Monday, April 22

Beating for cultural freedom


AFTER witnessing some extraordinary silat performances at Teratak Tok Cindai in Kepong, my brain was trying to comprehend the amazing feats of jumping, rolling and fighting involving spark-generating swords in high-speed fights (which, even if choreographed, is extremely dangerous).

But my mind had to make room for more feats of derring-do at the fifth iteration of the Kaleidoscope International Drumming Festival organised by Hands Percussion of which I’m patron. The main evening of the Maybank-sponsored show began with children of the Fugee School performing a routine that must have taken many hours to memorise and rehearse. It was a fitting prelude for an evening that brought together groups from Malaysia and South Korea whose sangmo – decorated hats featuring long ribbons – produced mesmerising patterns. Subsequent nights saw performers from Uzbekistan and Australia join the fray.

The next morning, I was in Penang for an exhibition of arts and culture showcasing the technological prowess and creativity of Griffith University encompassing 3D printing, classical music accompanied by dance, virtual reality and poetry in a previously derelict building next door to Khazanah’s office. The Brisbane-based university has no permanent presence in Malaysia, but are here for a month for the George Town Festival, now into its ninth year.

I was there at the kind invitation of Joe Sidek, the affable and tireless founder of the month-long festival. Originally timed to celebrate the city’s declaration as one half of the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca Unesco World Heritage Site, it has evolved to celebrate not only the many things that make Penang special, but also arts, culture and heritage from around the region, sometimes touching on history, politics, diplomacy, public policy, and religion too.

For example, in 2015 as part of the GTF, I launched the Crescent Moon Exhibition at Masjid Kapitan Keling in partnership with the New Zealand High Commission.  It was a celebration of cosmopolitanism, historic migration and tolerance that characterise both Penang and New Zealand.

By contrast, this year’s GTF has already been marred by political interference, with the Minister in charge of Islamic Affairs ordering the removal of two portraits of individuals in the Stripes and Strokes exhibition because of their
LGBT activism.  The Penang-born minister – for whom there are congratulatory banners hung in George Town’s tourist-choked streets – previously said that all citizens share rights under the Constitution: I am curious when he decided that changing the content of exhibitions came under his remit. The order has resulted in other individuals featured requesting the removal of their portraits: an unfortunate situation for both the photographer and festival director (who valiantly responded by saying “I believe in the freedom of the arts unconditionally”).

I saw the exhibition along with a large crowd who had come for the festival’s opening concert in the same hall, simply entitled Kelantan. Featuring several teams of dancers, singers and percussionists, it brought to life art forms unique to that state that are seldom seen. The greatest irony is that much of what was presented – including the tarian asyik, mak yong and wayang kulit – would probably not be allowed in Kelantan today: a point strongly made in the show itself with the parents of the budding dalang stressing how important it is to keep cultural traditions alive.

Thus, it is wrong to assume that freedom of expression is something that only “provocative” liberals desire in the face of conservative disapproval. Sometimes, it is traditionalists who seek precisely the same freedoms, and it is often harder because others have appropriated their traditional identity. In this case, the authoritarians using religion to ban certain art forms claim to be “purifying” the Malay race, but in fact they are the chief destroyers of Malay culture.

In my patron’s speech for Hands Percussion, I expressed my hope that the greater freedom of expression in the new Malaysia will help everyone in the performing arts. Beyond that, the government can further enable arts to flourish: by making it easier for artists and performers to set up businesses, promote their work and collaborate internationally. This can be done through tax incentives, investment in arts spaces and making grants available – although in the long run, sustainability in the arts can only come from citizens. That will happen when greater awareness turns into appreciation; and economic ability turns into active spending.

But if ministers can simply interfere with the content of exhibitions (with nary a word from the Culture Minister), it betrays the freedom of expression that has been promised (even as the Anti-Fake News Act is about to be repealed), and hinder the ability of Malaysian arts practitioners to provoke and uplift us all.


Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is patron of Hands Percussion.