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Fear of Other Languages: One Step Away from “Malaysian” Theatre?


Memos for the Next Wave of Theatre Criticism was meant to kick-start a long overdue discussion. The forum brought together critics, members of the media, practitioners and audiences to improve standards of criticism of Chinese Theatre in Malaysia. 

Although I knew that it would be conducted entirely in Mandarin, I was not worried. I may not be a native speaker, but I did my papers in Chinese up to PMR, so I’m pretty fluent. I was confident that language would not be an issue.

I was wrong.

The whole forum was discussed with such posh vocabulary that I grew tired after 20 minutes. An audience member took to Facebook to express his anger about the academic vocabulary used, ranting that he had come to gain knowledge, but went home feeling illiterate. And that was only part of the problem. While speakers did share their experience in theatre, they rarely moved beyond that to provide facts or suggest clear steps towards improving criticism.

Speakers at the forum – image by Mia Sabrina Mahadir

By the time the Q&A session started, I still had no story. So, I asked the speakers a direct question: “Do you usually have English or translated reviews for Chinese theatre to attract non-Chinese speakers to your shows?”

The answers I received surprised me.

The first speaker, a practitioner who goes by the stage name Fenmo Goulan, believes that intercultural exchange can only happen if we have a healthier supply of bilingual talent. To increase these numbers would be a long, hard process, and it is better to “focus on improving our own language and quality first.” In other words, he did not believe intercultural exchange was a priority.

Another speaker, cultural critic Leong Yew Sen, observed that Malaysian theatre practitioners assume intercultural exchange can happen just by including different races in a performance. She quoted Jo Kukathas’ Another Country as an example. The piece that had Malaysian and Singaporean actors performing scripts from each other’s countries, which sadly, Yew Sen noted, did not contain any Chinese language pieces from Malaysia. Can that then, be considered an intercultural exchange?

Respondent Cheng Yin Chen, also a theatre practitioner, talked about watching theatres in Japan and Australia. The Japanese especially, rely heavily on subtitles, and are not afraid to do so. Whereas in Malaysia, we are afraid to be around different languages and be seen to not understand. We would rather stick to our own mother tongues than read subtitles.

Are we letting language get between us and quality theatre? Image courtesy of Choonmee Soon

“We are afraid of translation. But if we don’t see translation as a nuisance, it can close the gap between different languages,” added critic Koh Choon Eiow.

After the forum, I spoke to moderator Richard Chua Lian Choon. Richard, who was born and bred in Singapore, says his countrymen are at a level where they strive to produce lots of “Singaporean” theatre. Whereas here in Malaysia, we are still very much divided.

Here, “We have a sense of collective insecurity,” Richard said. This insecurity seemingly arises from the fear of another language the panel had referred to.

Concurrently, Malay and Indian theatre are perhaps having the same problem. Of course, we don’t want to forget our roots, but a collective “Malaysian” theatre should be the new norm. To get there, perhaps the first step is to watch, immerse oneself, and understand one another’s theatre.

Perhaps, we can each start by purchasing tickets to an upcoming show in a language other than our own.


Main image courtesy of Choonmee Soon (ASLI)

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Mia Sabrina Mahadir
Mia Sabrina Mahadir

A jack of many trades, Mia is a familiar face on TV, in the news, at last night’s company dinner or at the place she calls home: the theatre.