Three Malaysian artists take turns scribbling symbols and motifs with chalk on a blackboard flooring that doubles as a stage, singing and telling tales. A display screen hung behind the stage reveals stay interview footage, serving to take audiences on a multimedia journey that transcends conventional theatrical efficiency to make clear the skeletons within the closet of Malaysian historical past.
“We wished to critically carry on stage the instruments of the documentary or supposed ‘truth-making’ world – varied cameras and media methods such because the inexperienced display screen,” director Mark Teh, a member of the Kuala Lumpur-based collective 5 Arts Centre, based in 1984, informed Al Jazeera of his newest play A Notional Historical past (2019). “The performers do every little thing in our present: there aren’t any blackouts or backstage for them to cover, no stage managers to return in and remodel the set.”
A Notional Historical past made its debut in Malaysia earlier in July to sold-out venues after a two-year delay due to COVID-19 efficiency restrictions. It options performer and musician Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri of punk band Terrer, journalist Rahmah Pauzi, and distinguished political graphic designer and illustrator Fahmi Reza.
Mixing audiovisuals, shared views, and what Teh defines as “social appearing” — non-actors who carry out as a model of themselves — the play digs deep into the Malaysian historical past of inherited recollections and official narratives, and what occurred in the course of the Malayan Emergency.
The 12-year battle, which started beneath colonial rule and led to 1960 after Malaysia had change into an impartial nation, stays a controversial matter. The struggle was largely fought within the jungles between the pro-independence communist fighters of the Malayan Nationwide Liberation Military, and the troopers of the British colonisers.
“I can attribute it to the contested narrative and enduring marketing campaign designed by each the British colonial authorities in addition to the ruling authorities post-independence with the last word goal to suppress any components of progressive and leftist political fronts within the area,” stated Zikri Rahman, the programme coordinator for Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, an impartial Kuala Lumpur-based organisation targeted on archiving and publishing completely different types of historic materials from a folks’s perspective.
“Not solely that, however the subject additionally stays contested because it does take a racialised activate who can declare to be a sufferer in the course of the Emergency interval,” Zukri informed Al Jazeera.
Most of the nation’s ethnic Chinese language had been relocated to so-called “new villages” in order that the jungle-based fighters wouldn’t be capable of come to them for meals and different assist, whereas the Malays had been the goal of what Zukri says was “a a lot subtler marketing campaign of land redistribution and financial reform. Each communities had been experiencing a violent act of displacement and dispossession.”
Instructing historical past
Historical past is a obligatory topic for secondary college college students in Malaysia and A Notional Historical past was impressed by the publication of recent historical past textbooks that had been launched in 2020.
The “updating” had begun beneath the United Malays Nationwide Organisation(UMNO)-dominated Barisan Nasional coalition that managed Malaysia for greater than 60 years after independence, however the books had been solely revealed after the 2018 common elections when the coalition misplaced energy for the primary time.
“It so occurred that the revisions for the Type 4 textbook – which focuses on the interval encompassing World Struggle II, the Japanese occupation, the Malayan Emergency, and Merdeka (independence) – coincided with UMNO’s fall and the approaching into energy of the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad,” Teh informed Al Jazeera. Mahathir himself had beforehand been the chief of UMNO and prime minister of Malaysia for greater than 20 years.
“This textbook was revealed in 2020, and we had been actually eager to match what had modified between the revisions, and extra apparently, to think about what remained unchangeable or ‘unforgivable’ – even beneath a New Malaysia.”
The efficiency makes use of authentic video interviews with exiled former Malaysian communist revolutionaries. UMNO, the ethnic Malay get together that has lengthy dominated Malaysian politics, opposed the fighters from its founding in 1946, and when in energy promoted a story that the communists, who had been principally however not fully ethnic Chinese language, had been a risk to nationwide safety and order.
Uncovering historic erasures, exclusions, and the official narrative of the communist combat, A Notional Historical past is one other collaboration by a tight-knit group of mates and revolving collaborators who’ve produced a wide range of theatre performances, documentary movies, artwork exhibitions, curatorial initiatives, participatory interventions, and on-line initiatives over the previous 15 years.
Earlier initiatives have additionally targeted on historical past – after years of meticulous analysis – together with Baling (2015-18), Model 2020 (2017-18) and Fragments of Tuah (2022).
Baling was considerably of a precursor to A Notional Historical past, dabbling within the large unanswered questions of Malaysia’s bumpy street to independence by reconstructing and analysing the historic December 1955 negotiations between Tunku Abdul Rahman (the then-soon-to-be first prime minister of newfound Malaysia), David Marshall, who represented the then-Crown Colony of Singapore, and Chin Peng – the a lot feared and demonised chief of the Malayan Communist Occasion and the Malayan Nationwide Liberation Military.
Studying straight from public transcripts, Baling’s performer-researchers mirrored on the which means of freedom, loyalty, “terrorism”, and give up.
“One of many threads in Baling was to relook on the determine of Chin Peng and deconstruct or demystify this Public Enemy Quantity One – or Most Wished Man within the British Empire, or Final Communist,” Teh informed Al Jazeera. “Slightly than specializing in his life story, we investigated how the monstrous phantom of Chin Peng had been operationalised by the British after which the Malayan/Malaysian authorities via propaganda and fearmongering.”
Teh believes that the nationwide hysteria round Chin Peng is a paradox - exiled throughout the border in southern Thailand, the communist chief was bodily absent from Malaysia, however the nation went to nice lengths to make him really feel “current” and “harmful”. Even in 2013 after Chin Peng’s demise, the then-government refused to permit his ashes to be returned to the nation.
Risks of communist label
A Notional Historical past follows an analogous route to Baling by interweaving monologues, songs, and music by Terrer’s Faiq, and Fahmi’s detailed explanations of what sections of the nationwide historical past textbooks misrepresent historic info from the essential decade earlier than Malaysia declared independence on August 31, 1957.
A display screen behind the performers enhances the factors of view of the non-actors with interview footage from Revolusi ’48, Fahmi’s unreleased documentary on 11 communist insurgent fighters who disappeared into the northern Malaysian jungle in 1948 – a companion piece to his earlier documentary 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (Ten Years Earlier than Independence), which chronicled the Malaya-wide day of protest towards Britain’s undemocratic proposals for a Federation of Malaya, and the rise of the folks’s democratic motion in Malaya.
“We noticed these as the varied completely different strands that contributed to Malaya’s wrestle for independence, apart from UMNO-Barisan Nationwide. However as Fahmi mentions within the efficiency, he was not in a position to full the documentary as he was fearful it could be misinterpreted as glorifying armed violence, and he was additionally involved in regards to the backlash – of being labelled a communist sympathiser,” Teh informed Al Jazeera.
A Notional Historical past additionally contains footage from the 2018 public discussion board in Kuala Lumpur, Ought to We Rewrite Our Historical past Textbooks? wherein Fahmi was publicly attacked by Malaysian right-wing teams.
The episode triggered a harsh social media backlash throughout which the activist was known as a “communist”.
“Inside sure contexts – akin to Malaysia, Singapore, or Indonesia – the label ‘communist’ has been weaponised by the state and their supporters to discredit, imprison and even remove and homicide folks,” stated Teh.
Earlier than the COVID-19 lockdowns, A Notional Historical past was introduced with success on the Performing Arts Assembly within the Japanese metropolis of Yokohama, in addition to within the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. A whole lot of 1000’s of individuals had been accused of being communists in Indonesia between 1965 and 1966, and killed.
“In Indonesia, the subject of communism is extra charged than the opposite locations we’ve carried out at,” Faiq informed Al Jazeera of the efficiency at Teater Salihara. “The viewers’s response to the struggles of the [Malaysian] communists felt deeper and extra quick”.
As quickly because the world started to reopen, the play made its debut exterior of Asia in Could 2022 on the Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels – one of many main European festivals for modern performing arts – earlier than lastly arriving again in Malaysia.
“It’s been a blessing to have the ability to carry out it in several international locations, feeling the slight variations in reactions from completely different locations,” stated Faiq.
“What I’ve realized from this course of is that regardless that the subject material of our work has its personal specificities to Malaysian historical past, additionally it is common. […] What I want the viewers felt and noticed within the efficiency, at the least from my perspective, is to take into consideration the private decisions, encounters, needs, griefs and recollections of those previous communists primarily based on a call they made a very long time in the past.”