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Carmen Nge
This blog is essentially an archive of all my published articles. The articles are in their original, unedited form. Occasionally, the articles will appear here before they are officially published.

Baling Membaling 1955 : Chin Peng meets Tunku

by Carmen Nge, tuesday, february 07, 2006

The specter of communism is still robust and well. The Deputy PM’s announcement early this year that Chin Peng (and all former members of the Communist Party of Malaya or CPM) will not be allowed entry into Malaysia is every indication of its vibrant health.

But even as Chin Peng was denied the right to return to his birthplace, his memory refused to be cowed. It haunted universities and colleges, futsal courts and the space of public imagination last month in a bold attempt to be remembered as more than just another bogeyman in our nation’s history.

Mounted by Five Arts Centre, the performance tour of experimental play Baling Membaling reunited Chin Peng and Tunku Abdul Rahman in a restaging of the Baling talks, 1955. Although fifty years old, the event still has the power to captivate; it is a media spectacle not unlike those that vie for space and prominence in current daily headlines.

Powered by three formidable non-actors (visual artist Chang Yoong Chia, designer Fahmi Reza and filmmaker Imri Nasution) and an unassuming director, the performance of Baling Membaling proved that young Malaysians are far from apathetic and desultory. In fact, if their efforts in the play are anything to go by, these 20-somethings are subtle provocateurs, delicately peeling away the layers of history only to uncover even more.

Director Mark Teh, in an interview with Off The Edge, reminds us that CPM members were actually very young people being thrust into positions of power. “Chin Peng was only 23 when he became Secretary General of the CPM.”

“The way the CPM functioned then reflects the dispirited voices that are trying to articulate things now. There was a lack of communication and organization between the different regimens in the CPM. The acts of violence perpetrated were not all due to central command. Chin Peng was an easy target for the accusations levied against the CPM,” Teh added.

“Arguments that Tunku used against Chin Peng, they were fallacious, without rationale,” Fahmi Reza, one of the performers who played Tunku, opined. “They are arguments that appeal to emotion—the issue of loyalty to Malaya must be questioned. Loyalty to what government of Malaya? [Malaya was still under British rule at the time] Tunku was a British stooge.”

Although disagreeing passionately, both director and performer refrain from speaking off the cuff. Their views emerge from months of copious research into Malaysian history, Chin Peng and the CPM—a lot culled from books, manuscripts and archived materials and some derived from personal interviews and first-hand accounts. Their opinions may be incendiary but they are not ill-informed.

But how does one transform such intricate machinations of history into an arresting, attention-sustaining, one hour performance that will rescue Malaysian history from the annals of boredom for an audience of youth?

Working closely with his performers, director Teh managed to devise a sparsely furnished yet elaborately metaphorical stage and set. Three dapper performers in plain white shirts and black trousers, two black wooden stools, a long wooden pole, a white cloth screen on which images were projected using an overhead projector—these were the bare essentials of the traveling stage.

Here, in the brutally dichromatic black and white arena of Malaysian history, wooden stools signify status and power, authority and position. When the twin Tunkus lob them in wide arcs over Chin Peng’s head, they are at once visually arresting and terrifying. As audience we are immediately drawn in, mesmerized by the lure of power yet gasping for the fear of it befalling us.

The twin Tunkus are emblematic of our late Prime Minister’s multiple facades—at times conciliatory and diplomatic, often uncompromising and firm, and occasionally unyielding and harsh. Fahmi and Imri—both lean, statuesque and bespectacled—alternate the roles of menacing incipient leader, ingratiating stool pigeon, and refined aloof statesman with practiced ease.

Together they eroticize the space of power in a dance of interlocking bodies and intertwining desires. This is the Tunku who dreams of an independent Malaysia with full foreknowledge that such ambitions rested on his ability to draw Chin Peng out of the jungle for the Baling talks. As Said Zahari mentioned in his memoirs, Meniti Lautan Gelora, Tunku told him privately that he (Tunku) never wanted the peace talks to be successful.

“Chin Peng’s hope was that he and Tunku would work together to fight the British. The British feared Tunku because they didn’t know him well and he was not their running dog. Chin Peng knew that Tunku has no power because the British were still in control,” Fahmi explained.

But Teh feels that Chin Peng and Tunku were not dissimilar in that both had strategic interests in the Baling talks: “Several months before Baling, the Communist Party of China (CPC) indicated they were not sure if Chin Peng should go to the Baling talks. At the time, the CPC said they would not give as much financial and ideological support to the CPM as before. This is how the concept of Malayan Chinese evolved. It was in part because Chin Peng felt abandoned by the CPC.”

The parameters and intricacies of Chinese identity in Malaya are never elaborated in Baling Membaling but the character of Chin Peng—performed by the only Chinese among the ensemble cast—is hardly the inimical figure touted by history books. Chang Yoong Chia’s Chin Peng is mostly stalwart and resolute but his voice betrays a warmth and emotion that his demeanour never relays. More earthy and corporeal than Tunku—who is more calculated and controlled in his movements—Chin Peng responds to the peace negotiations with a range of motion that leaves him ragged in appearance and energy.

But the tenor of the talks is best exemplified by the final vicious battle sequence between the almost balletic twin Tunkus—who use each other for physical and political leverage—and the articulate, defensive Chin Peng. More than any other, this is the scene that visually captures the visceral and belligerent undertones of political maneuvering. Chin Peng: on his back, overpowered, defeated. Tunku: standing high, triumphant, gloating.

Could we have achieved independence without Chin Peng or the CPM? Did the fall of a leader determine the rise of a statesman? Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “History is written by the victors” is apropos for the history education of Malaysian youth today because history textbooks often evacuate elements that are subversive and that threaten the existing power structure.

For the cast and crew of Baling Membaling, the act of presenting a slice of Malaysian history that is an alternative to what has been presented in schools is not without its risks. But just as the British eventually caved to political configurations of a higher order, it stands to reason that Malaysian youth will ultimately desist being passive recipients of a history they had no part in writing and in so doing, restage their own.

This article is published in Off The Edge magazine, March 2006 issue.