As hot, sweaty tourists dangle their feet in pools for Thai nibble fish to eat the dead skin from their feet at Kuala Lumpur’s quirky art deco Central Market, a small theatre upstairs is packed for a play about racial divisions and the myth of social unity here.
The performance of "Parah" (Severe) at the market’s Annexe Gallery by the young team from the Instant Café Theatre Company is a daring look at race and division in a country that paints itself as a shining example of unity — but whose government is increasingly driving a wedge between the main groups — Malays, Chinese, Indians and the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of Malaysia.
"Our ancestors live with their ghosts," says one of the young characters in "Parah", Mahesh. "So do we".
The Annexe Gallery is a brave and daring space where art meets dissent. This is unusual where the media is muzzled and intimidated, where there is no freedom of speech and where the draconian Internal Security Act and media laws are used to crush dissenting voices and justify arbitrary arrests of journalists and bloggers and ordinary citizens.
Gallery audiences are often swelled by plain clothes police and gallery director Pang Khee Teik, also an outspoken gay activist, receives frequent "friendly" calls from security authorities "to see how things are going".
Much of the media here is muzzled, corrupt or inept. But the Malaysian blogosphere is robust — although constantly facing legal action and censured and intimidated by a government increasingly under strain.
The Annexe Gallery is located in the Central Market flanked by restored baba-nyonya shophouses on one side and the fast-running, milk-coffee-brown Klang River on the other.
So far, the Gallery has been able to get away with actions many in this police state would expect to land them in jail.
"The work we do is dangerous. Because we inflame people," says 36-year-old Pang, enthusiastic and irrepressible as he downs a bowl of noodles and a cold beer before the first performance here of "Parah".
The Central Market was originally a typically chaotic pasar basah, or wet market, in what was then the heart of a new city founded on tin, rubber and commerce.
As the city grew, so did the market. The traditional jumble of bamboo and palm-thatched stalls was replaced by a permanent building with concrete tiled floors, timber-clad walls and a roof covered with zinc sheeting. This was upgraded in the mid-1930s to the art-deco, Middle Eastern-inspired design of Malaysian architect T.Y. Lee that forms the basis of the current complex.
After the market was saved at the last minute from demolition during the building boom of the 1970s, it was declared a heritage site and in the mid-1990s, architect William Lim was hired to design the latest upgrade.
Once every three months, the Annexe holds a flea market with a difference at the market.
Dioramas outlining plans for a major anti-government rally share space in the timber-floored halls with the Sisters of Islam and tables selling home-made jewels, coffee table history books, knitting and black-and-white photos.
The Annexe also hosts discussions and exhibitions on such a diverse range of subjects as the rebellion in mainly Muslim southern Thailand and student activism in Iran.
And it played a major role in rallying support for July’s Bersih protest against the government that began outside these doors and which saw non-violent protestors tear-gassed, hit with chemical water cannons and beaten after they were arrested.
With his popularity sliding, a massive public backlash over Bersih and talk of an internal UMNO party coup, Prime Minister Najib Razak has already started the process of setting up elections within the next few months — well ahead of their due date in late 2013.
Pang, who for years battled between a strong Christianity and his homosexuality, says the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and Najib’s government have co-opted and rewritten Malaysia’s cultural narrative as a political tool, carrying on the tactics of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The UNMO and its Barisan Nasional (National Font) coalition has ruled without a serious challenge since independence in 1957, until a major electoral setback that almost ousted them in 2008.
"The state uses culture as a weapon," Pang says. "We are using culture to empower the people. One of the roles of the arts is to voice the conscience of the people. One of the roles of the arts is to be critical."
Pang points to the centuries-old tradition of Wayang Kulit (shadow puppets) in Malaysia and Indonesia where the dalang (puppetmaster) often cheekily ad-libs to mock local royalty and village headmen.
And he also points to the lack of quality political satire in Malaysia such as the lyrical poetry of Indonesia’s immensely popular veteran singer Iwan Fals, who managed to mock the Suharto regime yet avoid arrest.
"We have no one like Iwan Fals here," he says. "We have no one singing about reformasi. I must admit, I am a bit pessimistic. I sometimes think we are at the beginning of the dark ages here in Malaysia."
Mahathir, who crushed all dissent during his undisputed rule from 1981 to 2003, is criticised for rewriting the cultural narrative of a country of Malays, indigenous people and immigrant Chinese and Indians to promote the bumiputra, the sons of the soil, or Malays.
His defenders say he has woven a more accurate and cohesive story of the history of this diverse nation that stretches from Thailand down the Malay peninsula and on to Borneo in the far east, and helped advance the Malays, who were at the lowest levels when the British handed over in 1957.
But at the Annexe Gallery, all views are open for discussion and interpretation. Plays are routinely followed by question sessions with the cast, director and playwright.
"It’s never just a performance," says "Parah" director Jo Kukathas after opening night. "We tell a story. It’s also our way of declaring these things (issues)." She took to the streets for the Bersih rally, facing down riot police armed with semi-automatics and live rounds.
Pang, who also went to the Bersih rally, appears to relish in the fine line he treads.
"I am ready to go to jail for what I believe in. They are basically just creating drones and factory workers," he says. "I think they have fucked us over."
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