Janet Pillai. Photo: Lyn Ong.
Janet Pillai in TTDI. Photo: Lyn Ong.

I was born in 1955 in Malacca. I was one of eight children…Which one was I? (counts on fingers) Number five.

My mother was a professional homemaker. She was born and raised in Malacca. She could rear cows and goats, garden, cook…My house was like a little farm. My mother was a farm to table person. But she also adopted the latest domestic inventions and medical updates that could help her raise a family of eight.

My father was a remarkable man. At age 14, he left Sri Lanka and finished his upper Cambridge Exams with flying colours in Singapore. However he turned down his elder brother’s offer to put him through law school, reasoning that he had younger brothers to support. He worked his way up to becoming a technical assistant first for the British public works department, then the local JKR.


All sorts of rituals would take place on the road fronting my house.


In Malacca, I lived in a multicultural community. All sorts of rituals would take place on the road fronting my house, and the accompanying music was loud enough to give me time to run out for a viewing. There was this ritual, tongji, a Chinese trance performed by the priest at a family shrine. When I heard the gong, I would run barefoot to the main road to watch, just as I ran to watch the Chinese Opera at the Hokkien Temple nearby.

I was drawn to performances at the Malacca padang or esplanade, and often went alone. I had very liberal parents though – we all had bicycles by the age of six, and we’d just make sure to tell my mother where we were going beforehand.

Out of all the siblings, I was the most ditzy one. I’d try everything, from listening to my father’s records, to learning cooking from my mum, then experimenting with chemistry and craft from the Book of Knowledge, and making styrofoam models of houses.

My biggest childhood influence was my father as a technician. I’d follow him to construction sites when asked, and kept tabs on the expansion of our family home in Malacca, which was constantly being upgraded in tune with modernist design. Looking back, I think my father was caught up in status aspiration.

Another influence was my mother. She was a gifted craftswoman. She could do beadwork, cross-stitching, painting on textiles, Christmas tree decorations (my family was Catholic). She also sewed clothes for all eight children, and she could make our dolls’ dresses too.

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There’s also an adventurous and righteous side to me, which comes from over-reading Enid Blyton mysteries. I looked up to an uncle of mine who was a police inspector, and my hero in my idealistic teen years of 15 and 16. He thought I’d be a good candidate for the police force. (Laughs) But my interest in becoming a policewoman fizzled out for some reason. I’m not sure why.

When I finished my secondary education, my parents decided to leave Malacca. The move broke the hearts of my siblings and myself. We cried, we threw tantrums. But in the end we moved to Kuala Lumpur with them.

I skipped school a lot in Form Six and hung out with a group of Marxists and literary geeks from MU. Through these ‘seniors’ and my sister’s book collection, my interest in politics, literature and theatre grew. My boyfriend then was in the Literature department in MU, so I had lots of opportunities to watch experimental theatre in MU.

Experimental theatre was really taking off back then. It was post-1969, a watershed moment in Malaysian history. The country was trying to formulate a Malaysian identity and adapt colonial plays or perform original Malaysian plays.


So there I was, fraternising with the top Literature graduates, reading Marx, watching theatre. Of course, I failed Form Six.


So there I was, fraternising with the top Literature graduates, reading Marx, watching theatre…Of course, I failed Form Six lah! Two subjects jalan, two completely out. Economics, given my inaptitude in Maths, was one subject I could not understand.

At college, I had the best Literature teacher possible at the time, Chin San Sooi, and ended up scoring an A for Literature. I entered the Penang University (now Universiti Sains Malaysia) in 1974.

I studied Sociology at university, rather than Theatre or Literature. I was more interested in understanding how society functioned. At the same time, my political identity was growing because of influences from early activists friends and  politically-inclined lecturers in USM like Chandra Muzaffar.

My interest in theatre developed around the mid 1970s, when USM had a very active theatre scene. I did backstage work for many new Malaysian plays (by Kee Thuan Chye, Hatta Azad Khan etc), and was also exposed to a lot of traditional theatre. It was interesting because it was a time of reflection; a time for re-making Malaysian identity. A lot of discussion centered around what direction ‘Malaysian’ culture should take.

The most influential part-time job I had after I graduated was as a children’s theater instructor at the Kompleks Budaya Negara (KBN), where I replaced a previous USM graduate, Elizabeth Cardosa who had gone off to pursue her master’s degree.

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The Kompleks Budaya Negara was established after the 1969 riots, when the government realized the importance of unifying the various ethnic groups. In 1971, a national cultural policy was formulated and the KBN was established to officially promote a ‘national culture.’ The KBN began as a training ground to transmit and promote local performing arts.

Two of my mentors then were Krishen Jit and Ismail Zain [Director-General of Culture at the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports].  Both played important advisory roles in the development of Malaysian theatre and, together with their peers, were responsible for the eventual incorporation of traditional arts into contemporary Malaysian theatre and the arts.

I became hooked on children’s theatre firmly from 1976, much to my father’s chagrin! The KBN had established a children’s theatre program a year earlier. At KBN, the children had vast opportunities to learn from traditional performers, while I had the opportunity to collaborate with other adult contemporary performers.

I moved to Hawaii to study for a Masters in 1983-1984, specializing in children’s and Asian theatre. After I returned to Malaysia, I continued to direct and develop children’s theatre supported by Five Arts Centre in KL. The program became formalized as Teater Muda Program.

I joined USM as part of its teaching faculty in 1985. I ran a similar, toned-down version of Teater Muda in Penang called  ‘Young Theatre’ under the auspices of USM.  Young Theatre collaborators included visual artist Sugu Kingham and choreographer Aida Redza. Its early projects were confined to the University campus.

To me, inner-city George Town in Penang was like a duplicate of Malacca. Malacca was a small town, very close-knit. When I first came to Penang, I spent a lot of time in George Town, just cycling around, exploring small lanes and back alleys. I felt as if I’d gotten an appendage back.

The strong draw to work on Penang’s heritage was because the city’s historical assets and capital were being seriously threatened by development policies in the ’80s. There was an urgency at the time to conserve precious artifacts, memories, traditional skills and knowledge. I started thinking that this should involve the creative education of the younger generation. So Arts-ED was set up.

The new Arts-ED program was formalized around ‘community-based arts and heritage education’. Collaborating with composer Tan Sooi Beng, choreographer Aida Redza, cultural activists Ho Sheau Fung and Chen Yoke Pin, some brilliant street theatre was created and performed by kids.

Juggling all this with my personal life was tough. I got married in 1986, and had a daughter. But eventually my husband and I divorced, partly due to my overwhelming commitment and passion for theatre, which he did not share.

I generally enjoyed my work very much and felt I received sufficient support. Frustration mainly occurred when I had to deal with Malaysian bureaucracy, first at the KBN, then at USM, then at the Penang Municipality.

My cynicism of ‘bureaucracy’ peaked when I left off theatre for awhile and went into heritage conservation work in George Town from 2008-2012. Battles were fought, won and lost, but I finally awakened to the complex relationship that politicians, local government and business have brought upon themselves. It has made me rethink alternative channels, and how art and creativity can contribute to empowering citizens’ lives.

Learning to let go is a difficult process for me, as is transcending my emotional and passionate self. And that’s where I am at now.


Our notion of the arts in Malaysia needs to expand beyond the conventional forms of painting, music, drama, et cetera – and beyond conventional spaces like galleries or studios.


Things have come full circle this year. My teaching career in the University is ended, I have left Penang, Arts-ED is being run by the junior set, and I am back at Five Arts Centre in KL hoping to reactivate my membership, though I’m not sure of my role there yet.

Our current development model caters quite blatantly to the aspirations and desires of the middle/upper market. The current model deals with development in a cosmetic manner, and often does not take into account local cultural, social and environmental legacies. It is unmindful of human rights, disengaged from the existing context and therefore unsustainable in the long run.

Our notion of the arts in Malaysia needs to expand beyond the conventional forms of painting, music, drama, et cetera – and beyond conventional spaces like galleries or studios.

Providing access to creative expression or participation is critical for building communities and designing public spaces – placemaking – particularly if it is used in community planning and problem-solving.

To strengthen communities, we need to invest in community mediators and local leaders.

My wish for 2015 is that Malaysians will wake up to their inner wisdom, take up the challenge of working creatively towards the common good, and really enjoy doing so.

Janet Pillai is an education and arts researcher and activist. She has worked with government agencies, NGOs and communities in the field of arts and culture. She previously led Arts-ED, a non-profit organisation in Penang specialising in community-based heritage education. She is the author of Cultural Mapping (2013) and a member of Five Arts Centre.

Interview by Aun Qi Koh. Photos by Lyn Ong. A different version of this interview was first published here

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