Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are not widely known for their arts, which is a shame as there is much creativity here, particularly in Malaysia and Singapore. Traditional art forms like wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) and mak yong (dance and music performances) hang on alongside contemporary art, drama and filmmaking. There’s a distinctive look to Malaysia’s vernacular architecture as well as a daring and originality in modern constructions. The region’s authors and visual artists are also gaining attention in the wider world.
Drama & Dance
Traditional Malay dances include menora, a dance-drama of Thai origin performed by an all-male cast dressed in grotesque masks, and the similar mak yong, in which the participants are female. These performances often take place at Puja Ketek, Buddhist festivals held at temples near the Thai border in Kelantan. There’s also the rodat, a dance from Terengganu, and the joget, an upbeat dance with Portuguese origins, often performed at Malay weddings by professional dancers; in Melaka it’s better known as chakunchak.
When it comes to contemporary drama and dance, Singapore tends to have the edge. There’s a lot of interesting work by local theatre companies such as Wild Rice, Necessary Stage and Singapore Repertory Theatre. Singapore’s leading dance company, Singapore Dance Theatre, puts on performances ranging from classical ballet to contemporary dance.
In Malaysia and Singapore wayang (Chinese opera) is derived from the Cantonese variety. The performances mix dialogue, music, song and dance, and what they lack in literary nuance, they make up for with garish costumes and the crashing music that follows the action. Scenery and props are minimal; it’s the action that is important, and even for the uninitiated it’s usually easy to get the gist of the plot.
Performances can go for an entire evening. Even though the acting is very stylised, and the music can be discordant to Western ears, they are worth seeing. Free street performances are held in the Chinatown areas of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, Melaka and Penang’s George Town during important festivals like Chinese New Year (January/February), the Hungry Ghost Festival (August/September) and the Festival of the Nine Emperor Gods (September/October).
Writers W Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward were inspired by the region in the early 20th century. The classic colonial expat experience is recounted by Anthony Burgess in The Malayan Trilogy written in the 1950s. In the late 1960s Paul Theroux lived in Singapore, which, together with Malaysia, forms the backdrop to his novel Saint Jack (1973) and his short-story collection The Consul’s Wife (1977). JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip (1978) about the decline of British colonialism in the region in the run up to WWII is considered a classic Singapore novel.
In recent decades locally born authors have been coming to the fore. Tash Aw’s debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory, set in Malaysia of the 1930s and ’40s, won the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award. His latest work Five Star Billionaire (2013) is about four expat Malaysians trying to make a go of it in contemporary Shanghai. Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel The Gift of Rain, set in Penang prior to WWII, was long-listed for the Man Booker literature prize. His follow up, The Garden of Evening Mists, winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, takes the reader deep into the Cameron Highlands and the 1950s era of the Emergency. Evening is the Whole Day (2008) by Preeta Samarasan shines a light on the experiences of an Indian immigrant family living on the outskirts of Ipoh in the early 1980s.
Catherine Lim’s Little Ironies (1978) is a series of keenly observed short stories about Singaporeans from a writer who has also published five novels, poetry collections and political commentary. Hwee Hwee Tan pinpoints the peculiar dilemmas and contradictions facing Singaporean youth in her novels Foreign Bodies (1999) and Mammon Inc (2001). Singapore-born Kevin Kwan has garnered much praise for his witty satire on the lives of the island state’s megarich in Crazy Rich Asians (2013).
Other celebrated novels by Singaporean writers include The Shrimp People (1991) by Rex Shelly, Abraham’s Promise (1995) by Philip Jeyaretnam, Heartland (1999) by Daren Shiau, and Ministry of Moral Panic (2013) by Amanda Lee Koe. More are likely on the way as the National Arts Council of Singapore has beefed up its program with competitions and events such as the annual Singapore Writers Festival (www.singaporewritersfestival.com).
Snapping at the high heels of demure Malaysian pop songstress Siti Nurhaliza are Zee Avi, who was signed by the US label Bushfire Records for her eponymous debut CD, and Yuna, who has also cut a US record deal and is one of the talented vocalists and songwriters from the new generation of musicians. Also look out for Najwa whose slickly produced EP Aurora has garnered positive review; the MIA-style rapper Arabyrd; and the more retro guitar jingly pop stylings of Noh Salleh.
In 2015, indie rock band Kyoto Protocol, who have been steadily building their reputation since forming in 2008, finally released a full album, Catch These Men, after a series of singles and EPs in the past. A great resource for catching up other up-and-coming local bands and singers is The Wknd (http://the-wknd.com).
Singapore’s pop music scene creates only a small blip internationally. Visitors should look out for local festivals like the annual Baybeats (www.baybeats.com), showcasing alternative singers and bands. Local artists also show up at music festivals in Malaysia such as Urbanscapes (www.urbanscapes.com.my) and the Rainforest World Music Festival (www.rwmf.net).
Traditional & Classical
Traditional Malay music is based largely on gendang (drums), but other percussion instruments include the gong and various tribal instruments made from seashells, coconut shells and bamboo. The Indonesian-style gamelan (a traditional orchestra of drums, gongs and wooden xylophones) also crops up on ceremonial occasions. The Malay nobat uses a mixture of percussion and wind instruments to create formal court music.
Islamic and Chinese influences are felt in the music of dondang sayang (Chinese-influenced romantic songs) and hadrah (Islamic chants, sometimes accompanied by dance and music). The KL-based Dama Orchestra (www.damaorchestra.com) combines modern and traditional Chinese instruments and play songs that conjure up the mood of 1920s and 1930s Malaysia. In Singapore, catch the well-respected Singapore Chinese Orchestra, which plays not only traditional and symphonic Chinese music but also Indian, Malay and Western pieces.
Hoessein Enas was commissioned by Shell Ltd in 1963 to produce a series of portraits celebrating the newly born country. Some of these can be seen in the National Visual Art Gallery in KL, alongside works by Amron Omar who has focused throughout his career on silat (a Malay martial art) as a source of inspiration for his paintings.
Among notable contemporary Malaysian artists are Jalaini Abu Hassan (‘Jai’), Wong Hoy Cheong, landscape painter Wong Perng Fey, and multimedia artist Yee I-Lann. Work by Malaysian sculptor Abdul Multhalib Musa has won awards and he created several pieces in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics.
In Singapore the visual-arts scene is also vibrant, with painting, sculpture and multimedia the vehicles of choice for dynamic explorations into the tensions between Western art practices and the perceived erosion of traditional values. Highly regarded local artists include Da Wu Tang, Vincent Leow, Jason Lim and Zulkifle Mahmod. The National Gallery Singapore, newly opened in 2015, is aiming to be the region’s leading visual arts institution.
Malaysia and Singapore have both made their mark in the world of contemporary architecture with iconic buildings like Kuala Lumpur’s Petronas Towers and the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. Other interesting skyscrapers and civic buildings in the cities take inspiration from both local culture and the environment, such as the Tabung Haji and Menara Maybank buildings in KL, both designed by Hijjas Kasturi.
Vividly painted and handsomely proportioned, traditional wooden Malay houses are also perfectly adapted to the hot, humid conditions of the region. Built on stilts, with high, peaked roofs, they take advantage of even the slightest cooling breeze. Further ventilation is achieved by full-length windows, no internal partitions, and latticelike grilles in the walls. The layout of a traditional Malay house reflects Muslim sensibilities. There are separate areas for men and women, as well as distinct areas where guests of either sex may be entertained.
Although their numbers are dwindling, this type of house has not disappeared altogether. The best places to see examples are in the kampung of Peninsular Malaysia, particularly along the east coast in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu. Here you’ll see that roofs are often tiled, showing a Thai and Cambodian influence. In Melaka, the Malay house has a distinctive tiled front stairway leading up to the front verandah – examples can be seen around Kampung Morten.
Few Malay-style houses have survived Singapore’s rapid modernisation – the main place they remain is on Pulau Ubin. Instead, the island state has some truly magnificent examples of Chinese shophouse architecture, particularly in Chinatown, Emerald Hill (off Orchard Rd) and around Katong. There are also the distinctive ‘black and white’ bungalows built during colonial times; find survivors lurking in the residential areas off Orchard Rd.
Despite its oil wealth, there’s little that’s flashy in the architecture of Brunei’s modest capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, where the city’s skyline is dominated by the striking Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. About 3km outside of the capital is the Sultan’s opulent palace Istana Nurul Iman, while at Jerudong is the eye-boggling Empire Hotel.
Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei all leave much to be desired when it comes to freedom of the press. In the Reports without Borders rankings for 2014, the countries placed 145, 150 and 117 respectively out of the 179 nations surveyed. All the countries have stringent publishing laws with the courts frequently used to silence critics and frighten journalists into self-censorship.
In Malaysia these have been bolstered by a toughened up Sedition Act. It was invoked in 2015 when Malaysian police arrested the publisher of The Edge Media Group, the CEO of the Malaysian Insider news portal, and three editors for publishing articles about a proposal to introduce hudud (punishments under Islamic law) in Kelantan state. Malaysia has also blocked access to the news website Sarawak Report, and suspended publication of Edge newspapers over their coverage of the troubled state investment fund 1MBD.
Singapore’s authorities attracted international criticism for their heavy handed approach in the case of 16-year-old vlogger Amos Yee who was jailed for 53 days for posting offensive comments about the recently deceased Lee Kuan Yew on social media.
All this said, social media increasingly plays a part in Malaysia and Singapore’s mediascape, with local newspapers often quoting bloggers and reporting on issues generated in the blogosphere. Many people also go online to read news they are unlikely to see in print.