Categorised | Found in Malaysia

Obsessed with being Malaysian

SHE’S a familiar face to Malaysian theatregoers, and is the force behind one of the most successful local theatre groups, the Instant Cafe Theatre Company.

At 47, Jo Kukathas remains passionate about her beliefs that were honed by an upbringing that took her away from Malaysia for long periods of time.

Though born in Kuala Lumpur, Jo grew up in Canberra, Australia, and in Hong Kong, and went to boarding school in Ooty, India, and to university in Britain. This nomadic life taught Jo to be flexible and adaptable.

But through it all, she has always considered Malaysia home, and is a firm believer in putting down roots. But, she cautions, no one should tell you where those roots should be planted.

When The Nut Graph interviewed Jo in the first week of April 2009, she was busy with the restaging of Shanon Shah‘s multi-nominated Air Con. Together with Zalfian Fuzi, Jo is co-director of the play that is being restaged from 15 to 19 April 2009 at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.

She spoke candidly about the people who shaped her life, and what being Malaysian means to her.

TNG: Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Assunta (Hospital) on 29 November 1962. My father, K Das, was working with RTM back then in the English programming department, and also in Filem Negara.  In KL, he was also active in the local theatre scene.

K Das holds baby Jo (Pic courtesy of Jo Kukathas)

My earliest memory of growing up was in Ampang Hilir, which was very different back then, of course. It was all government houses, with redbrick and whitewashed walls, houses which had no fences, no boundaries. Our playground was the old tin mine behind our house. We had a big garden, and across the road from us was the home of my father’s best friend, (national laureate Datuk) Syed Alwi (Syed Hassan), the playwright. They were very close friends and his younger daughter, Aishah, was my chum.

I had four sisters and a brother, and I was number five out of six. I was quite low on the pecking order. My eldest sister passed away when she was 21.

You were overseas a lot in the late 1960s onwards.

My father joined the Foreign Service in 1968 and was posted to Canberra, Australia, and then Hong Kong.

In between, we came back home, but after my father was posted back here in 1974 he left the Foreign Service and became bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review. And we girls were sent off to boarding school in Ooty, India. Then I went to university in England before finally coming back home for good in 1984.

Jo and her siblings (Pic courtesy of Jo Kukathas)

Can you trace your ancestry?

I am “pure” Sri Lankan, but my father traced back the family tree to Bihar in northern India some 500 years ago. Three of my grandparents were from Jaffna, Sri Lanka. My paternal grandpa, his name was Veerasingam, came to Malaya in early 1912 and worked as a clerk in KL. He went back to Sri Lanka to get a wife. She was only 14 while he was in his 20s when they got married.

Tata and Amamma (as we called them) had six children who lived to adulthood, and dad was the eldest son. They lived on Pasar Road.

On my mom’s side, my grandfather, Sinniah, was born in 1899 in the village of Urmbiri, and came to Malaya after his mother died, after World War I. He started work in a school in Ipoh, ACS (Anglo-Chinese School), and went on to become a teacher. He later became an inspector for Tamil schools in Perak.

My grandmother, Vallithai, on the other hand, was born in 1897 in Kuala Kangsar. Her father, Vallipuram, came to Malaya as a young man and cleared land and planted rubber. Eventually, he had a rubber estate, Vallipuram Rubber Estates. My mother would boast that he was the first person to own a pony and trap in Kuala Kangsar.

She and my grandfather married and had 20 children in all. Mom, who was named Rajaletchumy, but everyone called her Rosa, was the third in the family and the eldest girl. She was born in 1927 and passed away three years ago.

Celebrating her grandfather's 90th birthday (Pic courtesy of Jo Kukathas)

My parents married in 1956.

Who were your greatest influences?

I am quite sure my mother and father. They both had, I think, a sense of society. My mother always championed the underdog. She would say, “Always look for the ones who need help.” She studied in the University of Singapore and had wanted to be a social worker. Eventually she became a teacher, but she was always very politically conscious.

My dad, too. I remember, when we were young and living in Hong Kong, we had a maid who came with us from Malaysia. Actually we had two maids and the younger one, she had obviously come from an estate, [and was from a] very underprivileged background. She must have been very young, a teenager. Her name was Murugamma. She was a kind of cheerful, lively-looking girl. And I remember one day, we discovered, she would run around the maids’ rooms, catching cockroaches and eating them. And we were like, “Urgh, Murugamma is eating cockroaches”, and told our dad.

Jo in her birthday clothes (Pic courtesy of Jo Kukathas)

My dad got very quiet; he sat us down — I must have been about nine-years-old — and said, “You must never make fun of people like that. She’s eating cockroaches, but you must think about why she is doing that; where she’s from; what her family background is; where she was living before that she would need to catch and eat cockroaches.”

He said it very kindly, but I remember feeling terrible. And feeling: “Yes. I should think about why, rather than judge this person.” So I think, my dad was always trying to make us think differently in his own way.

What aspects of your identity do you struggle with?

I don’t struggle with any aspects of my own identity, not as a Malaysian i.e. a creature Found in Malaysia. My dog Thiong Bee is Malaysian, too. He is “found” here.

I think politics in this country makes you question your identity in a way that I think you should not have to question it. I think identity is something you discover yourself. I really loathe ideas of national identity. I loathe people trying to tell you what you should or should not be. So, paradoxically, I have to say it’s a constant struggle.

Even within a family structure, things are complex, depending on where you are in the family. But no one questions whether they are a part of the family or not. Oh, there may be somebody who is loved a little more, someone who gets away with this and that, but it’s never institutionalised, it’s never codified. You may just feel it.

In Malaysia, I think what I dislike is when it becomes code. I don’t believe in these codes, and this is what I struggle with in terms of identity. I don’t believe there should be different institutions or institutional support for different people.

I think in terms of structure, everybody should have exactly the same band of rights. I am not saying there are no natural prejudices. There are natural prejudices in every community.

I think in Malaysia, the only way for us to move forward and allow its citizens to be citizens is to let go of all these bindings. I don’t believe in a government which tries to control identity. And the most vile is the control of identity through economic means.

Jo's family photo wall

Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like to see for yourself?

I think one where we are not so obsessed with what it means to be Malaysian. I think we are overly obsessed. We can’t therefore just get on with the business of being good human beings, which I think is far more important than being good Malaysians. A humanitarian outlook is what we need. Things like “nation” are just political notions useful for controlling us.

We should be free to lie in the sun and scratch our fleas when we feel like it. Especially when our fleas start to get power crazy and kacau us. Sometimes some fleas forget that they need the dog. The dog doesn’t need the fleas.

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8 Responses to “Obsessed with being Malaysian”

  1. Debbie Lim says:

    Jo, you are good! I like your metaphor about irritating fleas and dogs!

  2. JoeyRamone says:

    People still chase and eat roaches these days, they’re called “Fear Factor Contestants”.

  3. Vijay says:

    Interesting to note that Jo is related to the famous Sinniah family in Ipoh. SA Lingam, Jo’s uncle, has a road named after him in Ipoh, and the other uncle Datuk Dr Dharmalingam Sinniah was a famous O and G doctor in Ipoh. I had the privillege of working with another uncle, Dr Navasi Sinniah, in Kelantan some years back.

  4. Singam says:

    I had the pleasure of working with one of the Sinniah daughters, Lanka Devi, when I was a temporary teacher at ACS Klang. She being young, single and Indian as well, the Form 4 and 5 boys had a great time pairing us together.

    Jo is a remarkable person who has contributed much to local theatre. It is clear that she has solid values in place. It’s people like her who can define what it means to be Malaysian.

  5. navin says:

    I know an aunty in one of those pictures! She still lives in Ipoh, I think. Her son and I were good friends in high school. Wow, i was so close to knowing Jo Kukathas!

    Loved the dog-flea analogy. Haha.

  6. Nasha says:

    I like this series a lot. It is unique in offering us a perspective about what being Malaysian is all about. As Jo says, “No one should tell you where your roots should be planted.” It is an individual decision. There is no use in judging people based on such narrow bindings such as race or religion. We should all just get on with the business of “being good human beings” as Jo states. Illuminating piece.

  7. Naoko says:

    Reminds me of a friend’s comment: He’s not Malaysian, he’s humanitarian.

  8. JohnnyRamone says:

    I got a buddy who’s vegetarian.

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