Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Arts and Islam in Kelantan

About the author
Zulkifli Mohamad is the Artistic Manager of Arts Exchange Asia and is based in Selangor, Malaysia. A dancer, choreographer and educationalist, he acted as mentor to young dancer Shein Shanin Dato Shahril who has been a participant in an international debate on the rights and roles of young people as artsmakers.

My name is Zulkifli Mohamad from Malaysia: but I also come from the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, which is one of the few states in the country run by an Islamic government. Kelantan has an old culture with many elements like shadow puppets, weaving, batiks. All these arts are rooted in this particular state. It is an isolated state, partly because of Islam. People may not realise that if this state had been under central government control, and therefore fully exposed to globalisation, all this precious culture might have gone a long time ago.

I’m not talking about radical Islam now, when I refer to my state. Islam in Malaysia is very calm. It is all about the middle path. I have to say this, because I sometimes feel that we are victimised being Muslim. And indeed, I sometimes feel that I’m victimised for having the name I do.

An artist’s destiny

I was asked by my father to do a medical degree, but I left after six months at medical school, and begged him to think of something else. He said, okay, you go into accountancy. That’s just one of those things we have to live with. Though I come from an artistic family, my father was adamant that we should avoid the arts because we would never eat. The new government economic policy after independence meant that young people are strongly advised to go into the science stream and medical sciences, because there are no jobs in the arts.

But I’ve been active in dance theatre from the age of nine. I have always been involved in traditional art forms which are slowly but surely dying: one set of grandparents were opera artists; a great-uncle ran a martial arts school; another great-uncle is a shaman; and my grandfather worked as a Master of Ceremonies in the palace. So I have that background, and it was something I took absolutely for granted. It was in my blood. So, after I graduated from my accounting school, I joined a dance theatre group, which was actually doing a contemporary version of the tradition that I come from.

My father sent me to business school, and it’s come full circle now as you will hear. Because now I have decided to quit all my jobs at the ministerial office, having discovered that what I really want to do is something that will help save this dying art for posterity. I don’t quite know how yet, but however I am going to do it, it will be fine – because it’s mine.

I did my MA in Science and International Business Marketing in Scotland. It was a great programme in Strathclyde University. And I realised that international business politics and economy and social science and psychology is so important, but when I went back I decided to teach in the university, and I set up a programme in Malaysia called the Arts and Culture Management Programme, so I combined my management background with my artistic inheritance.

And I continued to work for the supranational organisation Asean. So that’s my political and economic expertise expanding, and I began to look at arts as one of the things that we are doing, but there are so many important things that surround it, and we have to live with it. I was teaching BAs, and I’m very much into research, so I left university with the permission of the vice-chancellor to do a sabbatical with an organisation in Thailand, the Centre for Archaeology and Finance, and that’s how I expanded my sense of the horizon of the arts. In Malaysia I was just looking at dance before. So I moved to the arts as general heritage, archaeology.

Being a Muslim artist

In 2002, I was supposed to teach summer courses in Boston and Seattle universities, and to dance over there; but I was not allowed a visa to go to America because I have a name like Zulkifli Mohamad. I feel that my right both as a person and as a Muslim has been taken away. People understand Islam as meaning having to kill another person or bomb a building, and it’s terrible; I feel embarrassed sometimes to have a name like that.

They judge people by name alone without knowing who’s who in your country.

It is very important to emphasise that Islam in Malaysia is very different from Islam in Indonesia. Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but even with its large voting power Islam in Indonesia is very liberal as compared to Malaysia. In Malaysia there are two sides of Islam. One is Islam as ruled by the federal government, the other is as advocated by the opposition. So you could say Islam is being used for political purposes in a way. The people are in a sense victims of that, and face the problem of what kind of Islam they choose to believe in and practice.

Kelantan becomes very interesting in the context of this debate over Islam. This particular state is the most cultured and historic in Malaysia, with ancient kingdoms as part of its heritage. At the same time the state is the most Islamic state in Malaysia, so it is balanced between these two powers.

At this point I believe that the Islamic government has protected the old cultures – perhaps more unwittingly than consciously. Globalisation is kept at bay; there is only one McDonald and one KFC in Kelantan. Yet at the same time, the authorities had banned shadow puppets and women dancing, even though these helped to make it the culturally richest state in Malaysia.

But interestingly, this year after maybe fifteen years the Islamic government decided to lift the ban on shadow puppets, and to introduce a new story of shadow puppets – one that is far from the Hindu-Buddhist story of old. Most people in Kuala Lumpur, the capital, were dismayed – but they are not from Kelantan. As a person from there, I would say thank God, it’s another point of creation. Fine, we have got shadow puppets from Hindu-Buddhist culture. Now the state’s Islamic government has given us the opportunity to expand on and enrich this tradition.

So I believe in some way in the Islamic government in Kelantan. People in that state are happy and they should not be judged by people from outside that state. They have enough food, they choose to wear or not wear whatever they want to wear, like the headscarf. They have a choice, but sometimes people at the ‘centre’ politicise these decisions without reason. This I believe is a political intention.

Teaching the next generation

My young artist is the daughter of my former choreographer. She started dancing in my class because she wanted to express herself away from her mother; later, she began to dance with her mother. She’s really enjoying this and I try not to be in the way, so that she can decide what dance she wants to do on her own. We sometimes discuss the inner motives of art.

I think we all have the right to express ourselves. The biggest culture in today’s world belongs to the west, but for Asians in general values rather than power are very important. Rights too are important, and they are becoming increasingly global. Within our own culture we have rights also, but too often we are trapped within a western definition of rights.

It is a problem that culture is not being included in human rights, and I believe that we need to have a new human rights charter, policy, because the human rights we’re talking about now were defined in 1947-48, but we’re still hanging on to a piece of paper that is being designed by people who were at the time fighting for something else. Today, in a different world, I think people do understand the way that multi- and inter-culturalism have redefined the territory, so why are we still looking at these United Nations’ documents? With all these wars going on we have lost trust in the UN.

In essence, I think culture is very important. I think it’s important for each person to embrace culture – but one that is not defined by nationality or government. It can be individual, it can be anything or anyone. But I also think that the ownership of the work by one particular culture is very important.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.