Friday, February 20, 2004

Ulasan Urbanscapes di The Asian Wall Street Journal, 13 February 2004

Arts: A Breath of Fresh Air --- Will Malaysia's New Leadership Loosen the Hold Over the Arts?
By Azhar Sukri

KUALA LUMPUR -- "I just want you to jump -- Don't worry if things bounce a little!" shouted dreadlocked Malaysian pop sensation Reshmonu to his screaming fans, most of them women, some wearing traditional Muslim headscarves.

Earlier this month, many Malaysian Muslims made their way to the holy Saudi Arabian city of Mecca for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage. At about the same time, miles away, several thousand of Kuala Lumpur's youth were getting down at Urbanscapes -- the country's biggest one-day arts and music festival in about seven years. The festival took place just outside the grounds of Sentral, the city's new train hub connecting to Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Long-haired "Mat-rockers," mostly young ethnic Malay men with a penchant for death-metal music and leather jackets -- partied with Chinese and Indian girls in skimpy tops to a heady mix of new-school dance music. Animated short films featuring exploding frogs and decapitated heads ran alongside images of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad juxtaposed with pictures of toilets.

In Malaysia, where censorship is alive and well, it is remarkable that Urbanscapes took place at all. Plays and concerts considered too sexy, or "critical of Malaysian values," are still heavily cut or even banned by the authorities. Just weeks before the festival, Muslim conservatives asked for a ban on an upcoming Mariah Carey concert in Kuala Lumpur because they found her stage outfit too revealing.

To many outsiders, Malaysia represents a bewildering set of paradoxes. Kuala Lumpur has long had a thriving, though underground, gay scene. Yet sodomy was one of the crimes charged against former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar
Ibrahim, who was sentenced in 2000 and remains in prison. Open discussion about homosexuality is still one of the greatest taboos.

Another confusing incident happened just last week. Kuala Lumpur City Hall, the licensing authority for plays and other artistic events, said it would not allow the play "Election Day." The body had, in fact, allowed the play to be performed four years ago, but has now decided that its references to Volkswagen cars and a leading local pharmacy chain may tread on political or commercial sensitivities, and thus make it "too real."

For most Malaysians, though, such contradictions are part of their country's character, and rarely get in the way of more pressing matters such as putting their kids through university. "There's a kind of mediated freedom here," said Sulin Chee, a writer for the lifestyle magazine Klue that organized the Urbanscapes event. By many Western standards, Urbanscapes may not have been such a wild celebration. But for Malaysia, it was an anti-establishment breath of fresh air, fuelled by alcohol and youthful creativity.

The last similar event in the city was a clandestine dance party held at the former Pudu Prison in central Kuala Lumpur in 1997. The event, which attracted almost 1,000 people, featured artists who adorned the walls of jail cells with political works. In the past, organizers have occasionally staged massive, illegal, house music raves in the middle of rain forests or on the palm-fringed beaches of tiny islands.

So perhaps the greatest paradox of all is that Urbanscapes 2004 was fully endorsed by the Kuala Lumpur city government. Does this mean that the country's new leadership may be ready to loosen the reigns on its youth?

The jury is still out. "I don't know whether we're getting any more freedom of speech under the Pak Lah," says Charles, an ethnic Chinese businessman, referring to Mr. Mohammed's successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. "People can still say a lot of things; just look at the newspapers. Just don't talk about certain things, that's all." Those "certain things" tend to be anything to do with race, religion or politics.

While sensitive issues such as politics, race and homosexuality are regularly explored by artists, their outlets tend to be on media which the majority of Malaysians do not have access to. Radiq Radio, for example, was allowed to broadcast its news on human rights and social issues, including several stories on disadvantaged, mostly ethnic Indian, plantation workers.

But the station was unofficially told that its messages would only be tolerated on the Internet, and that its free-to-air broadcasts would be watched more carefully.

Urbanscapes, however, attracted a significant number of artists and activists who have felt the long arm of Malaysian authorities. Perhaps it was their presence, even more than the alcohol and lewd lyrics, which made the festival unique.

One of the exhibits at Urbanscapes was "Just Duit," a seven-minute film by journalist Kean Wong, architect Nani Kahar and political activist Hishamuddin Rais. "Duit" is the Malay word for "money," and refers to an increasingly consumerist Malaysian society. The film, played on a continuous loop, juxtaposed images of Mr. Mahathir with pictures of toilets.

"It's sort of an expression of how the authorities flushed my life away for two years," explains Mr. Hishamuddin. He was released from prison six months ago after being jailed along with other activists under the country's Internal Security Act, which allows for detention without trial for crimes considered a threat to national security.

It may be too soon to tell if the government is really loosening its hold. But after 22 years of Mr. Mahathir's rule, the handover of power to Mr. Abdullah last year has raised hopes that the government will allow greater freedom of artistic expression. Mr. Hishamuddin, for one, is cautiously optimistic. "After the changeover, people are hoping there could be a
process of democratization. If this event is a manifestation of that, then so be it."

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