An Occasion for Collective Engagement: Shifting Political Hegemonies in Early Malay Epic Dramas


  • Simone Shu-Yeng Chung

    1. University of Cambridge
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    • Simone Shu-Yeng Chung is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Architecture, University of Cambridge. A practicing architect in the United Kingdom and former British School at Rome Scholar, she also holds an M.Phil. in Screen Media and Cultures from Cambridge for which she wrote a thesis on Malaysian cinema in the 1950s and 1960s. This article is based on research produced for the thesis. Her attendance to present at the 21st ASEN conference was made possible through the Kettles Yard Travel Grant.


The article discusses how the intertextual relationship between film, performing arts, literature, and the liberal capitalist structure of the Malay film studio system was exploited by British colonialists and Malay intellectuals alike to encourage the formation of nationalistic aspirations in the 1950s and 1960s. Although Malay epics were seen to portray a particularly Malay-centric view of feudal societies, they imply a wider political objective when the production histories of three epic films – the legend of Hang Tuah (1956), his nemesis Hang Jebat (1961), and the folktale Raja Bersiong (1968) – are reviewed. Malaysia's first Prime Minister's incorporation of plays in his political campaigns and forays into film suggests his belief that the media could be instrumental in projecting an indigenised national identity. Created for a wide cinematic audience, such films encouraged cinemas’ function as the space of convergence where members of Malaysia's plural society could participate in the undifferentiated cinematic experience.