Malaysia’s 1st International Mask Festival: Unmasking Utopia

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I didn’t know who she was. At this point it didn’t really matter. Whatever her name was, she was having the time of her life, getting loose to a Malaysian drumline’s rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” In many ways, I wanted to be out there next to her, doing the exact same thing. But at the same time, just watching this middle-aged Korean lady dancing was just too amusing. It also seemed fitting that this was how my trip to Kuala Lumpur was ending – reinforcing what some might say is a foolish belief that someday we might eventually manage to all get along.

For someone who gets exposed to even just five minutes of the latest news, the idea of the world achieving utopia is about as likely as the promise to spend only five minutes on Facebook. Given the constant conflict between countries, the inability to address environmental challenges, and the repetitively short-term outlook of world leaders, it’s easy to get the impression that ultimately as a species, we are doomed to remain disconnected. And that, in a world where it’s possible to instantly connect two individuals from across the world via tiny handheld gadgets, is downright bizarre.

Differences in color, origin and beliefs continue to spark friction across the globe, prompting many to believe that, until the world morphs to adopt a more I uniformed characteristic, there will always be too much tension among diverse groups to avoid the occurrence of conflict. And while it’s unsurprising that many reach conclusions like this, I can’t help but feel they’re resoundingly incorrect.

Because in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, in the midst of a sea of masked individuals from all across the world – spanning a multitude of religions, customs, and skin tones – the only danger of an adverse encounter was if the first ever Malaysia International Mask Festival was canceled.

While masks can be conceived as instruments to conceal a person’s true nature, here it was the exact opposite. The nuances in the design of these “false faces” told of the wearer’s background more intricately than any exchange broken English could ever surmise. All around, there were looks of joy and hope, faces of strength and courage, stories of light overcoming evil, remnants of ancient empires and civilizations. The music was just as varied and so was the way  they moved their bodies to the sounds. Everywhere I looked, there was a pocket of unique expression.

Absorbing the world through what the media commonly portrays tells me that this scenario had all the ingredients for a tense environment, but instead it was the opposite. Differences were being celebrated, rather than being a cause of friction, and the result was a genuine  appreciation for one another, a deeper understanding of each other’s uniqueness. In many ways, this was the pinnacle to a thought that had been prevalent in my last two days in Malaysia.

The more time I spent familiarizing myself with my surroundings, the clearer it became that diversity is a key characteristic to the country’s persona. And unlike other areas in the world, the variety wasn’t a hindrance to the country’s progress. Local Malays, Chinese and Indians, the three major ethnic groups in the country, were routinely in harmonious contact, while accommodating the country’s multitude of tourists from all across the globe. The last time I was so deeply embedded with such a diverse group in every twist and turn of my day was in International School as a kid – of which I hold fond memories.

And as one of those “outsiders” to the country, it felt comforting that each of these ethnic circles maintained their identities without prejudice. Evident as well was more than tolerance; there was an understanding of each other’s differences – an open-mindedness to retain one’s convictions, while respecting dissimilar views. Such progressive thinking has been a platform from which the country has catapulted its way to becoming a shining light in Southeast Asia – a beacon of progress and ambition. Its hosting of Formula 1 and Moto GP events and its sprawling Petronas Towers speak of the nation’s trajectory and impact on the world stage.

There existed a special unity to the diversity here, and being exposed to such an environment inevitably brings a sense of hope – that maybe at some point in the future, more people will come around to the idea that the contrast in our looks, personalities, and beliefs, shouldn’t be a source of division, but rather a source of inspiration.

As I paced around the Esplanade KLCC Park interviewing contingents from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea and groups from all across Malaysia, I ran into the same narrative over and over again.

“It makes us feel proud and it’s overwhelming for us to represent our country. It’s a learning experience for us,” said Jill Tanig, a member of the Philippine contingent. Their group, Sining Bulakeño, had performed a version of a famous masked festival to cap off an evening of traditionally inspired performances from various participating countries. And like most who made the trip to Malaysia for the inaugural International Mask Festival, her priority was, “Learning the cultures of other countries and showcasing our dances; that they see something from our culture.”

With the world-renowned Petronas Towers looming, providing the backdrop to a trip down richly traditional routines from groups from all across Asia, the optimist in me was having a field day. However naïve it was to believe in the possibility of a perfect world, somehow it felt achievable in such a setting – a world where the cutting edge of technology and architecture meshed seamlessly with centuries of varying customs and rituals. A world where an assortment of color, outlook and languages isn’t considered a stumbling block, but merely a unique hue to paint the same picture. Perhaps I’m wrong, and maybe utopia is a fool’s dream.

But if it is possible, something tells me it looks something like this middleaged Korean lady, decked out in full traditional attire, bouncing and dancing to this Malaysian drumline’s tunes.

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