Mark Teh

Five Arts Centre
Emergence of a new generation of artists

Dec. 21, 2016
Mark Teh

Mark Teh

In 1983 in the multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual country of Malaysia, Five Arts Centre is a collective of artists and producers that recently received the prestigious 2016 Praemium Imperiale Grant for Young Artists. Mark Teh (born 1981), a member of the Five Arts collective who grew up in Malaysia’s era of high economic growth rate under former Prime Minister Mahathir and began participating in Five Arts from his student years, is an artist of the new generation noted for such activities as community art projects and the more than ten-year Baling Project that has gathered materials about the Malaysian independence movement and interviewed surviving participants and witnesses.

In this interview, Mark talks about the environment surrounding members of his generation in Malaysia, known as the “Mahathir Baby Generation” and his activities as one of its front runners.
Interviewer: Kyoko Iwaki
In 1984, Five Arts Centre, an artist collective based in Kuala Lumpur, was established. The five founding members were director Krishen Jit, choreographer Marion D’Cruz, director/playwright Chin San Sooi, playwright KS Maniam and visual artist Redza Piyadasa. Born in 1981, only three years before the foundation of the collective, you belong to the new generation of Malaysian artists. To begin with, what was your motive behind the decision to join a collective that carried a near-equal amount of history as your age?
 Being a student who was equally interested in theatre and politics, I had already formed a political theatre group called ARTicle 19 (later the core of the group became known as Akshen) when I was studying A-levels at the Taylor’s College, Kuala Lumpur. However, after graduation, all my colleagues went overseas to continue their studies. As for me, I couldn’t afford it. So, I was left with all these old people and joining Five Arts was the optimal solution if I wanted to continue my artistic practice. No option [laughs]! Well, to answer your question more seriously, yes, Five Arts carries a long history, but they never joined the echelons of the so-called establishment. They always belonged to the margins. I felt very sympathetic to the standpoint, and so decided to work for the collective – initially as the public relations manager. The fact that Marion D’Cruz had generously offered me to use the space of the Five Arts, and do whatever I want, was also a huge factor for making the decision.
1981 is also the year when Mahathir bin Mohamed took the helm as the fourth Prime Minister of Malaysia. Remaining in power for the next twenty-two years, he succeeds in augmenting the economical power of the country. You belong to the generation of the so-called ‘Mahathir Babies’; in hindsight, how would you say you were influenced by Mahathir’s sociocultural policies?
 Mahathir provided a conflicting influence over the Malaysian people. On the one hand, he provided all these ‘good stuff’ like great economy, industrial developments, and entrance to the global market. During the nineties, many citizens in the country believed that Malaysia was forging the path towards modernization and evolution, in order to join the first world countries. On the other hand, however, behind the policy that focused greatly on economic development, all other visions were left behind: the history of the communists was largely forgotten, the expansion of economy was prioritized over freedom of expression, and so on. So, I would argue that Mahathir’s vision created a generation that has a monolithic perspective towards society. To say more, even though people were becoming more confident about their state, they were also not sure what they were confident about. In contrast to the accelerating economy, the internal clock for reflection and criticality was actually very static. People just enjoyed the material prosperity, without even stopping a second to rethink what was at the core of their confidence. In short, we were caught in the common trappings of aspirational Western modernity.
In 1991, Mahathir introduces an ideal known as Wawasan 2020, or Vision 2020, which calls for the nation to achieve a self-sufficient industrialized nation by the year 2020. The vision was proliferated across the state and was also included in the primary school education.
 Yes. But Wawasan 2020 was introduced as a soft propaganda, rather than a strong policy. Perhaps without any official orders from the state, teachers in schools willingly taught to the students the hopeful visions. I was one of those kids, and I guess I was ingrained with Mahathir’s policies even without noticing. The primary vision was of course set on the economy. According to Mahathir’s view, an industrialized nation was equal to high-income state, and so he came up with this agenda to make the gross national income of the Malaysians to 15,000 USD per person. Apart from the economic visions, Mahathir’s blueprint provided some ideas on democracy, ethics, a psychologically liberated society, progression in science, and so on. The school children of my age were encouraged to write short essay on their vision of 2020, or draw a picture of the vision. Recently, to prepare for the next project, I was collecting the pictures drawn by kids, and they were truly like pictures of a future city described in science fiction novels. Skyscrapers, space journeys, flying cars and so on and so forth. In retrospect, it was absolutely absurd. But, since we were so engrained with the vision from an early stage, I completely believed, until a certain age, that Wawasan 2020 was the de facto future of Malaysia. I thought that it was our destiny [laughs].
After the expansive racial crash known as 13 May Incident in 1969, the Malaysian government implemented policies that favor Bumiputras, the ethnic Malays, in many ways. To this end, the government starts assimilating the non-Malays to the ethnic Malay group. The most prominent event was the introduction of so-called Malaysian National Cultural Policy, affirmed in the 1971 National Culture Congress. It was a tripartite guideline for constructing the ‘national culture’. And those principles were: 1. The National Culture must be based on the indigenous [Malays] culture, 2. Suitable elements from the other cultures may be accepted as part of the national culture, and 3. Islam is an important component in the molding of the National Culture. Along the same line, in the Congress, Krishen Jit presented a paper titled ‘Our Theatre…Where are your Roots’, and crossed over from English-language to Malay-language theatre. How does your generation of artists assess this nationalistic theatre movement in the 1970s?
 From what I understand, it was the trend of the 1970s – a conscious attempt to critically reflect on the experience of decolonization and an excavation of local, native or indigenous art forms and vocabularies. This was not unique to Malaysia or Southeast Asia– many postcolonial states went through this process. Afterward, in the 1980s, play scripts and novels that were written in English gained momentum as a repercussion to the previous decade. And, when I started making theatres in the late-1990s, the question of what language the artist should use, as a means of expression, was already a thing in the past. The artist should write in whatever language he or she pleases. Well, at least that was what I thought, and, maybe, because of these thoughts, I joined the Five Arts, which primarily presented or worked with multi-lingual art forms.

Yet, it is important to note that currently in Malaysia, a nationalistic culture movement greatly different from those propagated by Krishen Jit is erupting in society. That is, they are conducted through an excessively jingoistic tone. When you speak in English, you could be mocked in the current state. If you speak fluent English in a Malay community, there is a possibility of being sneered at like: ‘this guy is pretending to be an elite by speaking English’. Last month (September 2016), the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia gave a speech at the United Nation; and, it created a huge fuss because his handling of English was so poor. Liberal commentators deplored the fact that ‘even the elites can no longer speak proper English’. Conversely, the rightist nationalists rebutted that ‘there is no need to speak the correct Queens English’. As these dichotomous comments reveal, there exists a deep division in the current Malaysian society at the moment.
You speak fluent English and also draft plays in English.
 My stepfather was British, so that helped. But, in hindsight, I was speaking pretty good English even before meeting my stepfather. Why? Well, I guess, I was learning spontaneously from school education and through television. Also from 2011, I did a Masters degree in Art and Politics at Goldsmiths, University of London. Though, I do sometimes use the Malay language or Chinese dialects in my artworks – whatever that may be the language of strength for the performers.
Were there many students who were keen on developing political theatres around the late-1990s and the early-2000s?
 No, I don’t think so. Precisely because in 1974, when Mahathir was the Education Minister, he instituted a law that asserts: a person who undertakes political activities will be expelled indefinitely from university. Most students were too scared to talk about politics. Oddly, however, this law was only inflicted upon public university students; and, because I was a student at a private university, Taylor’s College, I did not need to worry about it. Yet, 1998 and 1999 were the times when anyone, who participated in political demonstrations, could be attacked by tear gas, water cannons, and even be arrested. So, anyway, there were few people who dared to create political theatres. As for me, the fact that I became interested in politics and theatre owes a lot to my A-level teacher at the Taylor’s College. Being an extremely political teacher, one day in 1989, he took us to Merdeka Square, where Reformasi protest movement (*) was taking place, and, also introduced us to alternative theatre performances, which were shown at an underground theatre right beneath the Square. Simply, this was a shocking event. Protest movements unfurled above ground, and, political theatre was performed underground. This was a catalytic moment for me, to get involved in theatre-making.
At Taylor’s College, you formed a student theatre troupe called ARTicle 19 (later known as Akshen). The first theatre productions you developed with your colleagues – can you elaborate what the performances were about?
 After the shocking incident at the Merdeka Square, I started making weekly classroom performances with the members of ARTicle 19. The performances were only around twenty minutes long, but each performance rigorously followed three principles that we posed upon ourselves. First, the performance has to be based on an original script; second, the performance has to reflect upon the ongoing social issues; and third, we have to use the space differently each time. None of the members were theatre specialists; I was a student in literature, and Fahmi Fadzil majored in sociology. But nevertheless, we try to come up with a theatrically interesting way of using the space. As hinted by its name, the collective was named after the Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nation had adopted in 1948. The article asserted that: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’ Through the performances – which took the form of short monologues, spoken word and poetry, experimental dance and performances, we questioned whether Malaysians were ever given the complete rights of freedom of expression. And after Marion D’Cruz came to see one of these classroom performances, we got connected to the Five Arts, which I decided to join later on.
So I guess you never went through an academic theatre education?
 That’s right. Not only myself but also many of my artistic collaborators are mostly autodidactic. So if I were asked how I learned the craft of theatre, I should say that I learned it predominantly through practice. I have learned a lot from working together with the senior members of Five Arts such as Marion, Chee Sek Thim, and Janet Pillai. Additionally, I have realized, quite early on in life that I am equipped with a self-motivated engine. So, even when I knew that I was under-qualified or ill-equipped with a task that I wished to accomplish, I never gave up. I just asked others who were more able to help me. The thing is, whether in society or in theatres, I like solving problems. Once a person advised me that ‘if you want to get involved in society, you have to learn to enjoy solving problems’. The advice has always been useful for me.
The first project that you undertook after joining Five Arts Centre was the community art project organized at Taman Medan, the Southwestern part of Kuala Lumpur. From 2002 to 2005, you conducted a series of workshop for and with the local young people.
 You could say that it’s a typically naïve concern of a young artist, but I was becoming more concerned about the audience of my works. Who comes to the theatre, who doesn’t come to the theatre, and how can I communicate with the latter party? Simply, I was becoming frustrated by the fact that the audience of my theatre productions was closed and narrow. And, so I decided to get out of the theatre and interact directly with people of the community. People who worked with me in the project were the filmmakers and visual artists who had the same kind of anxiety. Taman Medan is a district with abundant social issues such as poverty, immigrants, racial conflicts and so on. So, the main question of the project was to rethink how we can tackle these issues through artworks. Based on this premise, I organized a series of workshops with local ten to sixteen-year-olds, where we envisioned the city as the classroom.
Afterward, you return to the theatre and start making small-scale theatre productions that focus on the Baling Talks. You become rather obsessed with the topic and continue pursuing the issue for more than a decade. Can you elaborate on the initial 2005 performance of Baling (Membaling) : what it was like structurally and conceptually. And, also can you explain why you were interested in the issue of Malaysian independence, to begin with.
 That is a big question. I shall explain a little about the context first. First, my interest in the Malaysian independence was triggered by Mahathir’s resignation in 2003. After Mahathir stepped down from power, the voices of the former leftist communists, who played a catalytic role in the Malaysian independence, started to be heard in society publically for the first time. Old men and women already in the eighties and nineties suddenly started to publish biographies. One of them was My Side of History (2003), a biography of Chin Peng: the long-time leader of the Malaysian Communist Party. At one moment, it was even rumored that the book could be banned because of its content. And, so, when the book was finally published, many Malaysians were shocked by the ‘alternative history’ narrated by Chin Peng. I was one of them. Who are these people? Why do they live in exile, even though they fought for the country? Why did they suddenly start to raise voices? I was provoked by a torrent of questions.

The first destination to visit after starting the research was the so-called Peace Villages in Southern Thailand. They are four small villages where the former communists gathered together. What I witnessed at the village was a ‘lived history’: a history told through scars, grenades, and distorted bodies. Also, it was a narrative that I have heard for the first time in my life. Fully committed to the idea that I want to make a theatre production out of this lived history, after returning to Kuala Lumpur, I discussed the plan with late Krishen Jit who was still active. Ultimately, he got interested in my proposal, and Baling (Membaling) was created. It was a small-scale devised theatre, based on the text of Baling Talks; it was performed in eleven universities across the state.
Baling and Membaling both means ‘to throw’ in the Malay language.
 The title refers to the myth that is associated with the town of Baling. Once upon a time, at a place which is now known as Baling, there lived a King who was politically corrupted. Apart from the corruption, he even sucked the blood of the villagers and eventually became a vampire. Due to many contingent obstacles that were attached to becoming a vampire, one day, the King decided to stop drinking the blood of others. Determined as he was, he broke his fangs and threw ( baling ) them as far away as he could. And the land where the fangs dropped was later named Baling. By using the concept of ‘throwing’, I started developing the directorial plans.In order to visualize that we are in midst of, or in due course of history, I selected corridors, rather than halls or auditoriums for the venue of the performance. In the middle of the corridor, a performer sat and read aloud the text of the Baling Talks. From time to time, chairs thrown at him by other two performers obstructed the act of reading. Influenced by the trend of the physical theatre, it became a significantly physical, violent and improvisational performance.
Continuing the research, in 2008, you organize the Emergency Festival at The Annexe Gallery. It was a festival in which, an exhibition, performances, talks and films that dealt with the Malaya Emergency were programmed. As well as being one of the young curators, you presented a reading performance titled 1955 Baling Talks .
 Among the members who were involved in the festival, some of them wanted to intervene with the Malaya Emergency in quite a direct way. For instance, the film director Fahmi Reza tried to present a documentary film, which depicted the Malaya Emergency as an anti-colonial revolution. From various reasons, this film did not materialize, but the fragment of the film is now shown at the final scene of Baling .

As for me, I was more interested in tracing the peripheries of the historical event, rather than direct interventions. Also, from around the time before the festival, I was beginning to think that the Malaya Emergency should be analyzed also through cultural perspectives and contexts – rather than just political or military frames. Based on this thought, apart from an attempt to smuggle three former Communists from the Peace Village in Thailand to speak at the festival, I introduced those filmmakers, performance makers and researchers who artistically, rather than politically, dealt with the historical event. And, also, I have invited people from various backgrounds to read the text of Baling Talks.

Before the Festival, I was summoned to the police headquarter of Kuala Lumpur. We were mildly interrogated in a room with a plate that read ‘Extreme Politics Department’. The officer asked questions like why are you organizing the festival, and who is funding it. Also, during the festival, police officers clad in plain clothes, were patrolling the venue. Luckily, nothing happened during the event.
I’ve heard that even though you were invited from a foreign festival after the Emergency Festival, you declined the offer. Why?
 To be specific, it was Christophe Slagmuylder, the director of Kunstenfestivaldesarts who offered the invitation in 2008. Since Fahmi Fadzil had participated in Kunsten’s young artists’ programme a year before, he kindly flew over to Kuala Lumpur to meet Fahmi and see his performance. And after attending the Emergency Festival, he asked if I am interested in showing 1955 Baling Talks in Belgium. However, at that time, I could not find a plausible reason for why a performance so focused on the Malaysian history could be interesting to the Belgian audience. Who are the audiences? What kind of context will the performance be presented in? Why is the programmer interested in the work? Since I could not come up with valid answers to these questions, I declined the offer. In hindsight, I think that my thoughts were unnecessarily astringent. Until today, the other members say that it was a crazy mistake [laughs].

I still think significantly about the context of the performance: in what city and at which institution the performance is going to be presented at. For this reason, I pondered a lot when Baling was invited to Gwangju, Korea in 2015. What kind of audience is going to come see the performance in Gwangju? I just couldn’t imagine. Of course, historically speaking, Gwangju is the site of a democratic movement in Korea, so, in that sense, there is a link with the performance. But, apart from the academic reasoning, I needed to come up with a physically persuasive reason for why Baling could be presented in Gwangju. A long discussion was held with the members.
After the world premier performance at Gwangju, Korea, Baling tours around the world: Kerala (India), Yokohama (Japan), Sharjah (UAE), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Braunschweig (Germany), and Kyoto (Japan). Before coming up with the final version of Baling , with which you have toured internationally, how has the script been revised and devised?
 Largely due to the subtitles, now the script is mostly fixed. However, it was continuously revised by taking in opinions of each performer until quite recently. This is because the individual voices of the performers are equally important as the historical voices inscribed in the text of Baling Talks. To give you a concrete idea of the process, first, I provide useful resources to each performer: Anne James, Fahmi Fadzil, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri and Imri Nasution. Then, after they have gone through the material that I have provided, I start devising the texts alongside them by listening to their opinions. By repeating the process countless times, gradually, the script was developed. Indeed, Baling Talks provides an alternative history of Malaysia, but I did not want to deliver an absolute narrative of counter-history through the production. I wanted to show the performance as just an amalgamation of fragmented voices. That is also why the production was spatially organized in a specific way: watching different scenes from various angles.

What should be noted is that until Baling in 2015, we did not deal directly with Chin Peng in past versions, because we believed that talking about him is a taboo. However, gradually, we started to feel that we could no longer ignore this ghost called Chin Peng, and so, a couple of years ago, we started researching more concretely about him. Then one member proposed that we should go over the film of Chin Peng that we took in Thailand, and another member confessed that he went to the communist leader’s funeral. I couldn’t believe that anyone close to me had gone to his funeral! From that point onwards, we started collecting not only political, but also personal and poetic voices that hold the possibility of expressing the figure of ‘Chin Peng’ and how this image has been constructed.
I guess you had to gauge the possibility of constructing a poetic narrative, in order to surpass the fixed documentary theatre format that only ‘records’ the details.
 Yes. I have already briefly mentioned about my visit to southern Thailand, where I met the former communists. And during the stay, I encountered an old man who uttered a phrase that was vital for the realization of the production. After discussing all sorts of hard-core political issues such as what kind of ideology he venerated, and what kind of Marx-Trotsky literature he was influenced by, I asked to this former communist a very simple question: ‘Why did you join the revolution?’ Then, this old guy said, very unimpressively, that: ‘I was scared’. When he said that, everything fell into place. No matter which battle, if you strip down all ideology and armory, what is left is an extremely banal emotion: I want to protect my family and me. Encountering this phrase was like discovering gold for me. And I thought that it is crucial to deliver this honest feeling from the stage. Some may criticize that the interpretation is too romantic. But, because all sorts of things affiliated to Malaya Emergency have not been resolved, I think that various perspectives towards it are valid to a certain extent.
Rather than working with professional actors, you have always chosen to work with performers who, in one way or another, are socially engaged. Is it important for the performers involved in your production to retain their personal identities when acting on the stage?
 Yes, it is absolutely crucial. The performer should not become Chin Peng, but rather maintain distance towards the character and speak as him or herself. The expression that is brought into relief through the distancing is very important. From the time when I directed in the early works with Akshen, I had already adopted the aesthetics of distancing. Based on my directorial decision, the performers had to say their full name and identity card number before going on the stage. For instance: ‘Mark The, IC number xxxxxx, Fahmi Fadzil, IC number, xxxxxx’. For me, theatre is a site where you critically reflect upon all utterance, and where you collectively gather various opinions. Most importantly, it is a place where invisible is rendered visible. That is why we cannot ignore who is speaking the lines: who is visualizing the invisible history. No matter how brilliantly the professional actor orates the text of the Baling Talks, if that person had little or no interest in sociopolitical issues, I think the performance will be less stimulating. Based on these convictions, I have worked together, for ten to fifteen years, with the same group of trustable performers.
Do you think that it has become easier for the younger generation of Malaysian artists to make a living out of theatre?
 Compared to the past, greatly more theatres exist in Kuala Lumpur. However, the problem with Malaysian theatre scene is that, no matter how much the number of hardware increases, it does not necessarily support the life of the artists. For this reason, many professional theatre-makers work back and forth between Malaysia and Singapore. The Singaporean theatre market is much larger than ours. To say more, Malaysian theatres still predominantly focus on modern text-based theatres. We should see how the artists who return from abroad would change the conservative market in the future.
Can you tell me about your future plans?
 In autumn 2017, I am planning to present my new work at Spielart Munich Festival. Reflecting on the fact that the future envisioned through Wawasan 2020 is now approaching, I am thinking of a project that assesses the difference between imagination and reality, and also expands our visions concurrently towards the past and the future of Malaysia. Also, I am going to touch upon the vision of 2020 in other Asian cities including the one in Tokyo. In like manner to Baling , this project will expand gradually over the following years.
Whether it is the invisible future or the hidden past, I guess you are using the medium called theatre as an apparatus that visualizes an alternative reality?
 Krishen Jit once said that ‘no original idea come from theatres’. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the comment, but I absolutely agree to his following comment, which is: ‘it is a useful place to test other ideas’. I also think that theatre is ultimately a container, where other ideas could be presented. Through the apparatus called theatre, a new past and an alternative future of Malaysia could be brought into relief.

* When Anwar Ibrahim, the then-Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia accused the government of its corruption, he was sacked and unduly arrested on a charge of sodomy. The protest movement was galvanized from this incident, and Anwar would become the leader of the opposition coalition.