Shadow Play in PAS Territory
Osman Bakar is a specialist in Malaysia’s traditional art of shadow puppetry, but fears his craft is flickering out under curbs imposed by strict Islamist rulers in the country’s northeastern state of Kelantan.”I have lost a source of income,” said Osman, who has been a drummer for 20 years at performances of wayang kulit, as the art of puppetry, based on myths from India’s Hindu epics, is known.
Wayang kulit is slowly fading out in the province following years of restrictions on this ancient form of puppetry, which dates back centuries before Islam spread to the region and whose origins are derived from Hinduism.
Osman, a former soldier, now supports his eight children teaching silat, a traditional Malay martial art. Many of his puppeteer friends have given up the art or moved away.
Two years ago, the Islamist party Parti Islam se Malaysia, which controls the mostly rural Kelantan province with a population of 1.5 million people, declared the capital Kota Baru an Islamic city.
The move was the latest in a series of changes PAS has ushered in since taking power there in 1990, as it seeks to discourage behavior it considers against the tenets of Islam.
It has shut down bars serving alcohol, which is forbidden under Islamic law, instituted separate checkout queues for men and women in supermarkets, and clamped down on traditional performing arts that it considers breaches Islamic law.
Although Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, half its population of about 26 million is non-Muslim and the national government, run by a coalition led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), is secular.
Kelantan is steeped in traditional Malaysian culture which dates back to centuries before Islam reached the area over 800 years ago. When Islam did reach the relatively isolated region, south of the Thai border, it took hold in a more mystical form.
But PAS upholds a strict form of Islam that sometimes clashes with elements of Malaysian culture.
Authorities in Kota Baru stirred an outcry last month by announcing plans to fine non-Muslim women if they wore revealing clothes. They later backed down, saying the measures would apply to Muslims only.
“Now we see a lot more women in headscarves. There weren’t so many earlier,” said Azmi Noh, a cloth trader in Kota Baru’s Siti Khadijah market, where his shop is surrounded by traders seated on platforms selling pyramids of vegetables and rows of chickens.
“They have been closing cinemas in the city for more than a year, eliminating illegal structures, and building more places for people to pray,” he added.
The Siti Khadijah market is the only one in Malaysia with a mosque, batik trader Azmi said, adding that officials from the mosque occasionally targeted unmarried Muslim couples walking through the market with advice to mend their ways.
Although prompted by religious reasons, the cleanup had scared off gangsters, said Chang, an ethnic Chinese furniture dealer, who said he voted for PAS at the last election, though declined to give his full name.
“The Chinese gangsters don’t want to come here because of the religious enforcement, and that’s why there are no gangsters,” he said.
DYING ART FORM
One party official said PAS wanted to hold meetings to popularize the idea of an Islamic city as well as concerts meant to appeal to young people, who are expected to form a large proportion of voters at the next poll.
“We are concerned about the young voters. That’s why there is an emphasis on activities that will appeal to them,” said politician Kamarudin Jaffar.
PAS plans to organize a concert by British singer Yusuf Islam, more commonly known as Cat Stevens, a high-profile convert to Islam, he added.
“As long as the concerts are within Islamic norms, it’s fine,” he said, referring to rules that men and women be seated separately at such events.
Wooing young voters is crucial for PAS, which clings to power by a one-seat majority in the Kelantan assembly. National polls in Malaysia are not due until July 2009, but there has been speculation they could be held late in 2007 or early in 2008.
Many long-time residents of Kota Baru remember the days before the changes ordered by their Islamist rulers rid many landmarks of their evocative associations.
“Moonlight Beach”, a strip of sand lashed by grey-capped monsoon waves, where small boys fly kites shaped like birds or butterflies, used to be called the “Beach of Passionate Love”.
Strung along major roads are signs with the Arabic characters for the name of God and the Prophet Muhammad, or verses from the Koran, that aim to put motorists in a prayerful mood.
But the signs have hardly altered the behavior of most drivers, said A. Tamil Selvah, an insurance assessor.
Since Kota Baru is close to the Malaysian border with neighboring Thailand, residents easily get round the city’s ban on liquor and other kinds of entertainment, he added.
“It’s just 40 minutes away,” said the 26-year-old ethnic Indian. “Locals can go just over the border. Unless the border is tightened, Malays can go there and do anything.”
At his wooden-built home amid the emerald rice fields of the village of Kampung Jal, Osman Bakar, 54, said the local PAS government had begun to allow shadow play performances purged of offending elements, such as ritual offerings to the gods.
But he doubted that would be enough to revive the art form.
“Children nowadays don’t know what these arts are,” he said.
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