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  • Izzuddin Ramli

When Art Espouses Politics...

Coerced on one side and coaxed on the other, young Malaysians find freedom in music and theatre.

Teater Bukan Teater performing Bilik Sulit.
Teater Bukan Teater performing Bilik Sulit. Photo by Kelab Bangsar Utama.

University students used to be active in theatre clubs on their campuses. But all that ended during the 1970s. Students were no longer allowed to participate in politics; this limited their creative development but, happily, it led to theatres being started outside the universities.

This served as a catalyst for new political expression among Malaysia’s young people, and KL soon became the birthplace of many activists. Despite their diverse backgrounds, activists such as Mat Koy, Fathi Aris Omar, Rahmat Haron, and Jonah and Black (just to name a few) came together and formed Universiti Bangsar Utama (UBU). This was not a charity-based group but a protest against the unfairness and weaknesses in the Malaysian political system at the time. Within a rented shop lot in Bangsar Utama, many programmes were organised, such as free tuition classes for the underprivileged, intellectual discussions, film screenings and theatre performances.

With changing times and generations, UBU morphed into Kelab Bangsar Utama (KBU) and gave birth to art groups that believe that art is a powerful channel for bringing political change. It is also a response to socio-political problems in the country. And apart from documenting and educating the public, it has been serving as the face of a new form of youth political activism in Malaysia.

Theatre and music with a message

Apart from the many protests and volunteerism activities they have organised, such as Dapur Jalanan (food kitchen), people at KBU are also involved in the performing arts. Hishamuddin Rais, better known as “Isham”, became the backbone of a group called Teater Bukan Teater. A political activist as well as a film and theatre director, Isham is considered the “guru” in facilitating most of the group’s youth activities.

Among their earliest theatre performances was Tok Ampoo (The Apple Polisher); the title character refers to authorities who misuse their power and are involved in corruption. At the end of the play, Tok Ampoo was toppled by the people. The story is a reflection of the political situation in Malaysia in the 1990s, and it is not the only one. Bilik Sulit (The Interrogation Room) also mirrored Malaysia’s contemporary political situation. Detention without trial, death in custody and attacks on media freedom mark Malaysia’s political scene, and Bilik Sulit was aimed at raising awareness of local realities. Through this performance, Teater Bukan Teater began its first tour around Malaysian and European cities in 2014.

The most recent theatre performance by the group is Bilik Kabinet (The Cabinet Room). A parody that reenacts prominent political characters in Malaysia by exaggerating their particular personalities, Bilik Kabinet revolves around current issues and policies.

Besides theatre, KBU is very much engaged in street busking. The BangsArt – an abbreviation for “The Bangsar Art” – was established earlier this year. The group was formed after they played music to raise funds for flood victims in Kelantan and Terengganu. The group consists of 20-something-year-olds who have musical background and enthusiasm for folk music. They find that music is also a medium for spreading messages to the people; their aim is to tell the people to not be afraid to think and to have different voices.

They participated in Bersih 4. Their vocalist, Amir Abd Hadi, said that Bersih 4 was a “people’s festival” and they wanted the people to participate. One of the ways was through music. “We’ve been talking about how to get people interested in joining demonstrations in the streets or to attend forums,” says Amir. “There will be no more ‘boring talks’ (as an excuse) to not attend demonstrations and forums.” When delivering messages through verbal communication does not work, music comes in handy.

The BangsArt is not just a band; it is also a community that walks with the people and organises social activities. They are the same people who help operate Dapur Jalanan. Tuition classes, “Kelas Kita”, are also conducted for the needy.

The BangsArt during the Kita Lawan rally.
The BangsArt during the Kita Lawan rally. Photo by Kelab Bangsar Utama.

Resistance through music and theatre

Mobilising art groups as informal resistance is not easy; it requires endless effort and collaboration between groups. Theatre is not just about technicalities such as movement, sounds or stage arrangement; more importantly it is about knowledge and critical attitude towards a particular event. It requires everyone in KBU, especially folks at The BangsArt and Teater Bukan Teater, to have sharp minds, awareness of issues that are affecting society and audacity to question the issues – even if they are of a sensitive nature.

This can only be achieved if they do not focus merely on theatre and music, but also political activities as well. But being political theatre and music groups that are critical of the ruling government means no doubt that they would face challenges from the government itself.

While the groups have not suffered interference from the government as yet, almost every one of them has been arrested for various reasons. Most of the members of The BangsArt were arrested during the #TangkapNajib demonstration in August this year. Musical instruments were taken away and have yet to be returned to the group. Amir was arrested while on his way home.

The existence of many laws, such as the Security Offences Act (Sosma) and the Sedition Act – supposedly meant to curb activities that threaten the country – are seen to hinder the growth of these groups. Moreover, Bilik Sulit itself is openly cynical of oppressive laws that are used to detain politicians and activists.

Bringing popular forms of political participation such as theatre and music to different levels of society, both urban and rural, is also needed. Street theatre ought to be popularised among villagers, and KBU through Teater Bukan Teater and The BangsArt has a significant role to play in this. It is after all probably the only youth group of its kind in the country.

Political awareness among Malaysians remains low, and it is hoped that new groups that raise political consciousness and show resistance to unfair practices will continue to exist and grow – unhindered and unobstructed by oppressive laws.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, December 2015.


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