Can the Erasure of Malaysian Arts be Reversed?

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Traditional theatre and Malaysian literature in English face tough times, as doyen of both fields, Prof. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, finds

What does Malaysian literature mean today, and what is required for a work of literature to be considered national literature? Can literature in Chinese, Tamil and other local languages be held in the same class? Where is Malaysian literature and performing arts headed?

Prof. Datuk Dr Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof, one of the proponents of traditional Malay and South-East Asian theatre – as well as one of the leading writers of Malaysian English literature – has a thing or two to share.

Penang Monthly catches up with him at his book launch last year, organised by Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)’s Dr Mohamad Rashidi Mohd Pakri, of the English Language and Literature Studies programme.

A Person of the Arts

Born in Penang, Ghulam is a writer, translator, academician and cultural activist. He delved into the literary world at an early age by contributing essays to his high school magazine. He expanded his literary horizons when he wrote his first poem, Rain, in Universiti Malaya’s journal when he was a student of English literature. He then did a doctoral degree at University of Hawaii’s Department of Drama and Theatre in 1972, whence he became an expert in traditional Malay art and theatre.

Ghulam’s foray into Malaysian traditional theatre is now decades long. In 1979 he joined USM and served as head of the Performing Art programme and associate professor. Malaysian literature and traditional performing arts are embedded in his heart. Mak yong, wayang kulit and panggung semar are some of the national treasures that he researches into, and he is undoubtedly one of the world’s leading researchers in traditional South-East Asian theatre.

Over the years, Ghulam has seen the rise and fall of Malaysian theatre, particularly Malay theatre. While most of Malay traditional theatre is rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, Islam has become an integral element in Malay society, gradually erasing the influence of earlier religions.

What we call the new phase of Islamisation has come to dominate almost every part of the Malay life. Malaysian traditional theatre, once seen as a treasure, has lost its value and relevance. “The traditional performers, traditional kampung writers and so on are giving up. This is due to censorship. It means you can’t perform mak yong, wayang kulit and so many other things. If you change your script, they (the government) may allow it,” explains Ghulam. He juxtaposes Malaysia with another neighbouring country which, ironically, has the largest Muslim population in the world: “Indonesians are fond of their traditions. They keep their traditions alive by setting up wayang kulit academies.”

Earlier scientific research on Malaysian theatre was mostly done by foreign scholars: “They (Western scholars) have been coming here since the 1940s, writing all about traditional Malaysian theatre. And they are still coming because they get grants to do this – especially in the US,” says Ghulam.

It was only when Universiti Malaya was formed that South-East Asian scholars began to write their own narratives on performing arts in Malaysia: “We went to the kampungs to do research of our own.”

Of Language Constraints and Censorship

Having been in the literary world for several decades has made him see that Malaysian literature in English is lagging behind. While it is celebrated by a huge number of readers, it is not as lauded as Malay literature by the government, which only recognises works of literature in the Malay language as national literature, thus excluding works in other local languages such as Chinese, Tamil and English, among others. These are considered sectional (kesukuan) literature.

Works by Prof. Ghulam-Sarwar Yousof.

This uneven playing field has dampened the competitiveness of Malaysian literature and has left writers in both English and Malay struggling: “The government gives less support to literature written other than in Malay; it supports Malay literature financially by publishing journals and establishing the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka and the Institut Terjemahan dan Buku Negara. Many materials published in Malay will be bought wholesale by the government and supplied to schools,” says Ghulam.

Political issues surrounding the national language and English have put both languages and literature in Malaysia in jeopardy. While there are many published works by Malaysian writers in other local languages, particularly in early literary magazines such as The New Cauldron in 1950s Malaya, they are denied due recognition because of the language they are written in, and are thus disqualified from the National Literary Award. The status of national literature is thus limited to writers who write in Malay and whose works have contributed significantly to the nation’s literary development.

This is dissimilar to Singapore, which recognises English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil as its official languages; the criterion for its national literary prize is not exclusive to works in English.

The relatively small number of literary publications and theatre performances in Malaysia, compared to other developed and developing countries, is a cause of strict regulations and government censorship, which bans works and publications that are detrimental to peace and harmony. In August 2017 the Home Ministry prohibited eight publications, claiming that they were a threat to public interest. This includes a book by Farish A. Noor, From Majapahit to Putrajaya: Searching for Another Malaysia. A prominent local academic and novelist, Faisal Tehrani, who has seen seven of his works banned since 2013, concluded that book-banning is a sign of rising extremism – not just in Malaysia, but globally. A paper published by Penang Institute in 2017, titled “The Policing and Politics of the Malay Language” (ISSUES, October 10, 2017, written by Ooi Kok Hin), revealed that there are books banned in Malay, along with translations of works into Malay. Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species is one such example.

“Censorship has never helped the development of Malaysian literature because when you write something that the government doesn’t like, they will ban it and harass you. If this keeps on happening, the authors can’t write anymore. That is why so many people have stopped writing. Some have even migrated overseas, where they have a better chance at using their talent,” says Ghulam.

The emergence of local independent publishing houses such as Matahari Books, Fixi, Dubook Press, Thukul Cetak and Gerakbudaya has been interpreted as a new literary movement that challenges the culture of censorship, including selfcensorship. “This is a good development, knowing that they also publish books in English – you have an alternative. They also draw in younger writers. But then again, things are not clear – these publishers still face the same issues, such as censorship and so on.”

Ghulam hopes that the Malaysian literary scene and its traditional theatre will continue to be nurtured without prejudice. This requires extra effort from many parties, including the government – particularly in formulating policies as well as allocating funding for writers and cultural workers. Only then can performing arts and literature in Malaysia grow in significance, and live on.

Mohd Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.



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