Kelantan lifts Mak Yong ban after two decades, but insists performances must be Shariah-compliant

Rohana Abdul Kadir in the lead role of Pak Yong, during the opening sequence of Menghadap Rebab. — Picture by Wong Horngyih, courtesy of Pusaka
Rohana Abdul Kadir in the lead role of Pak Yong, during the opening sequence of Menghadap Rebab. — Picture by Wong Horngyih, courtesy of Pusaka

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 25 — The Kelantan state government has reportedly lifted its ban on the traditional dance theatre called Mak Yong today, after more than two decades.

New Straits Times reported Kelantan Deputy Mentri Besar Datuk Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah as saying that performances, however, must adhere to Shariah-compliant requirements and guidelines, such as making it compulsory for performers to cover up.

“There must also be no element of worship in the performances,” he was quoted as saying after the state executive councillor meeting in Kota Baru.

“Similar guidelines are also imposed on ‘wayang kulit’ and other traditional artistic Malay art performances. We want to ensure only Islamic-related performances are shown to the audience.”

Despite lifting the ban, Mohd Amar stressed that the state government and its Islamic religious department will continue to monitor the performances to ensure they are Shariah-compliant.

In March, State Culture, Tourism and Heritage Committee chairman Datuk Md Anizam Abd Rahman was quoted as saying a special committee had been formed to study whether Mak Yong is Shariah-compliant.

He also said Mak Yong show organisers would have to first be reviewed to determine if their shows abide by Kelantan’s regulations, following repeated calls to lift the ban.

Prior to that, a United Nations (UN) special rapporteur had urged the Kelantan state government to lift the ban on Mak Yong, shadow puppet theatre wayang kulit and other traditional Malay art forms.

Karima Bennoune, who is UN’s special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, said it would be a shame if these art forms were allowed to die, as it would mean Malaysians, and the Kelantanese in particular, would be losing a part of their culture.

She had made the same call back in 2017.

Mak Yong was previously proclaimed as an Intangible Cultural Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2005, in a last-ditch bid to save it.

Mak Yong has been performed in the region for nearly a millennium, and historians believe it was brought to Kelantan around 200 years ago.

A performance entails dancing, acting and singing ― telling stories dating back to the Srivijaya Empire in the 7th century, and the times of the legendary Kelantan queen Che Siti Wan Kembang who was believed to have ruled between the 14th and 16th centuries.

The ban was officially codified in 1998 with the Entertainment and Places of Entertainment Control Enactment passed by the state assembly that year, which also prohibited other local traditional performances such as menora, wayang kulit and main puteri which were deemed “un-Islamic.”.

Mak Yong was traditionally performed by troupes specific to each locality, but is now mostly performed in a more puritanical way by state-sanctioned arts groups.

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