Humbling The Musical (What Puteri Gunung Ledang reminded us)

A theatre production is a massive undertaking. A musical, I am sure, is a mammoth task.

Months before Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical was staged last weekend, an equally excited cousin SMS-ed me in Canada to let me know of its staging in the Esplanade. Unfortunately, we couldn’t secure any seats by the time I got here. But I persevered, and at the last minute we managed to get 2 tickets out of sheer luck, and watched the production last night.

But this is not a post about my journey to watch PGL. Neither is it about Tiara Jacquelina, the producer and main actress of the musical – who befittingly wrote in the musical’s programme booklet that the journey to make the musical has been a dream come true for her, and that if one lesson can be drawn out of this – it is to be brave in chasing what you dream for. I second you Tiara.

This entry is about the journey of my own people, who sometimes I think, are a tad too quick to be awed and hummed by anything massive, in size and form. Tiara has never actually claimed that the production is world-class, although I am sure she would like it to be. It is the numerous comments and reviews by those who have seen it, mostly Malays, who claimed that it is fantastic! marvellous! world-class! superpowered! You get the idea.

PGL The Musical is good, but it is not great. It has a long way to go before it can even be in the realm of an international musical standard. Tiara, I am sure, is a brilliant businesswoman. She would have the acumen to revisit the production’s viability to proceed internationally, before jumping the gun. But I worry effect of the many accolades that have been showered onto this production. It may blind the producers and the team. More importantly, my worry is what we have not learn from our own history.

For those of you who have not watched, here are the reasons why I think the musical has not crossed the mark:

1. Casting – Stephen-Rahman Hughes is a great singer for a musical, but not being a Malay-speaking person incapacitated his ability to emote well. None of his lines stayed with me, except that he ‘performed’ the lines and that’s it.

Tiara J is a beautiful lady, and I love how Javanese she looks. But her singing ability needs to be improved, because this is after all, a musical. Unforgettable heroines in musicals are all singing nightingales. With much prowess, I must add.

2. Lighting – Sadly, the lighting design is too flat, and not very creative. The best scene in the musical is a night scene where Hang Tuah and Puteri rendezvous-ed on a hill, and 3 backlights flashed from the back to give them a nice shadow. But err, that would be a 101 on theatre, no?

3. Story
– Call me a sucker for history, but I so love the story. The writers did well with the flow too, as it was very apt that the 2 chapters in the musical were cleverly divided geographically – Majapahit and Melaka. But I wanted more from Hang Tuah, who is the main man. He is after all, the epitome of a Malay warrior – all heart and soul, all brains and brawn. I was hungry to explore his dilemma between his loyalty to the King and his love for the Puteri, but I was left vacuummed. I was hungry for my real Hang Tuah, very famished in fact.

4. Music
– Ah, Dick Lee. With all due respect to his talents, I do think he is the wrong choice. Listen to the music score intensively, and you will notice the rhythm and melody is way too modern for a musical, set on an ancient manuscript. There were moments when I was looking into the musician’s box (I was sitting in the Circle seats) and watched the musicians instead. A theatre friend aptly commented there should have been live gamelan to supplement. The music score lacked the ethnic elements – the resouding thuds and throbbing gongs of our ethnic musical instruments. And Roslan (Aziz), you cannot replace them with electronic PSRs. They sound too hollow.

5. Set
– The ‘hill’ reminded me of Lion King but more importantly, it is too simple. There were good use of the white satin drape and the majestic Malaccan palace door, but only sparingly. Scrutinise the top part of the ‘palace’ facade and you will feel like you are looking at a cross between a Guangzhou temple and a Minangkabau house.

6. Off-tangent scenes – Top of the list is a scene where Sultan Mahmud of Melaka and his entourage danced the night away. Let me correct that – he samba-ed his way on stage, complete with the flipping of his long hair, and shaking his booty in front of the easily-excited audience. That must have been the scene that plummeted the musical from a good effort, to a high-school one. It was so campy and unbecoming of the character, that the audience were either shaking their heads or screaming for more. You know immediately who appreciate fact and fiction from the reactions alone. Someone needs to remind the producers that Sultan Mahmud IS a royal character, and dancing pop-jazz style, regardless in a yellow tanjak and expensive songket, should be reserved for a Britney Spears video.

But all these did not matter as much to me, when compared to the many compliments showered on the production. Just Google or Technorati your way online on the reviews, and you will read nothing but praises and compliments for the show. Yes, I do want Tiara and her team to bring this to the world. And yes, I will support it in any way I can. My way of doing it is to be honest with what I think.

How did my community get to this point where everything big, grand and colourful is great? It disturbs me that there was something unlearnt from our days of being awed by those massive British ships sailing into Singapore, the long tailcoat that Raffles wore to convince the Temenggung, the very easy way we can be fooled on what is the best and what is not. The PGL musical is a good effort, but we would be doing a disservice to the producers if we say it is great. How can they improve when we are comparing it only with what we have, and what we don’t have?

It is very easy to say the first is the best. This is not the first time that Singapore or Malaysia watch a musical – but this is a first publicly marketed event with a glossy poster that has Malay characters. That to me is form, and not substance.

I am not from the theatre circle, I am merely a member of the audience. If I put PGL The Musical against other musicals like Les Miserable, Cats, Phantom of the Opera and Lord of The Rings – PGL is not even close. And deep down I know Tiara and her team know this.

It is the audience easily-awed praises that disturb me. Surely we have learnt from our history not to be fooled by size and grandeur, or maybe not?

Don’t compare yourself with the rest, compare yourself only with the best. I wish PGL The Musical a good journey ahead to better itself, and I WILL watch it again and again for the sheer courage the producers have in forwarding a Malay story.

After all, that was what my standing ovation yesterday was for.

Of Hijab and Times

I met a friend’s friend last night briefly, a French man, who said something during a short 2 min walk between Gelare and the car parked in East Coast:

“You should go to London right now, you will change your mind.”

That line, was in response to my gushing about how of all the major cities in the world, I feel most free walking around in my hijab, as a professional,in London, Toronto and Vancouver. The last 2 being Canadian cities were of no issues, but he was adamant that I will change my mind about London. He asked when was I there last, and I must say it has been 3 years. A lot has changed, the hijab-ed lady has morphed to an unwanted fashion icon.

I am not one swayed easily by mass media dynamics. I take every single news report with a huge dose of salt, often backtracking in my mind whose agenda it is fulfilling. I don’t get ga-gaed on celebrity-dom, needless to say the faceless masks worn by politicians to shed their own value-system to blend in with the party’s worldview. The recent rhetorics thrown by political figures on how wearing the hijab means you are not integrating with the larger society, were to me, just another mass media propaganda. It is a psychological campaign and that was it.

But that statement last night made me think hard and fast about this whole hijab wearing issue. Where did all this fear come from? Are we really alien-looking that it makes them wonder if we can even say hello back to them should they want to be friendly with us? Are they all that naive and ignorant to think that Muslims, and those who visibly are, are bomb-strapped underneath the Prada bags? Come on, surely those who shamelessly claim they are shouting anti-hijab for the good of their society is totally high on somekind of Ice conconction? I cannnot fathom the stupidity, nor the ignorance. This coming from those elected to lead societies. Unimaginable.

At the heart of this is fear. It is justified to feel fear when you know so little of what you fear about, but an educated mind, would at least lead you to a position where you will find out what you don’t know. As a leader, then that position is no longer a choice, but a duty.

I laugh when I read about how certain quarters describe Islam and Muslims as barbaric, and medieval. I don’t get affected much by them, because I am not defined by what others think. Anyway, standing in a position where you are thought of stupid is always better – since no one will stand on guard to resist you. But to make judgements about what I wear, just to decide what kind of mind I have, is ridiculous.

Didn’t civilisation teach them, anything? I think they should revisit the definition of medieval, and maybe they will find some answers.And those answers are for us too.


UPDATE (13 Nov 2006)

A fellow blogger Nazrah kindly sent me this article by Yvonne Ridley, after reading the above posting. Food for thought.

How I Came To Love The Veil

Yvonne Ridley, LONDON
First Published in Washington Post (

Monday, October 23, 2006

I used to look at veiled women as quiet, oppressed creatures — until I was captured by the Taliban. In September 2001, just 15 days after the terrorist attacks on the United States , I snuck into Afghanistan , clad in a head-to-toe blue burqa, intending to write a newspaper account of life under the repressive regime. Instead, I was discovered, arrested and detained for 10 days. I spat and swore at my captors; they called me a “bad” woman but let me go after I promised to read the Koran and study Islam. (Frankly, I’m not sure who was happier when I was freed — they or I.)

Back home in London , I kept my word about studying Islam — and was amazed by what I discovered. I’d been expecting Koran chapters on how to beat your wife and oppress your daughters; instead, I found passages promoting the liberation of women. Two-and-a-half years after my capture, I converted to Islam, provoking a mixture of astonishment, disappointment and encouragement among friends and relatives.

Now, it is with disgust and dismay that I watch here in Britain as former foreign secretary Jack Straw describes the Muslim nikab — a face veil that reveals only the eyes — as an unwelcome barrier to integration, with Prime Minister Tony Blair, writer Salman Rushdie and even Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi leaping to his defense.

Having been on both sides of the veil, I can tell you that most Western male politicians and journalists who lament the oppression of women in the Islamic world have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about veils, child brides, female circumcision, honor killings and forced marriages, and they wrongly blame Islam for all this — their arrogance surpassed only by their ignorance.

These cultural issues and customs have nothing to do with Islam. A careful reading of the Koran shows that just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago. Women in Islam are considered equal to men in spirituality, education and worth, and a woman’s gift for childbirth and child-rearing is regarded as a positive attribute.
When Islam offers women so much, why are Western men so obsessed with Muslim women’s attire? Even British government ministers Gordon Brown and John Reid have made disparaging remarks about the nikab — and they hail from across the Scottish border, where men wear skirts.
When I converted to Islam and began wearing a headscarf, the repercussions were enormous. All I did was cover my head and hair — but I instantly became a second-class citizen. I knew I’d hear from the odd Islamophobe, but I didn’t expect so much open hostility from strangers. Cabs passed me by at night, their “for hire” lights glowing. One cabbie, after dropping off a white passenger right in front of me, glared at me when I rapped on his window, then drove off. Another said, “Don’t leave a bomb in the back seat” and asked, “Where’s bin Laden hiding?”

Yes, it is a religious obligation for Muslim women to dress modestly, but the majority of Muslim women I know like wearing the hijab, which leaves the face uncovered, though a few prefer the nikab. It is a personal statement: My dress tells you that I am a Muslim and that I expect to be treated respectfully, much as a Wall Street banker would say that a business suit defines him as an executive to be taken seriously. And, especially among converts to the faith like me, the attention of men who confront women with inappropriate, leering behavior is not tolerable.

I was a Western feminist for many years, but I’ve discovered that Muslim feminists are more radical than their secular counterparts. We hate those ghastly beauty pageants, and tried to stop laughing in 2003 when judges of the Miss Earth competition hailed the emergence of a bikini-clad Miss Afghanistan , Vida Samadzai, as a giant leap for women’s liberation. They even gave Samadzai a special award for “representing the victory of women’s rights.”

Some young Muslim feminists consider the hijab and the nikab political symbols, too, a way of rejecting Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use. What is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and the size of your surgically enhanced breasts, or being judged on your character and intelligence? In Islam, superiority is achieved through piety — not beauty, wealth, power, position or sex .

I didn’t know whether to scream or laugh when Italy’s Prodi joined the debate last week by declaring that it is “common sense” not to wear the nikab because it makes social relations “more difficult.” Nonsense. If this is the case, then why are cellphones, landlines, e-mail, text messaging and fax machines in daily use? And no one switches off the radio because they can’t see the presenter’s face.

Under Islam, I am respected. It tells me that I have a right to an education and that it is my duty to seek out knowledge, regardless of whether I am single or married. Nowhere in the framework of Islam are we told that women must wash, clean or cook for men . As for how Muslim men are allowed to beat their wives — it’s simply not true. Critics of Islam will quote random Koranic verses or hadith, but usually out of context. If a man does raise a finger against his wife, he is not allowed to leave a mark on her body, which is the Koran’s way of saying, “Don’t beat your wife, stupid.”

It is not just Muslim men who must reevaluate the place and treatment of women. According to a recent National Domestic Violence Hotline survey, 4 million American women experience a serious assault by a partner during an average 12-month period. More than three women are killed by their husbands and boyfriends every day — that is nearly 5,500 since 9/11.

Violent men don’t come from any particular religious or cultural category; one in three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime, according to the hotline survey. This is a global problem that transcends religion, wealth, class, race and culture.

But it is also true that in the West, men still believe that they are superior to women, despite protests to the contrary. They still receive better pay for equal work — whether in the mailroom or the boardroom — and women are still treated as sexualized commodities whose power and influence flow directly from their appearance.

And for those who are still trying to claim that Islam oppresses women, recall this 1992 statement from the Rev. Pat Robertson, offering his views on empowered women: Feminism is a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”
Now you tell me who is civilized and who is not.

Yvonne Ridley is political editor of Islam Channel TV in London and coauthor
of “In the Hands of the Taliban: Her Extraordinary Story” (Robson Books).