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Rewriting the Emergency

The curators of the Emergency Festival! (All pix courtesy of
Five Arts Centre unless otherwise stated)

IT is a topic that few look back on when contemplating the evolution of this little land that could (or should): the British post-World War II declaration of a state of emergency in the face of communist insurgence and the fervour of nationalism. It was a turbulent time (1948-1960, leading well into Independence) of which details are sketchy and oft-times contradictory. Our Sejarah textbooks only tell us so much; for those wanting to know more, other, more reliable, sources are necessary.

Five Arts Centre’s Emergency Festival! is an “explosion of histories, images, narratives and sounds” that offers “an intriguing re-examination and creative storytelling of the Malayan Emergency”. Held in the Annexe at Central Market, Kuala Lumpur, from 16-26 Oct 2008, it features works by local arts practitioners, filmmakers and intellectuals expounding on the not-so-well-known points of this part of our past.

Anchoring the festival is the 12 Years exhibition curated by Wong Tay Sy, Grey Yeoh and Norman Teh. There are seven rooms, each with its own theme: for example, the Identity Room features the antecedent of the MyKad as it first came into being; the Batang Kali room pays respect to 24 civilians massacred by British soldiers; and the Propaganda Room compares British and communist strategies used in attempts to sway the populace.

It is “a rakyat-centric perspective of history [that] investigates the lives of ordinary peoples during the Emergency,” according to Five Arts member and fellow curator Mark Teh.

In an e-mail interview with The Nut Graph, Mark explains the impetus behind the Emergency Festival! and points out some of the programme highlights.

Mark Teh (Courtesy of Mark Teh)
TNG: What inspired the Emergency Festival!?

Mark: The idea [is a combined effort] from all the curators, though the spark may have been Fahmi Reza saying he wanted to do a follow-up to [his documentary] 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Our informal collective has been working on historical themes for the last few years, and since this year is the 60th anniversary of the start of the Emergency, we thought it would be a good idea to attempt a more ambitious event.

Why was the Emergency, specifically, chosen as the focus?

We are interested in the issues of authorship and ownership of history, and this year is the 60th anniversary of the Emergency. The Emergency provides significant insights into the many conflicts, compromises, contradictions and communities that are involved in a process of national definition.

Amidst the acts of terror and propaganda perpetrated by the British colonial government and the communists, instruments such as elections, the Identity Card, the Internal Security Act, the New Villages resettlement plan, forced repatriations to China, and other policies were introduced. Many of these continue to govern our lives today. 

But the Emergency was also a time of multiple possibilities and trajectories of independence and identity. Different imaginings and blueprints for Merdeka were put forth — the 1947 People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya; Indonesia Raya; the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM)’s Republik Demokratik Rakyat Malaya… even the Malayan Union and the British Grand Design, among others.

Performers of Operasi Oktober

What are some of the noteworthy events at the festival?

During the 11 days, there will be many events happening. In the first week (16-19 Oct), Fahmi Fadzil’s devised performance Operasi Oktober takes a look at what happens when a group of young people are brought together to create a propaganda performance. This performance will take place in the Propaganda Room. 

This is followed by Hari Azizan’s play New Village People and Pineapple Rice (21-26 Oct), which presents the experiences of people forced to resettle in New Villages (under the Briggs plan, about 500,000 people were moved into these 452 New Villages).

Fahmi Reza’s new documentary Revolusi ’48 will recast the Emergency as a largely forgotten anti-colonial revolution launched against the British. The filmmaker will provide a live director’s commentary on 23 Oct, where he will share his experience in making the documentary, the extensive research, the process of tracking down the ex-guerrillas, stories about his subjects, and amusing anecdotes about his personal journey to construct Revolusi ’48 from idea to completion.

Poster for Revolusi ’48

Re:Search Re:Source is a daily series of presentations, performances and participatory events based on artistic interpretation, research, images and themes on the Emergency years. Dancers Marion D’Cruz and Elaine Pedley will recreate communist propaganda dances from Malaya and China; playwright and academician Leow Puay Tin curates Independence-related texts by public intellectuals Azmi Sharom, Mavis Puthucheary and Tricia Yeoh; filmmakers Imri Nasution and Amir Muhammad present the overlapping “golden age” of Malay films.

Musicians the likes of Jerome Kugan and Azmyl Yunor will perform, and there will also be a reading of the entire transcript of the 1955 Baling Talks between Tunku Abdul Rahman, David Marshall and Chin Peng. 

Tell us about We! Will! Wikipedia! The Emergency! (WWWTE). How did it come about?

This project involves members of the public creating, contributing and editing entries on Wikipedia related to the Emergency across the 11-day duration of the festival, in one- or two-hour shifts totalling 65 shift hours — all on the desktop provided in the gallery space.

WWWTE is to demonstrate that history can be participatory and collaborative. People will only take ownership of history if they can participate in it. That is why participants have to come to the gallery and not create/edit entries at home, which is much easier.

Zinedine Zidane, who was sent off during the
2006 World Cup final and exited football
forever (© Raphaël Labbé)
As to how it came about, a year and a bit ago, I read this article about how the Wikipedia entry on footballer Zinedine Zidane was changed hundreds of times in the two days immediately after he headbutted Marco Materrazi in the 2006 World Cup final. The article produced all the miniscule changes that were made by people across the world to his entry. It was really geeky and fascinating.

Most of us only ever use Wikipedia for “research”, but at the top of any Wikipedia page, there are two very powerful buttons: “history”, which documents every single change, edit or addition made to the article, and “discussion”, where you can raise issues, make suggestions and contest the existing entry. So meaning (and history, for my purposes in WWWTE) is always being rewritten and contested.

What’s the objective of WWWTE?

WWWTE participants will collectively grow the entries related to Malaya-Malaysia from 1948 to 1960. Personally, I am interested to look beyond the usual entries we associate with the Emergency period — the colonial British government, the anti-colonial struggle, the left-wing struggle, the communist insurgency, etc.

I am encouraging and providing materials such as a list and synopses of Malayan films made from 1948-1960, or lyrics to pop songs and patriotic songs of that era, to be input into Wikipedia. Also, a participant has voiced that she would like to create an English entry for (nationalist leader) Dr Burhanuddin Helmi. Currently, there is only a Malay-language entry.

Performers of New Village People and Pineapple Rice

What are the expected outcomes of the festival?

Through the diverse range of exhibitions, performances, screenings, presentations and events, we hope [people] will find history immensely creative, participatory, relevant and empowering, as we have.

Over the past few years, marginal and under-researched narratives of the Emergency years have begun surfacing through declassified documents, new analyses by social scientists, and the publication of memoirs by early leftist leaders. This has certainly inspired us to look anew and ask questions of the past, and consequently, the future of the country.

The Emergency reveals many clues, lessons, patterns, and scars, but by and large, we have been well educated in the politics of forgetting. 

Emergency Festival! runs from 16-26 Oct 2008 at the Annexe, Central Market, Kuala Lumpur. More info and full programme at

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One Response to “Rewriting the Emergency”

  1. Cheng says:

    Great initiative! It’s high time that we realise the subjective nature of history with its many “voices”, dominant and marginalised.

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