DI BALIK MALAYSIA: Dari Majapahit ke Putrajaya by Farish A. Noor (ZI Publications, 2008, 226 pages)
SOME scholars believe that Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson) was actually several different people. I sometimes wonder the same about Farish A. Noor.
This is not to suggest that he’s schizophrenic, but I don’t see how anyone can be so prolific. Those of us who need to lie down with a wet towel over our foreheads after choosing just the right emoticon for an SMS can feel only awe at his vast energy and erudition.
Not a day seems to go by without him swooping down to correct a wrong. Batman has nifty gadgets inspired by S & M paraphernalia, but Farish has his arsenal of words and references. His crusade is (to paraphrase another superhero’s motto) for truth, justice and the Malaysian way.
Last week, we looked at his 840-page tome on PAS. Now let us celebrate his first Malay-language collection. True, most of the pieces are actually translated from his earlier articles in the books The Other Malaysia and From Majapahit to Putrajaya but the fact that they are now in the national language is significant.
(Equally significant is an essay here that argues that we don’t actually have a national language, in that there is no lingua franca that we can comfortably call our own. But I shall let you read that yourself).
It is apposite that this book is dedicated to the memory of Rustam A Sani as there is some batonpassing here. With all due respect, Rustam’s stature as a public intellectual was slightly compromised by his party allegiance (to PKR) later in his life. While Farish puts himself beyond the reach of many Malaysians because he writes mainly in English.
It is stark proof (as if any were needed) of the cowardice of the Malay-language media that his articles are not printed there but are instead translated for Sin Chew Jit Poh.
Although there is no such thing as a dumb language, a language risks being dumbed down if different ideas are not introduced into it. Just like Uthaya Sankar SB, Farish insists on the term Bahasa Malaysia because he sees the potential for the language to be truly inclusive.
The word “crossroads” is often used by Malaysian political pundits but Farish’s speciality as historian and social scientist is to look at the road not taken.
Specifically: How did the concept of ‘Malaysia’ get to be hijacked by greedy politicians who often seek support only by championing their own ethnic and communal interests? How did we get placed in neat little boxes and told to be wary of one another? Where are the voices (you can call them ‘the Other’ or ‘the subaltern’) excluded from the official narrative?
He argues that ‘race’ itself was a convenient colonial administrative tool that has been further exacerbated by the post-colonial elite. The 1970s were a particularly virulent time, because Umno and started engaging in a race to out- Muslim and out-Malay the other.
So now we have come to a system with a very bloated and expensive religious bureaucracy that seems to devote more time to skodeng (peeping tom) vigilantism than issues of greater national importance; and where we, the citizens, are constantly reminded of the superficial differences rather than deep commonalities between us.
These differences, once regulated and codified, then become so entrenched that we can’t imagine looking at ourselves and neighbours in any other way. It is this paralysing inertia that he wants us to break out of. Some of his prescriptions are surprising indeed: Read the second half of Hikayat Hang Tuah and figure out why certain aspects of that mythical hero never got acted out by M. Nasir.
Trawl the Net and you will find much hostility (often anonymous) to the ideals of progressive liberalism espoused by Farish. (Well, his type of sarcastic exasperation is sometimes very easy bait for hate-mail). I thus look forward to the discussions about this book.
Di Balik Malaysia is handsomely produced but the translation is a bit stiff; the sentences often still sound English. It should also have included some of the light-hearted articles such as the ones on Ning Baizura or Ibrahim Ali, two personalities who exist to give us cheer. But there is more to come, I am sure: the various ‘Malaysias’ are a gift that will keep on giving.
(Malay Mail, 7 August 2008)