AS an adjunct in the preservation and conservation of cultural heritage, the Department of Museums, besides its core business of exhibiting historical relics that include weapons, jewellery, costumes, ceramic and crafts, also periodically organises performances of traditional art forms such as wayang kulit, Mak Yong and gambus music.
It is hoped that with the existence of such departments, we would not repeat the fiasco of destroying our cultural heritage that started when the British education system replaced our Jawi with romanised script, erasing our identity as well as scholarship and calligraphic skills in Jawi.
We are among the few countries in the world without our own script. Other countries regard their script as their national pride and heritage, but we abandoned it, which for centuries had been used in courts and local provinces as an administrative, literary and communicative tool.
Currently, several tangible features, such as archeological sites, natural features, such as the Gunung Mulu and Kinabalu National Parks, as well as the cities of Penang and Melaka, and the Mak Yong dance theatre, have been granted United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unseco) heritage status.
While the tangible heritage has been given due recognition for its value because it is physically visible and durable, the intangible ones are easily dismissed because of their ephemeral nature.
The traditional performing arts, which form the intangible heritage, are not calcified in time and space, but exist for the duration of the presentation, and each action-moment dissipates immediately after it comes into being.
It only lasts as a cerebral awareness imprinted in the memory.
As such, these traditional performing arts are easily overlooked and neglected in the ever-changing artistic landscapes and tastes brought about by modern forms of entertainment and artistic expressions.
Currently, the prognosis for traditional performing arts and crafts is not encouraging, despite the existence of the departments in the Culture and Tourism Ministry to preserve, conserve and ensure their continuity.
This is evident in the activities of the Department of Culture, which has reconfigured the spatial, temporal performance idioms of traditional performing arts and, to a certain extent, undermined their performance aesthetics and ethos.
It has done this by modernising traditional dance movements into a modern presentation in the likes of Mardi Gras called Colours of Malaysia.
It even showcased the desecrated version of traditional Malay dances and music overseas.
A case in point is the Malaysia Cultural Week in Paris from April 13 to 17, 2015.
One would have expected the ministry to showcase authentic traditional dances and music, but instead it purveyed a desecrated version of traditional dances.
The dances from Sabah and Sarawak, as well as the aboriginal Sewang healing dance, were mutilated beyond recognition.
The recorded and live music suffered the same fate as it was based on western music and songs.
Another case is last year’s demolition of national artiste laureate Syed Ahmad Jamal’s iconic sculpture, Puncak Purnama, by the Federal Territories Ministry, which deemed it as an eyesore.
Another more recent case is the Mak Yong performance at the Royal Banquet in conjunction with the installation of Sultan Muhammad V as the 15th Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
It was most fitting to have a Mak Yong performance, which is a Unesco-designated Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity, to grace the occasion. But what was presented was a mutilation of Mak Yong that not only transgressed its aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities, but desecrated the soul of Mak Yong by combining western operatic singing and chorus with the traditional solo and chorus rendition of the piece Mengadap Rebab.
It made a mockery of the pristine authentic Mak Yong that gained the Unesco recognition.
Such performances negate the policy of cultural preservation and conservation, but instead wilfully encourage the mutilation of our cultural heritage.
We need to present our authentic cultural heritage as our national pride, at home and abroad, especially at international cultural forums or festivals rather than a bastardised form of our heritage.
Thus, there is a dire need for a coordinated effort between the various agencies of the Culture and Tourism Ministry and local authorities to prioritise the preservation and conservation of our cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations as well as to assert the integrity of our cultural identity.
The writer is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.