x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Theatre in Kuala Lumpur gives Malaysians rare chance to discuss issues

In a country where the media is muzzled and intimidated, there is no freedom of speech and the law is used to crush dissenting voices and justify arrests, the Annexe Gallery allows art to meet dissidence.

KUALA LUMPUR // As hot, sweaty tourists dangle their feet in pools for Thai nibble fish to eat the dead skin at Kuala Lumpur's quirky art deco Central Market, a small theatre upstairs is packed for a play about racial divisions and the myth of social unity here.

The performance of Parah (Severe) at the market's Annexe Gallery by the young players from the Instant Café Theatre Company is a look at race and division in a country that paints itself as a shining example of unity, but whose policies are increasingly driving a wedge between the main groups, Malays, Chinese, Indians and indigenous people.

"Our ancestors live with their ghosts," says one of the young characters in Parah, Mahesh. "Sama-lah [so do we].'

The Annexe Gallery is space where art meets dissidence in a country where the media is muzzled and intimidated, there is no freedom of speech and the Internal Security Act and media laws are used to crush dissenting voices and justify arrests.

Audiences are often swelled by plain clothes police. The gallery director, Pang Khee Teik, receives frequent "friendly" calls from security authorities "to see how things are going".

The Malaysian blogosphere is robust, although it constantly faces legal action and censure.

But the Annexe Gallery, in the iconic Central Market flanked by restored baba-nyonya shophouses on one side and the fast-running, milk-coffee-brown Klang River on the other, is more tactile and lies at the cultural, geographic and historic heart of the city founded by Chinese immigrant Yap Ah Loy.

So far, the gallery has been able to get away with actions many would expect to land them in jail.

"The work we do is dangerous. Because we inflame people," says Mr Pang, 36, enthusiastic and irrepressible as he downs a bowl of noodles in the humid air outside the market's Rainforest Café before the first performance of Parah.

Once every three months, the Annexe holds a flea market with a difference.

Dioramas outlining plans for a major anti-government rally share space in the timber-floored halls with the Sisters of Islam and tables selling home-made jewels, coffee table history books, knitting and black-and-white photos.

The Annexe also hosts discussions and exhibitions on subjects as the rebellion in mainly Muslim southern Thailand and student activism in Iran.

It played a major role in rallying support for the recent Bersih (Clean) protest against the government that began outside these doors and which saw non-violent protesters tear-gassed, hit with a chemical water cannon and beaten after they were arrested.

Mr Pang says the government of the prime minister, Najib Razak, has co-opted and rewritten Malaysia's cultural narrative as a political tool, carrying on the tactics of the former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Their United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition has ruled without a serious challenge since independence in 1957, until a major electoral setback that almost ousted them in 2008.

"The state uses culture as a weapon," Mr Pang says. "We are using culture to empower the people.

"One of the roles of the arts is to voice the conscience of the people. One of the roles of the arts is to be critical."

Mr Pang points to the centuries-old tradition of Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets) in Malaysia and Indonesia, where the dalang (puppet master) often cheekily ad-libs to mock local royalty and village leaders.

He also points to the lack of quality political satire in Malaysia, such as the lyrical poetry of Indonesia's immensely popular veteran singer Iwan Fals, who managed to mock the Suharto regime yet avoid arrest.

"We have no one like Iwan Fals here," he says. "We have no one singing about reformasi [Malay for reform, and the name of an anti-Barisan Nasional movement in the 1990s].

"I must admit, I am a bit pessimistic. I sometimes think we are at the beginning of the dark ages here in Malaysia."

Mr Mahathir, who crushed all dissent in his undisputed rule from 1981 to 2003, is blamed by critics for rewriting the cultural narrative of a country of Malays, indigenous people and immigrant Chinese and Indians to promote the bumiputra - sons of the soil, or Malays.

His defenders say he has woven a more accurate and cohesive story of the history of the nation and helped advance the Malays, who were at the lowest levels when the British handed over rule in 1957.

But at the Annexe Gallery, all views are open for discussion and interpretation. Plays are routinely followed by question-and-answer periods with the cast, director and playwright.

"It's never just a performance," says the Parah director Jo Kukathas after opening night. "We tell a story. It's also our way of declaring these things [issues]."

Mr Pang says: "I am ready to go to jail for what I believe in. They are basically just creating drones and factory workers."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae