Penang is a good place for growing up, or it used to be anyway during my time.
When I was growing up, I did a lot of cycling around. You could get around with a bicycle. I used to cycle with my friends to go swimming. Because there was the sea, we could always go camping or just go to Batu Feringghi Beach and just spend the night. This was before all the large hotels were being built along that stretch.
I started living in Perak Road and the house was sold and we moved to live with my grandparents in Bangkok Lane. The Bangkok Lane houses are still there. They’re very old, they’re almost a 100 years old now. They should be considered heritage buildings you know… in due course.
In those days too, there was no such thing as modern sanitation. No flush systems, there was the bucket system. I remember there was one time there were some disturbances and the night soil carriers didn’t go to work for about a week.
I think there was a kind of a hartal if I was not mistaken. Of course you can imagine if your bucket doesn’t get changed once every two days and it starts to fill up and overflows la. So that was quite harrowing, haha.
After I finished Form 6, I thought I would not go to university because we couldn’t really afford. I immediately applied for a job and I got the job straight away.
I got a job with Malaysia Airlines. I was then living in Penang and I got a job that would station me at Subang Airport as a traffic clerk. So I came to KL and then I met with a few people who told me, if you have a chance to go to university, you should go.
Anyway, I quit and went back and taught [in my old primary school] for three months. I applied to university meanwhile and I managed to get a place at USM which was in my own home town which was a bit more affordable.
When I was in university, I was very involved because I spent most of the time in the panggung. USM had its own theatre space which was very good. It was called Panggung Sasaran and I spent most of my time there and hardly in the library.
I wrote my own plays and I would direct them and present them at Panggung Sasaran. I did a lot of that.
After USM, I got a temporary job with the university’s Centre of Policy Research until I got thrown out by the Vice Chancellor of the university. He wanted me to apologize to him for something I have not done, to him anyways. I refused to do that so my boss told me, “Then we have to let you go”. My boss did plead with me to just apologize so that they could keep me but I said no, “I’m not going to do it because I didn’t do the VC any wrong”.
That was when I made the biggest mistake of my life: going into journalism.
I needed a job so I applied to the National Echo and they took me in immediately and so I was stuck in journalism for almost 30 over years until I retired in 2009.
Journalism calls for a certain kind of orientation and during that time, I wanted to be a creative writer. If you want to be a creative writer, it’s very difficult for you to pursue that if you are a journalist because you’re going to be dealing with words the whole day. You’re not going home to deal with more words for your creative side.
I’ve always been interested in writing from a very young age. I used to read novels and stuff like that and then tried to write my own. I read my first James Bond novel for instance when I was 10 or 11 and after that I wrote my own James Bond novel. [laughs]
Then when I was around that age too, I went to see a school production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and I fell in love not so much with Shakespeare but with the actress playing Rosalind, the lead. She was probably a Form Four, Form Five girl in that school who I didn’t know. After that I started to write my own Shakespeare play! Schoolboy stuff, of course!
When I wrote the play 1984 Here and Now, we had full houses every night. Yeah, it was very political, it was addressing political issues that could not be addressed in the newspapers. Because in those days it was very tight, Mahathir was the prime minister and media was very, very controlled.
If you want to talk about irony, that is the biggest irony. In 30 years, politically we have not changed. In fact, we have gotten even worse. Even though I wrote 1984 Here and Now years ago, it still holds today.
In fact when word got out that the play had somehow got its staging permit, word went round, “Hey you all better go and see it on the first night because there might not be a second night”. So we had full house first night and after that it was full for the rest of the run.
We were not harassed in that sense but we paid the price for the next production. The next production was a one man play, Kuo Pao Kun’s The Coffin Is Too Big For The Hole which is not a politically sensitive play. It’s not controversial. It was staged by Five Arts centre which had staged 1984 Here and Now.
So according to our producer, when she went to find out the progress for the application for our permit, the people who were suppose to grant the permit said.. “Ohh, Five Arts Centre, Kee Thuan Chye, 1984 Here and Now. Ahh, you all said we are a police state right? Nah, we show you what a police state is like”. Well, that was what she reported back to us.
Sure enough, the permit was not granted but the worse of it was, it was not granted a few hours from the opening. By then it was too late, people came to the hall and also we would have lost money, publicity and everything else in a production. But I suppose it was a way of getting back at us.
At the moment, I’m trying to get my play staged, my Swordfish play. It has already been staged twice in Singapore. Once in 2008, once in 2011 but it has never been staged in Malaysia and I think it needs to be done in Malaysia because its’ a play about Malaysia.
It’s a play based on two stories from Sejarah Melayu. It is not a retelling of the story, I play with it. I used it to comment on the current times. The play itself is written in such a way as to reflect current times, although its suppose to be set in the past, in the ancient times. But it is actually a play about Malaysians today.
This idea of a Bangsa Malaysia which was a nice idea, ironically was touted during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister under Vision 2020. Of course, it has since then been forgotten. I decided I would give my children Malay, Indian and Chinese names. I suppose it’s my political statement la, if you want to call it that. To express or reflect the Malaysian identity.
When I first started in journalism, it wasn’t so bad. There wasn’t such tight control yet and then I found that I had to move on, so I applied to come to New Straits Times in KL. I got the job and I moved over in 1979 as sub-editor. Even then, it was still not so bad.
It was only around mid 80s, starting 1983 or so that the control tightened. Mahathir became Prime Minister. There used to be a joke going around in the newsroom. All Mahathir has to do is sneeze and he would get 20 paras on the front page.
After he took over, you could never criticize the prime minister. And later on, it came about that you could never criticize any cabinet minister.
I was then motivated to write a play exposing all these. Big Brother-ism and the effects of the New Economic Policy were beginning to kick in and show up in a significant way. So I thought I would adapt Orwell’s 1984 novel and instead of having a class struggle, I turned it into racial discrimination. That was how 1984 Here and Now came about. There were no other avenues I could have express these things.
At the New Straits times, I tried to push the envelope and I got punished a lot of times. I got a thick wad of memos from the editor-in-chief. Every time I did something, I got a memo.
Once I put in a letter asking for equal representation on RTM of the races say, in a variety show, entertainment shows. Next day, I opened the paper, the letter was gone. I went to see the editor-in-chief , he gave me a one hour lecture, “The person who put the letter in is culturally and politically naive. If that letter were to be published, there would be blood in the streets!”
The fear is always there but you have to overcome the fear. You do the right thing. If you feel that something has to be said, you just say it. But you must be careful of two things, I always tell people that, you must avoid libel and you must avoid sedition.
I always have to be very sure of my facts, that’s very important. That’s the golden rule of journalism. You have to be sure of your facts.
In 1985, I was sent to Siberia, so to speak. Put in cold storage. Must have been due to all the things I’ve been trying to do. Still employed but re-designated, put into a corner. No longer involved in the paper’s decision making process. I was an editor, you see.
I went on to study Theatre Studies in Essex University instead. I rejoined NST and then I was rehabilitated at the the New Straits Times. I was given another editor position but this time I decided to still continue to push the envelope.
One of the most severe forms of punishments I suffered was when everybody else got one month’s extra bonus, the editor in chief gave me 100 Ringgit. I was so pissed off by it, I wrote a cheque and gave it back to the New Straits Times, a 100 Ringgit.
People would say, “How can you do that? If you’re earning the salary of a particular company, you should be following its rules. You should be towing its line, how can you go against your bosses? How can you bite the hand that feeds you?”
But my answer to them is, “Look, journalism is not the same as say, a bank officer, a property agent or a civil servant. You have a responsibility to the public as well. So if you don’t agree with your company’s line, if you think your company is not doing its job, not upholding the principles of journalism as it should, then you should do something. Even within the organisation.”
Kee Thuan Chye wears many hats as an author, journalist, actor and more. He last acted in 2 Houses, a performance at Soonstead Mansion for George Town Festival 2014 and was also in a Singaporean production, Wild Rices’ Public Enemy which was staged in April earlier this year. Three of the plays he wrote have been published and he has a piece titled A Sense of Home published by Picador in the UK. Thuan Chye divides his time between writing for several online websites such as Yahoo Malaysia, MSN Malaysia, Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today. Currently he is busy finalising details for his new book which will be published in September.
Interview by Lyn Ong
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