(NOTE: Blast from the past! #4)
NST. 26 May, 1999
PERFORATED SHEETS fortnightly with AMIR MUHAMMAD:
You may think, ladies and germs, that the biggest problem facing the modern Malaysian writer is whether to use pencils or pens, but you would be quite wrong. There are several greater dangers. I would like to talk about just one of these dangers, but I'm warning you: It ain't pretty. Feel free to scream out loud or clutch at the shapely arm of a loved one while I unfold this tale of horror.
Here's a newsflash: Our nation is still organised along semi-feudal lines. Feudalism is a medieval European concept in which a vassal was expected to give his all to the landowner, with no questions asked. In our own continent of shiny Asian values, this type of total surrender was once associated with a despotic monarchy, which was capable of butchering anyone who dared to Just Say No.
There are enough tales of just how cruel, tyrannical and plain not-nice a monarch could be in those days. Many of these stories have been duly turned into colourful movies and mini-series, so there's no need for me to set them down here.
That was then. Monarchs are now on the whole relegated to a ceremonial role. They are trotted out once in a while so that we can ooh and ahh their pretty clothes, but you rarely hear of them behaving in a horrible way. The worst thing you can say about them is that they play too much golf. That's the good news, at least.
The bad news, however, is that the culture of subservience has not gone with the wind of democratic change. It has instead mutated into a different type of beast and plonked down in the arena of politics. Powerful politicians now expect a similar degree of unthinking loyalty from the public. The awful thing is that these politicians don't even have the decency to wear nice colourful robes while they dispense their duties. As a French saying almost goes: "The more things change, the more things get screwed up."
What has this got to do with writing? Well, a strain of story-telling during the days of powerful monarchs is literature commissioned by the royal court. Scribes would be compelled to create fantabulous tales revolving around the heroic deeds and mythical powers of the relevant king, sultan or emperor. The actual ruler could be a puny piece of nothing, a dweeb, a nerd in the herd, but in the stories they are descendants of God who can fly and read your mind and break all kinds of Sukom records. As if!
You can plainly see that the purpose of these stories is not just to entertain the masses but to ensure that the feeling of subservience is entrenched even more firmly into their skulls. Folks then won't dare say anything against their ruler because they'd been hearing only the most miraculously wondrous things about him. To complain would just make you seem like a spoilsport.
Be that as it may, the natural human spirit is to question any kind of autocratic tyranny. Some of the most popular folk tales from around the world attest to this. A folk tale that can be repeated with pleasure for generations is usually a valuable indicator of some form of uncanny, resonant truth.
Think of the nameless mat salleh (white) boy who alone dared to point out that the vain Emperor was buck naked. The tyke could speak out because, unlike his elders, he had yet to be cowed by the system of suffocating hypocrisy. A grimmer version can be found in the fate of Hang Nadim, the kid who solved the vexing ikan todak (garfish) problem of Singapore and was duly executed for being cleverer than all the Sultan's Ministers. The subtext of both these tales is that there is nothing super-human about our rulers. Worse, they can get awfully touchy if this fact is pointed out to them.
As the world turns, in the days of our lives, we see the same soap opera now being enacted in modern dress. The contemporary equivalent of court literature now goes by the unofficial name of sastera bodek.
Here's a fun fact: Bodek is a word that originally referred to testicles. The colloquial term for hernia is even sakit bodek (testicular pain), further proof of how shockingly explicit Malay medical terms can be. (This is after all the same language that brought you kencing manis (sweet piss) for diabetes.)
I'm no doctor, but I fear that we are witnessing an upsurge in yet another type of sakit bodek. The symptoms of this particular ailment cannot be easily detected or remedied by your friendly neighbourhood clinic, as it has to do with the other definition of bodek: sycophancy.
People afflicted with sakit bodek manifest their symptoms by going to great lengths in proving their "loyalty" to the order of the day. Any sense of idealism or critical intelligence that does not fit this narrow agenda will be quashed. In the process, the objects of veneration then acquire super-human powers not too remote from the semi-divine monarchs of yore. It's a bore and a chore, to be sure, but that's the way things go.
In the sastera bodek genre, anything the ruling elite does is A-OK. The job of the public then is to accept without question or risk being branded, at best, ungrateful. The assumption is that you should be eternally thankful that you have roads and scholarships at all, regardless of the fact that such things came about through your own tax money to begin with.
There is not enough timber left in Sarawak to produce the paper needed to catalogue all the sastera bodek in recent times. There are people who make a healthy living out of it. It's different if you felt they were writing through some genuine convictions, but their stances are as unpredictable as the lalang blown by the breezes near Parliament. Even they don't seem to take themselves seriously; how on earth are we now expected to do so?
I may sound like a total pessimist, but I cannot suppress my naturally sunny disposition for long. All is not lost. There exists in Malaysia a vibrant alternative in cyberspace.
The Internet offers an array of information that seems initially bewildering but which actually, given the right attitude, can instil a healthy scepticism. You DO get a lot of contemptible drivel, but I daresay that the ratio between worthwhile items to worthless ones is roughly the same as what you get in the printed media anyway. You just get a lot more of it. And since it's not treated as a fully 'legitimate' medium yet, you get a lot less bodek.
When stalwarts of the mainstream media squeal in alarm at the "irresponsibility" of the stuff you get on the Net, they are actually voicing their trauma at the prospect of losing their own long-held hegemony on information. They are traumatised by the full implications of democracy. (Be that as it may, I hope that the spirit of openness - oh all right, only the "responsible" kind! - will now creep and crawl its way into the traditional media.)
A few months ago, everyone was agog over cyber-pictures of pop stars which may have been superimposed over naked bodies. But in the long run, it doesn't matter who's doing who: That's just an admittedly entertaining side-show. What's truly important is that for the first time there's a possibility that we too can say whether an Emperor is naked or not.
Dare we finally break free of these neo-feudalist shackles? Or must we continue to shelter behind a few antiquated notions? There IS a cure for sakit bodek, but the 'balls' are in our court.