Penang’s Rebel with a Cause

Kee Thuan Chye has no time for bullsh*t.

Those familiar with Superman know he stands for “truth, justice, and the American way”, but he also hides in plain sight as timid and mild-mannered journalist Clark Kent – essentially, a bold, imposing figure tucked behind a pair of glasses.

Well, writer-director-actor-former-journalist Kee Thuan Chye is sort of like Superman – he stands for truth, justice and (in this case) the Malaysian way, but he has no superpowers to speak of. Not that he needs them anyway.

I sat down with him, curious to know his origin – what set him on this current course, and what’s next.

His response?

“Started with what? I’ve started so many things!”

Kee Thuan Chye
Kee Thuan Chye has been writing plays since his university days in USM, Penang.

The Call to Adventure

Born and bred in Penang, Kee’s adventure away from the island – and the beginning of his journey – started after he completed his secondary studies. Finances were a challenge back then, and his ambition to join the legal profession was halted.

“I would have wanted to become a lawyer, but couldn’t afford to go to law school. I then thought that I could become a reporter, but after I finished Form 6, there was no thought of going to university – university costs money. “

So from the legal profession, he took to joining the aviation industry – albeit for just two days, as a traffic clerk in Subang Airport.

“I got bored – the job had me just filling in traffic manifests. So I asked if I could be transferred to another department. The answer was ‘no’, and so I quit, and took the offer to temporarily teach in my old primary school.”

After this short stint away from home, it was back to Penang. It was then, that he honed his craft.

“Someone told me that I should go to university if I had the chance, so I applied to USM, because it’s in Penang. It was during my university days that I started writing my own plays, and I was staging them in the campus theatre… After I graduated, I then applied for a temporary job in the university’s Centre for Policy and Research. I was still staging plays.”

It was also during his time in the university, that his “right makes might” ethos really presented itself – if he believes he is in the right, he will stand his ground, refusing to budge.

“A minor incident happened during orientation (writer’s note: it’s a non-issue, really, but you should read what happened next), but it escalated quickly – to the extent where a tribunal was held, with the vice-chancellor and heads of department present!”

However, standing up for what you believe in, unlike what films would like to portray, does not always come with a happy-ever-after-with-a-neat-ribbon resolution.

“I was then asked to apologise for the sake of my job security, but I didn’t do anything wrong. So, I was out of a job.”

It was after this, that Kee entered the field of journalism.

The Road of Trials

Kee recalls his entry into the field of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.

“I came to KL at 1979, at the age of 25… I decided to write a letter to the editor of The National Echo – then the oldest newspaper in Malaysia. There, I was hired as literary editor, and I was with the title for about 2 years. However, it was floundering financially, so I moved on to the New Straits Times as a sub-editor.”

Being a journalist during the 1980’s and 1990’s proved to be (to put it kindly) challenging times, especially if you were one to put public interest above all else, as Kee notes.

“I tried to do my job as a journalist, to tell the story as it is, and to encourage healthy debate. Unfortunately, the media landscape back then wasn’t as conducive and accommodating to people wanting to push the envelope… Of course, me pushing the envelope tends to lead me to a wall, against my superiors. I got memo after memo!”

Sometimes, you push the envelope; sometimes, the envelope pushes back. Hard.

That said, he sticks by his guns, in a “I’m refusing to move; you move” stance. Being a journalist means telling it as it is, without fear or favour to the powers-that-be.

“People would say that as I work under an organisation, I should abide by its rules – to not bite the hand that feeds you; but this is not a bank job. I am a journalist, and I have a duty and obligation to my readers and the public at large. So who should I serve more?”

Even in the midst of his full-time job, he was still in the performing arts, directing and acting in plays – never losing sight or giving up on his passion.

Supernatural Aid

Then, while still employed in NST, he was offered the opportunity from the British Council to sharpen his craft.

“I had two offers: a one-year Masters degree in Drama in Essex University, or a two-year course in filmmaking in the London International Film School. I struggled with the decision for a week – I was torn.”

Though appealing, the two-year route meant two years of separation, and two years of no income, which would be tough as he had dependents. He then made his call.

“Finally, I took unpaid leave from NST, and chose the one-year route. At the time, it seemed like a wise decision, but I do look back at it sometimes.”

The Road of Trials, Continued

His return to journalism was marked with… you guessed it, memos.

“When I came back, I was made Literary Editor, and I was still pushing the envelope – got memos again. I am however glad to say, I’ve outlasted some of them.”

After 21 years in the New Straits Times, he moved on to another English daily, The Star, until his retirement in 2009. Throughout his years in local journalism, his penchant for envelope-pushing never slowed down (in fact, you’ll still find some instances of this in his social media postings). Retiring from the industry did not mean putting the pen down.

“I was freelancing at home, and I started producing books. That’s from a writing point of view; there was also my acting and performing.”

Kee Thuan Chye
The literary activist is currently in the midst of writing a new book and more plays.

The Ultimate Boon

His inclination towards pointing out flaws in government can also be found in his work in the performing arts, as I found out during my time with him.

He was wearing a shirt with “1984” in giant print – a bit on-the-nose, I pointed out to him.

“Oh! There’s a story about this too!” he exclaimed.

“This play (1984: Here and Now) was first staged in 1985, and people were surprised that it actually got a permit to be staged! 32 years later, it was recently staged in Mandarin – the issues are still the same! That’s very sad – we haven’t moved on.”

Aside from his upcoming play, Concubine + Swordfish, what’s next for Kee Thuan Chye?

“I hope to write more new stuff – I’m preparing a book that will hopefully be out before the General Election. That’s the best time!”

I mentioned that the current landscape and atmosphere in our land is one still governed by fear and one of conflicting choices – whether to stand up and disrupt the status quo, or to sit down and let it be. Kee isn’t having any of it, and has this to say.

“This fear of repercussion has been with us for a long, long time now. Now, a lot of people are so conditioned by it, they cannot get out of it. It’s not easy, and I understand. But sometimes, we are needlessly afraid.”

It does not mean being careless or callous with your criticism, however.

“As long as you don’t say things that are seditious, libellous (writing) or slanderous (speech) – I’ve always been careful with that. It’s the difference between, ‘so-and-so did something idiotic’, and ‘so-and-so is an idiot’. You do not impugn a person’s character, but you can speak out against his actions.”

Finally, he draws wisdom from a leader of the past.

“People need not fear; the only thing they need to fear, as Roosevelt said, is fear itself.”

As someone who lived through the 1990’s in ignorant bliss, having Kee shed light on the struggles of the time really puts things in perspective – how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go. Speaking out means being accountable for what you say, and it does not go unrewarded… or unpunished, for that matter.

Now, the question is, do you stick by your convictions, or do you let the status quo linger and cause rot?

Would you be willing to be in the right, even at your personal cost?

I don’t know about you, and I don’t know if I’ll ace that test, but I can tell you this: I have at least spoken to one man who made that choice, and has never wavered.

Kee Thuan Chye’s latest play, Swordfish + Concubine is a satirical take on Malaysia’s political climate and will be staged this weekend at KLPac. Tickets can be bought here.

*All images courtesy of Kee Thuan Chye.

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