Kee-ping the faithBy Jacqueline Ann Surin (From Sun2Surf of September 17, 2005)
Newspaper readers may know KEE THUAN CHYE as the editor of Star's "Mind Our English" page. But before he became associate editor at Star, he was an editor and a leader writer with New Straits Times. "I've been in journalism since 1977, beginning with The National Echo," he says.
But Kee is more than a journalist. He is a playwright and several of his plays, such as 1984 Here and Now, We could **** You, Mr Birch and The Big Purge, are political commentaries on the country. Not surprisingly, a few have been considered too risky to stage in Malaysia. The 51-year-old is also a theatre director and actor, and has acted on stage, in commercials, TV sitcoms and Hollywood movies Entrapment and Anna and the King. JACQUELINE ANN SURIN catches up with him to talk about journalism, literature and the state of the country.
theSun: You wear several hats. Journalist, editor, actor, director, playwright. Which of these roles is the most fulfilling for you?
See, when I write my plays, I'm a free man. I can write what needs to be written. Of course, at the end of the day, I may not get the staging permit for it-lah. But, as a journalist, the constraints are certainly there. Everybody knows about that. Well, journalism for me has been fulfilling but it also has been very frustrating.
Can you talk about some of the frustrations?
In fact, I wasn't thinking of going to university because of the expense. So, after Form 6, I took a job at MAS, and it lasted for two days [chuckles]. I'm from Penang, and the job was at Subang Airport. It was as a traffic clerk and it was quite boring work-lah. I suppose I didn't really give it a chance-lah [chuckles]. Then I asked the airport manager if I could be transferred to another department, and he said, "No."
And then I met somebody in KL who said to me, "If you have the chance to go to university, you should." So, I thought, well, maybe-lah, I'd try for USM since it was in my hometown. So, when the results came out, I did quite alright, and I applied and got in to do Humanities.
Originally, I had the intention of majoring in mass communications. But, after the first year - you know, you don't major until your second year - I found I couldn't bring myself to major in mass comm [laughs]. Just not my cup of tea anymore, and I had become enamoured of the theatre after doing a lot of work at the Experimental Theatre. I wrote my own plays and directed them, and that became my passion.
So, that was your first exposure to theatre?
So, since I couldn't bring myself to major in mass comm, I thought maybe I'd major in performing arts. And again, ironically, I decided not to do that because I couldn't stand doing the acting class [laughs].
Ironically, now, if you were to ask me what I would like to do most, if I had the choice of doing something without having to worry about making a living, I would tell you I would like to be a full-time actor.
There've been quite a lot of ironic turns in my life [grins].
Eventually, I majored in literature.
But to come back to your question about journalism, I think it's been fulfilling for me because I've managed to do quite a few things that I feel strongly about. I've given my full commitment to being a journalist. And I've given my full commitment above all to doing my job as a professional.
And, sometimes it can be very hard-lah when you try to be a professional journalist.
Because, you try to do it as you think journalism should be done, and it's sometimes not possible.
You do your job according to journalistic values, journalistic ethics, but that doesn't seem to be the norm, especially nowadays when journalism has metamorphosed into something else because of the new technologies that are coming in and also because of the competitive nature of the media business now.
I mean, there was a time when the editorial department was king, you know. And the advertising department was wary of encroaching on that territory. We kept advertising at bay. What was important was the editorial matter and the integrity of the paper. But nowadays, you find that there is such a close collusion between advertising and editorial.
I subscribe to the notion that journalism is not all about business. It's about telling it as it is. I suppose my views are pretty old-fashioned [chuckles]. And these ideals are probably not operable-lah in today's world of journalism.
I believe in the old notion that newspapers are meant to be watchdogs of society - critical, engaged, speaking out without fear or favour. When I was entertainment editor about 20 years ago, in my own way-lah, you know, I found ways to discuss issues of the day through culture and entertainment. I even ran a couple of articles that were critical of [Tun Dr] Mahathir [Mohamad]. And one was when he appeared on a programme called Hal-Ehwal Semasa. Of course, it didn't go down well. Nowadays, there seems to be a tradition of not ever criticising the Prime Minister of the day, whoever he may be and whatever policy he may unveil.
I also remember, when I was a sub-editor and I ran a letter from a reader asking for multi-racial representation in an entertainment programme on TV. The next day, when I opened the paper, the letter had been yanked out [looks incredulous]. So, being young and idealistic, I marched to the chief editor's office and asked him, "What's the meaning of this? Why was it taken out?" And I wasn't even informed about it. And he gave me a two-hour lecture. He started by telling me, "If that letter had appeared in print, there would have been blood in the streets." I mean, this is rubbish-lah, of course. I mean, he was just exaggerating-lah. I'm not foolish enough to take that kind of thing [chuckles]. This was more than 20 years ago.
Once in the 1990s, I wrote a piece on the local literary scene in which I called for the repeal of the ISA [Internal Security Act] and a few other oppressive measures. Automatically, I got a memo-lah from my superior.
Over another disagreeable thing I did, he called me to his office, he said to me, "You don't have to work here, you know." I said, "How can you say that?" I mean, that was like a threat to me, you know [chuckles]. I don't think any superior should say that. So, he said, "Well, you think I'm a lousy editor. You think I'm a government ball-carrier." [laughs] It had come to that kind of thinking. So, I told him, "This is uncalled for."
After that, the order came for my pages to be henceforth closely scrutinised. And when everybody got one month's extra bonus, I got RM100. So, I wrote a cheque and returned the money.
It hasn't been easy for me in journalism. I used to get numerous memos from my bosses for doing what I did, which included obeying my conscience. But, I have to make it very clear here that it's never been my intention to rock the boat, to create trouble, or what have you. I've always maintained that I do my job as a journalist. As a professional. And I do it like I think it should be done.
And, sometimes it's a very difficult dilemma that I face. I mean, it's a dilemma of doing your work as a journalist and obeying your employer's orders, right? What do you do in a situation like that? Do you go against your own principles or do you continue to pursue them and take the wrath of your superiors? Journalism is not like many other professions, it comes with social responsibility.
During the [Datuk Seri] Anwar [Ibrahim] crisis ... Now, I have to say categorically that I'm not an Anwar supporter but there were things done during that time that I felt were not just and I couldn't agree with them. So, in my own little way, what I did was ... I had a section called Lit-Quotes in my pages. Actually, they should carry quotes from literature-lah. But, I put in a lot of quotes on democracy, and oppression and authoritarianism and what not. And somebody told me later on that these quotes were actually photocopied by people and circulated during that time [chuckles]. Because, as you know, that was a time when a lot of people were very cagey and these quotes expressed what they themselves felt. But, eventually, the chief editor caught on to it. And he told me to stop it.
I think if we can't be a critical media, we should at least be a questioning media. We need to question.
And [sounding pained], I really feel sad for the new breed of reporter because they are getting a different idea of what journalism is. It's pleasing your boss, it's pleasing advertisers, it's pleasing the marketing department, it's pleasing the advertising department, it's not upsetting the government! That's not what journalism is about!
I also feel that a little disrespect for authority is always a healthy thing. Because authority is not always right. And if it is wrong, it should be pointed out.
It's like people say, "Oh, if you go against the government, you are not loyal to your country. You are a traitor." No! Loving your country is different from loving your government [chuckles]. You know, it's just the government of the day. But people fail to draw that line. And that's the sad thing, especially here, you know. It doesn't mean, if you criticise the government or you go against it because it did something which you thought was wrong that you therefore do not love your country. That's ridiculous.
You talk a lot about the problems you have faced. Is it any different where you are now, is it any better? If it is not any better in journalism today, why are you still in it? Because it pays the bills?
When I'm given a job to do, I do it with commitment and integrity. I can say this at the risk of sounding like a brag because I don't bullshit. In the newsroom, I often speak straight from the shoulder. I think my current bosses know that and I hope they appreciate it. They know I'm not a yes-man or a ball-carrier.
Sadly, ours is a culture of ampu-bodek. If you're good at that, chances are you'll do well. And that's what partly keeps us from progressing at a faster rate. Because the capable ones who don't ampu-bodek get left behind, and those who are good at ampu-bodek may not be good at doing the real job.
These are your frustrations in journalism. What about in theatre? What kind of frustrations have you experienced?
There was another play I was directing, and I also had been rehearsing for about six weeks. It was called Madame Mao's Memories. We also didn't get the permit for that. In both cases, no reasons were given. Apparently, the authorities are not compelled to give reasons.
Is it true that they now have a committee to vet playscripts?
Yes, for City Hall.
Do you think the reason why you didn't get permits for at least two plays was a form of retribution because of the views that you had as a journalist as well as a playwright?
Either in the newsroom or in theatre, were you ever warned about going too far or that there would be repercussions if you continued to...?
So, for the most part, you've been able to do what you've been doing with some amount of manoeuvring but without being threatened in any way?
In your own experience, which has had more impact on society? Journalism or theatre? Which has been more effective for you as an agent of social change?
You do a play, a lot of the time, the people who come to see it are also, what they call, "the converted" in any case. So, you are not really changing minds, you know. Unless you write in Malay. But then if you wrote plays in Malay, your plays would actually be more closely scrutinised because the authorities are aware that it will reach out to larger audiences, so they are more cautious about that.
But, having said that, I write a play, I get it published. Sometimes, it gets picked up and it's taught at the universities.
As [We Could **** You,] Mr Birch was?
How many plays have you written in total?
Quite a number have also been broadcast over RTM. I sent [in] quite a lot during my undergraduate days. They were paying a princely sum of RM75 a play.
Wah, not bad for those days!
Do you think there are any common challenges that you face in both journalism and in theatre?
Do you think that's getting worse?
What is even worse actually is self-censorship. And that is the biggest challenge for anybody, especially for journalists. Quite hard to overcome.
Have you ever self-censored?
Without being conscious of it?
Your play, 1984: Here and Now was seen as being rather controversial because it was about the state versus citizens, about racial inequality, the brain drain, and inter-racial relations. What compelled or inspired you to write it?
Was there anything in particular that you or your family experienced that was the starting point for what you were writing, or was it an amalgamation of different experiences?
But in Penang itself, I did have personal experience of the effects of the pro-bumiputera policy. When I graduated, I wanted to pursue my Master's. But I could not afford to do it unless I could get a tutorship in the university [USM]. So, I applied for it but I didn't get it.
But what I couldn't reconcile with was why I didn't get it when I was top in my Humanities class. I was also the winner of the Gold Medal for Top Literature Student.
So, it was obvious-lah, you know. That was my direct experience of that policy.
What about your children? Have they had to experience discrimination growing up?
Do you think things have changed in Malaysia since you wrote 1984 and since it was staged in Malaysia?
The drive is constantly on to make people happy through means that also distract them from the real issues. Hence we've seen the rise of consumerism, the sprouting of megamalls, the providing of mass entertainment, huge celebratory spectacles. We partake of the fun and games like the Romans of ancient times did when their emperors gave them chariot races and gladiator fights. That way political leaders also get maximum exposure.
But, the thing now is that what they've also done is they've made Malaysians more materialistic than ever. So much so that I think we are losing sight of things like spiritual development, moral development, intellectual development, values!
Do you sense that things are changing for the country because we have a new Prime Minister?
Are things improving? Are we, at least, starting to look at spiritual, moral and intellectual development?
By and large, Malaysians are still intellectually shallow. The push towards consumerism has made it worse. Shopping and having fun are what interest Malaysians more than the need to acquire culture. Even as I say that the media needs to address issues, I also realise that many people don't really want to discuss them or are not interested at all.
They're afraid or they don't care. Or they've been conditioned to accept things as they are. Our education system has been extremely effective in indoctrinating our children from the moment they enter school.
As for racial relations, on the surface, it now looks to have improved, ya. On the surface, it looks as if we are a happy family. But [long pause], at a deeper level, if you were to, for example, ask university students of a particular race, let's say a Malay student, to name you a non-Malay friend of theirs, or vice-versa, you'd be surprised that they would be quite hard put to give you a name.
I think racial polarisation has still not been lessened. We are a far cry from the good old days when Malays would sit down with non-Malays to break bread together regardless where. Nowadays, if you invite your Malay friends to your home to have a meal with you, I'm not quite sure that they will accept. There's a wariness.
So, race relations have not really improved?
But, why do we still have a policy like discounts for Bumiputeras buying houses? I mean, the irony here is that, if you have a house that costs a few million [chuckles], you have Bumiputera multi-millionaires buying these houses, and they are enjoying what is it now, a 7% discount? It doesn't add up, you know.
The metaphor I invoke is this - Our fathers and we helped to build this house. Why are we still considered tenants?
That feeling is still very much floating around among people like me. And that has not disappeared after all these years.
The sense that non-Malays are immigrants?
Do you think art imitates life or is it the other way round?
Well, your plays, for example.
Does life imitate art? I mean if you were a prophet writing art, and your prophesies came true, then you might say, life imitates art [laughs]! I'm not a prophet. I'm an observer, and I put down, in as honest a way as I can, and in a way that I believe to be right, what I see around me.
I'm actually writing a new play.
Are you, now? What's it called?
It's based on that famous story about Singapura dilanggar todak [Singapore attacked by swordfish]. I've taken that episode and meshed it with the episode of the fall of Singapura when Majapahit invaded it and destroyed it.
How is it that you're writing about Singapore?
It is based on the episodes in the Sejarah Melayu, but I take a lot of liberties with it, just as I did with Mr Birch. You know, taking a historical episode and then doing all kinds of things with it. So, it's the same thing that I'm doing with this play. A lot of cheeky things, you know, but very much reflecting and questioning what is going on today.
Just as Birch took a historical episode and actually is talking about today, rather than about history, so it is with The Fall of Singapura.
So, what are some of the issues that you are questioning through this Fall of Singapura?
How did this guy who can't sing become such a big phenomenon? What does it tell me? That it's another celebration of mediocrity?
It's not just that TV has this knack of generating hype, it's also the people who voted for him. There were other people who could sing much better than him. How come people didn't vote for them? [laughs]
I think it says so much about us. We don't have such a high regard for meritocracy, you know. Sometimes, I think we are too much influenced by our sentimentality-lah, sentiments for our kampung, the state we come from, religion, kinship, what have you. With that kind of mindset, how can we think about ourselves as would-be First Worlders?
Another issue in the play is our confusion about ourselves and the contradictions in our wanting to be progressive and yet adhering to our conservatism.
When is this play going to be completed?
Are you going to self-publish? Or is it going to go to a publisher?
Are you thinking of directing it?
Recently, your play The Big Purge was read [at the Soho Theatre, London] at the Typhoon Festival [an East Asian writing festival]. What is the play about? Why hasn't it been performed locally?
I have two dimensions there. I have the wayang kulit [shadow play] world of the politicians, the powers that be. And the human dimension of the characters of the land, people who are affected by the policies and so on.
I also talked a lot about emigration, how people find it difficult to cope in that society and the only way out for them is to run away. It also deals a lot with racial tensions, racial relations.
Was this written right after 1987?
Do you hope that someday the play will be staged in Malaysia?
What was the reception like in London?
Do you think there is enough support for English creative writers and English-language theatre in Malaysia?
Of course not-lah [sounding tired]. We don't have the infrastructure for it. And for a long time, you know, English creative writing had to really work in isolation. There was no recognition for it, and it wasn't easy to get published, for obvious reasons. Because there wasn't a large enough market. There still isn't a large market for Malaysian English writing.
In the 1970s and 1980s, some of us felt really guilty continuing to write in the colonial language. It was an uneasy time for us. Even now, we could not dream of getting writing residencies in institutions of learning or writing grants.
And of course, you know, because [pause] there is - I don't know if it still exists - there used to be this doctrine that national literature was to be literature written in Malay, and literature written in other languages were known as "sectional" or "communal" literature.
I mean, that's also another demeaning thing-lah. If you write in your own mother tongue, you're only considered to be "sectional", you know [laughs cynically]. It's the same with the National Culture Policy which still remains to this day. It says that national culture must be based on Malay culture and Nusantara culture! Can you imagine it? Nusantara. That means they're including Indonesia. They're looking so far afield. And only incorporating 'suitable elements' from immigrant cultures.
What are these "suitable elements"? I mean, it's really terrible, you know. If people say, "Okay-lah, I take what is suitable from you." How does that make you feel? And who are they to decide what is suitable and what is not? What do they mean by "suitable"? You mean, there are things in my culture that are not suitable?
These are things that I cannot reconcile with. I don't know if they will change in my lifetime or not.
Do you think there's enough appreciation for English literature in Malaysia?
Why do you think it's important for society to have an appreciation of English literature?
And although literary works may be fictive, or fictional, there is a certain truth to them. And, as we read them, we empathise with the characters. We go through the journey that they go through and we hopefully, understand something about life from their experience.
You've talked about wanting to write a novel some day. What would it be about, and have you actually started writing it?
Who are the people who have inspired you in your writing and acting?
They opened up an intriguing world for me. And I studied them more and more, and I was very much influenced by them. And I wrote absurdist plays in the kind of mould they were writing in.
And I suppose at the time, it was also quite appropriate for me to do so because I could empathise with their notions of a world gone topsy-turvy, in which language has lost its real meaning, and people lead existentialist lives in a meaningless world. That kind of thing-lah. Maybe I could identify with that because I wasn't getting any girlfriends [laughs loudly].
I understand that your children bear names from the three major races in the country. What are their names? Your 15-year-old daughter?
And your 14-year-old son?
Was it a conscious decision to name your children this way?
Do they have a hard time at school?
But now I think they are coming to terms with it. And I think they realise the significance of their names. And they are beginning to appreciate it.
My daughter, in fact, wrote an essay about her name last year. And, at the end of it, she mentioned that she was getting to be proud of it. And she also mentioned that she was proud of her country, and she supposed that having a Malaysian name would enhance that love for the country. And she also said that she got her love for the country from her father [chuckles] who often tells her that loving her country is not about waving flags! I was very proud of her.
I don't believe in all that hoopla of flying flags during Merdeka month. It's just a show. What's inside you is what really matters.