Rooted in culture

Eddin Khoo began a relationship with the traditional art forms of Kelantan and Terengganu more than a decade ago as a journalist. Of Chinese-Indian parentage, 37-year-old Khoo has since dedicated his life to understanding, documenting and reviving the traditional forms of wayang kulit, mak yong, menora and main puteri. The poet, writer, and translator founded Pusaka four years ago to study and document these traditional forms. He is presently adapting, and will perform, for the shadow screen, Shakespeare's Macbeth in August. He speaks passionately to JACQUELINE ANN SURIN about the critical need for Malaysians to understand the cultural roots that shape our identity and sense of self as a people.

theSun: Tell us about Pusaka. Why was it set up? What does it do?

Pusaka was started in 2002. Formally registered (that year), but really it was a realisation of, by then, almost a decade-long journey or adventure into the heart of this Kelantan culture, (and the) religious, political issues which began during my time as a journalist with the Star .

The Star was bringing these issues out in the Sunday papers - I know much to the annoyance sometimes of some of our readers; 'week in week out this wayang kulit business' - when nobody really was willing to comment and make statements and deal with the issue in any way whatsoever because it was really settled or located in this strange Malay-Muslim contradiction that was really at the peak at that time.

At that time, the whole issue of Malay culture, Malay identity, Malay history, Malay politics was at its peak. And very few people, including the then Ministry of Culture, Arts and Tourism, were willing to deal with it.

And so, I ventured out there and began to do stories, and it just became a lifelong commitment. Because I think it's an issue that really goes to the heart of what we are as a people, what we are as a people who come with a certain history and a certain experience, and what our contemporary anxieties and contradictions and problems are, basically.

Um, so that was basically the impulse that led to the formation of Pusaka in 2002.

What does Pusaka do?

Well, we are Pusaka, Centre for the Study and Documentation of Traditional Performance in Malaysia which is basically (what we do).

What I feel is very important is that culture needs to have a strong intellectual dimension in this country. When you deal with things like mak yong, when you deal with things like wayang kulit, or traditional culture, there's been a tendency for us to be extremely sentimental. Extremely nostalgic about what our traditional heritage is.

As if we have already moved on and our nature is completely different these days.

Meaning that these things are of the past?

(Nods) Of the past, and don't necessarily say very much to us these days although we love them, and yes, it was very nice to sit in the padang (field) and look at the wayang kulit all those years ago, whenever it was.

Whereas what I actually experienced on the ground in Kelantan was actually very different. Theatre as ritual, theatre as collective need, theatre as individual yearning, theatre as a very complex construction of human understanding - understanding of the self, understanding of human psychology, understanding of the nature of illness - and I felt all of these things needed to be documented, they needed to be intellectualised and they needed to be collected so that we can prove to ourselves that we actually originate from a very long, elaborate and complex cultural self, you know. That is very complex philosophically.

It's also very complex historically in terms of the influences that have shaped it, and more importantly, how it has negotiated those influences to build a very distinctive and unique culture for itself, especially at a time in the 1990s and now, when there seems to be a great desire to culturally cleanse a lot of the collective self, and also kind of homogenise our culture through politics. And politics as pronounced and promulgated through a culture of sloganeering and a culture that really lacks any sense of introspection.

So, it's documentation through writing, through video...

Ya, through writing, through photographs, through film, and we also attempted, and continue to attempt without much success because we lack financial resources (chuckles), to get young people involved in these traditions.

We stage performances on a regular basis, every year seasonally for a period of six months or for as long as money allows us to, so that the local community continues to have access. And by extension then, continues to question the nature of what they have experienced, what they have seen performed within the context of the cultural politics of their time.

What happens to this documentation that Pusaka is putting together?

Well, we want to build a comprehensive archive, and we want to, for example, begin to distribute it to educational institutions not just in the country, but all around the world. Malaysia, and Southeast Asia by extension, is a region that is gaining a lot of attention worldwide.

People are very interested, not just in economic development and so on now, but in the very essence of our cultural character which is, pluralism. How, for example, does religion fit into a highly pluralistic society? How has that been negotiated through the past?

Yet, these things have not been collected. So, you go to universities around the world, for example, they have almost nothing on Malaysia.

I just came back from Japan, (where I gave) a workshop at the (National) Museum of Ethnology at Osaka which is one of the most elaborate and most comprehensive centres for the documentation of Asian cultures, in particular. Nothing on Malaysia.


Absolutely nothing. But they're keen now, you see. So, they want to come to Kelantan and begin to do some documentation and what Pusaka tries to do is collect these things and then provide a foundation so that people have access, you know. That's at the more practical level.

Then there's the abstract level, of course, which is, all these things will basically open up a culture of discussion over these issues.

When we talk about traditional culture, you know, the language has become so reductivist, so incredibly scary. I mean, we're using terms like 'wipe out', 'suppress', and it's creating a great deal of cultural anxiety in the process.

And on the other hand, people who are interested don't have access, right, to go and find out a little more and to begin to open up the boundaries of the debate a little more.

What about our universities? Aren't they doing anything at all in these areas?

Ya, the universities, you know (chuckles), if we begin to discuss the educational institutions, we'll go into another major area of cultural development in the country.

People think the actions of Parti Islam (PAS) were the beginnings of our problems with Malay, you know, cultural expression. That's not true. It was the apex, it was the culmination of an almost three-decade-long attempt at institutionalising Malay culture, constructing it, very often to feed political imperatives and political exigencies. Beginning with the National Cultural Congress (1972), for example.

You try and homogenise issues of Malay language, issues of regional distinctiveness, and so on. And basically our educational institutions cater to this, right, and are expected to advocate this, rather than examine and explore a culture, particularly Malay culture, in its authenticity.

There's one thing we have to acknowledge in Malaysia and in Southeast Asia. Pluralism is our essence. That is also our greatest strength and our greatest resource. That from the very beginning of any kind of cultural sense, cultural collective in this region, mind you, not just in this country, it has been rooted in cosmopolitanism and pluralism and hybridity.

Well, actually the whole world is like that! But let's focus on uslah, basically. And we must acknowledge that. This is where things like politics, and more broadly, notions of the nation state have come to a stage where they are extremely, extremely problematic in terms of conditioning who and what we are. Especially since so much of the politics of this region is authoritarian.

Are you working with any institutions or agencies in terms of documentating this work?

We have had support, and I will say very nominal support, from organisations like the Japan Foundation. We won the American Ambassador's Cultural Preservation Award in 2002 for a menora project that we did.

We are now working quite productively, I would say, with the new Ministry of Culture (Arts and Heritage) which I must commend for its willingness to engage independent, autonomous and often outspoken people, especially on the issue of Kelantan. I certainly hope that that relationship can continue to be a productive one.

And we have had pretty reasonable support from the general public. But that does not make for a sustained effort in what we want to do. We have serious problems of viability, financial viability in particular.

And one of the reasons for that is that culture is still seen as something to do with song and dance. Not about (for example), when I speak of culture as basically reflecting the essence of who we are, as encapsulating our history and our past. And telling us very deep things about how we're constituted, you know, as a society. People can't seem to grasp that. And it's because, I think, our collective sense of self is still very underdeveloped.

On the practical side, that means there's very little in the form of social investment in work such as ours. We are a very charitable society. But charity is a very patronising thing, you know. But we are not a society that is consciouss of a deeper investment, you know, where we think of culture 50 years from now.

That's why we are very far behind. We are even very far behind from countries around the region.

How then would you explain the importance of documenting, preserving and reviving these traditional art forms considering there seems to be some kind of disconnect between, say, most people living in the city and these forms?

Well, it's an extremely elaborate and extremely difficult thing to do, not just to explain but to make the necessary associations of culture, of the past, of politics, of religion, of identity, of regionalism, and of this great divide.

One of the great problems Malaysians have is the problem dealing with how complex they are. And we seek very easy solutions in explaining who we are. And that's why we love rhetoric and sloganeering because they are easy, one-phrase definitions of who we are.

Culture, in the kind of work that we do, can never be appreciated if, as I said, we don't make all those necessary associations.

So, what I'm really pointing at is we have to open up our minds. It's (an) incredibly difficult thing to ask for but we have no choice, I think.

I think once we make the necessary connections, then we will be able to understand why we are suffering from so many of the problems that we go through now. I think through culture, we can explain things like social alienation, we can explain things like politicisation of religion, and we can really trace the evolution of who we are and have become, especially in the past three decades.

When you say, 'who we are and who we've become', you're talking about Malaysians as a whole?

As a cultural self, rather than as a nation state self. What I mean by nation state is that we identify know, I always say, when people ask me, for example, 'Do you believe in Bangsa Malaysia?' I say, 'No.'

I do believe in the Malaysian as an entity that has very long and very distinctive historical connections. But, I think it's very dangerous when we begin to define ourselves according to terms and according to the aspirations that have been enunciated really by politicians, you know.

How can politics define a cultural entity? It cannot. If it does, then it leads to very dangerous consequences because there is a propensity to be very ignorant then about where we have come from and how we find ourselves in these situations that we do today.

And everything is minimalised and everything is kind of reductivised.

When your whole identity and your whole sense of self is defined by politics and political intelligence and nation state aspirations, it's very alienating and it can lead in extreme circumstances to very dangerous circumstances.

As is happening in Kelantan today with young people. They have nothing in their lives but politics. (Pauses) Or something completely outside of that politics. Drugs, all forms of social alienation. I think the highest rate of things like drug abuse is in the state of Kelantan. With all its parsimony and sanctimoniousness, these are the problems we create.

And if it's not that kind of problem, then it's a problem of political indoctrination and the very fracturing of the society.

So, you're saying that the importance of documenting, reviving and accessing these traditional forms lies in the fact that it gives us something to hold on to in terms of cultural identity?

Yes, yes.

That helps us understand who we are better? And then helps us deal with the challenges we face better as well?


And devoid of this understanding, and devoid of being able to access these traditional forms, are we then left in some kind of vacumn without guide?

Yes, yes. If you ask me what is the principal challenge facing this country today, it's alienation.

And there is culture. Culture provides a sense of cohesiveness of the individual, of the community.

But culture changes.

Culture does change. And it's very important to also understand when we speak about traditional culture (for example), in Kelantan, traditional culture is very community-based culture, very localised culture.

And if we want to use a theatre or arts term to describe something like wayang kulit, it's folk art, ya. And what is folk art? Folk art is extremely improvisational in nature.

There is a great misconception here (that) for example, mak yong and things like that, received the patronage of the palace. It's not true.

It received the patronage of the palace for a certain period of time but essentially these are art forms that emerged from the well spring of community responding to community needs, responding to community changes.

So, they've always been extremely versatile and flexible in nature. Um, and continue to be, right. So, it has always been responsive to change because its very nature is one of change and evolution.

We don't belong to, for example, Indonesian kraton (palace) tradition whereby, you know, art is all about a formalised tradition... how well you can continue to repeat, to perform a Mahabharata wayang or something.

Ours, no. It's very free, it has always been very vibrant, and always very innovative.

And there are many, many misconceptions, for example. You look at the wayang kulit. One of the charges that has been directed at the wayang kulit is the fact that it uses the Ramayana. A 'Hindu epic'.

Firstly, there is nothing religious about the Ramayana. Even in Hindu culture. It is a parable and it is an epic tale. Nothing religious about it.

In the Malay world, the Hikayat Maharaja Wana is the Malay oral version of the Ramayana. In many ways, it's almost indistinguishable from the actual Ramayana performed in India. These are some of the complexities, you know, again.

And even that story is a generic story. Episodes of which are performed by a dalang (shadow puppeteer) and improvised upon by a dalang, right.

The puppet of Sri Rama, the puppet of Sita Dewi, the puppet of Maharaja Wana, they are generic puppets. Everytime they come to the stage, they take on different names, you know.

So, what is attributed to an individual puppet so that it's called Sri Rama, are the values and characteristics of that puppet. Not the name.

You see, these are very important distinctions that have to be made. So, you begin to appreciate how localised, how indigenised these forms become, right. And how they've been adapted, and how they fit in and settle into the whole community.

Now, if we are going to have a debate about culture, we must be able to begin a debate, if we are going to have a debate, for example, on culture and religion, we must be able to have a debate that can take into account all these factors, you see.

And to begin the process of having that debate, making sure that you can challenge fanatics, it is important that you have this knowledge.

And yet, there's just so little study, and so little exploration of this experience.

What also documentation does, I think, at the very core is give us a very deep sense of how complex we are. You know, we are simplifying ourselves all the time, and that's why I use the term 'reductivist'.

Our language becomes reductivist because of our sense of belonging to culture, community and nation also becomes very reductivist.

What would you say to people who think that these traditional forms are no longer able to help us deal with today's modern world and to understand the complexities of our world today?

It's very interesting because most people who say these things have no connection whatsoever with traditional culture. Have no understanding of its appeal, have no understanding of its function or its dynamics.

Now, every context is different, right. I'm not saying that wayang kulit can solve all our problems, that's where we go to. No, no.

All I'm talking about is that within its context, it is extremely important, ya. I am, for example, a practising Hindu who makes a pilgrimage for Thaipusam every year. Now, if someone says I cannot do that, there is a tremendous alienation that I'm going to feel for myself, and for my sense of obligation to culture, community and faith, right.

But that doesn't mean that you have to engage in it (chuckles), that it's a way of solving your problems.

We're talking about a culture that autonomises, that allows for all kinds of different contexts to find their own ways of resolving their own contradictions, and their own dilemmas and their own problems.

And that's where the question of politics becomes very important. You know, whenever we consider the question of culture, we want to run away from what has happened in the past 15 years that is, a proscription. A proscription has been imposed in the state of Kelantan which is a far cry from the kind of eccentric banning of performances that we may have by DBKL (City Hall) now and again.

This is a legislated form of proscription that contains all kinds of ideological posturings and that has one, very important objective. That is, to culturally cleanse a community. And it is a very brutal act.

It lacks, for example, the drama of TNT and dynamite and the bombing of the Bamiyan Buddha (in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001) but what's the difference? It's basically the inability to come to terms with the past.

And that's an extremely important factor that we can't deny. It has very serious effects on the psychology of the local community.

The Kelantan state government has remained adamant about banning mak yong, saying that is un-Islamic because it is based on fantasy and medieval elements. Is there a clash between these traditional forms and Islamic teaching?

Let's again be very careful of language. There is so much loose language in this country and especially in very serious matters like cultural politics and religious politics. Very loose language.

Let's disassociate Islam which is a faith, and by nature of it being a faith, it is philosophical and it is abstract and distinguishable from the pronouncements and the actions of Muslims.

Is it contradictory to Islam, er, some of the things you have said, 'fantasy'?

Ya, 'fantasy' and 'medieval elements'.

Let me add a few more. 'Women on stage', 'Hindu elements', er, there is also the element of, in wayang kulit, 'arouses nafsu (lust)' apparently, and a host of other charges.

The first point to make is one, how inane these things are. And let us acknowledge, (these charges) are nonsensical. They're ridiculous, they are ridiculous.

Number two, when you talk about a Muslim, when you talk about the kind of, again, ideological posturing that comes with this stance, we have to ask ourselves, what does it address and what does it deny?

It denies Islam as an experience, a historical experience in this region, in this country, and in particular, in Kelantan.

They talk about 'fantasy' and 'medieval elements', let us remember where these traditions come from. And we have to look at how Islam came to this region.

What was the Islamic experience? What was the Muslim experience in Southeast Asia? It wasn't doctrinal. (But) what we have now is a doctrinal promulgation of things supported by political power and political authority.

Islam came to this region fairly late, ya, between the 9th and the 13th century. Um, when Southeast Asia already had a very strong cultural foundation that was shaped and that was directed by animistic beliefs, and then Hindu beliefs, and Buddhist beliefs, and finally, the crest, the crest of the region was Islam.

And it came through a series of waves, you know. It didn't come through conquest. A very important factor if you want to understand the nature of Southeast Asian Islam. Didn't come through conquest which means people didn't convert at the point of a sword.

They did so willingly and they did so because they found in Islam, again, a crest to their own personalities and their own collective.

It came from a variety of sources not just from the Middle East. It came from the Middle East, but also within the Middle East, it came from a particular point in the Middle East, basically the Gulf coast Arab community who have always been a lot more open, always been a lot more cosmopolitan, always been a lot more liberal than the desert Arabs, for example.

It came from India which had an incredible cosmopolitan Muslim Hindu experience. It came from China, right. And took root here over a period of centuries, between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Another important thing was that its essential religious thrust was Sufiistic and mystical, right, which is a very, very inclusive form of religious understanding. A very, very inclusive form of religious practice which is also very deeply rooted in metaphysics and spirituality and the philisophical aspects of religion.

And that has continued all the way up to the early 20th century if you look at some of the early great Malay Muslim ulama like Tok Kenali in Kelantan who had a very deep sense of religion as a philosophical experience.

That has changed drastically over the past 50 years, or 70 years, as we begin to see greater infusion of politics in determining religious practice and religious identity. But you can't divorce things like wayang kulit from this phenomenon at all.

And I see things like mak yong, I see things like wayang kulit coming from this traditional sense of being a Muslim. That so much of the world is about metaphor, is about parable, is about negotiation, ya.

So much of our lives are speculative, you know. Constantly. Not doctrinal, right. Not doctrinal.

And not ideological. And what we see now is really a transformation or metamorphosis of this understanding of being a Muslim and what Islam is from the philosophical, from the spiritual into something doctrinal and ideological.

And things like wayang kulit and mak yong are snared and trapped in this.

Would you say then that Islam, as it was understood and practised in the past, did not force people to give up their traditional practices? I mean, both could co-exist.

Ya. Well, you know, it's not that they didn't give up. Their pre-Islamic cultural sense naturally evolved with Islam, just fit into Islamic tenets.

And there was no contradiction?

No contradiction, you know.

When you take something like traditional wood carving in Kelantan, you know, it is frowned upon by puritanical forces. Because they say, 'You worship trees.'

It's not a worship of trees. But in the traditional Muslim, mystical, Sufiistic point of view, pantheism is a very important aspect of belief.

What is pantheism? Pantheism is the belief that God exists in everything. So, you respect the environment, you respect the natural world. You don't worship the tree!

It is a particular way of locating the sensibility within the world, within nature but that kind of complexity goes when you have this terrible infusion of doctrines.

The politicisation of Islam as a religion?

I mean, that is the process. But, it's really an attempt to reduce the religion to a way that it can be easily controlled and manipulated, you see. So, it's a very deep process.

We are constantly engaging, for example, on things like, you know, big debates on murtad (apostacy) and syariah (laws) and hudud (laws) and all these things.

But, I'm sure you're beginning to understand what underlies all these impulses and all these desires and all the forces that are actually operating to make this issue of religious politics so simple, so black-and-white.

We will never get to the heart of the problem if we talk about things like murtad over and over again (chuckles) without actually going to the heart of what the anxieties are, right.

And remember that all I've said to you, it's not easily accessible or easily taught to most Muslims. I think if you asked most Malaysian Muslims, right, 'Can you tell me about the experience of Islam in this country?'. They won't be able to tell you this at all.

You look at a state like Kelantan. Women cannot be on stage. Kelantan doesn't have a matriarchal system, alright. But its economic life revolves around women. It has had a history of women controlling business, entrepreneurship, local economy.

Social life, then as a result, is based on women. Polygamy is very common (but) so was polyandry (when a woman has more than one husband).

Even the mythology of the state of Kelantan is rooted in women. Till today, for purposes of tourism, we talk about Negeri Cik Siti Wan Kembang. Negeri Puteri Saadong. What does that mean? And who are all these people? And what does it say about the Kelantanese cultural context?

When Munsyi Abdullah, who travelled by sea from the west coast of Malaya to the east and he landed in Kelantan, right, he was shocked to discover what a cosmopolitan place it was. Because he had this idea that it was tremendously backward. And he arrived at the mouth of the Kelantan River and he found that all the shops are owned by Chinese who speak perfect Malay and got along so well with the local Malay community.

And then he goes inwards, and he finds that the women dominate everything. They are out there, they are obvious, they're very manifest. They are extremely dynamic in society. And this criticism is levelled against the men whom he describes as lazy, not very intelligent, (and) they are out to gamble, drink and pick fights.

Now not much has changed (laughs) except now the whole political power (has).

But, ya, imagine in a space of 15 years, telling a society that comes with this kind of legacy, right, that a woman can't be on stage, that she has to be segregated at the counter, um, right, it affects... now, the purpose of something like this is very specific.

You know rules like these will not affect an older generation. Tell a 50-year-old Kelantanese woman she can't stand with you, she'll whack you with her handbag!

But it affects somebody who is 30 and below. Because it is repeated in schools, it is repeated and permeated within our modern system.

We send our children to school to be liberated, right, and this is the kind of thing they pick up. Things like segregation. And it brings about a great deal of cultural contradictions.

In mak yong for example, very interesting and lovely, and it's a very wonderful visual thing to see. In a mak yong community during a performance, you get the women who are the principal actors deciding on a story late in the afternoon. What story they are going to perform in the evening, right.

And it's wonderful to watch. You have four or five of these extremely dynamic, powerful and strong women sitting in the core centre. And they are talking and they are discussing and they are debating.

And then you get an outer circle of the eight, or nine, or 10 male musicians sitting there smoking and nodding in agreement. Not a word, right! Except for interjections ofBagus!' (Good), Betul (Right), or something. And it's incredible to see! It really is wonderful to see.

Now when a society is severed from all of this, what happens to the psychology? What happens to the collective psychology?

Let's get away from this kind of nostalgic exercise we're talking about. You know, how important our heritage and culture and all this is when you are not willing to actually acknowledge how powerful a role it actually plays in local communities, (and) in individuals in that local community. And her sense of a collective community.

We must stop being sentimentalists. We are terrible sentimentalists in this country. When we talk about heritage and history, you know, it's all 'La, di, da.' Nice stories and so on.

No, it has tremendous meaning. And history, the past, culture are all very important.

And that's why it's very important for puritanical political forces either to suppress it, or to control it, or to construct it in such a way that it becomes completely neutralised, right.

That is the problem with our culture today. That it doesn't empower. It has been neutralised.

Unesco has certified mak yong as a world cultural heritage. What exactly does that mean in real terms for us?

I made a comment in that way. My comment was basically that question. What does it mean to us?

On a practical level, right, it reaffirms what I said earlier that at a global level, there is deep interest in the culture of Malaysia. And there's a deep interest because the culture of Malaysia encapsulates certain things that are very instructive to the world today. Issues of pluralism, right. Issues of religion. Issues of women in religion. Issues of multiculturalism.

Through culture, we speak of these things and we set an example. So, on a practical level, that's an affirmation, and that's an important acknowledgement to have.

But now we have that acknowledgement, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to gather 13 to 15 girls together and learn a few mak yong movements? And get a group of 10 boys so they can learn to play the instruments?

Good, that's stage one. After that? How much are they going to be didedahkan or exposed to all the aspects of ilmu dalam, you know, inner knowledge of the art form? Of the function and dynamics of the art form in the community?

How, for example, are groups like Pusaka, how is a body of scholarship going to be created, right, to further facilitate something like the Unesco thing?

More importantly, what kind of scholarship are you going to create? You know, is it just about documenting, you know, sitting down and writing all these stories, or is it again about providing an intellectual context, making intellectual sense of what all this means? And how it can further instruct us! On who and what we are as a people. And why we matter in a cultural sense.

And if these things don't happen, then it's a badge you're going to wear on your lapel (chuckles) that doesn't mean anything at all. Really. I've always said this, I'll say this again.

If you do not have an understanding of the more profound aspects of mak yong, aspects of psychology, aspects of community relations, then mak yong is just damn boring movements. Very, very dull and boring movements, that's it.

There's a reason why they move in that way. Gerak angin to get their senses, your bodily senses aroused and opened so that you do not feel oppressed as an individual.

If you are going to make those movements and you don't understand that this is about getting your individual self opened and alive, then what's the point? What is the point?

But also it's an important kind of marker in that it says that there is a world community out there that appreciates and acknowledges mak yong as something that is important to identity, and yet you have politicians from Kelantan itself who are saying, the community should do away with it.

Yes, and again, look at what kind of language they use. 'Wipe out', 'suppress', er, and things of an extremely violent variety.

And, again, as I say, we lack the more dramatic aspects. We don't have blood on the streets in Kelantan because of what is happening.

But, don't underestimate the kind of violence that is inflicted on the self when you are torn away from this kind of practice, you see.

And also the kind of language that is introduced into the discourse of religion and of the Malay. Things like syirik (to be guilty of polytheism). Now, syirik is a very, very important charge. It can't just be loosely levelled at people. Kurafat (heretical) and things like that, you know. It violates, it really vulgarises religious language.

And what it does is, when language is used like that, it's just so incredibly violent and ferocious, it creates a great deal of fear and anxiety, er, and it begins to stunt the experience of the religion itself.

Very, very violent language. They use it as if they are allowed to use it. They are not allowed to say it! You can't simply issue fatwas calling people syirik and kafir and kurafat and these things. That's nonsense.

But we allow it because it's a siege mentality. Who's going to counter?

I can say all I want but I, you know, will then eventually just be, 'Oh, kafir. Apa yang dia tahu? (He's an infidel. What does he know?)' And things like this.

Again, I look at things like wayang kulit as having very, very important relevance, in terms of things like religious politics, to movements by certain groups in this country to call for the imposition of sedition laws on non-Muslims who speak on Islam. Where does it end?

When you use this kind of language, it's not just about words, it's about a mindset that you begin to create, you see. And I believe, so much of religion is this country now, particularly Islam, is caught up in this siege mentality. And then again, there are groups calling for the imposition of sedition laws on non-Muslims speaking on Islam.

What nonsense! My first degree is in Islamic thought. Of course, I know about Islam. And why shouldn't I comment on it?

My father (Prof Dr Khoo Kay Kim) is a leading historian in this country. So what, he's now supposed to teach Malay history without speaking about Islam, is it? Where does it end?

And it really begins in things like, the moment you can say to your own culture, I'm somehow impure you know, a part of me is impure because that's what it is, isn't it?

You're somehow unclean because you have these influences or these elements. What kind of psychology are you beginning to breed?

It is a very serious problem in Islam today. Everywhere, right. How are Muslims dealing with the question of plurality, not just with the outside world, but within their own world!

Remember, the Taliban is not just about its engagement and its enmity of the outside world. It also has very deep enemies within its own self (chuckles), ya.

And the term I use is 'cultural cleansing' so that you create a void, you create a vacuum

The Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry has indicated strong support, including financial resources under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, for the revival of these traditional forms. Do you think it's too little, too late?

Let me just say this about the new ministry, ok. When I spent most of my journalistic years in the Star, and I was an arts and culture journalist, I think I spent a lot of my efforts haranguing the last administration to have this independent ministry of culture, arts and heritage.

We have that now. And as I said, we have been encouraged by their willingness to engage with independent, autonomous institutions such as ours.

I'm also grateful, and we have come to a stage in this country where we have to be grateful for such things, to have a deeply intelligent minister at the helm. Because in my years as a journalist, I was also confronted with the former two ministers of culture, which were abysmal to say the very least.

And a minister (the present one, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim) who is engaged in the contemplation of culture. These are very important things to acknowledge.

I think their financial resources have been lessened a little. That's fine because it's still a lot of money but we have to be very clear, I think the ministry has to be very clear, as to what it is it is willing to invest in on a long term basis.

I think there's been a lot of attempting to popularise culture in an attempt to make sure that culture permeates the society. That's all great. Very good. But there must also be serious scholarship. There must be resources poured into serious and credible and viable generation of ideas concerning culture in this country and what it means in a deeper sense, right.

This is culture and intellectual engagement. Activity is not enough. Construction of institutions and buildings and all these kinds of things, not enough.

At the core of any effort at revitalising culture is ideas, is intellectual engagement, and with serious scholarship so that we have a very clear sense of what culture means in all its dimensions.

And I know not all the resources can be poured into these things but I hope that sufficient resources, and again resources that will eventually produce the kind of scholarship and intellectual foundation of culture that this country so desperately needs.

We lost several masters last year...

Including my teacher. Great loss. Great, great loss.

This was Dalang Dollah (Abdullah Ibrahim, better known as Dalang Baju Merah), right? And it doesn't seem as if there is a new generation of Kelantanese, for example, who are attracted to these traditional forms, or who are emerging as future masters. Is the younger generation losing their cultural heritage? Do they feel disconnected from it?

Erm. We have lost, in all the years that I've worked there now in Kelantan, close to 15 years, I've seen master after master die at an average of one per year.

Dalang Abdullah's death was, for me personally, the biggest blow. He was my mentor, he was my teacher, he was really like a father to me. And he was my foundation in Kelantan.

He was also one of the most intelligent, witty, funny, subversive, stubborn man I've ever encountered. His spirit of rebellion was incredible!

I remember his rebelliousness. He didn't just deal with the PAS government. He dealt with cultural bureaucrats from the Ministry of Culture all those years ago who told him he should perform a different kind of wayang kulit , that it should be tamed, not be so naugthy (chuckles).

And he resisted. He resisted for 30 years. And because he possesses that very distinctive wayang temperament (laughs).

What wayang temperament is is another book altogether. But yes, his passing basically marks or signifies the passing of an entire, not just generation, but a particular attitude and particular approach to traditional theatre.

Things like wayang kulit, mak yong, and so on are not dead. There are younger practitioners taking it on but they are not of the same (pauses) gravitas, and they are not of the same stature. And they do not possess the kind of deep knowledge of the tradition as the past masters.

Dalang Dollah used to laugh at younger dalangs. He used to mock them, really. He called them 'TV dalang'. And what he meant by 'TV dalang' was basically, you performed a wayang as if it were a TV show, right.

And so, it was all about getting two puppets together and bashing them, and making a few coarse jokes, vulgar jokes, and entertaining the audience.

For him, wayang was different. He was hugely popular but he combined entertainment with tremendous skill, great understanding of character. And what is understanding of character? It is understanding of human nature. And the battles that go on between human beings. And of course, he had a deep knowledge of the metaphorical dimensions of wayang and the parablic dimensions of wayang.

You don't get that now with the younger dalang. In this way, I'm deeply pessimistic. I do not think that wayang kulit or mak yong will die or go extinct. But I think they will just lose all sense of the tremendous vitality they once had.

Is there no way of regaining it?

Er, it's hard to say. I don't know. That I don't know.

Because it's not just about getting the knowledge, you see. It's about being of a certain temperament, right.

And many of the older practitioners complain about this. That the younger generation is really less open. Their minds are less open and their spirits are less open. So, we may have progressed in terms of facilities and assistance and so on.

But the older generation of performers, many of them are oralists, they're not literate. But their sense of the world is so much vaster, and they always complain that the younger generation do not have that vast appreciation of what the world, they use the word dunia, ya, is and can be.

As for the young, when we host performances in Kelantan, we get a very, very good audience. Pusaka makes it a point to host performances in local settings. We (are) talking basically village setting, kampung settings. Deep sometimes, in Bachok, or wherever it is.

And we never get fewer than 300 people at a performance, including some very young people. But the attitude of the young is very interesting. Because do they feel disconnected from it? Ya, perhaps slightly.

Erm, and they are ambivalent about what all this means. And very often their response is one of uncertainty, and it's a very awkward kind of response. Except for young kids, of course. Wayang kulit is stunning to see for young kids. Eight-year-olds, nine-year-olds, they are fixated.

But you know we are doing - I've just received this (DiGi) Amazing Malaysian thing (laughs self-consciously) - but we do this incredible project, erm, with dikir barat and mak yong music and wayang kulit, and I think we are engaging about 50 or 60 children around the local community, from the schools, and I'll be very, very interested then at looking at how - and again, these are autonomous efforts, ya, they're not ministry guided or anything - and I'm very keen on trying to identify the psychology that goes on there and really looking for one or two younger students who really have it in them, who are captivated by it, and then maybe engaging them to really study seriously and take it up as something they could do.

You're not Kelantanese. You're not Malay. And yet you have steeped your adult life in learning and preserving these traditional forms. How did that happen? And what has it meant to you personally?

I love that question. It's always asked of me. And I used to get very irritated at one time but you know...

Remember, I'm as hybrid as hybrid can be. There are two answers to this question, both of which I will give you.

One is, personal and autobiographical and says a lot about the nature of upbringing and how it is absolutely crucial and essential.

Because my parents are wonderful people. My father, he's a man who firmly believes in the principle of cultural interaction. Firmly. Very principled in that.

And he was also one of the architects of the nation, whom I think, and I say I think, right, (because) he may not agree with me, I think has been very disappointed by how the nation has evolved.

But nevertheless, in terms of upbringing, my father is Chinese, my mother is Indian. And my father is a minority among the Chinese. Peranakan, ya. My mother is a minority among the Indians. Jaffna Tamil.

So, you have this minority within minority condition, which is a very interesting dynamic. And I was raised by a Malay woman, right. All my formative years as a child was spent with this Malay woman.

And so, it was an extremely multicultural house. I was instantly exposed to a whole variety of languages, to a whole variety of cultural experiences, and to a climate of openness within the very setting of my home that has made me hold on to and made me root myself very firmly in that openness, which is cultural openness.

And what I also witnessed in my own home, of course, is how this is played out in practical terms. What kind of negotiations you make. And they don't need to be articulated, they don't need to be politicised. (For example), we don't cook pork at home.

And my home name is Din. (Laughs) Very, very bizarre sometimes, walking on the streets, and (somebody yells out) 'Din!' You know, you actually turn and look. I react, absolutely.

So, you begin to see how these things are put into practice. How these negotiations are made, how these concessions are made. And the wealth and the richness that comes from that experience.

I find it impossible, it is impossible in flesh and blood and in the very core of my existence, to not go into a cultural context and not feel a sense of belonging. I just find it impossible.

I travel widely now. There's no cultural context into which I go and do not feel curiosity and do not feel a sense of belonging. And do not feel this working in my mind of making associations, you know. The human connectedness.

You know I did my Masters in archaeology which is very, very interesting because you begin to understand when you study and begin to look at the earliest human civilisations, that we were, from the very beginning, connected. Whether it was through conflict, or whether it was through confluence. The nice way or the negative way, human beings are always connected.

And I'm then extremely fortunately to be born one, into that family, two, into this country, and three into this region that for me encapsulates, in very firm ways, what cultural openness is all about.

That we are continuing to refute and deny that these days says a lot about where we have come at least, politically.

But nevertheless, we still have the opportunity to appreciate all that.

People say, you're not Kelantanese, you're not Malay (chuckles). Well, I've never had problems with Kelantan. When I went there, I was extremely nervous because you have this stereotype of what a Kelantanese (is), that somehow they are extremely insular or they're not very welcoming or accommodating. What is the word they use? Clique-ish!

I didn't find that at all. I found the Kelantanese community, in particular the traditional theatre community in which I found myself, to be extremely sophisticated, very cultivated, and very open.

And a lot of this I saw, of course, in my own dalang. And you know, Malay-ness is all about belonging.

What is Malay-ness? Malay-ness is about the fact that everybody can belong, you know. It is so incredibly complex culturally. What we know of the Malay today is political.

If you are asked to define the Malay, you do so in Constitutional terms. Not in cultural terms because the Malay world experience in this country is so vast. The Negri Sembilan experience is completely different culturally from the cultural experience of its neighbour, Johor, or Malacca. Of course, Kelantan then becomes a completely alien place altogether.

Now this is a problem for politics. It's not a problem for culture. In fact, in cultural terms, this is what wealth, and this is what richness is all about.

So, I have never felt alienated. And even when I was in school, as a mixed child, it was very difficult, all the jibes in an increasingly racialised and polarised society. That was the beginning, 1970s onwards when you really had this kind of intense racial feelings. But, I felt most comfortable with the Malays. Somehow there was this cultural openness among Malays that I didn't find even in members of my own two races, the Chinese and the Indians.

And what this means, of course, in the broader sense, is that the Malay world is incredibly open and that it has been forged and it has been comprised of so many influences and that it has a capacity to draw people and allow influences to settle very easily within its own worldview and framework.

That is what it has meant to me, personally. It has also given me a very deep insight into understanding how the workings of history and culture are so interconnected and so inter-related. That's on the positive side.

On the negative side, you also see, for me, the kind of terrible problems that increasing politicisation of race, religion and society can bring about.

On the one hand, I deal with absolute, great masters. When you look at Dalang Dollah perform his opening of the buka panggung, amazing storm clouds that he can create with the tree of life. That's one aspect of the work.

The other aspect of this work is this kind of rigid, ugly, vulgar language and personality. You take a person like Annuar Tan (of PAS). Does he understand sophistication? Does he understand cultural depth? I don't think so.

To me personally, on the intellectual front, is to try and fight against, or challenge this kind of reductivist language.

You know Kelantan, in the field of anthropology, Kelantan is a very important subject. It was one of the greatest cases in the 1960s, 1970s of something that was called psychoanthropology. That is, the anthropology of psychology. How people deal, for example, with depression and so on.

People like Raymond Firth, Carol Laderman, Clive Kessler did formative studies on Kelantan, on things like main puteri. How, from that kind of intellectual level can we be reduced to the kind of vulgar and debased context we find ourselves today in, says a lot about us.

What else, do you think, needs to be done to revive these traditional forms?

On the practical side, a great deal needs to be done. We need to create awareness in terms of appreciating the complex of ideas and the structure of traditional theatre, its nature, its appeal in community, what it means to community, how it shapes individuals and so on.

This great complex of ideas. And we need to create a strong intellectual foundation.

On the broader front, what needs to be done is, I think, Malaysia, as a culture, community, society, and only then, nation, must commit itself to greater self discovery and introspection.

We must matter as people.

Our problem now is, I think, as a community, culture, and so on, that we take ourselves seriously. And that is why we don't see the kind of social investment, we don't see the kind of great development taking place in culture, and by extension then, we don't see a commitment to really generating ideas, discussing ideas, talking at the most profound and far-reaching and visionary ways.

You know, we're all fighting for a better society, it seems. But, it's all on a kind of act and react kind of basis. It's not one that is visionary. And you know, this (Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) administration, for example, I think is a very important administration. Because even in terms of culture, and so on, what this country needs is one, it needs to come to terms with the past 22 years because I think we bring with us very deep wounds, right, about who we are as a people, and what really our desires and aspirations are.

There is, for example, a kind of frustration creeping in with this new administration, but we have to be very aware that what is proposed is very radical, right. And is very progressive but whether we have the resolve, whether we have the foresight, and whether we have the openness to begin to engage and talk about what we really are and who we really are. Then, everything is going to be neutralised.

My fear with Malaysia is not that it's going to fragment or break but our greatest challenge now is battling a culture of mediocrity and nothingness. The great challenge for our country is whether we can transcend our culture of mediocrity and nothingness.