian performing arts, networking occurs and theatre practitioners are enabled to tap into each other’s resources in advancing their own respective causes, thus promoting the performing arts in Malaysia.[16]

Criticism or Review: Setting the Scene (July 2017 @ Purple Cane Tea Square). Photo: Theatrex Asia
Representation and Identity: Racial Politics of Malaysia’s Theatre

Goh (1994) has asserted that Malaysia is still “ethnic,” the nation being identified as “Malays, Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Melanaus, Kadazans or Bajaus, not Malaysians.”[17] However, the idea of “being a Malaysian,” or “a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny,” proposed by Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1991, has been an ongoing national exercise.[18] During Najib’s administration, the concept was changed to “One Malaysia.” Yet, racial polarization continues to plague the Malaysian society through disagreements in opinions related to race and religion. Shaharuddin (2007) identified the root of the problem as polemic debates among the different races.[19]

The problems Chandra Muzafar (1996) has discovered still ring clear: The “negative attitudes towards the Malay language shown by other races,” as the use of the Malay language was only restricted to daily business without appreciating its economic value and cultural consolidation.[20] On the other hand, some sections in the Malay community also “refuse to accept the diversity of languages, cultures and religions that exist as a valuable asset that can help in building a united Malaysia.” If nation-building in Malaysia is fraught with challenges concerning race and language, what could be said of the building of a drama/theatre coalition in the country?

In Kuala Lumpur, the theatre community is generally divided along race and language lines. The Malay theatre community (both the traditional and the contemporary) forms the largest group and is followed by the Chinese theatre community. No data is so far available for Indian Theatre. According to Professor Dato’ Ghulum-Sawar Yousof, an expert in traditional Malay and Southeast Asian theatre, the history of Malaysian theatre could be loosely traced to the popular theatre in the 1990s. In Professor Dato’ Ghulum’s definition, Malaysian theatre started with the conception of Proto-Theater (2010).[21]

English language theatre has been seen as a distinct phenomenon after the May 13 incident.[22] There have been several important playwrights who wrote plays in English. In Takiguchi’s (2016) research in contemporary theatre of Malaysia as a post-1969 project, he identifies the nature of contemporary theatre in Malaysia as a response to state-driven nation building and identity creation. From mid-1970s to mid-1980s, Malaysian government initiated the notion of Teater Rakyat (People’s Theatre), which advocated the staging of theatre in Malay reflecting the lives of everyday Malaysians.[23]

In late 1980s and early 1090s, along with the increasing prominence of theatre in different languages, theatre in English began to establish itself. “English language theatre provided a space where artists from various racial backgrounds gathered and created while Chinese language theatre introduced a theatrical vocabulary that was free from the colonial legacies. These non-Malay language theatres highlighted the diversity in the Malaysian society, and hence they sharply confronted the conformist ideal of the NCP,” Takiguchi (2016) observes.

In recent times, from 2011 to 2017, new theatre companies, such as Anomalist Production and Theatrethreesixty, to name a few, emerged, bringing world theatre, including as Shakespeare and other modern plays, to audiences.[24] The rise of new Malay works for the theatre has also given new voice to the staging of contemporary Malaysian aesthetics and sensibilities. Chinese language productions by theatre companies such as Muka Space and Pentas Project Theatre Production, approaching theatre (sic) (Malaysia and Taiwan), Kosong Space (NOW Theatre) and Pitapat Theatre (Sabah, East Malaysia), to name a few, have created new vocabularies in Chinese language theatre influenced by the practitioners’ trainings in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.[25] New independent theatre practitioners have also emerged engaging in smaller theatre projects that focus on socio-cultural and socio-political issues. One such theatre production is A Language of Their Own, by Singapore playwright Chay Yew, on LGBTQ+ issues.

Production photo of A Language of Their Own (director: Woon Fook Sen). Photo: Theatrex Asia
Video 2

 

Conclusion

Structuring this essay according to the different elements of the circuit risks oversimplification as it is impossible to study each element in isolation. Nevertheless, it is hoped that readers could recognize the interdependency of the five elements throughout our discussions. Today, Malaysia’s theatre scene remains fairly small and attending a play is deemed by some as an expensive leisure option.[26] The small number of professional theatre companies suggests limited opportunities for full time employment. In the 14th general election, held in May 2018, Malaysia’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, won the majority of the parliamentary seats, and, for the first time in 61 years since independence, Malaysians experienced a change in the ruling coalition. Moving forward, there is anticipation as to how the new government will manage race-based arts and cultural policies.


[1] Lo, J. Staging Nation: English Language Theatre in Malaysia and Singapore. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2004.

[2] Shuaib, A. A., and Halid, R. I. R. “The Search for the Middle Path: Islam and the Traditional Malay Performings Arts.” Paper presented at the Malaysian Traditional Healing Performance Practices: Issues and Challenges, Athens, Greece. 2011.

[3] Kee, T.C. “Here and Now.” Postcolonial Plays: An Anthology. Ed. H. Gilbert. New York: Routledge, 2001.

[4] For instance, one can refer here (refer to 4.3 Current Entertainment) to apply for a license to stage a play in a venue within Kuala Lumpur.

[5] Refer to MOTAC’s official website here

[6] Refer to JKKN’s official website here

[7] Today, musical theatre is considered a modern theatre form drawing from contemporary issues and happenings. See here

[8] The Bangsawan is a form Malay traditional epic theatre with unique characteristics. The epic theatre performance is constantly interjected with side-shows in order to allow audiences to take a break with entertainment shows.

[9] Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defines social spaces as relational. These fields are legitimate and self-functional. In the context of a performance venue in Malaysia, every venue contains a set of unwritten rules and characteristics that define the type and aesthetics of performances to be held within. The size of the theatre as well as its aesthetics (by virtue of the brand it carries) define the nature of the performances.

[10] Terms “drama” and “theatre” are used interchangeably. They relate to the same form of dramatic presentation of the spoken text, albeit in different languages. The definition of drama in the Malaysian context should be viewed separately from the rich tradition of British and American drama.

[11] Wan, C.D. “Public and Private Higher Education Institutions in Malaysia: Competing, Complimentary or Crossbreeds as Education Providers.” Kajian Malaysia, 25.1 (2007): 1-14.

[12] Gardner and Wife Theatre Company, Pan Productions, Enfiniti Vision Media, and Monday Show Entertainment

[13] BFM programmes, such as In the Bigger Picture, powered by Lim Soon Heng, Shaard Kuttan and others, have conducted in-depth interviews with performing arts practitioners in Malaysia and beyond.

[14] Kakiseni, The Daily Seni, Theatrex Asia, Arts Equator, and Eksentrika

[15] Pierre Bourdieu has further categorized capitals into Economic Capital, Cultural Capital and Social Capital.

[16] Another critic meeting: see here

[17] Goh, C.T. Malaysia: Beyond Communal Politics. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Pelanduk Publications, 1994.

[18] Nur Azura Sanusi and Normi Azura Ghazali. “The Creation of Bangsa Malaysia: Towards 2020 Challenges.” Prosiding Persidangan Kebangsaan Ekonomi  Malaysia,Vol. 9 (2014): 845-50.

[19] Shaharuddin Badaruddin. Pengukuhan Bangsa Malaysia dan Cabarannya. Papers presented at Sidang Meja Bulat Majlis Belia Malaysia di Hotel Continental, Kuala Lumpur, 13 February 2007. Majlis Belia Malaysia.

[20] Chandra Muzafar. “Cabaran Membina Bangsa Malaysia.” Pembentukan Bangsa Malaysia. Ed. Abdul Razak Omar. Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Nurul Yaqeen, 1996. 37-41.

[21] Madiha Ramlan and M.A. Quayam. “Mapping the History of Malaysian Theatre: An Interview with Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof.” Asiatic, 4.2 (2010): 155-68.

[22] May 13 incident: two days after the Opposition’s victory in the general election on 10 May 1969, race riots broke out against the non-Malays. According to a Time magazine report on May 23, 1969, “Malaysia’s proud experiment in constructing a multiracial society exploded in the streets of Kuala Lumpur last week. Malay mobs, wearing white headbands signifying an alliance with death, and brandishing swords and daggers, surged into Chinese areas in the capital, burning, looting and killing. In retaliation, Chinese, sometimes aided by Indians, armed themselves with pistols and shotguns and struck at Malay kampongs. Huge pillars of smoke rose skyward as houses, shops and autos burned” (cited in Vangadesan, 2008). See here

[23] Read the summary of this paper here

[24] Anomalist Production and Theatrethreesixty

[25] Muka Space, Pentas Project Theatre Production, Approaching Theatre, Kosong Space, and Pitapat Theatre

[26] It is worth noting that movie ticket prices in Malaysia are usually a quarter that of theatre productions


*Benny Lim is currently an Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the M.A. in Cultural Management programme at the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. Prior to his current appointment, he has taught in several institutions of higher education in Singapore as well as in Malaysia, where he founded KDU University College’s School of Communication and Creative Arts. Since 2001, Benny has produced and managed over seventy arts events, including drama productions and arts festivals. In 2015, Benny was invited by IFT Macau to develop the city’s first programme in Performing Arts Event Management. Currently, he sits on Advisory Committee of CUHK Shenzhen’s auditorium and concert hall development.

**Chua Lian Choon (Richard) is a researcher of Singapore and Malaysian-Chinese theatre. Besides conducting research work in the field of Entertainment Arts and writing theatre criticism, he edits Theatrex Asia, an online magazine that reports and analyzes developments in intercultural performance arts in Southeast Asia and the Chinese-speaking societies in Asia. He currently teaches media and communications programmes awarded by University of Portsmouth, Teesside University and University of Sunderland.

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Malaysia’s Theatre and its Circuit of Culture

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