Recent weeks and months have seen Malaysia and Indonesia locked in argument on the ownership of certain traditional performing arts forms: the shadow play (wayang kulit), reog, the song “Rasa Sayang”, and even the Malaysian national anthem, resulting from attempts by Malaysia to exploit some of these forms for the promotion of tourism. The most recent item to join this list is the Balinese pendet dance, an issue quickly resolved due to its relative lack of complexity.
All in all, given the geography of the region, Malaysia’s demographic make-up as well as its cultural history, there is much that this country shares with or has borrowed from Indonesian as well as other cultures. This is particularly the case with Sabah and Sarawak due to the common border between the two countries, and fact that political borders to not necessary coincide with cultural realities on the ground. In the present situation, certain broader issues are involved, not all of which can be touched upon here. Some of these may, however, become clearer in a discussion of the most important traditional theatre genres active in Malaysia.
The once Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage Datuk Seri Rais Yatim, who is now currently back as Minister in the renamed Ministry of Information, Communications and Culture and others have acknowledged the basic truth that certain genres of performing arts, such as wayang kulit, and reog in fact, came into Malaysia from Indonesia, while mak yong may have had its origins in Thailand.
Reog or barongan in several variant styles, and the better known and highly spectacular Barong of Bali, all possibly derived from the simple forms of barongan still active on the island of Java. Essentially they were and to some extent still are ritual theatre forms intended for village cleansing, chasing away malicious influences and healing. Similarly kuda kepang, the gamelan and many other forms of dance and music spread to the Malay peninsula from various parts of Indonesia essentially with the immigration of peoples. More difficult to deal with are various forms of performance that have “Islamic” or Middle Eastern elements in them—hamdolok, hadrah and, dabus, for instance. These also arrived in Malaysia not directly from the Middle East but through Indonesia.
However, coming back to the major forms of theatre active in various parts of peninsular Malaysia, we can focus on wayang kulit, mak yong, menora and bangsawan.
In recent decades four forms of wayang kulit have been active in peninsular Malaysia: wayang kulit purwa, wayang kulit Siam, wayang kulit gedek and wayang kulit Melayu. Of these wayang kulit Siam, renamed wayang kulit Kelantan, is the most important.
In essence there are several major theories regarding the origins of the shadow play, suggesting its first emergence in India, Java, China or Central Asia, with India having a strong claim due to the story-content and several other features, such as iconography or performance styles. The most important stories in many Southeast Asian shadow play forms are, after all, based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and some of the rituals have strong Hindu elements, besides those derived from animism and Islam. But Java too has a strong claim to the shadow play based on antiquity, the greatest variety of regional forms, important elements within performances as well as functions. On that island is to be found wayang kulit purwa, the most important form of wayang, historically as well as aesthetically, active for more than a thousand years.
Of the four forms in Malaysia, three came from Java, while wayang kulit gedek, spread from Thailand, where, known as nang talung, it is performed in the southern provinces, but is no longer active in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Melayu has also become extinct in Malaysia. Wayang kulit Siam/Kelantan is the most important. Although Kelantanese puppeteers (dalang) hold a view that it came from southern Thailand, internal evidence points to a Javanese origin. Following adaptation, however, it has developed certain distinct characteristics of its own. In the meantime several new forms have sprouted in Kelantan due to the official ban on wayang kulit Siam.
Mak yong, found only in the Malaysia, Thailand and parts of Indonesia, has its own interesting development. It is usually associated with the Kelantan-Patani region, without any clear indication of where exactly it may have originally come into being. Various claims state its origins in Besut, once part of Kelantan but presently in Terengganu, in Patani. now in Thailand, and even further afield in Langkasuka, Champa, Sumatra and so on. None of these theories is supported by any evidence. It is clear that it reached Indonesia, at least in recent history, from somewhere along the east coast of the Malay peninsula. It is still active in southern Thailand, and there is much in mak yong that can be considered Thai or Buddhist. Among its most important stories a couple are set in Java, and Anak Raja Gondang is a Buddhist Jataka tale also known and performed in Thailand and Cambodia along with several others in the mak yong’s dramatic repertoire. But Thailand and Cambodia, for whatever reason, do not claim mak yong. I suspect this is mainly because the performances are done in the Kelantan-Patani dialect of Malay. Whether or not the element of language alone makes mak yong Malay is a moot question.
In many ways similar to mak yong, yet very different from it, is menora (lakon chatri), a form of dance theatre which developed in southern Thailand. It was fairly active until recent times in Kedah, Perlis and Kelantan, but is now done only by a troupe or two, as well as, occasionally, by visiting troupes from Thailand, which come in mainly in connection with Buddhist temple festivals, performing in the states mentioned as well as in Penang. There is no doubt about its animist and shamanic origins and its strong Buddhist flavouring. There have been attempts to combine menora with mak yong, but due to menora’s ritual origins and functions, Malay performers usually serve merely as musicians and dancers; they do not hold principal roles. Somehow when it comes to mak yong, almost identical origins in animism and rituals are conveniently ignored.
That leaves bangsawan as the last important traditional theatre form active in Malaysia. As far as history is concerned much more is known regarding bangsawan compared to those forms already mentioned due to its more recent origins, in the 1880’s, as a successor to the Urdu-Hindustani Parsee Theatre of India. More widely spread than the other genres, bangsawan became the first truly Malayan and even Pan-Malayan form of theatre, at least as far as its distribution and popularity was concerned. This was due to its urban locus, its interesting and relatively “modern” staging, as well as the use of standard Bahasa Melayu instead of local dialects. It is still occasionally performed in several states in present-day Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Brunei. Bangsawan remains a highly eclectic theatre form with elements from the west, Middle East, India as well as closer home from Java and elsewhere incorporated into performances based upon an equally diverse dramatic repertoire. In its early decades, Indian-Muslims, Babas, Chinese, Malays as well as Eurasians were involved as artistes, in some instances with their own troupes or as owners (towkay) of bangsawan companies. With the process of deliberate and sustained “Malay-isation” following independence, bangsawan came to be regarded as a Malay form of theatre.
There exist several other lesser forms that need not take too much our time as far as the drift of our present discussion goes: various supposed offshoots of bangsawan such as jikay which may have connections with the Thai likay and Cambodia yikey; randai which is clearly a Minangkabau theatre style active in Negeri Sembilan; mek mulung which, like mak yong, has strong Thai influences, to name but the most developed of the lesser forms. It is also worth mentioning that several proto-theatre forms, such as selampit, awang batil as well as ritual varieties of performances such as bagih, belian and main puteri may still be seen. These in fact may be indigenous to the region, and this Malaysia shares with Indonesia, and similar forms in the Philippines.
To return to our key question: Can any of these major and even the lesser theatre styles be regarded as Malay or even Malaysian? Obviously there is no simple answer to this question, looking at the origins and characteristic features of the various genre as well as the ongoing controversies between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms clearly demonstrate. It is evident that apart from wayang kulit Siam and bangsawan, which underwent localisation in Malaysia, the rest are still performed in Indonesia or Thailand little changed from the past, and are thus clearly native to those countries. There is of course, always the question of first origin, or even shared origin. Given the movement of peoples over the past two millennia, cultural forms have travelled far and wide and along the way became transformed and localized. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the shadow play, given its wide prevalence in countries between north Africa and China as well as Fiji. We can thus literally go on arguing about these issues until the cows come home.
The complexity arises, basically, due to the fact that current political boundaries have served to distort the reality of a time before the existence of the nation-states of Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, with the tendency to see cultural forms from the perspective of national boundaries.
To add to this, Malaysia wishes and attempts, wherever convenient, to see the whole picture in the context of “Nusantara”, and the “Malay World/Dunia Melayu”, both terms relatively new, vague and defined without any degree of precision. The primary tools in this perspective are race and language—the assumption that all the many races and native communities of the region belong to the fold of the “Malay”. This is an assumption that is clearly wrong, despite the use of the term “Malayo-Polynesian”, a recently-invented, artificial and convenient label at best, as recent discussion on it has tried to establish, to refer to the peoples of the region.
“Nusantara” as a term has similar problems and would mean a different thing if seen from the Indonesian or Javanese rather than from the Malay perspective. Clearly the vast majority of the peoples of “Nusantara” and “Dunia Melayu” do not see themselves as Malays. And the so-called "Malay" population of peninsular Malaysia is largely made-up of such peoples (the Mandailing, the Bugis, the Achehnese , the Javanese, the Minangkabau, and so on), peoples belonging to what may be more accurately termed the Indonesian diasapora, a diaspora which began way back during the early centuries CE, with greater intensity during and following the Buddhist Srivijaya empire (c.7-13th centuries), the largely Hindu Majapahit empire (1298-1500) and still continues. It is these communities, and possibly others from the north and later from the west that brought into the Malay peninsula, in addition to much else, the various theatre forms already discussed above, and many varieties of dance and music.
When it comes to language, similar problems arise through a misunderstanding that Malay or Bahasa Melayu is the “native” language of the various communities of the region, and even beyond the region. Clearly the vast majority of Indonesians would reject such a claim, as would the Filipinos who also see themselves in some ways as ethnic Malays. Bahasa Melayu, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia and other such terms, taken from different nationalistic perspective, refer to a language that has become, to some extent, the lingua-franca of the region, and in some countries as “official” or national language. That does not make it a native language of the various peoples. Despite using it as a national language, the indigenous Bumiputera communities even of Sabah and Sarawak, do not regard Bahasa Melayu as their “native language” or “mother tongue”.
As language is the primary medium of the performance of theatre in addition to other innate elements (aesthetic aspects, underlying beliefs, rituals and so on) to be found in each of the genres, the various genres discussed above cannot, in any way, be regarded in a standardized manner as belonging to one culture, even though they are active within the political borders of any one nation state-- borders, as already indicated, often arbitrary and artificial. In the case of Indonesia, for instance, given the country’s vast size and extent, there are considerable differences in theatre forms active in its provinces and islands encompassing diverse cultures of equally diverse communities. To assume they are all homogeneous would be an over- simplification, and to suggest that they are all Malays, grossly inaccurate.
Hence the current conflict between Malaysia and Indonesia on cultural forms.