What is Art?
In the Southeast Asian context, Art is the subversive form of promotion, a sign of expression of our cultures. Tales of the ancient times recorded by scribes, passed down from men to men, translated into Hikayats, Dances, oral stories, retell and reinterpreted again. Art could be a painting, a book, a recitement, a movement, its boundaries endless and it captures the hearts that are restless.
A walk down the long stretch of the Chiang Mai night market, and the chances are you will see a performance made by street theater troupes, wearing cultural masks and acting out a scene, or the multiple cultural dances that graced your television screens saying we’re “Truly Asia”, or even with Myanmar and their significant pride on their literature and poetry, Art is celebrated in many forms and revered by many as a source of a fulfilling life.
The increased globalization and centuries of colonization by various Western powers have also their classical cultures injected into our region, and soon enough certain quarters of the society adapted the taste for classical art like ballet, opera, orchestra, and paintings. Modern versions would include teen idols and Hollywood movies.
These two different cultures seem to reside in the same land, causing friction between generations of Southeast Asian societies. There are those who believe their traditional aspects of Asian life should be preserved, thus be seen as conservative, while the younger generation, having grown up with more Western influences, seem to be more embracing of a different set of cultures, and that includes Art of a different kind.
But in the recent years, nation-builders like the governments of Southeast Asia seemed to see no place for Art to be developed in their minds, only aiming for a better, more commercialized economic sector, thus the recent Thailand and Malaysian governments have each decided to stop a classical Western act from making its performance in their respective.
On Kuala Lumpur, One of the agencies under the Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture have allegedly banned the Singapore Dance Theatre from their ballet performances because they didn’t meet the requirements for a decent costume. Simply put, they think that ballet tutus are indecent, detrimental to our society, going against our norms.
Meanwhile, the Thai government has decided to ban a rather dramatic and drastic interpretation of Shakespeare famous tragedy play, Macbeth, placed it into the Thai setting, filled with what we know as superstition or black magic, a dictator in an alternate timeline, and a certain symbolic red shirts, and you have Shakespeare Must Die. This of course, was banned by the Ministry of Culture on the grounds of anti-monarchy sentiments, despite the fact that the film was made with a grant by the Ministry itself.
Saksith Saiyasombut defends the making of the film, arguing that
“Art has been always been used to reflect and comment on society in various ways, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes painfully accurate. This little art project dared to paint the Thai political crisis with a broad brush and with the story of Macbeth, the creators are re-telling one of the most important stories about the striving for power, the paranoia of holding on to it and the downward spiral madness when it is unchallenged and out of control.”
By comparison, Art seemed to be a foreign object in the nation-building structure of Malaysia, so much so that apparently it’s seen as a detriment to the society. By comparison, local movies that depicts Hantu (ghosts), Pontianak (vampires), and Orang Minyak (oily ghouls) , are acceptable and profitable.
Guess what? These movies were not allowed during Prime Minister Tun Mahathir’s reign and mushroomed like it may never get to mushroom like this ever again. Its storylines are campy at best, but it sells like hot cakes. Or perhaps this is what “Art” is to home. Forget the frightening frumpy tutus, local hantus is what we need to maintain our culture!
I can’t help but thought back of Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak’s op-ed on The Wall Street Journal, a very fond way of how he chooses to interact with the international media, on the ASEAN values he said they’ve purported and lay grounds so as to achieve the “ASEAN unity”, the “ASEAN harmony”
“Those of us in Asean have long thought of it less as an association and more as a family. Asians traditionally place a great deal of importance on the family, celebrating each other’s successes and supporting each other when times are hard. Unlike some cultures, where difficult members can be marginalized, ignored or left to be dealt with by others, Asians are proud to take care of their own. Writ large at the level of international diplomacy, this approach ensures that countries do not lose face and leaves open the door to leaders who are committed to reform.”
I’m pretty positive the ASEAN could add another item into the list: That the Asian values are so precious, they see the need to ban all things Un-Asian like so as to preserve the harmonious surface of the region.