Wednesday, 29 September 2010

(Not Quite) A Tribute to Dr Mahathir

When I first got word about this assignment, I was quite... nervous. At first I thought they were sending Andrew Sia for this one. At the time, I felt I didn't command the vocabulary or the experience to do it justice.

Now that it's out, I'm so relieved, and I don't want to continue with this preamble.

A tribute to Dr Mahathir
Muzikal Tun Mahathir marks the milestones in the former premier's life.

first published in The Star, 29 September 2010

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was the only Prime Minister my generation knew when we were growing up. We don't really need reminders of just how important he is. The tributes to him, since he left office in 2003, have been almost ceaseless. So we should have seen this coming.

The staging of Muzikal Tun Mahathir was said to coincide with the Merdeka month and Malaysia Day celebrations. The story starts from Tun's birth and highlights include life during the Japanese Occupation, his medical school days, meeting and marrying Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, running Klinik Maha, writing The Malay Dilemma, his time as Prime Minister, and his "departure" from politics. The production ends with an ageing Tun lamenting the Malays' need for crutches, and his vow to continue the struggle.

The production is, if I read correctly, a tribute to the man; the producers wanted to stage a theatre piece about a national figure who's still alive. Tun's letter is reproduced in the programme as a stamp of approval. "I have no objections to plans for a musical about me," said Tun in the letter. "My only hope is that it's based on fact."

And they just had to have a Mahathir family member in the cast: Tun's youngest son, Mazhar, who plays two minor roles.

Let me clarify: I'm no fan of Tun's, but that's not why I didn't like the musical very much. It looked like Istana Budaya had huge aspirations for the play, judging from the casting, the grand set pieces, and flashy computer graphics projected against a big white backdrop. To the average Joe, it's just another lavish, star-studded piece of populist theatre.

Many of the 27 chapters (says the programme) of the over-two-hour musical representing the milestones in Tun's eventful life were so short, they could have probably done without them. For instance, did they need to have the actor playing Tun Razak giving a speech on why the New Economic Policy was needed back then? All that's probably in our bones.

Then we have scenes like the one that featured megaprojects such as the Sepang F1 Circuit, KLCC and Putrajaya, and Tun's devastated supporters at a nasi kandar restaurant who tuned in to his teary 2002 announcement.

Got a copy of the programme? Just look at the lyrics to some of the songs. Imagine "The Tun is great!" being tattooed onto each little grey cell in one's brain.

The main cast members didn't look like they were being challenged by their stage roles. Erra Fazira played Dr Siti Hasmah quite well, never mind my suspicions she was also a popular choice.

I felt a bit sorry for Datuk Jalaluddin Hassan; the man has a huge presence, but was cast as Tun's father, who didn't get a lot of lines or stage time.

The actors playing Tun from childhood to adulthood seemed quite convincing. Esma Daniel in particular was very much the Dr M I grew up watching on TV – right down to the drawl and mannerisms – during a "live telecast interview" with Misha Omar as a journalist.

The dialogue and jokes, with a mix of rather contemporary English and Bahasa Malaysia, certainly made the production more enjoyable. Tapi, pada tahun 60an dan 70an ada orang pakai ke, "U" and "I" (But in the 70s and 60s, do people say "U" and "I")? Ada Poslaju ke (have Pos Laju) in the late 1960s? Thanks to the strong background music and the speakers' powerful reverbs, it was hard to make out the dialogue, lyrics or punchlines, which was a real shame.

The programme book does highlight the featured parts of Tun's life but does not describe the lesser-known characters. Mohd Qhauhd Abd Rashid, for instance, plays this "Aziz" character, but there is no further mention of who "Aziz" is.

Not all the chapters were properly explained, either. The only clues to what Chapter 26: "Peak Dance Drama" supposedly depicts, with its arm band-tearing and keris-waving, came later from Wikipedia. The on-screen dates seemed to coincide with the terms of Tun's three deputies: Musa Hitam, Ghafar Baba and Anwar Ibrahim.

Nor was the night trouble-free. In a chapter about a covert, late-night anti-Malayan Union poster plastering, a piece of one of the fake columns broke off and fell onto the stage as it was being lowered. Nobody was injured, but I was sure plenty of nervous glances were directed at the ceiling thereafter.

When Misha took the stage to deliver one last song, the amplified vocals spluttered, and died about halfway through. But Misha didn't quit. She rose to the occasion by singing anyway, her unamplified voice barely audible from my seat. The audience applauded.

Misha boleh!

Finally, one of the stagehands gallantly offered her a microphone so she could finish the song.

When the cast took their bow, the applause for Misha was among the loudest.

I guess, in the end, the musical is not really about Tun Mahathir, but about a bunch of artistes and stars, and Istana Budaya giving their all for a good night's entertainment.

There were technical errors and onstage glitches, but everyone did their best to keep the show going until the curtains fell. That spirit, at least, is worthy of support, regardless of how one feels about the man.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Found in Malaysia

It was perhaps fitting that something titled "Found in Malaysia" would be launched on Malaysia Day. 16 September 1963 was when Persekutuan Tanah Melayu became Malaysia, after Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined (the latter seceded a few years later). Some forty years later, it seems the idea of a "Malaysia" is still kind of hazy.

This country appears fond of pigeon-holing us into firmly defined circles to satisfy some strange sense of security: The Other easier to spot if it is marked as different. Really? What about China, where everyone looks the same? For a more contemporary reference, read some of the recent headlines. We are, it seems, our worst enemies.

Found in Malaysia is also the title of a series of interviews by online editorial "The Nut Graph". When some Umno man called non-Malays "pendatang" or squatters, it was the reporter who reported it that got (briefly) detained as a security threat. The book is a compilation of some fifty "Found in Malaysia" interviews that have been published online. One aim, is perhaps to show that even though there may be a little pendatang in all of us, we're Malaysians first, thank you very much.

The launch of the book at Leonardo's Dining Room & Wine Loft, along Jalan Bangkung, was officiated by The Nut Graph's editor, Jacqueline-Ann Surin. A panel discussion about politics and Malaysian literature followed. Journalist and lit-critic Umapagan Ampikaipakan moderated the panel, made up of author Chuah Guat Eng, scholar and poet Eddin Khoo, lawyer and poet Cecil Rajendra, and politician Zaid Ibrahim, who arrived a bit late.

Chuah Guat Eng tentatively laid some blame on the education system for the current state of literature in the country. I remember fondly the English literature classes during my school days - who knew that the Education Ministry pulled the subject out of the curriculum, when Anwar Ibrahim was in charge?

Chuah also said the general Malaysian population don't seem to "get" fiction as much as they do non-fiction - something to do with the lack of imagination, I think. "When I wrote in the first person, it was assumed to be 'autobiographical'," she recalled, speaking of her book, Days of Change. "When I wrote as a Malay male, they assumed that I once had an affair with one."

Did I hear that right? I had a voice recorder with me that day, but the battery went flat. I could have sworn I recharged it less than a month ago...

Cecil Rajendra was even more blunt where our lack of a reading culture was concerned. "About ten percent of Malaysians read", he thundered, "and out of that ten percent, about 0.01 percent read poetry." He recalled people reading in airports at Dublin and Abu Dhabi, but when he returned to KL, "nobody was reading" - "culture shock," he called it.

With regards to imagination, Eddin Khoo noted that the need to dream or imagine is stronger in oppressed countries. "Works out of post-communist Russia came nowhere near what was produced during, say, Stalin's time," he said. During the Suharto regime, one could be jailed for 25 years just for having a copy of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's Bumi Manusia ("This Earth of Mankind"). Malaysians, he remarked, are more fortunate. "We're not oppressed enough." I hope nobody from the Special Branch were taking notes.

Khoo also touched on the tendency of some Asian writers to overly romanticise their past, "trotting out their grandmothers," as he said. "Rice mothers, Japanese lovers, mangoes falling from my grandma's tree... ." I empathised with that sentiment. After flipping through a few pages of Rice Mother some time back, I didn't feel like reading the rest.

Earlier, Khoo also said that the home is where the habit can be nurtured. This probably explains why my reading preferences have always leaned towards non-fiction. I grew up reading encyclopaedias, issues of Reader's Digest, and later, stuff such as TIME and National Geographic. Why do we need other worlds, anyway? Looking glasses, magic wardrobes and intergalactic vessels, as I understand, are hard to come by. As a Discovery Channel slogan goes, "The world is just awesome." Despite its flaws, it still is.

Chuah was almost livid when the others were done painting a depressing picture of Malaysian literature. So what if there are stumbling blocks, political consciousness, and the like, she asked exasperatedly. "Can't we use our imagination to write around them?"

She gave one example: Lloyd Fernando's 1976 novel Scorpion Orchid, which was extensively written about. On the surface, it seems to be about racial conflict, but Chuah contended that it was about nationhood, a discourse on social integration in the 1970s. To see things like that, she said, one has to be trained to look at how writers write.

Even though he's a politician, I found a lot of Zaid Ibrahim's responses and replies disappointingly "safe" and politically correct.

So who can save Malaysian literature? How do we create readers and writers? "Institutions can play a role, but we cannot completely depend on them," was Khoo's reply to an audience member's question. "The autodidact, the person who educates himself, is the most important educator."

It was an interesting discussion, and Khoo made what I thought was a pertinent point. With our so-called leaders playing power games and our institutions seemingly sliding further down international rankings, perhaps it falls upon each and every one of us who can to learn, not just to read and write, but to better ourselves as well.

But I also wonder: Do we really have what it takes?

Friday, 10 September 2010

Writing Again

I got a laptop PC to make my writing life easier. and it would have, if it wasn't connected to the Internet. That's when I decided to unplug.

I've started taking my writing off the machine, and going back to paper and pens of several colours. After years of typing, editing and mouse-clicking, there's a certain kind of gratification in watching ink flow and paper being filled up - free from the distractions coming from cyberspace.

I've never felt so productive. When the time comes to type it all in, though, I will remember to disconnect first - just in case.

In the long list of advice and tips for writers out there, one rule keeps echoing: "Just do it." Which is what I'm doing now.

I'm writing again, and I'll keep writing.