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NOVEMBER 24, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 46 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK


Eric Fearn for Asiaweek.
Raja Retra Kamarudin keeps Anwar close to his heart.

The Play's the Thing . . .
Malaysian oppositionists turn to theater
By SANTHA OORJITHAM Kuala Lumpur

Prosecutor: First Case. The government of Mahathir versus Anwar Ibrahim . . . Judge: Wait. What is the charge? Prosecutor: The charge is "overly ambitious," Madam.

Anwar: Objection!
Judge: What is it this time?
Anwar:"Overly ambitious" is not a crime.
Prosecutor: But to the prime minister, it is, Madam.

No, that's not from the transcripts of Malaysia's jailed former deputy PM An-war Ibrahim's two trials on charges of abuse of power and sodomy. It's from a play called Dot Com Dot My's Conspiracy that is the latest of several theatrical productions this year that poke fun at the political system or the judiciary. As the government puts limits on some media not aligned with the official viewpoint and clamps down on unauthorized gatherings, those hoping to keep alive reformasi — the political reform movement Anwar launched against his former mentor, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad — are trying new ways to spread their message. But they may have a hard time reaching anyone beyond a small group of like-minded urbanites.

So far this year, Kuala Lumpur has cut the frequency of Harakah, the newspaper of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), from twice a week to twice a month. It did not renew the publication licenses of three other "alternative" periodicals: the weekly Ekslusif, the fortnightly Detik, and the monthly Wasilah. The government also refused permission for Anwar supporters to use a public stadium to hold a rally on Sept. 20, the second anniversary of his arrest. So theater may now be an alternative way to express opposition views, says Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, lecturer in politics at the Science University of Malaysia. "One reason might be that more conventional avenues such as the media have been closed off," he says. "Therefore, this movement to more satire, which can't be interpreted as directly against the law . . . although people who understand the events know that it is refering to the judiciary or reformasi."

The first to reach the stage was playwright and director Amir Muhammad, who put on The Malaysian Decameron in February. It depicted four people hiding from police after a demonstration, passing the time by telling each other stories about a murder trial, the high-handed ways of the powerful, and so on. It did not address the Anwar issue directly. One character shouted: "This has nothing to do with anything up there! No Anwar, no Mahathir, no nothing!" But Amir says the characters are all part of the big picture of Malaysia today.

In August, Hishamuddin Rais staged Toh Ampoo (Brother Brown-nose) at a Pas venue. In his play, villagers want to use a ladder, but Toh Ampoo says he owns it and will not share. He later has them arrested for trying to steal it. No big names are dropped (Hishamuddin says he was just "lampooning the judiciary") but during the villagers' trial, all evidence first passes through Toh Ampoo and includes items like an imported clock supposed to show foreign involvement and a dirty mattress — echoes of Mahathir's charge that reformasi received foreign support, and the stained mattress introduced at Anwar's first trial as evidence of his sexual activity.

Dot Com Dot My's Conspiracy
is the most clearly pro-Anwar. It's creator, Raja Petra Kamarudin, is director of the Free Anwar Campaign. The first scene depicts the villain, Dot Com Dot My (as in the ending of Internet addresses in Malaysia — .com.my) plotting to oust his deputy, Anwar. He plans to ask a female employee, who has already slept with everyone else in the office including Dot Com himself, to testify that she had sex with Anwar as well. The second shows policemen denying to an investigator that they had beaten Anwar in jail, only to end up assaulting the investigator. The last scene shows the trial. It's all reminiscent of the real Anwar, who after breaking with Mahathir was accused of sodomy, beaten by the chief of police while in custody, convicted of abuse of power last year and of sodomy in August, and sentenced to a total 15 years in prison.

Raja Petra says his play is just "entertainment" for a fundraiser being held by Keadilan, the opposition party led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. The former anchor writer of Harakah's English section is an old schoolmate of Anwar and has put on satires for school reunions for years — although Anwar used to stay away since he and Mahathir took the brunt of the plays' jokes. He does not think Conspiracy will create a big splash. "After all, 99% of the audience will be supporters," he says. That, in a sense, sums up the reformasi movement today. Pas with its strong Islamic support base has usurped center stage in Malaysian opposition politics, and the Anwar issue has been reduced to a recurrent but secondary theme. But political theater — both staged and real — looks set to continue.

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