Cancellation puts spotlight on Malaysia’s cultural conservatism

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – When his online talk on how multicultural performing arts should transcend race was cancelled in early June by the Islamic centre of a prominent Malaysian university, Ramli Ibrahim, was both puzzled and angered.

An official statement by Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), one of the country’s most highly regarded public universities, said that “the organisers have been instructed by the university’s Islamic centre to cancel the programme over undisclosed reasons.”

Ramli, the celebrated artistic director of the Kuala Lumpur-based Sutra Dance Theatre, who is a Malay Muslim and globally renowned for his choreography of Indian classical dance, notably the Odissi style, went online to call UTM’s Islamic centre “narrow-minded” and “bigoted”. The centre did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions about the cancellation.

“We have sanctioned extreme religious indoctrination to infiltrate our education system,” Ramli told Al Jazeera in an interview. “The latter is the axis mundi of cultivating the kind of citizenry we will eventually produce.”

Ramli’s case is the latest episode in a long-running national debate on the state of the arts in Malaysia and underlines the continuing role of Islamic conservatism in policing and shaping the nation’s cultural identity and practices. Most of Malaysia’s population is ethnic Malay Muslim, but there are also large communities of ethnic Chinese and Indians, as well as Indigenous peoples, especially in the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

“We have produced a generation with a rather skewed and narrow world view. Unfortunately, these are the same people who run the country,” Ramli said.

Going against the grain

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

The current state of affairs has roots going back several decades.

In 1970, the government unveiled a National Culture Policy following a violent and racialised political crisis the previous year, which aimed to establish what was claimed to be a new basis for “national unity” in the multiethnic and multireligious nation.

The result was a national culture based largely on the traditions of the Malay majority, with Islam as an important component.

By the 1990s, the identity focus of the NCP started to wane as the country faced new and more pressing challenges in keeping up with globalisation. But as Ramli’s recent case illustrates, the core of the policy continues to inform mainstream cultural decisions.

“Cultural elements of the Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Westerners and others, which are considered suitable and acceptable are included in the national culture,” read a 2019 document explaining the National Culture Policy on the website of the Prime Minister’s Office.

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

It noted that “acceptance” depended not only on provisions within the Constitution, but other issues including “national interest, moral value and the position of Islam as the official religion of the country”.

Experts said the approach is stifling Malaysia’s cultural traditions.

“The attempts to control and manipulate the arts have not only stifled the creativity of all arts practitioners but will lead to the demise of our local traditions,” said Tan Sooi Beng, a professor of ethnomusicology at Universiti Sains Malaysia’s School of Arts in Penang, and an advocate of the sustainability of local traditions through community-engaged research.

Tan points to laws like the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which allows the government to ban cassettes, videos and books that are not approved by the official censors; and the Police Act, under which applications for police permits have to be made to hold public gatherings, including performances of theatre, music and dance.

Ramli, who founded the Sutra dance company in 1983 after returning from Australia, has seen Islam in Malaysia grow more conservative in the years since he returned home.

While his company’s productions have been popular with local and international audiences and achieved considerable critical acclaim, his artistic ethos, drawing on a rich tapestry of cultural elements, has faced a constant struggle with the religious censors.

“There had been initial official opposition to my performances up to the mid-1990s, even before the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) was formed. And there was an unstated understanding among organisers that my performances would be considered ‘controversial’ due to the reference of a Muslim performing Hindu ‘temple dance’,” he said. Jakim is part of the Prime Minister’s Office and responsible for Islamic affairs.

Concerns seemed to have settled in the past decade when Ramli started receiving considerable support in India and stopped being seen as, in his own words, “an aberration”, among Malay cultural gatekeepers. But he also notes that getting major government sponsorship for taking his dynamic and innovative Indian classical dance company abroad remains difficult.

Cultural desertification

The cultural traditions of Malaysia’s Malay majority have also come under pressure from government regulation.

Age-old dance-drama performances such as mak yong, main puteri and kuda kepang, and the shadow puppet theatre, wayang kulit – the foremost examples of traditional Malay culture – were officially banned in 1998 for being “un-Islamic” under the entertainment laws passed in the northeastern state of Kelantan, which has been controlled by Malaysia’s Islamic Party for 30 years. Kuda kepang, with its trance elements and mysticism, has also been the subject of a religious decree in southern Johor state since 2009.

A scene from The Story of Southern Islet, where the Chinese protagonist performs the traditional Kedah Malay Wayang Kulit Gedek. The award-winning film was subjected to a dozen cuts by the censorship board mostly relating to scenes involving pre-Islamic [Courtesy of Chong Keat Aun]

Traditional Malay arts have been around for well more than a millennium, originating in the pre-Islamic era, during the time of the regional Srivijaya Empire. And as with similar traditions in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos or the Indonesian island of Java, the Malaysian versions are at their heart local adaptations of stories and characters from the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Mak yong – performed in Kelantan for centuries – has been particularly targeted by Islamic conservatives for having female performers who also interpret male roles. According to their interpretations of Islam, female performers, and cross-dressing especially, are shunned.

“The rituals, the costumes for the women, the content and stories that contain the key to understanding the female energy in Malay traditional healing practices have all been affected for a long time, since we gave up the power of the art itself to the control of men,” said Aida Redza, a Malay choreographer and performer whose original and modern productions are lauded abroad yet struggle to find spaces at home.

Declared a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005, mak yong’s ban was finally lifted in late 2019 thanks to pressure from the UN special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Karima Bennoune, who campaigned against the deliberate stifling of the tradition. Even so, mak yong performances can only proceed if they adhere to Islamic law-compliant requirements that experts said fundamentally alter their original style and symbolic significance.

“The ban on mak yong was cosmetically lifted, but it makes the form unrecognisable from its origins – only men are permitted to perform roles that are ritually and traditionally performed by women. You cannot get further from the roots of mak yong than that,” said Eddin Khoo, a writer and founder of PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based cultural organisation involved in the ritual arts of Malaysia.

Khoo also emphasises that, regardless of bans, mak yong has survived among traditional grassroots communities as a form of resistance to “cultural cleansing”.

“Mak yong is a Muslim art form,” emphasised Khoo, who pointed out that many pre-Islamic art forms have developed with Islam across the centuries. “That process is part of the evolution of the Islamic faith itself in Malaysia and throughout much of Southeast Asia. This struggle is not about art or culture or religion – it is a struggle about power: who has the power to condition the minds, attitudes and behaviours of a particular community.”

Navigating restrictions

Bans and restrictions translate into a gridlocked system in which government-run arts agencies also act as filters and censors, reminding the artists of what is permitted – and what is not – in order to issue licences to perform.

“There is a strong subtext of strict religious values in the procurement of permits which lean more towards austere Sunni Islam,” Ramli told Al Jazeera. “The ‘thou shall not’ dictums censor and shackle most institutions, not just in education, but also literature, film, music, food and beverage, attire, and so on.”

One recent example is the film, The Story of Southern Islet, by Chong Keat Aun, which was nominated for four awards at Taipei’s high-profile Golden Horse Awards last November nominations and won for Best New Director. Set in Kedah state near the Thai border and based on the filmmaker’s childhood memories, the film tells of a woman’s dream-like spiritual journey to heal her husband, who has fallen mysteriously ill to what he believes is a supernatural curse.

Regardless of international acclaim, the film was subjected to a dozen cuts by the Malaysian censorship board, all related to elements of ancient pre-Islamic rituals, including wayang kulit gedet – a form of shadow play typical of the northern state which was very popular in the 1980s. Today, only two wayang kulit troupes remain.

Wayang kulit – perhaps the most popular form of traditional entertainment in both Malaysia and parts of Indonesia and once used as way to share news and gossip among villagers – was also banned in 1998 because its origins hark back to pre-Islamic traditions. Before COVID-19 halted performances altogether, wayang kulit had already been reduced to a shell of its former self, staged only in selected locations and during weddings and opening ceremonies.

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

“The cancellation of a high-profile artist like Ramli Ibrahim is very unwise: if the organisers thought he’d be unsuitable, then don’t invite him in the first place,” said Tintoy Chuo, the founder and primary concept creator for Fusion Wayang Kulit, a Kuala Lumpur-based group that has helped revive Kelantanese wayang kulit by fusing it with modern elements.

Their Peperangan Bintang Wayang Kulit updated the tradition using characters from the Star Wars saga and DC Comics’ superheroes like Batman and Wonder Woman. This made the art form more appealing to today’s multiethnic urban audiences – some of whom might never have bothered with a traditional performance – while side-stepping the thematic restrictions.

“Whatever happened to this land before Islam is history, and everything should be accepted as a historical background we cannot change,” Chuo said. “Look at our neighbouring countries and wonder how they are doing arts so well? Because they understand the separation between religion and art, and they respect that.”

For Ramli, the challenge is to transform Malaysia’s majority cultural identity – Malay Muslim, or Melayu in the Malay language – into a more encompassing, updated worldview.

“I wouldn’t dare to define what a ‘sustainable Melayu’ should be, but suffice to say that I prefer my Melayu not to wear his religion like an albatross around his neck,” he said.

Ramli was introduced to Bharatanatyam classical Indian dance while studying in Melbourne in the 1970s.

He joined the newly formed Sydney Dance Company in 1977, and was then introduced to the Odissi style, which he perfected under the guidance of Guru Debaprasad Das in Odisha, continuing to visit the late master until his death in 1986.

“He doesn’t have to justify himself all his life that he is a Melayu … my Melayu doesn’t have to be so ‘pure’ in his pedigree and is confident that he is Melayu regardless of what he does and importantly, proud to be a Malaysian first.”