The energy and power of student mobilisation through numerous grassroots campaigns is undeniable. However, where student activism in Malaysian is concerned, there are some quarters who feel that such youth-related movements still lack focus and direction.
There is still much work to be done to find a unifying voice on campuses across the country.
Khairi Anwar, the artistic director of Shah Alam-based theatre company Anomalist Production, is boldly taking up the topic of student activism in the upcoming play Pohlithik, which opens at Blackbox @ Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) at Empire Damansara in Petaling Jaya on April 24.
“In the early 1970s, student activism was a force to be reckoned with. Student voices are not valued as much now. Today's university students have many issues they want to speak about but they find it hard to make people listen to them,” says Khairi, 27.
"When university students spoke up back then, people listened because not many people had tertiary education. So, people looked up to them. But that's not the case any longer," he points out.
The landmark Baling protests in December 1974 saw thousands of university students demonstrating in the small town of Kedah, in solidarity with rubber tappers who were struggling to survive after global rubber prices had collapsed. They were led by student activists such as Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Hishamuddin Rais.
In researching historical material for Pohlithik, Khairi spent several months talking to prominent activists such as Syed Hamid Ali, one of the key 1960s-era student leaders, street artist/graphic designer Fahmi Reza and student activist Adam Adli.
Later on, Khairi collaborated with writer/spoken word poet Jamal Raslan, who wrote Pohlithik, a new play presented by Anomalist Production.
The play, featuring a mix of English, Malay and Mandarin, has a young cast, which includes Tristen Zijuin, 20, Shah Shaha, 28, Arjun Thanaraju, 22, Tan Meng Kheng, 31 and Natasha Mohdali, 26.
“Pohlithik looks at the power of words and ideas. Everyone is looking for a voice but it’s also important to realise that it’s pointless to have a voice if it doesn’t serve a purpose,” says Jamal, 36, before adding, “We wanted a play with the lives of three people intertwined with politics."
Pohlithik revolves around university dorm mates Danny (Tristen), Ali (Shah) and Ian (Arjun), who discover that though they come from different backgrounds, they have a lot in common. With their idealism to fight for what’s right, the trio discover a new way to get people to listen to them - spoken word poetry.
With guidance from their lecturer (through poetry), they discover their similarities, their place in the university and ultimately, the nation. But all this comes at a heavy price when they find themselves in the middle of a controversial conflict.
“No one wants to listen to speeches, especially students. It’s very mainstream. But people tend to listen to poetry more than speeches. It’s more relevant,” says believes Khairi, whose previous works include Teater Bangsa: Anak Kecil Main Api (2015) and the critically acclaimed IQ.Rock (2018).
“Spoken word poetry is all about representation, resonance and relevance, just like student activism. So when Khairi approached me with this idea of merging student activism and poetry, I immediately knew that it would work,” recalls Jamal, who also wrote the poems in Pohlithik.
The show's title Pohlithik is a combination of all three names of the main characters - Poh (Danny), Ali and Karthik (Ian).
Khairi says when the play begins, the three boys are strangers to each other and don’t use their given names. But as the play progresses and they get closer, they are comfortable enough to use their real names with each other.
For both Khairi and Jamal, that’s the ultimate takeaway of the play, that while we may have our differences, when we come together for a common cause, we are united in our identity as Malaysians.
Pohlithik will be staged at DPAC, Empire Damansara, Damansara Perdana in Petaling Jaya in Selangor from April 24-28. Showtimes: April 24-28 (8pm) and April 27 and 28 (2.30pm). Tickets: RM55 and RM45 (concession). More info: www.dpac.com.my. FB: Anomalist Production. Call 016-351 7530 or 014-347 0093.