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  • Izzuddin Ramli

Mak Yong and Cultural Cleansing in Kelantan (Part 2)

How the ban on traditional arts in Kelantan discourages old masters from teaching the young.

Mak Yong staged in Kuala Lumpur by national institutions presents only the theatrical elements of what is essentially a ritual tradition.
Mak Yong staged in Kuala Lumpur by national institutions presents only the theatrical elements of what is essentially a ritual tradition. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzri, courtesy of Pusaka.

Since PAS took over Kelantan in 1990, journalists, cultural activists and academics have lamented the fate of Kelantan’s centuries-old cultural traditions such as Mak Yong, Menora, Main Puteri, Wayang Kulit, and Dikir Barat.


“We need to purify our local theatre from those alien elements. Fantasy and dance gestures not akin to Islam will not be accepted,” the then Kelantan Chief Minister cum PAS spiritual leader, Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, announced to local reporters after officiating the state cultural awards night at Hotel Perdana in Kota Bharu in 2006.


The ulama came to every kampung donning sarong paired with shabby baju Melayu and skullcaps, greeting villagers with a soft assalamualaikum, giving speeches and sermons about the need for Malay-Muslims to sit under the umbrella of Muslim ummah in the local mosques. Among them were foreign-educated Muslim clerics, popularly known as the “Young Turks”, such as Tuan Guru Yusof Rawa, Datuk Fadzil Noor, Tuan Guru Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang.


Under the ulama leadership, PAS became hostile towards the Kelantanese traditional arts that they deemed shirk and un-Islamic. Influenced in part by the need to create a distinct Islamic image from its Umno counterpart, in 1992, two years after the Islamic party took over the Kelantan government, they started to restructure arts, culture and entertainment activities. Kelantanese traditional art and culture, particularly Mak Yong, faced a terrible public humiliation at the hands of politicians who preached ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance’.

Che Siti Dollah, also known as Mek Ti, is one of the few remaining veteran Mak Yong actresses in Kelantan.
Che Siti Dollah, also known as Mek Ti, is one of the few remaining veteran Mak Yong actresses in Kelantan. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzrin, courtesy of Pusaka

PAS meddled in a faith-controlling business, moving from serving the public interests to dictating the private lives of the people, viewing human affairs solely through the lens of halal and haram. Casting aside economic wellbeing, the ulama leadership chose to prepare the people for the hereafter instead, while intimidating art practitioners such as Mek Ti and her troupe.


Deliberately confusing culture and religion, PAS also banned Wayang Kulit, the age-old shadow puppet play rooted in the Indian epic of the Ramayana. The ban on traditional arts was codified in 1998 with the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment, which also prohibited other local traditional performances such as Mak Yong, Menora and Main Puteri.


The State Culture Committee chairman, Datuk Anuar Tan Abdullah said the dance could only be performed in private and it is only for “foreign tourists and researchers, not for local residents or local Muslims”. This forced Mak Yong troupes, including Cahaya Matahari, to practice their art discreetly and discouraged the old masters from teaching the young generation.


Today, with the new generation of ulama leadership coming from the same school of thought, the PAS-led state government has initiated Islamic-leaning programmes and began to gradually transform the outlook of the state.

Rohana Abdul Kadir of the Cahaya Matahari troupe getting ready backstage.
Rohana Abdul Kadir of the Cahaya Matahari troupe getting ready backstage. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzri, courtesy of Pusaka

On a Saturday in October 2005, I remember myself stuck for one hour in heavy traffic near the Sultan Mohammed IV Stadium in Kota Bharu as thousands of people stormed the stadium to witness Sultan Ismail Petra proclaiming Kota Bharu as an “Islamic City”. For some, it was just a normal evening, a time usually spent with family or friends enjoying food from the stalls along the street. But for many others, the night was a catharsis.


Driving through the small towns and villages of Kelantan, one notices that people are embracing a new identity, recognising themselves as Muslims more than Malays, and that Islamic shariah law, hudud, is being touted as an ultimate collective goal. Many young men in Kelantan are starting to wear turbans and grow beards while the women wear jubbah.


Even though many still prefer the local "aku" and "mung" as first and second person pronouns, for those who come from an Islamic education background or strong supporters of PAS, the Arabic "ana" and "anta" have become normalised in everyday conversation.


Outside PAS’s power sphere, with fear and anxiety, people were witnessing the party’s implementation of a strict interpretation of Islamic law on Kelantan. In towns made up of a mixture of old and new double-story shops, schools, markets, and hospitals, the government began its cultural purification programmes, constructing an impression of an Islamic city.

Pak Su Kadir practicing a move.
Pak Su Kadir practicing a move. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzrin, courtesy of Pusaka

Although many old buildings still maintain their Kelantan Malay architectural identity, new buildings began to adopt Middle Eastern architectural elements such as the cylindrical minarets, pointed arches, and domes, as well as Arabic geometric patterns. The Tok Guru Bazaar itself, located at the Kota Bharu city centre, mirrors the Nabawi Mosque in Madinah, a city in Saudi Arabia.


Businesses run as normal, but with a pronounced Islamic sensibility: men and women in advertisements must now be modestly attired with hair covered, even in advertisements promoting underwear.


On the other hand, social purification started with the government limiting entertainment centres, segregating men and women at social events, and wearing the tudung (headscarf) was made compulsory for women in public. Non-compliance entails a maximum RM500 fine.


Cultural performances were also affected. Although the popular Dikir Barat is still permitted, performers, especially women, still face intimidation if they break the rules and regulations. In 2005, Rosalinda, a female Dikir Barat singer was found guilty by the syariah court for “dressing inappropriately” during a performance at a funfair in Gua Musang.


She received a RM1,000 fine. Kajol, a local transgender Bollywood-styled Dikir Barat singer, too, faced the same treatment from the authorities in 2011 after appearing as a woman when she performed in an event in Tanah Merah.

Outside Kelantan, cultural groups and universities are making efforts to keep Mak Yong alive, mainly through organising cultural events for urban audiences and incorporating it into the university’s performing arts repertoire.

Cultural groups outside of Kelantan are making efforts to keep Mak Yong alive.
Cultural groups outside of Kelantan are making efforts to keep Mak Yong alive. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzrin, courtesy of Pusaka

The independent cultural organisation Pusaka has been working closely with Mak Yong performers and other traditional arts communities in Kelantan since the time of the ban, organising community performances and conducting extensive documentation.


By contrast, Mak Yong staged in Kuala Lumpur by national institutions presents only the theatrical elements of what is essentially a ritual tradition. This obsession of turning Kelantan into another version of the Middle East and confusing it with Islamisation has forced cultural practitioners to scatter to other parts of the country.


Those who chose to stay must live with the lack of freedom to practice their art. Many have found refuge in the culturally mixed Thai-border districts in Tumpat, Pasir Mas and Rantau Panjang, as well as Kuala Besut, a district culturally that of Kelantan but politically under Terengganu.


Betrayal by their leaders


In September 2019, the Kelantan state government announced that it was lifting its ban on Mak Yong. It is unlikely that this would have happened if not for decades of consistent grassroots work by cultural organisations, especially Pusaka, and pressure from the United Nations. However, this "lifting" of the ban came with a hefty price tag.

They are witnessing an erosion of their deep cultural heritage and its worldviews.
They are witnessing an erosion of their deep cultural heritage and its worldviews. – Pic by Karl Rafiq Nadzrin, courtesy of Pusaka

The PAS state government of Kelantan insists that Mak Yong performances must adhere to "shariah-compliant requirements" and guidelines, such as gender segregation and making it compulsory for all cultural performers to cover-up body parts that are considered aurah in Islam.


At the national level, PAS is adapting Umno’s culture against Pakatan Harapan, who took over the federal government in 2018 and are moving towards reconciling with the wider Malay society.


For PAS, the Kelantanese traditional arts and cultural heritage are no more than ‘immoral’ entertainment. For journalists and pundits, PAS’ hostility towards the traditional arts is a mark of Arabisation and radicalisation of Islam in Kelantan. But for cultural communities and the Kelantanese themselves, it is a betrayal by their leaders.


Today, uncertain about how the future might unfold, they are witnessing an erosion of their deep cultural heritage and the worldviews that nurture it. For practitioners like Mek Ti and her troupe, they hope that future generations will get the chance to know Mak Yong as a living tradition, not as a stillborn memory.



*This essay first appeared in The Vibes, 08 November 2020.

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