Thursday, 28 June 2007

NST: 28 June

(NOTE: Two sentences are, um, different in the print version).

Where have all the doctors gone?

Although I can’t claim to have known him well, the passing of actor Izi Yahya still affected me -- and made me angry.

During our brief working acquaintance about a decade ago, one could immediately notice his blokey appeal and his refusal to be bogged down by pettiness. And his laugh!

Best known for his villainous roles starting in 1985’s Ali Setan (where his dastardly deeds prompted the now-famous line from novice actress Sheila Majid, “Tipah tertipu bang!”) he gained inadvertent notoriety with his over-the-top Japanese commander in the public-funded Embun (2002). A rape scene in there had some people threatening to prosecute the makers for producing pornography!

But this unproductive fuss faded away, as they do. And when he did make the news again, it was for the most unfortunate reason imaginable.

According to a Bernama report, he died without regaining consciousness after a fall during the shooting of a documentary called Darurat (Emergency).

Why a documentary (unless it is an experimental one) would require actors, the report did not say. Perhaps there are elements of re-enactment.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the title alone gives the impression that it’s about the Emergency (1948-60), the longest and bloodiest undeclared war in the history of the Commonwealth. The fact that it’s produced during the 50th anniversary of the independence of Peninsular Malaysia might lead one to surmise that we should now be grateful for all we enjoy, thanks to all those who fought and died to keep us a democratic-capitalist state.

That in itself is not the issue. Such programmes seem an inevitable part of our discursive landscape.

But what angered me was that, after Izi fell, he required surgery for brain haermorrhage, and there were no specialists to attend to him in Seremban Hospital. Or even Selayang Hospital. Or Sungai Buluh Hospital. Or Kuala Lumpur Hospital. Or even the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.

Is our country, despite all the progress we seem to enjoy, so lacking in medical personnel? Where have all the doctors gone? And how many other similar cases involving lower-profile people would have gone unreported?

Rabble-rousing documentarian Michael Moore is in trouble with the US authorities for bringing September 11 rescue workers to Cuba for them to check out the free socialized medical care they can get there, despite a trade embargo between the two countries. He has been accused of exploiting the misery of others to score points against the increasingly expensive American health-care system. But others would say that such a seemingly outrageous gesture is what’s needed to jolt viewers out of a certain complacency that everthing is A-OK.

But in this new Malaysian case, I wonder what the outcome would be. Will there be a call for an investigation to be conducted? Will such an investigation produce anything?

Perhaps we are still too reticent and fearful of pursuing such matters. After all, to question the circumstances of someone’s death and whether it could have been avoided might be seen as “going against divine fate”.

This is despite the fact that, through the centuries, the idea of “fate” has been used to keep powerless people down, and to escape accountability. Think of the example of a few years ago when a structure collapsed, killing people at a religious ceremony. The authorities in charge invoked “divine will”; they were very peeved that anyone could even suggest the deaths could have been avoided through better planning, since to do so would be tantamount to questioning God!

If there was indeed something that could have been rectified in the most recent case of Izi’s death, we should know about it. Although the prospect of ending up as a frantically litigious society is not an appealing one, questions should still be asked.

If they are not asked, the idea of celebrating the freedoms that Darurat is presumably asking us to celebrate comes with a bitter -- you can say fatal -- irony.

Back down, Sir Salman!

Back when I read it in my teens, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children struck me as the greatest novel ever written.

Its exuberant use of language, literary English and yet unashamed of different flavours deriving from its Indian locale; its plot that had the real, the hyper-real and the fantastical all rubbing up against one another -- everything combined to persuade you that the much-bemoaned Death of the Author had been greatly exaggerated.

It won the Booker Prize, but don’t let that put you off. I would still recommend it to anyone.

His essays too were lucid on a variety of contemporary and literary topics, sometimes to do with the ‘post-colonial question’. But then something happened to eclipse all that.

The fuss over The Satanic Verses, generated by people who had not read the book, sentenced him to live underground and made him many enemies. It had the unfortunate effect of tarnishing an entire community of believers.

A dense literary novel like The Satanic Verses surely is not on the same level as the Danish cartoons, produced for a contest calculated to provoke. But it led to a similar clash which some would even have dubbed a “clash of civilizations.”

Now he is to be called Sir. The decision to award him a knighthood caused a political backlash, perhaps not a major one as yet, and it would be naïve for Britain to claim that it’s unexpected.

But what’s bewildering, at least to me, is why he accepted the honour in the first place. As a leftist, why would he need validation from that kind of Establishment? It was one thing to seek protection from the police of “Mrs Torture” (as the British Prime Minister was dubbed in The Satanic Verses) as his very life was at stake. But to accept a title that just reeks of ossified values?

True, the experience of living in virtual isolation (save for the occasional surprise appearance with U2 on stage) may do certain things to you.

A less talented British writer, Benjamin Zephaniah, rejected the Order of the British Empire (OBE) when it was offered to him; he said it reeked of colonialism. I know Zephaniah is less talented because I saw him perform in Kuala Lumpur.

The local poets who came on before him had more fire in their bellies; one in particular was quite shocking. None of the locals would be offered a Datukship anytime soon; for this we should be grateful.

A knighthood is a bigger deal than an OBE, of course, but after all he has been through, you’d think Rushdie would be made of sterner stuff.


Anonymous said...

nasib lah rushdie kena fingerpoint, even though banyak lagi even more blasphemous writers kat luar sana..

amir, just browse your library thing, nampaknya your favourite authors adalah nabokov dan maupin. hehehe. kelakau nyee. i remember watching tales of the city (series made by channel 4 lama dulu), and was kinda inspired by the old "tanam kanabis" lady. siapa nama dia, dah lupa.

Amir Muhammad said...

Anna Madrigal, namanya merupakan satu anagram :-)

Anonymous said...

Izi's father said "Arwah dibuat bak bola".

I went to HKL today, there are more than thousand patients queying in crowd;
- tahap kesiahatan menurun (ramai org sakit)?
- perkhidmatan kesihatan di Malaysia gagal?

huajern said...

In a sense there is a lack of doctors in Malaysia, but it is more of a maldistribution. 40% of doctors (a ballpark figure) are in govt service, providing healthcare to 70% of our population. The 60% in private practice are making more money and having a better quality of life, though few are truly rich. I would call it 'comfortable'; the filthy rich are exceptions. More importantly, the experienced and highly qualified ones have often left for greener pastures in private practice or another country. In another decade or so, I have no idea who will be training the 'new' specialists.
Back to your unfortunate friend, Izi Yahya. I find the absence of a neurosurgeon extremely odd. I have no knowledge of Seremban Hospital, but I am sure HKL and Sg Buloh Hospital have neurosurgical teams. Even if one or two guys are on leave, there are always other guys around. Could it be his condition was not amenable for surgery? That is quite a common situation.

Anonymous said...

Dear Amir,

I couldn’t help but respond to your statement ‘A dense literary novel like the Satanic Verses surely is not on the same level as the Danish cartoons, produced for a contest calculated to provoke. But it led to a similar clash…’ (NST 28/6).

Not on the same level as the provocative cartoons as meaning the novel is not provocative enough? Am staggered to imagine that any erudite person should regard the SV as a harmless literary piece when it was written expressly by an iconoclastic insider to provoke Muslims the world over by attacking what they cherish most: their beloved Prophet and his wives, disguised as Mahound (the medieval derogatory term for Prophet Muhammad pbuh), and harlots in the harem respectively. How could any Muslim fail to feel provoked when someone so dear to them are insulted and made fun of? A sound Hadith states that a true Muslim with iman is he who loves his Holy Prophet more than anyone else, ahead of even himself and his own parents, and a Quranic verse states that the Prophet’s wives are mothers of the believers. These are valid enough reasons for Muslims reacting until today (even to a deserved knighthood for pure literary accomplishments by a highly talented albeit wayward author) to the blasphemy and demeaning of Muhammad pbuh and his household.

Of course, imagination, symbolism and surrealism were used to hide the characters but any learned Muslim will know who Rushdie was writing about. Even Khuswant Singh of the Times of India was reportedly shocked when reviewing the SV, saying even he would have been upset if he were a Muslim.

Lastly, of course Sir Rushdie is ‘made of sterner stuff’: he defied the decade-old Ayatollah’s death fatwa and is still unrepentant, hiding behind and unjustifiably protected by the western notion of unfettered freedom of speech which is allowed even to injure. Acceptance of the knighthood, though uncharacteristic of a leftist, is just the right thing for him to do to remain the West’s most celebrated symbol of a liberated Brown Sahib who continues to cock a snook at cherished Eastern values, especially of a religion at odds with secular principles where no one and nothing is too sacred.


Idrus Ismail

Kuala Lumpur.