Mak yong is a Malay dance drama performed for entertainment and healing ceremonies by itinerant theater troupes that traveled throughout northern Malaysia, southern Thailand, and the Riau archipelago of Indonesia. Incorporated into national displays of Malaysian cultural heritage since the mid-1970s, mak yong was declared a Masterpiece of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005. The UNESCO ICH designation for mak yong was filed and accepted while mak yong was officially banned in its home state of Kelantan in Malaysia. The validity of mak yong as a symbol of Malaysian culture, and its current ban in Kelantan for religious reasons have been frequently debated in Malaysia. International UNESCO designation, intangible cultural heritage safeguarding, and international human rights discourses have had to contend with visions of Malaysian nationalism and politicized Islam. These movements have alternatively sought to eradicate mak yong through state-level bans or secularize mak yong as state and national governments seek to remake the art in their own image.
This case study examines how administrative and local communities of practice implement the concept of “safeguarding” a controversial performance form in a highly charged political-religious field. In 2018-2019, the religious authorities in Kelantan are assessing whether they will rescind their twenty-eight-year-old ban on mak yong. If the PAS ban is rescinded in Kelantan, mak yong may go through yet another transformation, and traditional performers another cycle of dispossession as PAS patrons reenvision mak yong as Kelantanese cultural patrimony, remade to fit PAS’ understandings of revelatory Islamic practice.