KataKatha: Southeast Asian Conversations on Culture and the Arts

In November I was invited to observe closed door discussions happening as part of KataKatha: Southeast Asian Conversations on Culture and the Arts, a regional initiative by Maybank Kim Eng, supported by Maybank Foundation, conceptualised and curated in collaboration with PUSAKA. The following article combines notes and observations from two sessions held on two different days – Cosmopolitans, Polyglots, and the Creative Mess: Is Southeast Asia a Culture? and Contemporary and Traditional Tensions in Creative Life. Both sessions were moderated by Eddin Khoo and the participants were: Goenawan Mohamad, Farish A. Noor, Agnes Arellano, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Geraldine Kang, Nadiah Bamadhaj, Avianti Armand, Kanakan Balintagos, and Lai Chee Kien. You can find out more about KataKatha and the participating figures here.


Photo by Cheryl Hoffmann, taken from Katakatha's Facebook page
Photo by Cheryl Hoffmann, taken from Katakatha’s Facebook page

In the first session, it didn’t occur to me that the question at the end of the very long title would be an actual question Eddin Khoo would ask the participating cultural figures to answer. I had dismissed the question as too abstract, a lofty rhetorical launchpad to aim us at things that were more concrete, whatever those were – I depended on the credentialed intellectuals and artists on stage to tell me. And then there was Eddin, asking quite simply, “What is Southeast Asia, actually?”

The ensuing conversation would go back time and again to the idea of origin. The basic facts of our geography – a mass of islands and small land masses crammed together with maritime and agricultural societies and fluid borders; the origins of our newer borders and maps – our revolving door of colonizers; the origins of our current state i.e. contextualizing the journey of our region pre-, during, and post- colonization; and finally the impossibility of pinning an origin to shared elements of culture like folk figures, traditions, folk songs, and ‘national’ foods, and how imperative that pinning is to certain parties like The State (whatever that means in whatever country you live in).

The discussion held two ideas in both hands, contemplating both. The first was the region’s fluidity and what historian Farish A. Noor dubbed ‘productive ambiguity’ where Southeast Asians were non-passive, self-aware recipients of the constant migrations of new cultures and traditions. Our adaptability, appropriations, flexibility, and resilience made us into antennas receiving, producing, and replicating signals. Poet Goenawan Mohamad wondered if there was a connection here to the literal sea, to which Farish reminded us all of how across parts of Southeast Asia the word for homeland was shared – tanah air. “Mobility has always been crucial to us. We’ve never had a centralized power, or a massive rebellion, or been a martial people. Because if we didn’t like something or how things were back in the day, we packed up the sampan and left.” Farish also made the point that ‘we’ as a part of the world never considered ourselves the centre of it, unlike the empires that would come to claim us piece by piece. Our open borders characterized and shaped our societies, but also made us vulnerable to ‘outsiders,’ who we nevertheless welcomed.

And so the second idea came into play, of ‘modern’ Southeast Asia: how much it had been shaped by colonization – the chasm it introduced and perpetuated between our idea of history and our idea of the present – and the repercussions of our former masters and their many-fanged whims. The ambiguity, this non-chaotic confusion, what Farish called an “organic let-what-happens-happen mode” was not conducive to our colonizers’ capitalist needs. They needed to take inventory of what they were going to steal and who they were going to get to cultivate their new assets.

This was a notion I encountered in Charles Hirschman’s The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia: An Analysis of Census Classifications, which compiled census data from 1871 to 1980 and showed the history of how ethnicity had been constructed and prioritized in Malaya, which made me really ask for the first time how these boxes are built, by whom, and for what purpose. They wanted us more efficient and more modern, which meant more like them, and they stayed long enough that when they finally left, most of our countries (newly born iterations, newly independent again) still retained the same goalposts, which had been fed to us as the ideal even as we stayed hungry.

“We are now practicing and reinforcing colonization on each other. For example, if we look at modern day Filipinos – their relationship to indigenous peoples and practices, how they see those who were never colonized, who preserved their own culture and remained ‘complete’.” Kanakan Balintagos

I related to this part of the talk so much because as they described Southeast Asia – abstract, nebulous, anxious, shimmery, resilient through adaptability, adept at shaping its selves to external circumstances, matching the temperature of its surroundings – it felt like they were describing me, or what I had been feeling in the past few years since I graduated and returned home. For the first time I wondered if the parts of me that always felt like they didn’t fit here weren’t just my particular neuroses, but were inherited feelings coming from a deeper space within my lineage, a placelessness that had a much longer history. It would be nice if that were true. Within that recognition I also knew this kind of talk could irk many, would perhaps be accused of either over-intellectualizing or of embodying a lepas tangan attitude – the exact passivity Farish dismissed, but as a Malaysian, I accuse my people of having.

“We still in many ways cannot and do not conform to ideas of ‘efficiency’ and ‘modernity,’ they do not suit our ways. Look to the chaotic traffic across the region, as an example. We made this society a confused one which is always anxious, acutely aware of its own vulnerability.” Farish A. Noor


The second discussion delved further into what could constitute a Southeast Asian identity (if there was such a thing) through the lens of myth and modernity, and the third M trying to traffic in both: the market. In discussing ghosts, Farish said “States are wall-building institutions, worried about migration, movement of capital, transmission of diseases. But ghosts do not have passports or nationality, and this confounds modern mentality.” Superstition and ghosts retain the ambiguous fluidity of a pre-modern Southeast Asia. Myth attempts to read the mystery of the world while trying to retain it (Farish again), whereas modernity is suspicious of mystery and of blurred lines that do not translate into capital and profit.

Eddin, Farish, and Goenawan spoke of increasing moralization and sanitization of myths done by the state – a repressive kind of subversion. Myths are seen as only useful when they are tied into historical ‘authenticity’ that validates a forged national narrative. Filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong drew from her Thai context and experience by bringing up state-controlled history. Where our former colonizers bulldozed over much of our past in service of their future, our current governing powers negotiate as insiders, rewriting the past to reflect and at the same time shore up the present as something that ‘we’ collectively built (which often inconveniently leaves out our true history of being shaped by others).

At the start of the talk, Eddin questioned the whole notion of ‘culture’ – what did it now mean? Artist Nadiah Bamadhaj noted that people’s understanding of culture was often simply a shorthand for the arts, and we didn’t look at the other cultures connected to, influential to, and outside of that, such as cultures of oppression, especially relevant in current political climates in the region. Eddin spoke of how ‘culture’ has been appropriated as a national interest, and how the state often wants to determine a single blanket definition of culture and to do that they attempt to determine what culture was and had been, to make sure everything lines up. What muddles these efforts in our context is how much of our history is tied in with myth, how our oral traditions (borne of the same organic fluidity) resist attempts to concretize and pin down. Nothing can belong to nowhere anymore, everything now has to be owned.

Farish also pointed out that although myth sometimes had these high-level repercussions, they were and have always been mainstreamed through their ‘popularizing’ elements. Goenawan added that horror in myths brought them alive and was what elicited emotion and that sanitization of myth occurs when people think education can only be enlightenment. Nadiah shared an example of encountering this sanitization while researching the mythical figure of Nyi Blorong, half woman, half snake – she had to resort to using B-Grade 80s movies that featured the figure, because all the other versions were “nasty moralizations from the Soeharto era.”

“What Southeast Asia has often is a semi-mythical history of places that may or may not have existed. This is at odds with modernity, which appropriates, compartmentalizes, tries to categorize, investigates, answers, and labels. We cannot now unlearn modernity, we cannot get back to that lens of understanding. But there’s a rigid non-acceptance of the fact that there are other ways to understand the world, a terrible disrespect of the pre-modern past, what is seen as ‘savage’ or ‘primitive,’ which we now try to colonize. The meaning of myth changes over time. Kitsch and camp is now seen as low value, and we see what is ‘dated’ as less valuable than a more pre-modern ‘dignified’ past.” Farish A. Noor

The state is fearful of history because of myth.” Goenawan Mohamad


Photo by Cheryl Hoffmann. Taken from KataKatha's Facebook page
Photo by Cheryl Hoffmann, taken from KataKatha’s Facebook page

How does our climate and geography and the transformation of landscape affect myth? And if it does, does it restrict the imagination? This question from Eddin elicited some memorable points from urban geographer and curator Lai Chee Kien, starting with how in our pre-modern existence, spirits were living parts of the landscape alongside humans. Urbanization killed them off, because urban living requires more crossings – more walls, more borders, less fluidity. I remembered his point nearly a month after KataKatha, when I attended a panel for the Bicara Titian Budaya forum where artist and curator Woon Tien Wei (of Post-Museum) spoke of a project involving how changes to an old cemetery in Singapore was affecting the presence of a family of hantu galahs. He spoke of the ghost family with such matter of factness the moderator had to stop him to double check he wasn’t just being very deadpan (he was perfectly serious).

“Demystifying myth means it loses its ambiguity and therefore its use and function, its effectiveness.“ Anocha Suwichakornpong

The market would argue against this definition of ‘effectiveness’, because it doesn’t suit their purposes. Myth, Eddin says,  challenges the capitalist idea promoted by the state and the market that everything has to have utility. At another Bicara Titian Budaya panel on community building and engagement, Eddin’s colleague and Pusaka’s managing director, Pauline Fan, made a beautiful point related to the notion of ‘demand and supply.’ She spoke about how Main Puteri healing ceremonies in Kelantan – banned in the state by ruling party PAS, due to it being ‘un-Islamic’ – is not mere entertainment or a commercial endeavour, but a practiced tradition fulfilling a community need, and whose benefits do not translate into tangible profit.

Sculptor Agnes Arellano was the first to really bring up the topic of magic, and the power in magic and superstition – seen as something unreal and trivial, nonsense and ‘primitive’ – as an activity that functions outside of capitalist and patriarchal narratives. Her work looks at mother goddesses and the act of reverence and mythmaking, a response to the strict Catholicism she grew up with. “I had to find a different deity that was more forgiving and less cruel,” she said, and set to work developing a personal shamanism that had more acceptance and gentleness for sexuality.

Myth endures, it just mutates (Farish), and remains even in hypermodern places like Singapore. An example of this that Lai Chee Kien brought up is Haw Par Villa, a theme park (in Singapore) whose most famous attraction are the Ten Courts of Hell “which features gruesome depictions of Hell in Chinese mythology and Buddhism.” The government doesn’t quite know what to do with it now, according to him, grappling with its status as a novelty tourist attraction as well as a relic of a certain era trafficking in myths that don’t quite fit into the most current present. This could be seen as a subversion of the State’s repressive subversion of trying to commodify myth for profit. Another example brought up was an existing myth across various Southeast Asia cultures where a beheading sacrifice was needed anytime you wanted to build a bridge.

This particular story had come up for me personally a couple months before KataKatha, in a workshop activity where the mostly Malay participants listed the stereotypes they’d been told about other ethnicities – someone was told as a child that if they didn’t behave an Indian man would come to cut their head off and bury it under a bridge. Goenawan noted that this myth wasn’t something that existed when we were building bamboo bridges in villages and across rivers, that it only came to light when larger stone bridges did, when outsiders with big bulldozing dreams came into the picture. Was this myth then a form of resistance, a form of protection? And what has it become now? What purpose does it serve in our ‘modern’ existence?


There was a moment towards the end of the first session where Eddin turned to the youngest participating panellist, photographer Geraldine Kang, and asked her about the idea of weight, the weight of history and state, the weight of expectations from both, and if it was a burden that affected her as a young person. Her answer was matter of fact – “My main takeaway is that I don’t have an understanding of history, either of my country/nation, what more the region.” I had to pause again to make sure someone actually said that, because it was exactly what I’d been feeling.

I’m the same age as Geraldine, and when she said that it allowed me to lower myself down from the level I felt the conversation was at (as I frantically tried to write down notes, ideas whizzing by me faster than I could process) and breathe. I’ve been in a lot of workshops and discussions this year that has thrown in even more urgent relief something I’ve always suspected, which is that the youth I know in Malaysia, my peers and our junior contemporaries, are starved for history and we feel the gaps in our knowledge acutely and some of us even become aware of how this ignorance is used against us by those in charge, how much sanitization has occurred in our formal and informal educations. Absence as baggage, absence as weight, and another colonization.

“Everyone has a personal culture, and yet the autobiographical is lost in national meta-narratives.” Geraldine Kang

Geraldine’s frank admission also changed the lens of the conversation to something more personal. Again I was left holding two ideas in my hands, considering the weight of each. There was me, the individual, the illusion of being unique, the hidden/obvious neuroses and concerns, the path I envisioned myself weaving through life. Then there was history, the collective, the generations of stories I couldn’t even begin to know, the masses of books where I could start trying to know, the path already carved out for me, jagged and faint. How am I to bridge the two? Whose head do I have to bury? ◈


I’d like to thank Pusaka for inviting me to observe these conversations. It was a real privilege to be in the audience as these figures so generously shared their experience and ideas, and to walk out with an armful of questions that made the earth under my feet feel a little bit different.