Faith Must Be Rooted in Doubt

A discussion on subversive cultures with Eddin Khoo, the man responsible for reviving cultural practices in Malaysia

LILA: Thank you for your time and participation in this conversation. Let us begin by discussing your organisation Pusaka, and its wonderful work in the field of cultural revival and conservation. You have mentioned that this initiative started as a response to the politically-motivated move to redifine culture and history by proscribing traditional performing arts in Malaysia in 1991. What is your assessment of this move to target traditional cultural practices? What role do you think culture plays in reifying a belief in community and intellectual/creative freedom?

Eddin Khoo: Our organisation PUSAKA has been in existence for some seventeen years now. I had never intended to found an organisation – I do not possess any sense of organisational discipline. Even my initial forays into ritual and traditional culture, with an interest mainly on its poetics – begun some three decades ago – was done in the spirit of an intellectual bandit. I have had to learn organisational discipline along the way…

I began life as a journalist in the early 1990’s. Around the time, the northeast Malaysian state of Kelantan – the repository of so much of Malaysia’s ritual and traditional culture – came to be governed by the Partai SeIslam Malaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia). Part of their election manifesto in that state was “transforming the Malay-Muslim mindset.” This essentially meant advancing towards a more syariah compliant society. When that state government proceeded to introduce a ban on all forms of traditional culture – including the Kelantan Wayang Kulit (shadow play), the all female ritual tradition Mak Yong, the healing tradition Main Puteri – it was obvious that a process of cultural cleansing and historical reimagining was being set in motion.

Wayang Kulit/Shadow Play. Photo: Eddin Khoo

This was not a practice uncommon to many parts of the Muslim world undergoing radical socio-political change towards a more theocratic society. Forms of traditional performance, ritual and culture had been outlawed in countries like Iran and Afghanistan: Qawalls in Pakistan have been fending off puritan assaults for decades.

The cultural trajectory is obvious – disposses a community from its cultural history, its rituals, ceremonies and world view, and you disposses a people from its deepest ‘sense of self.’ What, then, fills that void is ideology, regulation and its corollary – control. This is to be found in the transformation of rituals itself – where once they served the processes of  catharsis and liberation of the Self, today they are a source for regulation and conformity.

Through the years I have come to appreciate that Culture in its quintessential sense is really about yearning and need; its hold on entire communities, then, is greater than that of ideology and politics.

It is the art of discovering ways of grappling with greater and greater state intrusion on culture and its liberties, and on a community’s sense of memory and lineage, which becomes the challenge.

The Malaysian context contrasts from those of the countries mentioned above: it is a lot less severe, ambivelant in its imposition, and snared within its own contradicitions. That creates opportunities for the most delightful of things – subversion. But it requires a lot of immersion in place and community – understanding kinship networks, local relations, perceptions of power and authority: and mostly, wielding the powers of scepticism towards ‘the powerful’ that is so inherent within these traditions in the first place.

I refrain from using language contrived from this ‘industry of conservation.’ I find such langauge disempowering and, to be quite candid, pathetic. Rituals and traditions have a dynamism within them that is multivalent, and enhances intelligence, humour, metaphor – all those elements which animate the spirit. As such, it is irresistible: this, I believe is why Culture is so elemental to life, and also why it is so dangerous to power.

LILA: The movement you have started has been nothing less than revolutionary in its nature – working against political agendas while also trying to reignite many practitioners from within these cultures and communities to reclaim their traditions. What insights has this experience given you into the making and un-making of beliefs on the national level?

EK: I don’t know if I would describe it as a ‘movement’ – there is too much of a serious ‘lumpen’ cultural affliction in Malaysia to allow this work to emerge as a movement: that, I believe, is our greatest cultural curse, not the forces of edict and regulation, which can, with enough wit, be outwitted. So, if it is not even a “movement” how could it be revolutionary? Revolutions are really quite overrated anyhow.

I will, however, concede that there is a very radical dimension to the work, and that is principally in its irreverance and disruptive nature.

I am a political junkie – I am excited by the devices of politics. And our strategy has always been to negotiate rather than confront “political agendas.” Yet, these “agendas” also contain contradictions within them and, paradoxically, grappling with these agendas also requires you to locate yourself at the very heart of them.

This is where subversion begins.

Part of our strategy has been to inspire a sense of cutural pride and community dignity through the practice of these rituals and traditions. Legal approaches – the langauge of rights and laws – are necessary in all civic life, but that approach alone, within a cultural context, is simply a way of shooting yourself in the kneecap. Besides, I think we are overburdened with the language of ‘rights, laws and freedoms,’ so necessary they may nevertheless be. Persuasion, seduction, humour is often a cleverer way to affirm community empowerment and a revivification of these traditions.

This is also how belief systems operate – they persuade and are infectous, and they provide a sense of lucidity in the world: imposed belief systems, however, do not work in this way – they are aggravating, and intrusive, but the simplicity of their appeal should never be underestimated, especially in a world that is getting increasingly reductive.

LILA: The roots of various traditions you have engaged with lie in mythology and different belief systems. Can you provide some insight into understanding belief in these communities? How do they perceive and understand these stories? How does belief further fuel creativity?

EK: In much of the Malay, and Southeast Asian worlds (all worlds, in fact) belief systems afford hierarchies of understanding.

In Kelantan, the operational principal are the concepts of ‘angin’ and ‘semangat’ which can be translated as ‘mood, temperament, character’ and ‘life force or spirit’ respectively. It is the interaction between these two elements that shapes the character and personality of an individual. These are also the elements that define the creative spirit.

The individual impulse, however, is necessarily circumscribed as the individual evolves into a social being. The tensions between individual desire and need, and community living can often lead to instances of enervation of the spirit, depression, existential loss and crisis, which the ‘performance space’ helps alleviate through the process of ‘emotional release.’ That performance space is also where aspects of familial and social obligations are played out. It is also a space that heightens the sense of memory, lineage and belonging. Ultimately, these rituals and ceremonies aspire to attain a sense of equilibrium between individual and community.

The enactment and embodiment of ‘stories’ are a reflection of the epic imagination and the metaphorical mind so pervasive among traditional societies. In Shadow Play there is a principle that what is closest to the Dalang (Puppeteer) is most distant from the audience, and what is closest to the audience is furthest from the Dalang. The performance then comes across as a kind of play of inversions, reflecting, in the words of the great Kelantan Puppeteer Abdullah Ibrahim, “the complexity of the world itself.”

One of the principal problems with the mythological imagination today lies in our reverence for the empirical. We appear to have very much bought into that Enlightenment idea of ‘reason’ as supreme. As a result we have adopted colonial attitudes regarding myths, perceiving them as essentially ‘fairy tales’ without acknowledging the innate powers of the parable, of the allusive imagination, and myth as a world view embracing community memory and lineage.

LILA: How do audiences today engage with the traditional performances and art featured by your organisation? Have you contemporarised or contextualised these practices for the modern audiences? What has this involved? If not, then how do we understand continuity of culture and tradition? 

EK: This binary – the ‘traditional’ and the ‘contemporary’ – is a source of greater unease for the contemporary, rather than the traditional person. Within a traditional setting tradition is contemporary – it is what is. This is especially true of folk traditions which thrive on improvisation and adaptation. It is an attitude that is, not only open, but incumbent: to imbibe various influences to retain vitality. Within the Kelantan Wayang (Shadow Play) tradition, there are two branches of stories – the trunk story, which is based on the Malay story of Rama and Ravana, and branch stories which are adaptations and stories derived from the principal narrative. A master Dalang is often regarded as one who is adept in conjuring highly personalised interpretations and versions of stories from the principal one. Often even new, modern characters, garbed in modern dress are introduced: one of the Princes in the Abdullah Ibrahim Wayang stories wears platform shoes and has an Elvis Presely quiff.

They are unlike classical traditions that tend to be highly protective, even contrived in their classicism, at times.

In bringing performances to more urban centres, adaptation to space and context is required. But both performers and the form itself has intrinsic mechanisms for adjustment.

What is not moderated, however, are aspects of energy, charisma, the ability of a performer to draw the audience to within his/her space, wherever the stage is.

LILA: Given the multiplicity of cultures in Malaysia, how do diverse belief systems interact with each other? Can this provide some insights and lessons into harmony and co-existence in our shrinking, globalised, multi-cultural world?

EK: Malaysia, and the Southeast Asian region by extension is an area born of multiplicity: it has no other reality. Colonial borders and the subsequent rise of the nation state inserted a border mentality strange to a maritime community. I like to pick off the description of the Caribbean (not unlike Southeast Asian with its long history of interactions) by Derek Walcott, in his beautiful Nobel Lecture, that describes a region as “mongrelised, polyglot, a ferment without a history, like heaven.”

The early periods of nationalism in Malaysia and the Southeast Asian region were highly romantic. The Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer entitled one of his majestic novels Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations) to reflect the inclusivity of a lush tropical landscape where everything ‘belonged.’ But the demands of nation-building and the forging of identities – harder and more rigid as time passes – bear heavy on a cultural history born of wild interactions.

I refrain from thinking of “harmony” and certainly do not adopt the language of “multi(s).” Cosmopolitan cultures are by nature chaotic, unbridled and heterogeneous. As space shrinks, the eccentric and unpredictable give way to the manageable and the regulated – perhaps those ways of interaction are obsolete and the relentless drive towards a culture of sameness is unstoppable. That does not mean it need not be resisted.

I’d like to think that PUSAKA’s work is about just that.

LILA: You are personally a devoted believer of Goddess Kali. Can you tell us a little more about this belief? Since when have you been a follower and what motivated you to participate in this belief?

EK: In matters of faith, ‘personal’ is the operative word.

I am a Kali Bhaktan, and have been for over twenty years. I abide by a Tantric lineage. A Bhaktan is not merely a devotee, but one who performs devotions. Since the passing of my priestess five years, I have taken on the duty of performing daily devotions at my Kali temple.

Yet, I remain a firm secularist, committed to the separation of faith (church) and state. I believe that the only responsibility the state has towards faith is ensuring that the freedom and right of worship is guaranteed.

I became a devotee of Kali Ma two decades ago: following a severe and tortuous illness, She gave my body back to me. I have given myself to Her ways ever since.

LILA: In light of this practice, how do you understand belief in religious or sacred ideas and practices?  What is their contemporary role and relevance in society today?

EK: Faith must be deeply metaphysical and philosophical – anything else is simply conformity. The term ‘follower’ then becomes a highly accurate description of that state of being. When Marx described religion as “the opiate of the people,” he was a making a sociological point, not a theological one.

The paradox of grappling with faith philosophically is that faith must first be rooted in doubt. And that the path of faith is always volatile. The one prayer I have conjured for myself, and which I repeat every day, is: “Kali, Ma: may you keep me from pure reason, that I may ever learn the mystery of your ways.”

Ritual is important for a devotee – it disciplines the soul. But it is a highly personalised act. This, I believe, is still the role and relevance of religion: to inspire a sense of wonder; and exists in the realm of poetry and speculation. This is the principal reason I find the new atheist movement tiresome – it is boring and banal.

Organised religion, which I abjure, is the temptation towards power. And that kind of religion – the religion of identity – our world can well do without. 

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