Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Marina Mahathir: Telling It Straight

Marina Mahathir has just came out her latest book Telling It Straight. Her launch took place at the Borders The Garden Kuala Lumpur. This article appeared in theSun on Nov 28. 

Caption : From left : Ineza Roussille ( Marina's  daughter), Tun Dr Siti Hasmah ( Marina's Mum), Marina and Shaista Mayada Sosrowardoyo ( Mariana's daughter)  

Headline : Making A Difference 
By Bissme S 

DATIN Paduka Marina Mahathir has been commenting on the political and social affairs of this country through her column in an English daily for the past two decades.
Recently, she decided to compile 90 of her best pieces of writing covering a wide range of topics like gender equality, politics, religion, HIV, education and free speech (some of which have never been published before), in a 264-page book entitled Telling It Straight (Editions Didier Millet/RM39.90).
At the launch of the book at Borders The Gardens in Kuala Lumpur, Marina sat down to talk about her work.

* What makes your book stand out from other compilations?

"I have no idea really. Maybe because my column has been around for so long. And perhaps because I'm a woman writer and there aren't that many books on popular social commentary by women in our country."

* Why is that? 

"Probably because people generally don't take women seriously. Women writers have to write novels, preferably on romance because apparently, that's all we think about.
"And we are not allowed to write about current affairs unless we're academics, in which case, nobody reads us anyway.
"Men churn out books on social and political commentary all the time. But not all of the books are good, yet people still read them because they think men, by virtue of being men, have the authority to talk about these things while women don't."

* Some believe books have lost their power to change society. Do you agree? 

"I think the power of ideas will always be strong and this power is conveyed through words. In the end, an idea has no power if it is not accepted by a lot of people.
"So how would they find out about this idea except by reading? Surely, this is one reason why people love putting quotes from public figures on their Facebook or in whatever they write.
"I do think writers play an important role in conveying these ideas to people.
"Many ideologues have written books and these books have been powerful, for example, Karl Marx's Das Kapital or Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf. They get lots of followers this way.
"Similarly, with the words in the Quran or the Bible, beautiful and powerful words conveying ideas about justice, morality, etc are conveyed. So yes, books can change the world."

* What do you think about censorship in the mainstream media? Do you see yourself writing for online media where you can express yourself better without censorship?
"I think censorship is unfortunate and no media can truly call themselves credible if they insist on censoring, especially when there are alternative media around these days.
"It's frustrating for writers but our job is just to write, not to practise censorship on ourselves. Self-censorship is really the most insidious form of censorship.
"I have my blog, Facebook and Twitter, so I don't really need to go to any online media just to get my opinions published.
"That's the beauty of the internet today. Anyone can publish their own opinions.
"Then it's left to the discerning readers to decide which opinions are credible.
"And by the way, I don't know if it's true that online media never censors anything. When you select what you want to publish, you are already exercising a form of censorship."

* What are some of the changes you would like to see taking place in our country? 
"I'd like to see more openness in government and among people in general. People are so used to thinking in one way that they aren't aware there are other ways of thinking and seeing things, and therefore, find it discomfiting, even frightening, when a different point of view is put forward. The openness can only happen when all points of view are given equal airing."
* Some people think reading is a dying art form in Malaysia. Do you agree?   

"I don't think reading should be thought of as an art form because that immediately makes it elitist and inaccessible to most.
"It amazes me how many large bookstores we have even when we're being told that Malaysians don't read much.
"They are reading something but we need to see what it is that they are reading. Are they stretching their minds when they read?
"There is no other way to encourage people to read than by getting interesting books published. If we encourage good writing, then people will read.
"Just look at how Harry Potter made so many children read."
"I was just at the Singapore Writers Festival and was amazed at what an interesting event it was with so many different authors and genres of writing, in different languages.
How come we don't have something like that in Malaysia?"

*What are the biggest misconceptions people have about you?

"That I'm hard-working. But actually, I'm very lazy and procrastinate all the time."


Because of space constraint, there were some questions that I asked Marina Mahathir was not published in the interview that appeared in theSun newspaper. However I take the opportunity to put the extra question this blog.   

*Most people have the impression compiling your columns into a book are an easy task. Do you agree?  

Most people think that because the columns are already written.  But they forget that I write 24 or 26 columns a year and I've been writing for some 20 years, so there are about 480 columns we have to choose from because obviously we can't put every single one in the book. That's the tough part, the selection. Luckily my editor does that because I can't. Once they are selected, it's a matter of grouping them according to themes and writing some introductions for them.

* What are some of best compliments and worst criticisms you have received about your writing? 

The best compliment is probably when people say that I put into words what they think and feel. I don't pay much attention to criticisms  so I wouldn't know what the worst ones are.

* You have been writing for more than 20 years. Do you ever face a burn out? 

No I don't actually. In fact I think I should write more but I am so busy that I don't really get to. Actually I write much more than my columns because I give a lot of talks and I write my own speeches. I have my favourite themes but there are never-ending subjects to talk about so I never feel burnt-out. I feel more burnt-out with the state of things in our country but I do think writing is one way of getting different perspectives across.

*Tell us something about your childhood years that have a big influence on you as a  writer?

I always loved reading and writing in my childhood, something which my parents always encouraged. My favourite and best subject in school was English. So I knew I would be a writer of some sort, possibly a journalist. And that's exactly what I became for a while until I realised that there is more to writing than just reporting.
My parents always also encouraged me to be aware of what was happening in the world and I realised as an adult that I could combine that with my writing skills to convey certain messages to whoever reads me. Communications is about being able to convey complicated ideas and events in a simple way. without compromising the integrity of the information. That's what I try to do.

* What is the biggest challenges  you faced as a  columnist in Malaysia?

Trying to stay current is always a challenge. My column comes out once every two weeks so I have to keep in mind that I'm not talking about something which is already stale. Sometimes things just don't happen within the week I have to submit my column so when it does appear, it can seem a bit out of synch with the topic of the day. I can't help that and I certainly don't want to change to a weekly column because it's hard enough trying to keep up with a fortnightly one.

* What is your advice to budding writers out there? 

If you feel an urge to write, then write. Like everything else, writing takes practice so you just need to start writing and not worry if you're writing well or not. Eventually you'll find your unique voice and that's really what people want to read. Blogging is good because it gives you feedback and I've discovered so many good writers through reading blogs.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Story Of Deepavali

Deepavali had just passed. To celebrate this occasion theSun run picture story on one of the mythologies behind the celebration. On the front page of the Sun, on the eve deepavali ( Nov 12), we had a picture of a dancer in a multi exposure. ( like below) 

Then on the page 19, we run a picture story of how the evil King Narakasura was defeated which also marks the triumph of good over evil ( like below   

I would like to thank The Temple of Fine Arts for agreeing to do this photo shoot. Many thanks to the sun photographers Syed Azhar Syed Osman and Norman Hi who put their sweat and blood into this project. Now for the full story 

Headline: The story of Deepavali 
By Bissme S 

TOMORROW, Hindus all over Malaysia will becelebrating Deepavali, also known as the Festival of
Lights. There will be rituals to follow such as taking an oil bath, prayers to be said, putting on new clothes and preparing delicious food like ladoo, jalabi, murukku, mysore pak and adhirasam to be served to family, relatives, friends and guests who will be visiting them.
To celebrate this festival, theSun invited five dancers from the Temple of Fine Arts to tell in dance form the most popular mythology associated with the origin of this festival – the tale of King Narakasura who was corrupted by power and was in the end defeated by Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama in a
triumph of good over evil.

Scene 1
King Narakasura (played by PremSagar Krishnan, 23) has been praying and meditating for many years.

Scene 2
From heaven comes Lord Brahma (Nageshwaran Ramachandran, 13) to bless King Narakasura. Lord Brahma says to him: “I am impressed with your prayers. You can ask me for any thing you want.” Narakasura asks that no one can kill him except his mother,
Bhuma Devi (Printha Selvadurai, 20).

Scene 3
Knowing that no mother can kill her own flesh and blood, Narakasura becomes corrupted by absolute power. For years, he rules his kingdom with an iron fist bringing terror and misery to the people

Scene 4
Up in heaven, Lord Krishna (Pankhuri Agrawal, 21) and his wife Satyabhama (Swathi Sivadas, 21) hear the cries of the people. Lord Krishna says: “I have to save the people.” So war is declared between Lord Krishna and King Narakasura.

Scene 5
Lord Krishna is wounded in the battle. Satyabhama is furious and vows to kill Narakasura, who replies arrogantly that no one can kill him except his mother.

Scene 6
Satyabhama manages to defeat Narakasura who begs for his life. But she shows him no mercy and kills him.

Scene 7
Narakasura realises that Satyabhama is the reincarnation of his mother Bhuma Devi and that’s why she could defeat him. He breathes his last on his mother’s lap. He tells Satyabhama: “Do not cry mother. You have done the right thing to kill me as I have been evil. I’m glad to have you as my mother.” Showing regrets for being an evil king, Narakasura says that his death should be celebrated as a victory of light over darkness and the triumph of good over evil.

Scene 8
Because Narakasura has repented forhis evil deeds, he becomes a celestial being after his death. He then seeks blessings from both Lord Krishna and his wife Satyabhama.

Friday, November 2, 2012


The stage play Nadirah  directed by Jo Kukathas and Asmalan Doraisingam  and written Alfian Saat is currently playing at KLPAC. The play has been getting some positive reviews. 
The Sun carried two articles on the stage plays. Both has been interesting interviews. The first article appears Aug 31 where I interview the director of play Jo Kukathas.  
The second article appears Nov 1 where I interview the lead cast Patrick Teoh and Neo Swee Lin.  In both of the articles the cast have said something very interesting.  I have posted both of the articles here. 


Jo Kukathas  from the Instant Cafe Theatre Company (ICT) has directed compelling theatre productions such as Air Con and Parah in the past. Her latest play, Nadirah, to be staged at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (klpac) from Nov 1 to 11, will be another eye-opener for theatre fans.
The story takes place in Singapore and centres on university student Nadirah who is a product of a mixed marriage. Her father is a Malaysian Malay and her mother, a Singaporean Chinese who had converted to Islam.
After her parents’ divorce, she lives with her mother, Sahirah, in Singapore. Both mother and daughter share a close bond.
But then, the relationship hits a rough patch when Nadirah finds out, to her dismay, that her mother is considering getting married to a Doctor Robert, who is a non-Muslim.
In Singapore, a Muslim can get married to a non-Muslim under civil law, with each spouse maintaining his or her own religion.
Will religion cause friction between mother and daughter? Will love or faith prevail?
Written by Alfian Saat from Singapore, the cast comprises Neo Swee Lin (as Sahirah), Ani Juliana Ibrahim (Nadirah), Patrick Teoh (Robert), Redza Minhat (Farouk) and Farah Rani (Maznah).
Having watched a rehearsal of the play, it is quite clear to this writer that Nadirah will touch the hearts of the audience and even stimulate their minds into having interesting discussions. This play is another winner that can be added to Jo Kukathas’ belt.

* What attracted you to direct Nadirah?

“The story draws inspiration from the Maria Hertogh case (which took place in Singapore during the 1950s). Maria’s Dutch parents were involved in a custody battle with her adoptive Malay mother.
“There was a public outcry over the case, not out of love for Maria but out of moral righteousness, and there was tension in the country.
“In Malaysia, we have our fair share of such stories and our hearts go out to those whose lives are suddenly turned upside down simply because they dare to love.
“Nadirah tells how the love between a mother and her child is tested by their different beliefs and the beliefs of those around them. So, the dilemma faced here is whether we follow the path of love or the path of religious conviction.
“Nadirah is part of a trilogy written by Alfian as a tribute to (the late) Yasmin Ahmad. Nadirah pays tribute to Yasmin’s film Muallaf in a very essential way.
“The tag line for that film was “It is in forgiving that we are forgiven’. I think now in Malaysia more than ever, we have to return to compassion, forgiveness, love and humour. If not, we are lost.”

* What is your favourite scene in Nadirah?

“It’s the scene between Robert, who is the doctor Nadirah’s mum meets and falls in love with, and Farouk, who’s Nadirah’s classmate and love interest.
“These two men meet to talk over some very difficult and personal issues of love and faith. But they also end up talking enthusiastically about football.
“And through this very human and warm interaction about that ‘beautiful game’ they love, the audience get to see their common humanity.”

* What are some of the biggest challenges you faced in directing this play?

“It’s a sad fact that my company and other theatre companies are unable to find funding to do even one play a year. I’m forced to work in Singapore and it’s out of necessity.
“I would really love to direct more plays in Malaysia but I believe there is still a lack of political will to support the local performing arts. If indeed there’s funding from the government or other agencies, it’s not clear where it is going to.
“The lack of funding is one of the reasons the performing arts scene in Malaysia is not developing. We have lagged far behind our Singaporean, Thai, Indonesian and Cambodian
neighbours. You can say our arts scene is in financial doldrums.”

* How do you overcome this?

“Our funds have always come from individuals who felt a strong link to our work as a different artistic point of view and also a much needed voice for urban Malaysians.
“Our previous production Parah is a prime example of the deep personal relationship we have with the audience.
“The conservative corporations and government bodies felt Parah was not a great fit for them to support financially.
“But thanks to great individuals who stepped forward (such as Instant Cafe Theatre Angels) and independently helped to raise funds for the production, we were able to stage Parah and get a wide section of urban Malaysians to watch it. We had a completely sold-out production.
“If you believe in plays such as Parah and want us to bring more good theatre to the stage, then sign up to be an Instant Cafe Theatre Angel.
“You can be a Bronze Angel for RM500 or a Blue Sapphire Angel for RM9,999 and above. Every ringgit counts.
“If you want to support us and be an angel, email to admin@ for details.”


Suggested Headline : Love Story 2012 
By Bissme S 

A Singaporean Muslim convert and divorcee, Shahirah, and a Christian widower, Robert, fall in love and plan to get married. In Singapore, a Muslim can marry a non-Muslim under civil law, with each spouse maintaining his or her own religion.
But Shahirah’s university-going daughter Nadirah disapproves of her mother’s relationship with a non Muslim. Can this love story have a happy ending?
This interesting plot is being tackled in a theatre production entitled Nadirah. Written by Alfian Sa’at and directed by Jo Kukathas and Amsalan Doraisingam, this play will be staged at klpac (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre) from Nov 1 to 11.
Playing the forbidden lovers are 49-year-old Singaporean award-winning actress Neo Swee-lin and 65-year-old Malaysian actor and former radio personality Patrick Teoh. Others in the play include Redza Minhat, Farah Rani and Ani Juliana Ibrahim.
In this exclusive interview, Neo and Teoh share their views on the play and how they fell about working in Malaysia and Singapore.

* What attracted you two to the roles in Nadirah?   

Neo: “This is my first role playing a Muslim. The gift of theatre is that you can lead other lives that you will never be able to discover otherwise. What I like best is when my character fell in love with a man of a different faith, she believes it is possible that they can be together and still hold on to their different faith.
“It is so cute and touching to see this middle-aged couple, who are close to their 50s and who have already lived lives and had relationships with other people, falling in love and behaving like teenagers. What makes us think falling in love is only for the young?
“The play doesn’t provide solutions but it does ask questions. In theory, it will be great if everybody has one religion. But we do not. We are a plural society and we should celebrate the diversity of it.” 

Teoh: “I am not a method actor. I play a doctor here but you will not see me in a doctor’s office to find out what goes on there. I depend very much on the director and the words and situation the writer gives me. I strongly believe an actor is only as good as the material that he has to work with. 
“When I do theatre, which is not very often, I only work with people I know. It will take a lot from me to accept a role with a director I’ve never worked with before. When you work with strangers, you have to deal with egos. 
“Nadirah is a timely play for us in Malaysia. We are living through inter-religious and inter-racial tensions every day of our lives. This play is very relevant to what’s going on here.”

* How will you react if you were in the character’s shoe in real life?  

Neo: “I cannot speak as a Muslim because I’m not a Muslim. But as a Catholic, I married a man who was a free thinker. Suddenly, after 15 years of marriage, he wanted to convert to Catholicism. I did not force him, neither did my family. Even my mum told my husband that he should do it for himself, not because he’s married to me.” 

Teoh: “I’m one of those people who will jump into the relationship if I was attracted to a woman of a different faith. I will fight whatever problems I might face in the future. Religion has always been manipulated to divide people.”  

* You two have worked in both the Malaysian and Singapore entertainment scene. What is the biggest difference and challenge you find?  

Neo: “People in Singapore are very much into goals. I do not feel very stressed when I was in Malaysia for my theatre rehearsals. They do not fine you or lock the doors if you are five minutes late. Discipline is important but once you start going crazy over it, you are creating a negative environment. I guess I like the organised chaos here.
“The only thing that is not so nice here is that you can only rehearse in the evenings because most of the actors are not full time. In Singapore, that is not the case but the problem there is that the actors take on too many jobs and by the time they come for rehearsal, they are drained.”

Teoh: “In Singapore, I have only worked for television shows. Everything is orderly. Everything starts on time. In Malaysian television productions, you are eating all the time. Personally, I like the relaxed atmosphere here. But it must not affect the work we are doing.”