Cancellation brings Malaysia’s cultural conservatism into focus | Art Culture News


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When his online lecture on how multicultural performing arts transcend race was cancelled in early June by the Islamic Center of a famous university in Malaysia, Ramli Ibrahim was both confused and angry.

An official statement from the University of Technology Malaysia (UTM), one of Malaysia’s most respected public universities, said, “The Islamic Center of the university has instructed the organizers to cancel the plan for undisclosed reasons.”

Ramli is the art director of the famous Sutra Dance Theatre in Kuala Lumpur. He is a Malay Muslim. He is well-known for his choreography of Indian classical dances (especially the Odissi style). He called UTM’s Islamic Center “Narrow-Minded” and “ Paranoid”. The center did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about the cancellation.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Ramley said: “We have approved extreme religious indoctrination to penetrate our education system.” “The latter is the world axis that cultivates the citizens we will eventually produce.”

Ramli’s case is the latest episode of a long national debate on the state of art in Malaysia, and emphasizes the continuing role of Islamic conservatism in regulating and shaping the country’s cultural identity and practices. Most of the population in Malaysia are Malay Muslims, but there are also large Chinese and Indian communities, as well as aboriginal people, especially in the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

“We have created a generation of people whose worldview is quite distorted and narrow. Unfortunately, these are the people who run the country,” Ramley said.

Go against the sky

Ramli’s experience reminds us that in Malaysia, it’s not just political artists like Fahmi Reza and Zunar, or budaya kuning (“yellow culture”, meaning Western culture) who is banned from foreign films and censored international pop and rock acts. Came in front of the authorities’ radar. Even traditional but non-Islamic art forms, such as Ramli’s Odissi Indian dance, risk being sanctioned by conservatives.

The current situation can be traced back several decades.

In 1970, the government announced a national cultural policy after the violent and racialized political crisis of the previous year, aimed at establishing a new foundation for so-called “national unity” in this multi-ethnic and multi-religious country.

The result is the formation of a national culture based mainly on the Malay majority tradition, of which Islam is an important part.

By the 1990s, as the country faced new and more pressing challenges in keeping up with globalization, the NCP’s focus on identity began to weaken. But as Ramley’s recent case shows, the core of policy continues to inform mainstream cultural decision-making.

“Chinese, Indian, Arab, Western and other cultural elements deemed appropriate and acceptable are included in national culture,” reads a 2019 document explaining national cultural policies on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.

Mai Yong was banned because traditionally its actresses also interpreted male roles [Courtesy of PUSAKA, photo by Cheryl Hoffmann]

It pointed out that “acceptance” not only depends on the provisions of the constitution, but also on other issues, including “national interests, moral values, and the status of Islam as the country’s official religion.”

Experts say this approach is stifling Malaysia’s cultural traditions.

“Attempts to control and manipulate art will not only stifle the creativity of all art practitioners, but will also lead to the demise of our local traditions,” said Tan Sooi Beng, professor of ethnomusicology at the Penang College of Arts, University of Science Malaysia, through community-participated research. Advocate the sustainability of local traditions.

Tan pointed out that laws such as the Printing Press and Publishing Law allow the government to ban tapes, video tapes, and books that have not been approved by the official review agency; and the Police Law, which requires police permission to hold public gatherings, including drama, Music and dance performances.

Ramli founded the Sutra Dance Company after returning from Australia in 1983, and he saw that Islam in Malaysia became more conservative in the years after his return.

Although his company’s works have been well received by local and international audiences and received considerable praise, his artistic spirit and rich cultural elements have always faced a struggle with religious censors.

“Until the mid-1990s, even before the establishment of the Malaysian Ministry of Islamic Development (Jakim), the authorities initially opposed my performance. There was an unexplained understanding among the organizers that my performance would be considered’controversial’ Because it is mentioned that Muslims perform Hindu’temple dances’,” he said. Jakim is part of the Prime Minister’s Office and is responsible for Islamic affairs.

In the past decade, when Ramley began to gain considerable support in India and was no longer regarded as an “abnormal” as the gatekeeper of Malay culture, the worries seemed to have been resolved. But he also pointed out that it is still difficult to obtain major government sponsorship to bring his energetic and innovative Indian classical dance company abroad.

Cultural desertification

Malaysia’s Malay-majority cultural traditions are also under pressure from government supervision.

Long-standing dance performances such as mak yong, main puteri and kuda kepang, as well as shadow puppets, wayang kulit-the most important example of traditional Malay culture-were officially banned in 1998 due to “non-Islamic” entertainment in the Northeast The State of Kelantan passed laws, which has been controlled by the Islamic Party of Malaysia for 30 years. Since 2009, Kuda kepang, with its hypnotic elements and mysticism, has also been the subject of religious decrees in southern Johor.

In a scene in “The Story of the Southern Island”, the Chinese protagonist performs the traditional Kedah Malay language Wayang Kulit Gedek. The award-winning film was deleted by the review committee in more than a dozen places, mainly involving scenes from the pre-Islamic era. [Courtesy of Chong Keat Aun]

Traditional Malay art has existed for more than a thousand years, and it originated in the pre-Islamic era, during the period of the regional Sanfoqi empire. Like similar traditions in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, or Java in Indonesia, the core of the Malaysian version is a local adaptation of the stories and characters in the Indian epic “Ramayan”.

Mak yong-who has performed in Kelantan for centuries-has always been the goal of Islamic conservatives especially for female performers who can also perform male roles. According to their interpretation of Islam, female performers, especially cross-dressing, are shunned.

“The rituals, women’s clothing, key content and stories that contain understanding of the female energy in traditional Malay healing methods have all been affected for a long time because we gave up the power of art itself to control men,” said Aida Redza. She is a Malay choreographer and performer. Her original and modern works are widely praised abroad, but it is difficult to find space in China.

In 2005, it was declared as a masterpiece of the oral and intangible heritage of mankind by UNESCO. Due to the pressure of the UN Special Rapporteur Karima Bennoune in the field of cultural rights, Mai Yong’s ban was finally lifted at the end of 2019. He opposed the deliberate stifling of tradition. Even so, Mai Yong performances can only be performed in compliance with the requirements of the Islamic Sharia law. Experts say these requirements have fundamentally changed its original style and symbolic meaning.

“The ban on Mai Yong was removed on the surface, but it made this form unrecognizable from its origins-only men are allowed to play the role of women in rituals and traditions. You cannot get more from the roots of mak yong. Many,” said Eddin Khoo, the author and founder of PUSAKA, a cultural organization headquartered in Kuala Lumpur that deals with ritual arts in Malaysia.

Khoo also emphasized that regardless of the ban, Mai Yong survived the traditional grassroots community as a form of resistance to “cultural cleansing”.

“Mai Yong Yes A Muslim art form,” Khoo emphasized, noting that many pre-Islamic art forms have evolved with Islam over the centuries. “This process is the evolution of the Islamic faith itself in Malaysia and much of Southeast Asia. Part. This struggle has nothing to do with art, culture or religion-it is a struggle about power: who has the ability to restrict the thoughts, attitudes and behaviors of a particular community. “

Navigation restrictions

The bans and restrictions turned into a deadlock. The government-run art institutions also acted as filters and censors, reminding artists of what is allowed and what is not allowed in order to issue performance licenses.

Ramley told Al Jazeera: “When obtaining a license that is more inclined to strict Sunni Islam, there is a strong subtext of strict religious values.” “The motto of’you should not’ censored and restrained the big picture. Most institutions are not only in the field of education, but also in the fields of literature, film, music, food and beverages, and clothing.”

A recent example is the film “The Story of the South Island” directed by Zhang Ji’an, which was nominated for four awards in the Taipei Golden Horse Awards last November and won the Best New Director Award. The film is set in Kedah near the Thai border. Based on the filmmaker’s childhood memories, it tells a woman’s dreamy spiritual journey to heal her husband, who is mysteriously ill. He thinks it is A supernatural curse.

Regardless of international praise, the film has been edited by the Malaysian censorship board more than a dozen times, all of which are related to elements of ancient pre-Islamic rituals, including wayang kulit gedet, a typical form of shadow puppetry in northern countries, in the 1980s. Today, there are only two wayang kulit troupes left.

Wayang kulit-perhaps the most popular traditional form of entertainment in parts of Malaysia and Indonesia, once used as a way to share news and gossip among villagers-was also banned in 1998 because its origins can be traced back to the past. Islamic tradition. Before COVID-19 completely stopped performing, wayang kulit had become the outer shell of the old self, only performed at selected locations, weddings and opening ceremonies.

Ramli Ibrahim of Isha Ashram, Coimbatore, India [Courtesy of Sutra Foundation. Photo by Iqbal Singh Saggu]

“It is very unwise to cancel a well-known artist like Ramli Ibrahim: if the organizers think he is not appropriate, then don’t invite him in the first place,” said Tintoy Chuo, the founder and main concept creator of Fusion. Wayang Kulit is a group headquartered in Kuala Lumpur that helped to revive Wayang kulit in Kelantan by integrating it with modern elements.

Their Star wars Wayang Kulit updated the tradition with characters from Star Wars Legends and DC Comics superheroes such as Batman and Wonder Woman. This makes this art form more attractive to today’s multi-ethnic urban audiences-some of whom may never bother with traditional performances-while avoiding thematic restrictions.

“No matter what happened in this land before Islam becomes history, everything should be accepted as our unchangeable historical background,” Chuo said. “Look at our neighboring countries and want to know how they do art so well? Because they understand the difference between religion and art, and they respect this.”

For Ramli, the challenge is to transform most of Malaysia’s cultural identity—Malay Muslim, or Melayu in Malay—to a more inclusive and updated worldview.

“I dare not define what a’sustainable Malay’ should be, but I just want to say that I prefer my Malay not to wear his religion like an albatross around his neck,” he said.

Ramli came into contact with Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance while studying in Melbourne in the 1970s.

He joined the newly established Sydney Dance Company in 1977, and then came into contact with Odici and perfected the style of dance under the guidance of Guru Debaprasad Das from Odisha, and continued to visit the late master until his death in 1986 .

“He does not have to prove that he is a Malay throughout his life… My Malay does not have to be so’pure’ in his blood. No matter what he does, he believes that he is a Malay. The important thing is that I am a Malay for myself. Malays are proud of it.” Become a Malaysian first. “





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