Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Emergency Festival : Preview
by Carmen Nge

From rumblings of party hopping and government takeovers to mud-slinging and racist remarks uttered by our so-called political representatives, a casual observer of the Malaysian socio-political scene may be tempted to classify our post-March 8 period as chaotic, a time of great instability and disorder. Historians would remind us that six decades ago, Malaysia (or Malaya, at that time) was going through a crisis of similar proportions involving more nefarious stakeholders in the creation of a new nation: the British colonial government, UMNO and the MCP (Malayan Communist Party).

The Emergency period, as taught in textbooks, was riddled with violence and state repression; the period also presumably signaled our national hatred for communists and eventually provided the conditions for our independence. Victor and villain, oppressor and oppressed, were carefully constructed and embedded into a static textual past, newly imbibed and inculcated each year into the young minds entering the Malaysian education system.

Fortunately, not every young mind is so wont to feed on the ‘truth’ advanced and propagated by the state. Off The Edge had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Teh, one of the young minds responsible for engaging with this tumultuous time in our nation’s history to culminate in a multi-arts event: The Emergency Festival, scheduled for mid-October at the Central Market Annexe.

OTE: Why the Emergency Project and why now? In what way has this period in Malaysian history captured your imagination as an arts practitioner?

Mark Teh: Because, contrary to popular belief, Malaysian history is damn exciting and sexy!

I suppose I have always been interested in the issues of authorship and ownership of history. Many Malaysians do not feel ownership of our history – it is dismissed as boring and irrelevant, or history is presented as irrefutable 'facts' cast in stone. Broadly speaking, I see our informal collective’s work as concerned with re-presenting and reorganizing, not just recording, local history. I am interested in exhausting the facts of history and using these as a starting point for dialogue because very often, the 'facts of history' are used to limit or end discussion.

The Emergency Festival! follows on from a series of projects that have attempted to examine and re-present marginalized Malayan-Malaysian histories. These have included creating installations for the Home Fronts (SENI Singapore 2004) and Crossovers & Rewrites: BORDERS over ASIA (World Social Forum 2005, Porto Alegre) exhibitions; the Directors’ Workshop 5 – CPM in 2005 (out of which the dramatic performance piece, Baling (membaling) evolved into a university and college touring production); Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari and documentary film, 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Conveniently, this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, and provides a good opportunity to reflect on this fraught period.

The Emergency is often presented officially as a period of great instability and disorder, but it was also a time of multiple possibilities and trajectories of identity, imagination and independence. So many things that still define our lives were forged between 1948 and 1960. Amidst the acts of ‘terror’ and propaganda perpetrated by the British colonial government and the Communists, instruments such as the Identity Card, the Internal Security Act, the New Villages resettlement plan, forced repatriations to China and other policies were introduced. These years also saw one of the biggest political negotiations and media events in our history – the Baling talks of 1955, between future Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng, the most wanted man in the British Empire. And of course, Merdeka in ’57.

Over the past few years, marginal and under-researched narratives of the Emergency years have begun surfacing, through declassified documents, new analyses by historians and social scientists, as well as the publication of many memoirs by early leftist leaders. Many of these publications have begun looking at the social and cultural dimensions of the Emergency, which were neglected by earlier historians. This has certainly inspired us to look anew and ask questions of the past, and consequently, the future of the country.

OTE: Do you think the Emergency period is still relevant today? How might it be relevant, particularly to young people like you?

MT: I think after March 8, as Malaysians come to grips with these changes and try to re-imagine the country with new strategies and vocabularies, the Emergency provides significant insights into the manifold contradictions, compromises, concerns and communities that are involved in such a process. The past holds many clues, lessons, patterns and scars but many of us don’t know this. The education system has been very successful in this regard, in implementing a politics of forgetting. Certainly one of the clear parallels with both periods is the political role played by young people in attempting to move beyond a racialist framework for defining Malaysia.

OTE: Why did you and your team decide to embark on an Emergency Festival and not just have a screening of Fahmi Reza's film about the period? What possible outcomes do you hope for?

MT: Because we don’t want to feed Fahmi’s megalomania, heh!

I think this is actually the logical step in our collaborations over the past few years. Our process as a group has evolved from the youth- and community-based art projects where we worked as facilitators, to the more recent documentary/history projects where we have worked directly on making installations; visual artist/filmmakers/designers performing, etc.

For me at least, engaging with different media allows for more diverse ways of seeing, thinking and experiencing the issues we deal with. We have pursued a collaborative mode of working, particularly with regards to content. And our content tends to look at and blur the lines between fact, fiction, fantasy and memory. We are not particularly concerned with arriving at an agreed perspective of the Emergency anyway; certainly, personally I am comfortable with presenting and negotiating a multiplicity of perspectives and narratives that can contradict or provide commentary on each other.

The other idea I think is to engage with different creative people who have done significant research into this area, even if they don’t perceive what they do as research (particularly in Re:Search Re:Source). There are many forward-thinking people who have built up impressive personal collections of Malaysian books, music, film, paraphernalia, etc – I think partly in reaction to the poor job that our institutions do. So, it is important to tap into resources beyond ourselves. And of course, to draw on their audiences!

I hope that the festival engages and connects Malaysians with their history – that they see it as exciting and sexy too. And that history can be highly creative and participatory – once again, issues of authorship and ownership really.

The Emergency Festival! will take place at the Annexe@Central Market from 16 – 26 October 2008. This mini festival of performances, art exhibitions and installations, film screenings, talks and workshops will investigate and re-present narratives and images from the first Malayan Emergency, from 1948 to 1960.

Parallel to this, the festival will also look at the emergence of the early local film industry, which overlaps the same period. Film afficionados and historians will get to view rare films, propaganda and documentation made by the Communist guerillas during and after the Emergency as well as anti-Communist propaganda clips from the Emergency era.

One of the centerpieces of the festival will be the much-anticipated premiere of Revolusi 48, Fahmi Reza’s follow-up to the hugely successful, award-winning documentary film, Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka.

In addition to the film screenings, there will also be performances led by Hari Azizan, Fahmi Fadzil and Mark Teh, which deal with themes, issues and events such as the setting up of the New Villages and the impact of resettlement on individuals and communities, and the Baling talks of 1955 between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng.

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