Mark Teh . Foto: Victor Chen
Since 2006, you have devised a number of theatre projects around the Baling Talks which took place in 1955. What was your starting point when you dealt with the topic for the first time?
How did the audience in Kuala Lumpur react to “Baling”?
We had never really thought of Baling as a series until more recently, as the informal collective of artists-activists-researchers I’ve been working with have been making performances, video documentaries, exhibitions, presentations and participatory projects around the Malayan Emergency since 2004.
In 2003, Chin Peng - the exiled secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) –published his autobiography, Alias Chin Peng – My Side of History, to much controversy. It contested and destabilised the common-sensical, official view of Malaysian history narrated by Barisan Nasional (the National Front), the coalition of race-based political parties that has governed Malaysia since independence from the British in 1957. Chin Peng’s book encouraged other early leftist leaders to tell their stories, and there were also some parallel research by historians and journalists that reassessed the MCP’s role in forcing the hands of the British to accelerate the independence process. These could be read as attempts to disperse the monolithic political history of Malaysia.
For us, these publications made available multiple possibilities and trajectories of Malaysian ‘independence’, identity and history. Different blueprints and imaginings of our early nationhood could now be compared, disputed and fantasised – very significant for a nation-state that had been governed by only one coalition since 1957. This was the impetus for a decade-long engagement with the emergent archives surrounding the Malayan Emergency – official, marginal, declassified, unofficial, personal.
When the first version of Baling was performed in 2005, it was known as Baling (membaling), and we juxtaposed fragments of the 1955 Baling Talks transcripts with the three performers’ own research interests and their families’ experiences of the Emergency – a friction between the official documents of history and lived experience. Very few people had known about the existence of the transcripts of the failed peace negotiations, and that the meanings of independence, loyalty, terrorism, freedom, surrender, and nationhood were intensely debated before the nation-states of Malaya and Singapore came into existence. The performance took on an agit-prop physical theatre mode, and was toured across 12 venues in Kuala Lumpur in 2005 and 2006 – in a house-turned-gallery, universities, colleges, and indoor futsal centres.
When did you realise that one Baling project was not enough, that you would have to keep working on the subject?
In the larger frames of researching and re-looking at the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) through different projects, there remained amongst our audiences a lot of curiosity for the transcripts of the 1955 Baling Talks to be heard or staged. One simple reason for this may be that the dramatic nature and content of this historic moment is recorded through the debates between three important leaders – Tunku Abdul Rahman (who would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Malaysia), David Marshall (then-Chief Minister of Singapore, later the opposition leader in independent Singapore), and Chin Peng, the exiled Communist leader and one-time ‘most-wanted man in the British Empire’.
Some context: in 2007, Malaysia celebrated its 50th independence, and 2008 was the 60th anniversary of the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948. During this period, there was a strong sense in Malaysia of re-presenting and reinvestigating into our nation-state’s history – and it’s significant that in the 2008 and 2013 Malaysian elections, a younger generation voted opposition parties into power in several Malaysian states and many urban areas, denying the Barisan Nasional its customary two-thirds majority in Parliament. These young people are not beholden to the racialist historical bargains of the independence years, and this has resulted in the emergence of a two-coalition political system in Malaysia since 2008.
In 2008, my collaborators and I curated the 11-day Emergency Festival, and I decided to organise a participatory reading of the entire transcripts of the 1955 Baling Talks, which lasted for five hours. I invited activists, journalists, human rights lawyers, students, public intellectuals and artists to read the text of these three leaders. We had one session where Tunku, Marshall and Chin Peng were read only by women.
In 2011, we were invited to the Singapore Arts Festival, and organised another reading of Baling featuring personalities from Malaysia and Singapore – politicians, lawyers, artists, and also members of the public. We found that audiences were particularly interested in the figure and words of David Marshall – as opposed to his Malayan counterpart Tunku Abdul Rahman, Marshall did not become the Prime Minister of Singapore. This position was taken by Lee Kuan Yew of course, so the audience also read the alternative trajectory of Singapore into the talks. We also projected a documentary of Singaporean journalist Said Zahari, who was an eyewitness at the 1955 talks. Later in his life, Said was imprisoned for 17 years without trial for his critique of the Singapore state, and when he was released, moved to Malaysia. We invited him to ‘read’ from the chapter of his memoir, Dark Clouds at Dawn (2001), where he wrote of covering the Baling Talks as a young journalist. This was a way to include his perspective in our reading, and to ‘return’ his voice to Singapore.
What was your motivation for the latest version we’ll see in Braunschweig this summer? What can “Baling” teach us?
The initial impetus was a commission from the new Asian Arts Theatre in Gwangju, South Korea, to present an updated or new version of Baling.
This version comes after the death of the final participant of the talks – the exiled MCP leader Chin Peng – in Bangkok, September 2013. Despite signing the 1989 Hat Yat Peace Agreement that officially ended hostilities between the MCP and the Malaysian government, Chin Peng was still never allowed to enter Malaysia, and in the last few years of his life, mentioned that perhaps he might be able to ‘return’ if some friends would take and disperse his ashes in his hometown. This brought a strong reaction from the government, with the Home Minister Zahid Hamidi going so far as to declare that army personnel would be stationed along the Thai-Malaysian border to ensure Chin Peng’s remains would not be able to enter Malaysia in any way.
This provided us with many clues to think about how history infects our present – the notions of borders, exile, exclusion and ‘pollution’; as well as the permeability of dust, ashes and ghosts, and the impossibility of these things actually disappearing. They may not be visible, but they are there. This led us to analyse and deconstruct how the presence of an absence was established – in this case the bogey of Chin Peng, the first ‘enemy of the state’. So while we retained reading fragments of the 1955 Baling Talks, the performers also share their perspectives into how the images of Chin Peng continue to be mediated and mutated in contemporary Malaysia – hopefully approaching these complex images in a more human way.
How is the Malayan Emergency (1948-60) remembered among the population?
With great complexity and contradiction – during this period Malaya went through war and independence. The British used the term ‘Emergency’ to ensure insurance coverage for their tin and rubber businesses in Malaya, while the MCP always maintained that they were fighting an anti-colonial revolutionary war. Malaya became independent in 1957, so this fighting transitioned into a sort of civil war.
While the narrative and romanticism of achieving independence, nationhood and overcoming the Communists is taught in our official history books, there are of course many more layers and undercurrents that need to be critically examined. For example, governmental instruments and technologies such as the National Registration Identity Card, the New Villages internment camps and food denial plans, the Internal Security Act which allowed for detention without trial and other draconian laws, were introduced during the Emergency by the British, and many of these continue to regulate Malaysian lives today.
How do opinions differ, especially among those who have witnessed the Emergency? Once again, with great complexity and contradiction – lives were lost, taken and changed during the Emergency, and the emotional scars are still raw for the generation that witnessed and experienced the violence. This is why despite the signing of peace treaty and numerous legal challenges, Chin Peng was never allowed to return to Malaysia – the reason provided is that this would cause emotional distress to the families of the former army servicemen who fought the Communists. While many of the Communists returned to Malaysia after the 1989 treaty, there are also four ‘Peace Villages’ in southern Thailand where the remaining Communists, most of whom are in their eighties, continue to live. When we interviewed them, some believe that Malaysia is still not truly ‘independent’. As the Communists were waging a guerrilla war in the shadows of the Malaysian jungles, there are many stories, superstitions and legends about them – some perceive them as mysterious, cold-blooded terrorists, and there are those who lost family members who served in the army and police, while others view them more sympathetically as the anti-colonial, underground resistance. During the Emeregency, the British also created 450 internment camps all over Malaya – this was part of their strategies of population control and collective punishment which resettled over 530,000 people into ‘black’ or ‘white’ New Villages, to identify and isolate Communist sympathisers from the populace. All these New Villages have developed into suburbs today.
Was your family affected by the Emergency and its aftermath? Do you trust their memories?
My father was born three months after the Emergency was declared in 1948, and although he grew up and lived in two New Villages, my family does not have many stories related to this period. This is actually rather unusual. In the very first version of Baling in 2005, one of the performers shared the story onstage of how his wife’s grandfather was deported back to China for being an alleged Communist supporter and was never seen again. Another performer, the filmmaker Imri Nasution, presented a story from his father’s hometown where a family was threatened in their own home by a Communist guerrilla with a live grenade. In the version that we are presenting in Braunschweig, Imri speaks of finally meeting and interviewing Chin Peng in 2010. There are also individuals in our current team whose families have very contrastive experiences of the afterlives of the Emergency – our production designer Wong Tay Sy’s father was detained without trial for four and half years under the Internal Security Act, a law which was invented to arrest Communists, but which was used against activists and critics of the government. And one of the performers’ father and two uncles served in the police force in the state bordering south Thailand, where the Communists were located.
During your research for “Baling”, which sources did you trust most, or least?
Without trying to be flippant, all of them - the official documents, the archives and documents from the MCP when we visited the Peace Villages over the past 12 years, even our own families’ memories and stories. This is perhaps a ‘postmemory’ sensibility, described by Joan Gibbons as “secondary memory that has been constructed by the next generation rather than primary witnesses”. In having to work through the hysterical symptoms of our history, we have to be sensitive to the overlap and flow between fact and fiction, history and memory, official and alternative, interpretation and imagination, the experienced and the investigated. So even while making a so-called documentary performance, we are cognisant that the notion of ‘documentary’ itself is complicated in the Malaysian context as the form can be traced back to the establishment of Malayan Film Unit in 1946 by the British Military Administration. This was the first self-contained ‘information’ unit in the British Empire, producing and screening propaganda films, documentaries and newsreels using mobile cinemas all over Malaya, while ironically providing filmmaking training to locals - some of whom went on to have successful careers making fiction films in the 1950-1960s golden age of Malayan cinema.
When was the transcript of the Baling Talks published, and what were the reactions?
The transcripts were published in 1998 in the book, Tunku Abdul Rahman and His Role in the Baling Talks: A Documentary History, but to this day, not many people know about the existence of the transcripts, even if they learned about the talks in school. We came across the book, which was published by the National Archives, when Fahmi Reza, one of the performers in first version, and our projections designer for this latest version, visited the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial in early 2005.
The Swedish Salvation Army uses the slogan “Soap, Soup, Salvation” to describe its services. What are your theatre projects’ services?
In a pretty young but amnesiac nation (my mum is older than Malaysia!) – “history, memory, participation”.
What do you hope to achieve in your work?
To disperse and deconstruct some of complicated historical discourses and assumptions in contemporary Malaysia, and to create space for difference and the marginal in its possible futures. On a more practical level, I also often think of the multi-plug extension when thinking about how to talk about our collaborative projects. This humble but important object is a para-site in that it depends on electricity from others, and is part of a larger network. But it’s also a ‘parallel site’, its own network or platform – allowing for others to plug in and out for some time, become charged, and share and transmit energy. Its ports allow for other appliances that work on their own technologies, operating systems, applications and functions. We need more multi-extension plugs.