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The Malaysian tragicomedy: Life imitating art

WE know how art can imitate life, but oftentimes in Malaysia, it seems that life can also imitate art. So, what are the 10 ways the Malaysian sociopolitical landscape can be analogous to a theatre performance?

1. Flash factor
Silhouette of a limelight
      (Pic by David Ritter / sxc.hu)
A production can be boosted by extra-theatrical elements such as lighting, sets, props and costumes. Generally speaking, though, the glamour and glitter shouldn’t distract. Too much glitz hides a flawed show, a wise person once quipped.

So the pomp and circumstance in our Merdeka celebrations, and proclamations of freedom and unity in the face of increasing disharmony, and the abundant praises heaped on 1Malaysia give me pause. Even the bright pink default setting of Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor‘s website and the self-proclaimed First Lady’s bouffant makes me wonder: “What exactly is all of this colour, costuming and makeup meant to hide?”

2. Music
Music is the food of love, the great Bard says in Twelfth Night (Act I, Sc I). American theologian William P Merrill (1867-1954) says music is prayer.

Yet, there has also been a hue and cry over concerts in our country: the government’s initial decision to prevent Muslims from enjoying the Black Eyed Peas concert and PAS’s call to ban Michael Learns To Rock. We’ve also witnessed outrageous and controversial protests over Hindu temples and mosques in close proximity; and Muslims in churches desecrating sacraments.

If music = prayer, and music = love, could it not then be said that prayer = love, and, perhaps, music = prayer = love? In the above instances — temples, churches, concerts — were any of the calls or actions motivated from a place of love? It figures then that the nation’s anthem has shifted from harmony to discord.

3. Writing and storyline 4. Casting and direction 5. Performance and improvisation
You’re watching a play or film or TV programme and you’ve got one eyebrow cocked at what’s unfolding in front of you. You wonder incredulously, who came up with this plot? What was he or she thinking?! Why did these performers agree to be part of this train wreck? To what end? Fame? Fortune? Passion for the art?

Associate that with these: Party-hoppers and purported pepper sprays. Perak state assembly takeovers and dragged-out speakers. Cow-head protesters, their motivations and defenders. What were they thinking? To what end? Fame? Fortune? The passion for power?


(Pic by Eliseeva Ekaterina / sxc.hu)
And when some of the key players address the media, you’re awestruck by their lines (Amir Muhammad has generously compiled many noteworthy quotes in his Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things, volumes one and two). Oy, how did these people get these roles? Are they being directed, or are they improvising? And who wrote their scripts?

6. Audience participation
A good piece of theatre would engage the audience, maintain attention, even interact with them. Occasionally, shows are workshopped, where audience feedback is used for future performances.

Likewise, the government has allowed people to provide feedback via Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s blog, to interact with him via Twitter, and to get opinions on 1Malaysia and the Economic Stimulus Package, among others. Elsewhere, the people have also been asked what they think of the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Yet, when people gather to demonstrate against the ISA or to show support for Hindraf detainees, they are mishandled, arrested, disallowed access to lawyers. So, does the administration really want audience participation or only some kinds of participation?

Really, any leader (or director) ought to be thrilled that people are driven to turn out in droves and be so unequivocally passionate about and rightfully critical of the machinery and its performance. Citizens upholding their fundamental rights to participate shouldn’t have to end up being splashed by water cannons, not unlike the front-row audience shielding themselves from stage blood in Evil Dead: The Musical.

7. Publicity
Reviews of and publicity about theatre performances in Malaysia are generally uneven. Some receive minimal media coverage, others are overexposed, and some publicity can be for all the wrong reasons.

Parallel this with the media coverage of the Penan task force report, an issue of grave national importance. Note the lack of reporting by the traditional media when the government would not make the report public, and then the media scurrying after it was. One would think that with national issues such as violence against women, the media spotlight would be more even.

8. Length of run
A show can die a quick death or it can run for decades. And sometimes, a performance doesn’t run at all because local councils in Malaysia ban them.

Proposed government reforms of the Internal Security Act (ISA) seem likely to play out in the public sphere for at least the next few years. But other productions have been quickly canned, e.g. reports about Najib’s possible involvement in the Altantuya case. In the meantime, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission is also attempting to ban video reports of the cow-head protest on Malaysiakini.

But perhaps now that there is the internet, some shows won’t be so easily shut down and may just run until the next general election.

9. Language and universality
Certain productions here have been in languages other than English. A memorable 2007 production titled Yaji & Kita was staged in Kuala Lumpur entirely in Japanese, with the only translational aid being hand-held sheets of paper. Yet, the show was understandable and highly enjoyable because there was a connection between the performers and the audience. Indeed, understanding can arise from universal gestures, and through mutual respect and understanding.

Isn’t it sad then when Catholic publications are banned from using “Allah”, or when ministers tell reporters rudely to speak in the national language, and not in English, which is generally understood in Malaysia? Maybe we would be better off just speaking in Japanese and holding up semiotic sheets.


(Pic by Bliz / Dreamstime)
10. Form
Broadly, theatre can be a tragedy, or a comedy. And when I take into account all these examples, I can’t help but wonder if I should laugh or cry. There are some obvious tragedies, such as the death of Teoh Beng Hock, and many others as outlined above that can only bring about a downward curve of the mouth. And then there are those that make you laugh in derision and incredulity. All too often, Malaysia’s goings-on comprise a humourless comedy that, ironically, equates to tragedy.


Nick Choo is copy editor and graphic designer for The Nut Graph who has largely remained behind the scenes since the site was launched. Everyone in the workplace thought it was time for him to speak up, though truthfully, he’d rather sing.

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2 Responses to “The Malaysian tragicomedy: Life imitating art”

  1. dbctan says:

    We’ve all the elements of a tragic comedy (or a comic tragedy) with performers/director/producers insisting on multiple encores. Or else.

  2. mrsfish says:

    Yes, we have our very own Fawlty Towers!


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