Culture at warp

RECENTLY, the Japanese Ambassador hosted a special performance of Noh, a form of classical musical drama with origins in the 14th century, which is inscribed in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco. I was mesmerised at seeing familiar concepts and instruments being presented in a particularly Japanese way: a flute consistently blown with great force and a trio of percussion instruments that are struck with a series of vocalisations, albeit with zero facial expressions. Then there were the singers proper, equally constrained in emotion even when delivering sustained fortissimo notes. They set the stage for the actors, dressed in elaborate costume to portray common themes of human challenges through a uniquely Japanese medium.

An even older art form – also on Unesco’s list – will apparently survive until the 23rd century. In the new ‘Star Trek: Discovery’ (set 10 years before the original series), the ready room of the ship’s captain (played by Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh) features a wayang kulit puppet. I wonder how the writers of the show imagine this art form surviving the next 200 years. In the past 50 years, it has already withered, with cultural academics lamenting the death of each great dalang dealing another heavy blow to its survival.

I saw in Japan how aspects of its culture have remained essentially unchanged over centuries despite the adoption of (or rather, playing a global leadership role in) new technologies. Regarded as intrinsically part of national heritage, old art forms are still respected now as they were generations ago. This ensures that there is a market for such cultural products, which thereby incentivises their own survival.

The cultural landscape in Malaysia, however, has shifted hugely in the last few decades, with theatrical, musical and dance forms and fashion styles that were highly visible just a few generations ago no longer being appreciated or known by the population at large, although recent attempts to revive them among a young urban crowd seem to be gaining traction. Examples are wayang kulit and mek mulung performances at hipster malls or the ‘Bring Back the Kebaya’ movement; joget seems to enjoy greater official acceptability, and a great crowd attended a workshop held in conjunction with the Jalan Merdeka exhibition recently.

Hopefully I can add my own attempts to revive cak lempong performances using the traditional, rather than the Western chromatic scale. It may, however, be particularly difficult to revive those aspects of culture now deemed to be contrary to Islamic teachings (no matter if Muslims previously had no such objections).

We are sharply reminded of the extent of cultural shifts using religious justifications when fellow citizens do things that others consider shocking and unacceptable. The case of the ‘Muslim-only’ launderette in Johor is a case in point. It took a rebuke from the Sultan of Johor (headlined ‘This is not a Taliban state’) before the political leaders then felt moved to speak out against such discriminatory businesses practices. (A comparison to halal-certified establishments is inaccurate because they don’t exclude non-Muslims; but other forms of discrimination have been pointed out, especially when under the cover of ‘language requirements’ where no such requirements actually exist: those aren’t right either.)

The cultural milieu of a society also correlates to its level of intellectual freedom.  The Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol was recently in Malaysia, and at a forum he criticised governments, which use draconian laws to remain in power, saying “when you’re out of power … these illiberal systems that you created will make things very difficult for you”. Quite ironically, another of his talks was cancelled after pressure was applied, and he was subsequently apprehended by immigration authorities, detained overnight and interviewed before being allowed to return home.

In the same week, another articulate Muslim defender of democracy put forward a comprehensive case for reforms within and across Asean countries at the second Chancellor Tuanku Muhriz Lecture at the National University of Malaysia.  Speaking from his experience not just as a former secretary-general of Asean, but from being a Muslim in a Buddhist country, two things resonated for me.

First was his call for Asean to move beyond the assumption of non-interference, since the Rohingya issue (for example) shows that ‘domestic’ issues already spill over borders with tragic consequences; and second was his call for governments to enable greater participation by citizens in nation building, so they feel ownership, contribute, monitor and institute checks and balances to not only ensure the continued performance of the state, but also to enable each human being to achieve their fitrah (not easily translatable but in this context can mean ‘potential’) – whether Muslim or not.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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