Up, Up… and Malay

Published on 22 December 2015

We talk to some up-and-coming twentysomethings about what it means to be Malay artists.


I’m not sure about the term, ‘Malay artist’,” muses Kaykay Nizam, dancer, actor and a pioneering member of multi-disciplinary arts group The Kaizen M.D., as well as the managing director of its theatre arm. “ ‘Malay’ shouldn’t define you as an artist. Artists need to go deep into themselves to pull out art that’s true, something personal, not just something ‘Malay’. ”

This echoes the sentiments of many of Singapore’s rising artists of Malay heritage.

While many prolific artists, such as dancer-choreographer and Cultural Medallion recipient Som Said and Young Artist Award recipient and playwright/poet Alfian Sa’at, base much of their art around traditional Malay art forms or Malay social and religious issues, many of their juniors approach their art slightly differently.

Celebrated playwright Irfan Kasban says, “Sometimes focusing on race can be seen as beneficial, because it means there will always be some representation for minority artists — like racial quotas in an HDB [Housing & Development Board] block. But it also comes with a bias. I don’t worry about representing Malay issues in my plays just because I’m Malay, there is no need to be locked into a formula. My plays aren’t just ‘Malay issues’, I also do site-specific pieces about sewing machines meeting umbrellas!”

This doesn’t mean that this new breed of artists don’t represent the race’s traditions and issues. “Of course, I do certain plays which concern the Malay language and the establishment of Islam,” adds Irfan. “But these are just things that interest me in my life, which just happens to be the life of a Malay person. I’ve done dikir barat and won awards for my lyrics, I’ve choreographed Malay dance. I’m also a director, a lighting designer…. One of my favourite roles is actually as a stage manager because I can order people around! Why should we limit ourselves?”


Kaykay agrees. “Kaizen emphasises multi-disciplinary collaboration — exploratory pieces between multi-racial dancers, actors, sound designers, writers and so on. But when we first started out, the company comprised mostly Malay dancers. We don’t intentionally do something Malay but, of course, Malay dance techniques are present. You can’t run away from it. Although I wasn’t formally dance-trained, it’s quite impossible for a Malay person not to know what Malay dance is because you watch Malay epics like Hang Tuah with all the ronggeng and zapin. Our roots aren’t the basis of our explorations, but they are there.”

On the other hand, there are young artists who intentionally focus on traditions and history, such as Riduan Zalani, artistic director of NADI Singapura (a group of young musicians focused on Malay traditional drums and percussions), and Young Artist Award recipient for his contributions to music.

NEW GROUND The gutsy youngsters of The Kaizen M.D. are constantly creating collaborations between various artists and blurring the line between theatre and dance. PHOTO Malay Heritage Centre

“I’ve studied multiple instruments and I love all sorts of percussive music, whether Chinese, Arabic, Cuban, African. I’ve played in more than 30 countries and I’ve performed jazz in a bar, electro-house in Zouk, and accompanied belly dancers — it was all great. But I started NADI because I find in our young society, there are not many championing traditional Malay music in Singapore,” shares Riduan.

“I wanted to change this, by somehow packaging traditional arts in a way the general public today understands and appreciates. It’s not so much changing what’s being played, but more how you present it. Can we play it double time, or can we play and dance at the same time, though usually the dancers dance and the musicians sit? The results have been amazing. Over the last four years, we’ve seen an increase in the number of different generations of audiences. For our recent annual show, I only expected 1,200 people, but 5,000 people turned up,” he enthuses.


Similarly, visual artist Fyerool Darma has used various historical texts and photographs from the pre-colonial Malay archipelago in his works, presenting creatively obscured portraits and scenes to highlight narratives and perspectives that have been forgotten.

“Our region had a rich history prior to colonial times that we, in modern times, are in amnesia of. My concern is unearthing and understanding the relation between traditional and modern; past and present; texts and aesthetics,” he explains.

Some of these artists do not feel limited by their focus on Malay tradition either.

Says Riduan, “Recently, NADI Singapura spearheaded one of its biggest collaborative projects, 9 Kotak and 9 Rentak. You could really get a taste of how varied the musical traditions of the Malayan archipelago are. People just say ‘Malay music’ but the styles the audience heard included Javanese, Sundanese, Balinese, Kelantanese, Arabic, Riau-Linga, Bugis and the dondang sayang, which has spread throughout the Malay diaspora. There’s more. That culture is so rich I couldn’t get bored of it.”

And whether consciously exploring their Malay identity or not, many of these artists believe that their topics and styles do have universal relevance.

Says Fyerool, “My concern at present is to understand a loss I feel, belonging to a generation distanced from our memory or knowledge of being Malay, Javanese, Baweanese, Bugis, Sunda… to name a few. But this concern is not only for this race. I believe it is also a national concern, [connected to] migration, globalisation and tradition.”

Riduan agrees, and has ambitious plans for the future. “People of different races are coming to appreciate NADI’s music — the audience is  growing. I have a vision that one day the whole world will be listening to Malay music. Look at 2004, everywhere in the world, you heard Bhangra beats, whether in hip-hop or rock or funk, clubs or restaurants.

“A few years ago K-pop took the world by storm, it was a huge cultural integration. One day, it will be Singapore’s turn. Maybe not specifically Malay, Chinese or Indian, but Singapore music, shown to the world.”

LEADER OF THE BAND Riduan Zalani founded NADI Singapura to champion traditional Malay music for a modern, multi-cultural audience. PHOTO  Malay Heritage Centre

PIECES OF THE PAST Artist Fyerool Darma explores the region’s lost history through his artworks, such as those featured in his exhibition Moyang. PHOTOS Fyerool Darma

Rising Star

Cover girl Munah Bagharib makes her mark on the arts scene.

She’s a YouTube personality, TV actress, theatre thespian, newly-minted host of Channel 5’s The 5 Show and travel-adventure show host, who’s also known for her countless showbiz personas ranging from minah to makcik and beyond. Munah Bagharib is not sure though, if she, or other media personalities like her, need to be referred to as ‘Malay artist’.

“I’m Malay and proud of it, but I don’t see the need to put someone’s race in front of the term artist,” muses the mesmerising multi-hyphenate. “It’s such a small industry in Singapore, everyone’s doing everything. We’re all people, so why the need for a label?”

This philosophy applies to her work too. “When I create content with Hirzi [Zulkiflie] for the YouTube channel programmes that launched us into the public eye, we try to raise issues that mean something to us. Sometimes, they relate to Malay people, but it’s not always, ‘I’m of this race, so I must stand up for this race.’ If I, as a person, feel something for a cause about say, human rights, I can stand up for it. Or animal rights, because I really love animals,” she says.

“I think interracial boundaries are coming down. I’ve been given the opportunity to do a range of things; co-host and do crazy stuff on Channel 5’s first travel adventure show in years (premiering in 2016), star in a science-fiction rom-com play, and perform a monologue for the upcoming M1 Fringe Festival. I’ve even played various multi-racial characters in the Channel 5 sitcom Working Class. This shows people are focusing less on race and culture, and more on ability.”

ON MUNAH Top & ballerina skirt from Prive. Necklace & patent faux leather shoes from H&M. Crystal earrings from BCBG Maxazria.

Leaps & Bounds

From traditional Malay dance to site-specific works, Irfan Kasban doesn’t believe in limiting himself.

Irfan Kasban’s roots are deep in Malay traditions. The artist began with writing award-winning lyrics for dikir barat and performing traditional Malay dance. His artistic branches, however, go in many directions. Irfan’s CV includes contemporary theatre directing, lighting design, choreography, stage management and penning plays in both Malay and English. These range from comedies starring prophets trapped in a toilet, to speech-free spectacles featuring women with umbrellas flowing through different rooms of the former Geylang Fire Station.

Today, while Irfan doesn’t generally create art specifically for and/or about the Malay community or culture, he does believe in doing what he can to preserve the language. “We are a minority race, after all. I don’t deliberately champion the culture, but I think it is precious to us, the language is precious. I guess that’s why I do Malay-language theatre,” he says in eloquent English. “One of my works was a documentation of three different varieties of the Malay language, from the colloquial to the formal and the innuendic.”

As a productive playwright, audiences can expect two new works from Irfan in 2016. The first, Tree Is a Crowd, which headlines the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival, allows audiences to vote for one of two historic trees to be chopped down to make room for a fictional highway. Another piece, due later in the year, is about a Singaporean family who migrated to Australia returning to Singapore to deal with the exhumation of its dead patriarch.

ON IRFAN Cotton shirt, knit sweater & cotton drawstring pants from BLACKBARRETT by Neil Barrett. Suede loafers from UGG.

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