Friday, May 8, 2009

Mak Yong: Yet another Malay Dilemma

I remember Mubin Sheppard telling me several decades ago that mak yong will never die; that it will live for ever. He saw magic in it, but did not refer to what would keep it going. In all likelihood it was a pious wish.

Since then much has happened to mak yong. Several generations of leading artistes from the thirties to the present have passed away since the mid-seventies of the last century. When I did my early research several of the “giants” of mak yong were still around. Today we don’t even have dwarfs left. Mak yong has become urbanized and is better known outside Kelantan than it was before. Considerably transformed, it has taken a position of some importance at the National Arts and Heritage Academy (ASWARA), and, occasionally, courses are offered in various performing arts programmes in local universities, resulting in performances of diverse hues, thus raising important questions related to what mak yong really is.

I have been working on this genre since 1975 as researcher, writer, lecturer and promoter. The timing of my fieldwork in Kelantan, done for my doctoral dissertation entitled “The Kelantan Mak Yong Dance Theatre: A Study of Performance Structure” (1976), was certainly fortuitous, given that so many highly important mak yong personalities, active or otherwise, were still around. It was also fortunate that I managed to collect a considerable amount of information, material that has taken years of follow-up work and many published papers. Apart from trying to understand what mak yong was/is and how it was/is performed, I have continued working in increasing depth on aspects such as origins, functions, spiritual and psychological beliefs connected with mak yong, as well as on some of its rituals, rituals which mak yong has in common with several other Kelantanese traditional theatre forms. I also documented almost the entire dramatic repertoire of mak yong in 1975-1976 in Kelantan and several following years. No one else in the world has done as much.

Jean Cuisinier had looked at mak yong, as one of several ritual dances, in her work, Danses Magiques de Kelantan (1936), indicating some possible connection with main puteri. Sheppard, in some ways the first person to describe mak yong in a more accessible way, looked at it in very basic, almost layman terms. Some of his “theories” of mak yong origins are self-contradictory, illogical and seriously flawed. Particularly problematic are his attempts to link mak yong to “Malay” royalty since ancient times. I have discussed these in various papers.

Through Sheppard’s leads, William Malm, a highly-regarded musicologist and specialist in Japanese music from Michigan University, Ann Arbor, recorded performances of nine mak yong stories in Kelantan in 1968. The collection of around 100 hours of videotape, housed at his university, became the basis of my own initial research for my doctorate. Sheppard and Malm wrote an article about Malm’s fieldwork in Kelantan, Sheppard got the opening text of a performance transcribed, while Malm wrote a couple of preliminary articles on mak yong music.Patricia Matusky, another American scholar who researched the music of the Kelantan shadow play for her own doctoral theses, has published some work on mak yong music. Hilde Kwam from Sweden did fieldwork and documentation in Malaysia for a doctoral dissertation on mak yong. I have not been able to trace her dissertation as yet, if she has indeed completed it. An Italian, Anna Manichetti, following two Summer visits for research in Malaysia, wrote a general thesis on mak yong for a masters degree from Paris University. Most recently, another American, Patricia Hardwick, wrote an article on mak yong dance; she also has completed fieldwork on mak yong in Kelantan and is now in the final stages of submitting her doctoral dissertation at Indiana University.

Locally, Sunetra Fernando wrote a masters thesis on mengadap rebab, the opening dance in mak yong, several years back. More recently Rosdeen Suboh completed his masters thesis on the peran (comic) role while Sumathi Maniam, compared the story of Anak Raja Gondang with the Jataka tale Sang Thong. I supervised both of them at the University of Malaya. Hardy Shafii completed a doctoral thesis at Universiti Sains Malaysia on management in Mak yong. I have not had the opportunity to read this thesis yet. I am still wondering what management Hardy managed to find in mak yong. The writer himself has been evasive. Jamilah Tahir has very recently completed work on her masters thesis on the peran role at Universiti Sains Malaysia.

As far as I am aware, the above is the sum total of completed academic work on mak yong. There are, of course, others who claim to have done “research” on the subject, and a plethora of entries of various types, including some highly dubious ones, have been uploaded on websites, in which writers give credit to themselves and to others for having done this or that for mak yong, most of the time without evidence to support their claims.

Mak yong came to be recognized as an item of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005, as a result of a submission that I prepared for the Malaysian Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage. Since then there has been much popular “interest” in mak yong. Virtually unknown or long-lost performers have resurfaced, suddenly “interested” in or concerned about the imminent demise of their heritage, seeing it as their “duty” to save mak yong; existing groups have been split to create new ones, others have mushroomed overnight, at times made up of persons without any background in the genre. As far as can be seen, the sudden interest has come about not because mak yong has all of a sudden become precious, but because money has begun to flow.

But even as this supposed “revival” is taking place, there is much that is wrong with the way in which mak yong is understood and treated at nearly every level in the country. And it continues to decline where it matters, in the rural or semi-rural communities where it came into being in the first place.

Quite a number of mak yong artistes, as well as those who worked on the mak yong-main puteri combination, have passed away in the past two to three years. Among these Zainab Junun, Sa’ari Abdullah and Che Man Gabus were the best known. Many others have become too old to perform, or have just given up, languishing, their interest totally sapped. All in all the numbers have dwindled seriously, and there are no replacements, basically because there is no support of any kind, no genuine interest in mak yong. And our concern should not be just with numbers, but with what the artists had or still have to offer. Today it is impossible to get reliable information about mak yong from any newly-emerged performer. Thus original research work, as far as mak yong is concerned, is as good as ended.

Yet, when it comes to publishing existing research material, no matter how important, there are problems, connected mainly with what, in general terms, is termed “politics”. In traditional performing arts, including mak yong, there is a certain amount of material lying around in various forms, including theses and dissertations mentioned above. At least some of this merits consideration for publication. Commercial publishers avoid such material for clearly there is no market for it. Academic publishers, including university presses have not shown interest in such material or remain unaware of its very existence.

My own material on mak yong, sufficient to fill a dozen or more volumes, suffers the same fate. The best of it should, in my own view, be published by reputable world publishers rather than by those in Malaysia, to maintain its integrity as well as to get the widest possible exposure. I am working towards that. Yet, there is some of my material, particularly in Bahasa Melayu or the Kelantanese dialect, that should be published locally, despite certain risks. I have sounded out officials in the Ministry of Culture in its various incarnations, as well as its subsidiaries, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, and ASWARA. I have written proposals and have had direct discussions with appropriate persons. There have either been plenty of assurances and no follow through, or, in some instances, there has not even been the courtesy of an official response.

Apart from sheer lack of interest, it appears that cronyism is also a vital consideration. Mediocre and error-ridden material can be published if one is close to certain people, and also, naturally, if what one submits, accurate or inaccurate, good or otherwise, meets with their often unstated interests and policies. In addition, there are genuine risks and dangers of thievery, hijacking and plagiarism, to the extent that no material given to the agencies I have mentioned is safe.

I can confirm this in the case of mak yong scripts I collected and got transcribed during my own research in the mid-1970’s. Through the kind courtesy of ASWARA these have become everybody’s property, and persons who had nothing to do with them have been financially rewarded for claiming “authorship”. I can confirm such a situation in the case of the UNESCO Candidature File for which, as the consultant researcher and writer, I am yet to receive as much as a single word of thanks, while the country’s success in getting mak yong recognized is being trumpeted all over the world. I can confirm this in connection with the volume on mak yong, to be published in commemoration of the UNESCO recognition. The entire project, proposed by me at the Ministry’s invitation, and almost completed, was hijacked, together with whatever essays were submitted by me and by authors I invited into the project, as well as my slides, photographs and even a copy of my Ph.D dissertation.

These materials have been sitting in the Heritage (Warisan) Division of the Ministry since 2005; they have been freely used and distributed by the Warisan Division without my permission or any acknowledgement, in total disregard for copyright laws. No matter what I have done up to this point, these materials have not been restored to me. So, in this case it is nothing but total denial, a refusal to give credit or recognition where it is due, blatant daylight robbery. I suppose all of this is being done in the national interest, untuk bangsa dan negara, with the fullness of budi, bahasa, budaya and what have you.

And, as far as the UNESCO proposal is concerned, unfortunately the Heritage people have not shown any serious commitment even to the master plan submitted with the Candidature File. It appears that all they were interested in was the title, and, naturally, there is a great deal of noise about this achievement. As things stand they have failed miserably in achieving the targets of the master plan. I would venture that hardly 10% of the plan has been implemented. In it there is the commitment, among other things, to ensure that, by a certain date, mak yong is thriving in several of the states as well as at the National level, while being internationally known, like previous recipients of the award, such as Indonesia’s wayang kulit purwa and the Cambodian royal ballet.

Apart from the basic attitude problem and the sense of arrogance, if one tries to understand why mak yong has gone the way it has, apart from the Kelantan government’s rules banning it, one can summarize that there is much in mak yong that is, in a fashion, “Malay” but also a great deal that comes into direct conflict with Islam. This is the dilemma and instead of admitting it and allowing mak yong to die, which, in fact. is what is happening anyway, there is a glorious pretense that mak yong is a significant item of Malay heritage, and that it must be kept alive. This brings us back to a vital question: What kind of mak yong is to be preserved, and if mak yong is transformed to such an extent that it becomes acceptable to orthodox Malay Muslims will it still be mak yong?

I stated this dilemma in a paper presented at the International Conference on Performing Arts as Creative Industries in Asia (University of Malaya, 27-28 February 2008). Briefly, it comes in the form of three major problems. The first has to do with the aesthetics of mak yong. The changes that have been brought into this genre, particularly in the entertainment variety of mak yong performed outside the traditional folk setting, have resulted in the loss of the very integrity of the genre. The second is the problem of dramatic content. The entire corpus of stories in mak yong, local or borrowed, consists of pre-Islamic myths, at one time certainly, and to some extent still “sacred” in character among mak yong artists, with central characters who are demigods or gods (dewa). They remain important in rituals aimed at bringing about healing or a sense of well-being. Hence they will not be easily abandoned by performers. The third is the fact that every mak yong performance is a sort of rite, a rite which takes place in sacred space and in sacred time, a major rite incorporating lesser but highly significant rites. All performances connect performers and traditional audience members with the invisible.

When Sheppard said that mak yong, which, in his opinion, had existed since the days of Langkasuka, would never die, he was not being a prophet (although some in this country regard him as a dewa). Perhaps he did not see the strong animistic and non-Islamic elements in mak yong, found them exotic, or, like many others before and after him, pretended they were not there. He certainly had a problem trying to reconcile Mak Hiang with “Malay” royalty. Perhaps he did not anticipate the oncoming conflict between Islam and Malay culture that has become full-blown in the past couple of decades.

My own feeling is that, given the current situation, policies and attitudes, mak yong will just die a natural death before long, with the last of the traditional performers gone, unless, of course, one is prepared to believe that what ASWARA is claiming to be mak yong is indeed mak yong.


To revisit some of the issues connected with the origins and development of mak yong, The Asian Cultural Heritage Centre Berhad is organising a one-day bilingual seminar on the theme: Mak Yong: Origins and Historical Development/Mak Yong: Asal-Usul dan Sejarah on July 25 2009 in Kuala Lumpur. Those interested can contact the writer at or