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.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Malaysia’s Own Guantanamo

By Carmen Nge

On the eve of Christmas last year, the Special Branch officers milling around the Bar Council were treated to a rare sight: makciks with their tudung labuh and grandkids in tow; gangs of punk kids in their black garb and combat boots; lawyers and youth of all hues and stripes; yuppies and the office-going crowd looking a little weary after a long day’s work; Malays, Chinese, Indians, Mat and Minah Sallehs, and Malaysians of indistinguishable ethnic origins; wizened aunties and uncles of various generations; families from as far away as Negeri Sembilan; social activists, political agitators, politicians, bloggers, netizens, Mat and Minah Rempits, the famous, the infamous and the not-so famous were slowly trickling into the auditorium on the 1st floor. To watch a play.

Theatre aficionados who flock to KLPac and various other urban, middle-class enclaves would have been surprised if they had shown up that night. There were no playbills, no glossy posters, no theatre café, no parking. Neither were there a proscenium stage, fancy lighting and well-designed restrooms. Tickets by donation were priced at a modest RM10 and all proceeds went to the families of current ISA detainees. This was indeed theatre for the masses and updated agitprop theatre at its best, the likes of which have not been seen in the KL arts scene for a long time.

Despite its no frills venue and staging, Teater Bilik Sulit proved to be a powerful, emotionally wrought and highly visceral performance by a group of young actors who were brought together to enact scenes derived from the real life experiences of former ISA detainees. The play was directed by the extremely talented young actor, Mislina Mustaffa and an aging hippie who had seen the world after university only to return home to see the insides of an ISA detention camp—he of tukartiub.blogspot fame, Hishamuddin Rais.

Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism, “Life imitates art” could not have been farther from the truth that night. Teater Bilik Sulit was the epitome of art imitating life and its successful attempt at performatively rendering a crucial slice of Malaysia’s sordid past and present history. It challenged Malaysian critics of the United States’ treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay detention camp to turn their eyes to their own shores, where ISA detainees are given similar treatment.

Abdullah, the protagonist and ISA detainee in the play, was decked out in a bright orange outfit, eerily similar to the ones worn by detainees in Guantanamo. Physically and psychologically abused by the Special Branch (SB) officers who interrogated him for hours on end, Abdullah remained mute and blindfolded for much of the performance. His cowering and trembling persona was well complemented by the brash bravado of the SB interrogators, so superbly acted that many in the audience remarked on their authentic portrayals.

The good cop-bad cop routine so familiar to us from TV crime dramas became larger than life on stage. Two clean-cut SB officers of very different proportions were Laurel and Hardy, SB-style —the more kinetic and physically assertive of the two was small-sized and wiry, full of a repressed fury that could not be controlled; his partner was tall and burly, managing to physically intimidate with his booming voice and, despite his potbelly, to assault Abdullah repeatedly. The lone good cop was predictably mustachioed but uncharacteristically good-looking, playing up his affability, coated with a veneer of condescension. Their language was crude, coarse, contemptible, and their conversation displayed unabashed vacuousness and seamy, sexualized banter.

These were not the TV cops with high levels of acuity. The SB officers portrayed in Teater Bilik Sulit were base and barbaric, corrupt and inhumane; they were rats in the sewers of Malaysian politics, where Datuks called the shots.

But arresting and disturbing scenes of humiliation and torture could not upstage the most powerful performance of the night, which was undoubtedly that of Abdullah’s wife. For the better part of the play, she was just a disembodied voice floating across the stage, asking questions of those who came to take away her husband in the night, demanding answers from police officers and lawyers, and reassuring her children with songs and jokes. We heard her but did not see her, we knew she was there but we did not see her plight. Under Hishamuddin’s direction, the female figure was relegated to the margins, hiding behind the scenes of the ISA machine.

As is the case with real life, the wives of ISA detainees are marginal figures in the media landscape, occupying a space hidden from public view and under the guise of privacy protection. In truth, these women are activists in their own right; some of them have continued to champion the cause in the absence of their husbands, many have fought hard for the release of their loved ones despite the futility of the task, and all of them have had to work tirelessly to feed their families as single parents. But few of us are aware of this.

For the final performance, however, (when Hishamuddin Rais was out of the country) the young actors decided to take matters into their own hands and to enable the physical emergence of Abdullah’s wife onstage. This spontaneous act of theatrical rebellion was the pièce de résistance of the night and dramatically heightened and explained Abdullah’s eventual retaliation at the dénouement of the play.

When Abdullah addressed the audience at the very end of Teater Bilik Sulit, his was a rousing call for continued struggle to fight for the abolishment of ISA and recognition that people no longer accepted such a draconian law. In many ways, these final lines of the script were predictable but the resounding applause of the hundreds of Malaysians who came to watch, night after night, proved to be emphatic endorsement of the play’s message.


This review was originally published in Off The Edge magazine, Feb 2009 issue.


Anonymous Pedro said...

Enjoy reading your Blog :)

Cheers from Portugal

November 13, 2009 1:12 AM

Anonymous Carmen said...

Thanks Pedro from Portugal.... are you by any chance by neighbour Pedro from Cambridge, MA? I had neighbours called Pedro and Cristina who were from Spain when I lived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s.

Just checking! :-)

November 18, 2009 12:22 PM

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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