Of Politics, Proles and Party Members
A tour through Kee Thuan Chye’s uncanny universe
By Ng Wei Chian
1984 Here and Now
Produced over a period of 9 years in Kee Thuan Chye’s career as a playwright, the three plays under review (1984 Here and Now was first staged in 1985, The Big Purge in 1988 and We Could **** You, Mr. Birch in 1994) have been published individually this year by Times Editions, giving readers a chance to gain a broad view of the themes that have persisted in Kee’s work as playwright and (through these plays) as social and political critic.
Throughout these plays, power in all its forms and incarnations is explored thoroughly and mercilessly, be it in its obvious guise as wielded by politicians and members of the establishment, down to the impact its manipulation has upon the quotidian lives of those who have little or no control over the ultimate consequences of its use. Criss-crossing this broader fabric are the tightly-linked themes of race, class, culture, gender and history, all of which are pulled together in often unexpected, absurdist settings that, however, never fail to reveal their specific setting, i.e. Malaysia. Whether scenes take place in a nation polarized between Proles and Party members (1984 Here and Now) or in Equaland, where Equas, Chingchongs and Inayahs jostle for literal and metaphorical space (The Big Purge), recent and historical events are always hovering close to the surface, and Malaysian audiences in particular would not have been hard-pressed to draw the parallels between events cited in the plays and those which had transpired/were currently transpiring at the time.
1984 Here and Now borrows heavily from George Orwell’s 1984, where Big Brother oversees the policies of a state which runs on a caste system of Proles and Party members. In 1984 Here and Now, as in The Big Purge, those who hold the reins of power (Big Brother and his Inner Party members in the former and the Cabinet in the latter) are largely archetypes and caricatures. Three-dimensionality is reserved for the characters who struggle in the web of strictures created as a result of orders from on high. Wiran and Yone, a male Party member and Prole woman respectively, are caught in the midst of the institutionalized segregation which has been part of their lives for as long as they can remember. Wiran is a journalist with a local paper, whose discontent with the oppressive atmosphere of censorship and political repression finds an outlet in The Movement For A New Brotherhood, an activist group which agitates in support of a society where privilege and hierarchy are no longer dictated along racial lines.
Introduced to The Movement by colleague Jumon, Wiran also makes the acquaintance of Yone, with whom he eventually becomes involved with in a relationship. Wiran is the straight protagonist in the play, an idealistic member of the privileged class trying to effect change through his membership and activities in The Movement, and who stays faithful to his proclaimed ideals even after betrayal at the hands of his friend Jumon and Yone. In contrast with Wiran, Yone is a far more complex character who embodies the contradictions of class and gender. As a teenager who goes against her father by associating with Party members, she takes this further by becoming an agent for the Party members, during the course of which she makes Wiran’s acquaintance. While one could easily cast her as a villain due to her allegiance to the Party members’ cause and status as an informer, her assertiveness and determination as an individual and survivor in a society which discriminates against her kind marks her as a feminist figure, and a much more interesting, complex character than that of Wiran.
The Big Purge continues to deal with the issues that were raised in 1984 Here and Now, but in an even more unequivocal manner. The setting for the play is Equaland, where Equas, Chingchongs and Inayahs live together uneasily under the pall of simmering racial tension which threatens to burst into conflict at any moment. Equas are given preference in all fields of endeavour, while Chingchongs and Inayahs are still referred to as ‘immigrants’ and deprived of opportunities as a matter of course. Under the reforms privileging Equas and the political oppression of the Homeland Security Act, which allows for detention without trial, Chingchongs and Inayahs see emigration to Australia as an escape route. At the heart of this are Chingchong couple Thang Rong and Joan Khiu, Thang Rong is the proletariat Chingchong made good who harbours a surfeit of patriotic sentiment, and Joan the middle-class Chingchong whose parents’ and her own loyalties lie with whatever can afford them better lives, in this case permanent residency in Australia. The Big Purge manages to depict a fuller picture than 1984 Here and Now by representing the three main races of Malaysia (Malays, Chinese and Indians - Eurasians are given brief mention in the text) through the figures of Thang Rong and Joan, Runid and his girlfriend Mawiza, and Ravinen, Thang Rong’s friend and colleague at work.
The portrayal of the state here is at once hilarious and foreboding: while the Inner Party members of the state in 1984 Here and Now were wayang kulit characters, acting out their lines from behind a screen, the Chief Minister and his Cabinet members here are wayang kulit characters manipulated by a visible dalang (puppet master), laying bare the question of who controls those in power to the audience. The shrewdness and deviousness of the Chief Minister is offset by the scatological tone of the proceedings, with the Chief Minister conducting his discussions firmly attached to his chamberpot in an attempt to pass out a turd, and Cabinet members who find themselves wetting their pants without fail in his presence. The surreal nature of these scenes lies in sharp contrast to the travails and predicaments of Equaland’s citizens who are helplessly caught in the grip of the Chief Minister’s political machinations. On the other hand, the tragedy wrought on the characters — in 1984 Here and Now, Wiran’s betrayal and capture by the state, and in The Big Purge, the dissolution of both Thang Rong’s and Joan’s marriage and Runid’s and Mawiza’s relationship — due to state policies is as realistic and simple to comprehend as opposed to the absurd babblings of the ministers who rule Equaland.
We Could **** You, Mr. Birch is a slightly different creature from Kee’s two earlier plays. It deals with a specific episode in Malaysia’s colonial history, namely the rule and killing of Resident James Birch, the first British Resident of Malaysia who was sent to Perak in 1874 before being murdered by a Perak chief after an unpopular attempt to reform tax collection and bondage laws in the state. While the first two plays dealt with colonialism through the vehicle of language (Standard English versus Malay, Indian and Chinese languages and dialects and Malaysian English), with Kee showing a sharp grasp of the nuances of English as spoken and appropriated by Malaysians, We Could **** You, Mr. Birch is a pointed critique of history and, more importantly, who and what constitutes history and historical truth. As has come to be expected from Kee, nothing is ever straightforward: what appears to be a period piece is filled with interruptions from the cast who step in and out of character, questioning their roles in the play, its premise and hence the ‘historical’ constituents that make up the play. By different accounts, Birch was either a martyr or hard-headed colonialist who had failed to comprehend the people with whom he was dealing and thus came to a well-deserved end.
In this chapter of history, however, there are no villains and heroes. While the crux of the play lies in Birch’s negotiations with the Malay rulers of Perak, Chinese from the period are represented by Tan Kim Seng, the ubiquitous middleman who moves easily between both parties while pledging allegiance to neither. He is the quintessential pragmatist, doing what he does so that his ‘children and their children benefited from … [his] fortune.’ Here, there are no clear-cut protagonists as in Kee’s two earlier plays; even Kuntum, the slave who is kept in bondage by Datuk Sagor and valiantly resists his advances, finally submits to Birch after deciding that it is acceptable compensation for years of ill-treatment at the hands of the Datuk. For Kee, history is thus a bitter cycle of petty wranglings, far from the grand narratives of great men and their deeds.
Kee has stated that his trenchant critiques of Malaysian history and politics as presented in his plays have always been written expressly with a Malaysian audience in mind. His references are highly specific to contemporary Malaysian politics, with many coming off as inside jokes. His themes, however, are hard to mistake anywhere: power played out in every conceivable context and the scars, large and small, that it finally leaves on bodies social and personal. For a Singaporean audience, these plays are an important means through which they can understand the history and society of a country with which Singapore is still inextricably linked, and where many parallels, past and present, can be drawn.QLRS Vol. 3 No. 4 Jul 2004