Redesigning Malaysia’s religious narratives through art

A growing trend of censorship and suppression in the name of religion is cracking down on Malaysia’s creative sector. The country’s artists are finding ways to fight back and speak out

Written By:
October 12, 2021
Redesigning Malaysia’s religious narratives through art
Ramli Ibrahim and Dheva Kumaran (dancer of Sutra Dance Outreach Program) in Tryambakam, 2021, Sutra House. Photo: S Magendran

When Malaysia announced the reopening of its creative industries last month, Ramli Ibrahim was sceptical. 

The outspoken renegade of Malaysian dance made headlines in June when his online talk on how multicultural performing arts should transcend race was mysteriously cancelled by the Islamic centre of prominent Malaysian university, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) for “undisclosed reasons.”

Ramli, whose arms wave when he speaks like an undulating dance move, has a soft voice, but his words hit hard.

“There is a meltdown of Malaysia’s performing artists and arts presently. Arts and culture are under dire straits,” he told the Globe.

Ramli’s sentiments are echoed by members of the country’s arts community who believe there is a growing trend of censorship in the name of Islamisation stifling Malaysia’s cultural identity. As their avenues of expression are suppressed, they are pushing back through underground performances and new platforms spreading their message of a multicultural nation and celebrating their diverse heritage.

Ramli Ibrahim and dancers of Sutra Foundation in Tryambakam, 2021, Sutra House. Photo: S Magendran

In  a country where around 60% of the population are Muslim, religion has become an important tool for political parties to define a national narrative and gain influence. In recent years, the willingness of leaders such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak to court conservative Muslim voters, along with the construction of more than 900 Islamic private schools from 2011–2017, has fuelled a growing, modern Islamic momentum. 

Influence over institutions allows subtle but significant control over what is taught and seen. For Ramli it is this covert undercurrent of Islamic religious conservatism that is most insidious to the arts. His traditional Sutra dance has roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, and he believes his talk was shut down because it failed to comply with the national Islamic narrative at one of Malaysia’s leading public universities. 

“The government has not exactly censored the Indian art forms, but there has been little or no funding for all Indian artists in Malaysia”, he told the Globe. “There is a kind of Islamic cleansing in Malay culture”.

UTM’s vague response, which suggested his talk would be offensive to “some quarters,” prompted Ramli to turn to other platforms to fight back.

“‘Some quarters’ was never explained [and] this was the evening prior to my talk. So, I took to my Facebook to inform of the cancellation, which became viral,” he said. The university later apologised to Ramli, admitting the decision was based on the school’s guideline, which stipulates that any cultural and arts programme must be referred to and approved by its Islamic centre. But by then, the dancer’s message, the image of a country unwilling, or unable, to handle the controversy of a Malay man performing a Hindu dance, had made its mark on the internet.

For rising, self-taught contemporary artist Alvin Koay the digital era has given Malaysia’s artists a new voice and has provided the best tools of resistance against political influence, which Koay describes as a twisted conch shell used to amplify selective messages. 

According to Koay, this “propaganda loudspeaker… spews hate and lies for the politicians… to mislead and divide the people so that they can be conquered easily.”

The Lying Conch is a 2021 video animation by the artist and serial tech entrepreneur, part of his series The Hypocrites. It is one of seven fantasy characters, which include The Religious Bigots’ (“who bastardise their own race and religion to lord over others…”) and The Sinister Hand (“thievery and corruption, using the façade of charity and benevolence”). The videos sway in gentle, synchronised rhythm on Koay’s Instagram platform, sharing their message to his 3,563 followers and the wider public.

The Lying Conch, 2021, animation. Video: Alvin Koay

In direct conversation, Koay is more reserved, insisting he is not a protest artist: “I don’t want the police to come look for me!” But he admits the Hypocrites series was heavily influenced by the political scene in Malaysia and the “racism” and “lack of meritocracy” experienced by “nonindigenous people of the land.”

“Islamisation is definitely a thing in Malaysia. It is the easiest tool for politicians to control votes. [And] because of growing religious fanaticism, the arts are always filtered through the lens of religion,” he noted. “Every time the arts shows some skin, it is deemed against Islam.”

Most of Koay’s works are sold as NFTs, non fungible tokens, a unique digital version of the art. When documented, or “minted,” onto a decentralised ledger of digital assets known as a blockchain, NFTs act as certificates of authenticity and proof of provenance. 

Because of growing religious fanaticism, the arts are always filtered through the lens of religion

NFTs are lucrative in their own right, providing artists with new markets for their work by paying them a percentage every time the NFT is sold or changes hands. But Koay believes the medium also adds power to protest art.

“[Blockchain] is permissionless. That means no one needs to get permission from any high authority in order to do anything. Whatever you put out into the blockchain, it is locked in and minted there forever. So, there’s a lot of transparency, whereas with governments and big banks there is no transparencies,” he explained. 

Koay in front of the painting version of The Hypocrites. Photo: supplied

While some artists show defiance publicly on the worldwide web, others are going undercover at local level. In the rural state of Kelantan, arts became a tool for the PAS state government to cement a purist Islamic image after the party came to power in the early 1990s. It banned traditional Malay art forms under the Entertainment and Entertainment Premises Enactment 1998. Many of these had been woven into the region’s culture for centuries.

“The language used in the rationale of the proscription was extremely accusatory and harsh, highlighting associations with animism as syirik and khurafat [polytheism and heresy],” said Pauline Fan, creative director of PUSAKA, a nonprofit organisation supporting the continuity and viability of Malaysia’s traditional performance arts.

One of the arts forbidden was Mak Yong, a northern Malaysian form of dance drama with syncretic traditions and pre-Islamic elements, which has been included on UNESCO’s Representative List of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. 

“The banning of Mak Yong has been particularly symbolic, because of the dominant role of women in the tradition. [It] sends a message to women about their permissible space in society and their reduced freedom of expression as defined by religious authorities,” Fan said.

Ultimately culture is stronger than politics

PUSAKA’s response was one of quiet revolt. Founder Eddin Khoo, an arts and culture journalist with a leading English newspaper at the time, upped his coverage of Kelantanese traditional arts. He also organised performances in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur and in Kelantan, defying the bans. He encouraged the community to organise “quiet performances” and document the forbidden arts. 

After two decades, the state government lifted the ban in 2019, due partly to the grassroots work of groups such as PUSAKA. But according to Fan, this concession was little more than lip service. 

“Only state-sanctioned, shariah-compliant versions of Mak Yong are allowed, which means all ritual aspects are forbidden. Gender segregation of performers and audience essentially means there are no women on stage,” she told the Globe. “So while some applaud this so-called ‘lifting,’ others, including women Mak Yong masters of long lineage, see it as little more than political gesturing by state authorities and bureaucrats.”

 A traditional Mak Yong performance on the Kelantan-Terengganu border. Photo: Wong Horngyih/courtesy of PUSAKA

This “political gesturing” in the name of religion can warp perceptions of Islam as much as it suppresses the arts. Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin, Honorary Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia, believes that “[What’s] being used to advance political agendas is not about Islam. [It’s] a façade, to me a rather dubious façade of Islam… the visible aspect, rather than the internal value.” 

If religious conservatism is no more than a fragile facade, as suggested by Nasuruddin, Fan is optimistic that cultural traditions will survive “despite the decades of political proscription and interference.”

“Ultimately culture is stronger than politics,” she said. One of PUSAKA’s main goals for the future is to “rekindle the semangat that is intrinsic to Malay traditional arts.”

A Malay word with folkloric traditions, semangat means “passion” or “vital spirit.” And for Malaysia’s silenced artists, it is pushing them to speak out. 

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