Bidak di Papan Catur by Raja Petra Kamarudin (Seloka Gelora, 2001, 133 pages).
Any Malaysian dictionary must contain the word ISA, because the Internal Security Act has been such a part of our collective consciousness for decades. The place it has held in our discursive universe has not been static, however.
It has been a bogey, sometimes employed comically to warn you against straying too far from the safe zone. It is the modern-day equivalent of the hantu kopek, the ghost who will crush you in her bosom if you are not home by dusk – although this time, it is the bosom of the State that seeks to keep you close, ostensibly to keep the rest of us safe. It has most likely been a deterrent to some people who would otherwise take part in politics. It may also be a source of pride to others, wherein the devil’s horns magically become a martyr’s halo.
It is to Dr. Mahathir’s credit that he never remanded anyone under the ISA for more than the minimum two years. But our other Prime Ministers have never shown such comparative restraint.
Books written by ISA detainees have become a little subgenre in Malaysian and Singaporean publishing. Highlights would be Aziz Ishak’s Special Guest, Kassim Ahmad’s Universiti Kedua, Syed Husin Ali’s Dua Wajah and Said Zahari’s Dark Clouds at Dawn.
By contrast, Bidak di Papan Catur might seem less substantial. It came out just a few weeks after 10 reformasi activists (including Raja Petra himself) were arrested on April 2001. It consists mainly of affidavits by those men, produced as part of the habeas corpus application for their release.
The ‘instant’ quality of the book means that there is not much opportunity for soul-searching contemplation. But it is precisely this hot-from-the-press factor that makes it so compelling. What it lacks in retrospective insight is made up for in tabloid urgency. (Thankfully, it also eschews poems written in detention).
A few of the other ISA memoirs were written years after the fact, and the distance lent a mellow air to the proceedings. But this book literally begins with a sensational warning – you are about to encounter some obscenity! reader discretion advised! – so you know there ain’t no mellow-mellow.
Raja Petra has said many things about people; people have likewise said many things about him. His style as blogger is flashy, spicy, shot through with contentious vitality. My favourite article of him must be “See you in hell, Muhammad son of Muhammad,” where the former Selangor Menteri Besar is duly knocked down, dragged out and left to hang, probably in that order.
In that piece, I noticed a factual error: A London nightclub is repeatedly referred to as Longfellows, and since such places tend not to be named after poets, I assumed he meant Stringfellows. A pedantic correction, to be sure, but it’s just a hint that his sulphurous broadsides are sometimes best taken with a soupcon of salt. He has a Lenny Bruce quality that certainly was not apparent all those years ago when I read his cycling column in The Star.
This slim book merely confirms what we have long suspected: The interrogations during the initial remand period have nothing to do with the charges that were unofficially laid. The government had accused the detainees of trying to start armed insurrection, but it’s obvious the police were more interested in the inner workings of Opposition parties, especially Keadilan. (In this instance, the detainees included Tian Chua, Ezam Mohd Nor and Hishamuddin Rais). Salacious questions about sexual predilections duly fulfil the ‘warning’ at the book’s beginning.
The book is peppered with domestic photographs of the detainees, to drive home the point that these are ordinary blokes who are now forcibly away from their families. This heart-tugging tactic has always seemed slightly disingenuous: after all, everyone, including the most unrepentant hardcore criminal, has a family.
But the point of the ISA, of course, is that criminality need never be proven. There have been so many cases where the justifications are bogus that it is now an ineffectual bogey: a flat-chested hantu kopek. So many of the most interesting Malaysians have been detained under it, anyway. Whatever paranoia and dread we may have harboured about it have since been locked up – with the key thrown away. It no longer creates fear but heroes.
(Malay Mail, 24 September 2008)