Thursday, January 19, 2012

UNCLE ANT'S AGONY & ECSTASY COLUMN #3



Dear Uncle Ant, I'm a lazy sod so I'm posting my questions about the Malaysian arts scene here [on the kakiseni.com readers' feedback page].

1. What is Malaysian Culture?

2. What is Malaysian Arts?

3. What is Malaysian Heritage?

4. Are these compatible with tourism?


Dear Lazy Sod,

Talk about lazy questions, yours are in the same category as: Who Am I? What Am I Doing Here? What Does It Mean To Be Human? If I Find The Answers Will People Pay Top Money To Hear Them?

But our excitable editor is correct when he declares that Uncle Ant can answer any and all questions (if he feels like it, that is). Be warned, folks, that you may find the answers to Lazy Sod's questions totally unfunny - because our lack of Culture is certainly no laughing matter. Okay, folks... fasten your seat belts... now for some straight answers to Lazy Sod's 100 million ringgit questions!

Many years ago (28, to be precise) I wrote an article for a newspaper in which I compared "culture" to weaving a fine carpet - that is to say, "culture" means diddly-squat to someone who's sleeping on cardboard cartons under a flyover, or who lives in a leaky zinc-roofed shanty in the slums. But along with material gains and creature comforts comes a nice big house in the suburbs - and a professionally laid parquet or marble floor just waiting for a tasteful carpet to make home look a little cosier. Now that's what "culture" represents to most folks who have evolved beyond basic survival: a few original paintings on the walls, a Rhythm-In-Bronze CD playing in the background, and a selection of director-playwrights, soon-to-be-published novelists, or (ahem) theatre reviewers on your birthday party guest list.

In other words, being “cultured” essentially implies that one has developed an aesthetic sensibility or “good taste” – a prerequisite to acquiring even the rudiments of an ethical sense, without which we cannot govern ourselves and therefore will be governed by others on pain of punishment or through brute force. Can you imagine what life in the social matrix might be like if everyone - including candidates for the police force and the civil service - was exposed from infancy to good (read, uncensored) literature, music, films, theatre, paintings and sculptures?

How about the traditional culture you might find in, say, a Kelantanese fishing village, or a rice-growing community in Kedah, or a remote longhouse in Sarawak? Doesn't that qualify as "culture"? Well, folks, that's where culture begins. Man does not live on rice and tapioca alone. After a hearty meal, we want to relax with a couple of drinks and maybe hear someone with a stirring voice and a string instrument sing about the good old days, or watch the belles of the village do a fertility dance.

So there's pop culture and haute culture to consider. For instance, would you consider it a cultural experience to hang out at a karaoke lounge with your contractor buddies, 4 bottles of Martell, and 5 GROs (that’s Guest Relations Officer, for the uninitiated)? Well, in Korea and Japan, that's part of the Business Culture - nobody does actual business in boardrooms. And among affluent youth everywhere, culture means Friday night at Zouk with the gang and a good supply of "headshaking" pills. A few years ago, youth culture would have meant a spot of spontaneous breakdancing – and today some fierce skateboarding or rollerblading - outside some mall. In short, let's not get too precious over our definition of Culture.

But what is MALAYSIAN culture, you ask?

Huh? Is there such an animal? I know we have Melayu culture - you know, all the fun stuff banned by PAS, inspired by the Ramayana and whatnot - kite-flying, top-spinning, gong-beating, ketupat-steaming. We also have Chinese culture, especially around the Lunar New Year, you know, tong-tong-chang and red stuff all over the streets. And we have Indian culture - especially in conjunction with Hindu festivals when painted cement gods adorned with multicolored lights are dragged through the streets in their chariots, and folks in trance pierce their cheeks with stainless steel skewers, and lots of coconuts get smashed. Funky, vel vel. But as playwright Huzir Sulaiman astutely remarked in Notes on Life & Love & Painting:

It angers me when after hundreds of years of importing aspects of other people’s culture some politician in a 4,000-ringgit Italian suit complains about Western values and such-and-such a thing is not from our culture. Our culture is everybody else’s culture. We’ve never had our own. Deal with it and grow up.


Should we bother mentioning the OFFICIAL CULTURE designed and promoted by our tireless bureaucrats - you know, the candle, umbrella, and banana leaf dancers and the stylized silat choreography performed mainly for 65-year-old tourists? Well, that's really just a bowl of wax fruit sitting on the table as some sort of kitsch decoration (hey, don't attempt to eat the stuff, you'll gag and puke!). I wouldn't call THAT culture - but a definitive symptom of the acute lack thereof.

And yet... I can point to a few cultural icons and hold their work up as exquisitely representative of MALAYSIAN culture: the ever popular “Latok” Lat, for a start. And there’s my old friend Salleh Ben Joned the bilingual poet and essayist whose work transcends sterile notions of ethnicity while drawing heavily on ethnic elements. These are forerunners of a younger generation exemplified by the likes of Jit Murad, Huzir Sulaiman, Jo Kukathas and the Instant Café Theatre. What do they have in common? A balanced cosmopolitan sensibility that aesthethically merges the “native” and the “foreign” within their own psyches, putting a spicy spin on the rich stew (or should I say curry?) of derivative cultural elements that define being Malaysian.

Your next question is grammatically unsound and I have every right not to answer it. Nonetheless I’d define “Malaysian arts” as any form of cultural expression practised by anyone born in or residing long-term in Malaysia. (Now some of you, like our nose... I mean nit-picking editor, may be wondering why I described your question - What is Malaysian Arts? - as “grammatically unsound.” Arts is plural and your question addresses a singular issue. How would you define ‘Malaysian Arts’? Now that’s grammatically sound!)


What is Malaysian Heritage? Another grammatically shaky poser, Lazy Sod! But let’s not be too pedantic. Here’s a partial list of what I consider to be our Malaysian Heritage: ancient rainforests, aboriginal peoples, Cristao-speaking Portuguese Eurasians, the Stadthuys (you know, those stodgy red buildings in Malacca), written English and spoken Manglish, Ionic columns, guided democracy, cinema subtitles in 3 languages, Chinese satay sellers and Malay chee cheong fun stalls, not to mention Hakka-speaking Tamils in Kuala Kubu Bharu.

As for your final question: YES, of course, EVERYTHING is compatible with tourism - we need the foreign currency. In any case, your question comes too late: Tourism is now a separate ministry from Culture, Arts and Heritage. During the Mahathir Era, Arts and Culture were subsumed by Tourism, and artists were seen as entertainers, Guest Relations Officers, and court jesters. Before that, the arts were perceived as a means of keeping hormonally-charged youngsters out of trouble and so we had the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports.

Let’s be grateful for small mercies. I feel the new Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage could be a healthy sign. At least it promises to revive the traditional arts suppressed by fundamentalists in Terengganu – and it may well lead to DBKL being relieved of its censorship duties on humanitarian grounds (poor, overworked City Hall already has enough on its hands, maintaining its fleet of lifeboats in anticipation of the next flash flood).

2 comments:

mikorangester said...

I think in its rush to become 'Malaysia' , Malaysia forgot so many of its things. An interesting thing that seems to be lost is the jawi manuscripts that are sometimes hinted at here and there. There were dissertations, scholarly studies on all sorts of things and all in Jawi. Maybe a translation of what is left?

masterymistery said...

culture is as culture does? informative, analytical and interesting post, as ever. Thx.