Wednesday, 25 June 2008

The black, white and grey

LOST IN TRANSITION: Malaysia under Abdullah by Ooi Kee Beng (SIRD, 2008, 196 pages).

Whenever I come across a new book on contemporary Malaysia, the first thing I do is look at the Index to see if I am in it. Sure enough, I am here, but with my name misspelled! The horror!

Although this flub did not immediately endear me to Lost in Transition (and the dull cover didn’t help much), there is much fun to be had; in a responsible, scholarly sort of way, of course.

Ooi (who bears a striking physical resemblance to the Kelantanese poet Lim Swee Tin) had a bestseller on his hands with The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and his Times (2006). That book came at an opportune moment – just as our current Establishment was running out of ideas, here was a glimpse at how a genuine Malaysian statesman saw us and measured our possibilities. The bit I will always remember is when Ismail said, “The biggest mistake the Malays made was to coin the term ‘bumiputera.’

How did that book come about? Ismail’s son, Tawfik, held on to his father’s papers for decades before finally depositing them at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, where Ooi is now a Fellow. Why Singapore? Doesn’t Malaysia have a credible enough research institution that can do the papers justice? One need not be an expert in Malaysian academia to be able to guess the sad answer.

Ooi even runs something called the Malaysia Study Programme there. I wonder if any Malaysian institution has a Singapore Study Programme.

In this new collection of previously published opinion pieces (yes, it’s one of those books) Ooi devotes space yet again to Ismail’s forgotten legacy, in the fields of foreign policy and also the New Economic Policy (NEP). One of the best pieces in here analyses how a ‘leftist’ policy like the NEP managed to transform into a ‘rightist’ one.

Another good one is the debunking of a prevalent, politically convenient myth that Malaya had been colonized for over 400 years, whereas the real characteristics of a colony only started being evident six decades before Merdeka.

But the bulk of the book, as its subtitle makes clear, examines the performance of our current Prime Minister. While Ismail was a ‘reluctant’ politician, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi needs other adjectives; ‘cautious’ would be a kind one, but some would say ‘bumbling’ too.

It has been said that Dr. Mahathir’s sins were those of commission while his successor committed sins of omission. Certainly, the Abdullah cabinet’s seeming lack of commitment in carrying out reform plans did not endear him to voters. Then there are all those policy reversals over even minor matters like the ban of petrol to foreigners. Seen in this respect, the dullness of the book’s cover might have an ontological purpose.

Just think of how his predecessor would have handled the fuel price hike, for example. He would NOT have mumbled the rationale at a bank of microphones. He would have blamed some foreign conspiracy or scolded us for being wasteful. That wouldn’t have made him a better person, true, but still…

Published just before the election, this book provides a nice contrast to Hishamuddin Rais’s Keganasan, Penipuan dan Internet, which we discussed months ago. While Hishamuddin targets the Malaysian Joe Public as reader, Ooi’s pitch is somewhat different, as most of the articles were written for the Singapore press.

Although frequently blunt on the performances of Malaysian politicians, a juicy opportunity to say something about Lee Kwan Yew is squandered in the one essay here, which chooses to drown itself in phrases like “sufficient discursive commonality.” It’s nice to know that readers of The Brunei Times, where this article appeared, know such big words.

This is a pessimistic book, as well it should be, because it assumes the continued dominance of a one-party system. Not just any party, mind you, but one which has been painting itself into an unpretty corner through its arrogance and insularity. If a party cannot capture the imagination of its young, what hope is there?

As befits someone who works overtime at being a Very Serious Person, there are some genuine insights in Ooi’s book; it’s sometimes witty but never sensual. He studied for many years in Sweden, so I wonder how that, if at all, contributed to his demeanour. His book’s not as sexy as Ikea catalogues, but look at what he had to work with!

(Malay Mail, 25 June 2008).

Monday, 23 June 2008

Greetings from Italy

This is the view from my hotel window:


I am currently at the Pesaro Film Festival, Italy, which is devoting a (don't laugh) focus on all my movies.

One of the first things I heard when I arrived this morning was a booming greeting from the German film critic Olaf Moller:"Lips to Lips is a Brechtian masterpiece!"

The very first film festival I attended (Hawaii in 2000) also had a great view, if I recall. There are 2 other Malaysians here with me and we travel by bicycle! (It's been at least a decade for me but it's true, you never forget!).

Tomorrow I will attend two of my screenings and answer questions. A special highlight is the Friday night world premiere of Susuk. I hope a special guest of the festival, Italian frightmeister Dario Argento, can turn up.

Another highlight would be the fact that I was just asked, over a great pasta lunch, whether I wanted to guest-DJ the festival closing party together with Argento's composer! It didn't take long for me to say Si.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Column in 'Suara Keadilan'

I begin a short, irregular column called Gerobok in Suara Keadilan! Why gerobok? Because there are many interesting things that can be found in the closet.

The first one talks a bit about two courageous women.


Suara Keadilan apparently now has a circulation of 150,000 which is three times what Malay Mail sells. There was a split-second of doubt about writing for a party political paper and then I snapped out of it by thinking: "Then what the hell was the NST in all the years I wrote for it?"

Ironically (or perhaps not so) this article, in my somewhat stodgy Malay (although I will be glad if the word 'disandera' catches on) says that party politics is kinda overrated.

I don't think the article is online even on the paper's website. So here it is
:

SYBIL, TONI & KITA

Tanggal 12 Jun ialah ulangtahun ke-60 peninggalan Sybil Kathigasu. Dan sebuah drama mengenai jerit pedihnya, bertajuk Sybil, mula dipentaskan pada tarikh itu di The Actors Studio, Bangsar.

Sementara 4 Jun tahun ini ialah tarikh Toni Kasim meninggal dunia. Dengan agak spontan, dua memorial dianjurkan untuknya; satu dikelolakan oleh beberapa rakan di The Annexe, Pasar Seni, dan satu lagi oleh rakan sekerja di Sisters In Islam.

Dua wanita ini memanglah wujud dalam dua generasi dan konteks yang berbeza. Sybil dianggap srikandi Perang Dunia Kedua. Dia dan suaminya (seorang doktor) merawat beberapa gerila anti-Jepun di klinik mereka di Papan, Perak. Walau ditangkap dan disiksa dengan teruk oleh kempetai Jepun, Sybil tidak pernah mendedahkan lokasi gerila-gerila komunis tersebut.

Sementara Toni merupakan aktivis sosial yang pernah menjadi calon pilihanraya. Kancah aktivisme yang diceburinya termasuklah isu-isu ‘panas’ seperti kebebasan agama, persamaan gender, dan seksualiti. Elemen-elemen konservatif yang ingin terus berkuasa sudah tentu tak senang dengan liberalisme yang diwakilinya, tapi dia tak berganjak.

Apabila membaca memoir Sybil, No Dram of Mercy, apa yang terasa sedikit janggal ialah kesetiannya yang amat sangat kepada empayar Britain. Kebenciannya terhadap askar Jepun berpunca daripada sikap ini. Dia bukanlah reformis dalam ertikata sekarang tapi wajar dianggap ikon penolakan kerana ‘aktivismenya yang tak sengaja.’ Bukunya pernah menjadi teks sekolah tapi ditarik balik dalam tahun 70an, mungkin kerana sentimen Kristian atau pro-British di dalamnya. Generasi muda sekarang mungkin tak mengenal terus namanya.

Walau dia tak menyertai mana-mana parti politik, aktivisme Sybil tetap istimewa kerana dibuat atas kesedaran dan kerohanian individu. Berapa ramai antara kita yang sanggup berpegang kepada prinsip biarpun dibelasah dan diugut sebegitu?

Sementara Toni menjadi aktivis dengan penuh sedar. Pendidikan dan pendedahannya telah melengkapinya dengan teori dan hukum mengenai kuasa, penindasan dan penolakan. Apabila bertanding dalam PRU tahun 1999, dia memilih untuk jadi calon bebas. Ini bertepatan dengan garis aktivismenya yang tak menganggap mana-mana parti politik sebagai jentera yang lengkap untuk semua isu. Politik harus dikembalikan kepada rakyat sebagai individu.

Mungkin nama Toni juga tak begitu menonjol kerana dia tak wujud dalam rangka politik kepartian. (Biarpun jika penyakit barahnya tak memaksanya berundur daripada PRU 2008, dia hampir pasti akan menang dan kini duduk di Parlimen sebagai wakil bebas, sebelah Ibrahim Ali! Satu ironi). Jentera NGO yang kecil seperti Sisters In Islam sebaliknya lebih sesuai untuk menyebarkan idea-idea yang progresif. Ini tak termasuk aktivitinya yang dijalankan secara sendirian tanpa naungan NGO.

Jika kita benarkan nama Sybil dan Toni luput, ini satu tanda kita telah disandera kepentingan politik berparti. Aktivisme (dan reformasi sekalipun) tak perlu berpayung di bawah simbol.

Apa yang penting ialah menentang penindasan dan mempertahankan hak dan maruah individu. Dan Malaysia bertuah kerana dua wanita gigih tapi berbeza ini pernah wujud di kalangan kita.

(Suara Keadilan, 18 Jun - 2 Julai 2008).

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Mahathir, drawn and quartered


CARTOONS OF TUN AND OTHERS by Zunar (Kinibooks, 136 pages, 2006).

The book we discussed last week, Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad, was nuanced and scholarly. It contained quite a few 50-sen words.

The book for today is NOT nuanced or scholarly. It is not published by Oxford University Press but rather the publishing arm of Malaysiakini. And it does not contain many words at all, since it’s a collection of cartoons.

Zunar’s work has come out in Malaysiakini, Harakah and Suara Keadilan. This book zeroes in on its target with no mercy. As he says in the one-page intro: “Why pinch when you can punch?”

This book is sly, sardonic, sarcastic, and probably a few other words that start with ‘s’. Certainly there are silly moments too, but the silliness is inspired lunacy. Check out the spoof movie posters: Pirates of the Carri’BN’. Nightmare on M Street. Lord of the Ringgit.

You get the picture – ah, but you need to see the pictures to get it. He can achieve with a few deft strokes of the brush what many others can’t pinpoint with a throbbing desktop and a fat Roget’s.

One of my favourites is right on page 3: A three-step morph of the UMNO logo to become Dr. Mahathir’s smugly triumphant visage. No words required. Save a sympathetic thought for all the poor (but well—meaning!) scribes who had perspired while typing out words like “concentration of power”, “hegemony” and even (God help us) “hierarchic!”

Words, too, can morph: “Proton” becomes “pro-Tun”. “Saya anti rasuah”(I am anti-corruption) changes its meaning entirely with the addition of a single strategic ‘n’ – go on, try it.

The book might be compared to Lat’s Dr Who? which was also a compilation focused on the same person. Lat covered a longer span of Dr. Mahathir’s career so naturally had a more panoramic view. Since Lat was published in a more Establishment paper, his portrait was also far more affectionate.

Be that as it may, there still is a soup├žon of affection in Zunar’s pungent brew. Perhaps it’s the grudging admiration for a man who seemed to have so much energy. Rather telling is the three-panel job on page 56, where three different people beg Dr. Mahathir not to resign. The third is Zunar himself, who cries, “Whose nose am I going to draw?”

Caricature needs exaggeration, but the way Mahathir’s bulbous snout is unduly emphasised has drawn some criticism from liberals who see it as making fun of his ‘non-Malay’ features. You can also say that, by equating Mahathir at various times with Hitler, Bush, Castro and Zionism, Zunar runs the risk of ideological incoherence.

Luckily for Zunar, his talent matches his bile. This is propaganda that is often artful. If you think this is an easy task, then try explaining why the Senyum Kambing front-page cartons of Utusan Malaysia have never, ever been funny.

The ‘others’ of the title inevitably encapsulates the current Prime Minister. The scalpel is still used, but feels blunter, because no one else has come close to Mahathir’s polarising (and therefore galvanising) persona. For starters, even without looking at the cover drawing, it’s obvious who ‘Tun’ refers to, despite the fact that we have a few other Tun still kicking about. (Even more impressive: It’s also easy to identify the ‘Dr.’ of Lat’s title).

The joke about Tunku Abdul Rahman being ‘Bapa Kemerdekaan’ (Father of Independence) and followed by Tun Razak’s ‘Bapa Pembangunan’ (Father of Development) was funnier when the punchline was the fourth PM being ‘Bapa Mirzan’ (Father of Mirzan). As it is, he now has to make do with making Mahathir ‘Bapa Teknologi’ (Father of Technology) (?) and have the fifth PM as ‘Bapa mertua Khairy’ (Father-in-Law of Khairy) Adding the ‘mertua’ (in-law) takes away some of the punch, no?

But still, Cartoons of Tun and Others is a good antidote (but also complement) to our tourism brochures. Saying it’s partisan is a bit like tearing open a box of chocolates only to complain it does not contain salad. The last cartoon (published 2006) has the antagonist walking away with face half-concealed and an inimitable smirk. And so the book ends – not with a bang but a snigger.

(Malay Mail. 18 June 2008)

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Recommended event: ASWARA shorts

(The government-funded ASWARA continues to make some of the more interesting and even radical Malaysian student short films. What do you expect when the lecturers include the likes of Hishamuddin Rais and Yee I-Lann? I am particularly looking forward to the adaptations of two shorts stories I like mucho: Saharil's very violent one and Usman's very charming one).

TAYANGAN DAN SEMINAR FILEM PELAJAR DIPLOMA TAHUN AKHIR ASWARA
(Sempena Festival Seni ASWARA dan Penilaian Tahun Akhir (PeTA 2008)

*This event does have a poster but it's damn ugly; but if you insist you can view it at the end of this page.


Tempat:
Dewan Kuliah Utama (DKU),
Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA),
464 Jalan Tun Ismail, 50480 Kuala Lumpur

PETA ASWARA di sini.

Tarikh dan masa:
19 Jun 2008 (Khamis), 8.30 malam - Sesi Tayangan Filem
20 Jun 2008 (Jumaat), 8.30 malam - Ulang Tayang Filem

Senarai filem pendek pelajar tahun akhir:
"Satu" (10 min) - penerbit: Zulman Zeki & Sharavanan
"Semangat Padi" (5 min) - penerbit: Fathin Alliza, Che Mohd Kahairol Azizi, Hazmir Hassan.
"Burp" (10 min) - penerbit:Tayanithi & Suhaili
"Aman" (10 min) - penerbit: Ahmad Firdaus & Anis
"Saira" (10 min) - penerbit: Norfadila, Rafizah & Mohd Tarmizi.
"Bila Punggok Rindukan Bulan?" (10 min) - penerbit: Bennylita Nasuty
"1963" (10 min) - penerbit: Harry Frederick Diglin.

Tayangan ekstra (projek filem pelajar Tahun 2):
"Anak-anak Bumi Tercinta" (15 min) (adaptasi cerpen Saharil Hasrin Sanin)
"Peristiwa Bunga Telur" (15 min) (adaptasi cerpen Usman Awang)

Saturday, 14 June 2008

I am not actually fond of one of the people in this photo


... but hey, rezeki jangan ditolak.

This is the second award for the year. The first (which was more of a popularity contest, and in third place) was this.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

A problem like Mahathir

Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad by Khoo Boo Teik (Oxford University Press, 1995, 375 pages).

The book we discussed last week, Bakri Musa’s The Malay Dilemma Revisited was a breezy look at Mahathirism in theory and practice. This week’s book is not so breezy. It is somewhat academic. Breeze is not something that most academics would recognise even in detergent form.

But it’s a valuable book because it grabs hold of its subject and will not let go. This isn’t to say it’s a rabid fan who wants to squeeze him tight or an outraged hater who wants to throttle him to death. It is much more nuanced than that; it’s published by Oxford, for God’s sake!

Oh, how we hacks giggled at the subtitle back when it came out (“What is an intellectual biography? Life as seen through his library cards?”) but it is, I suppose, apposite. Dr. Mahathir has written an awful lot (I even have his little-known book Guide for Small Businessmen, first published in Malay in 1975). You can be sure that his speeches, unlike those of many others, are not heavily ghostwritten. So his ideas are there to read. And Khoo does a lot of reading.

The recent General Elections saw, for the first time, an indie filmmaker getting into Parliament. (The guy who did the Lingam video lah). In the same vein, Dr. Mahathir was the first newspaper columnist to become national leader.

Khoo starts out by analyzing the CHE Det columns (1948-50) and shows how some of Mahathir’s ideas remain remarkably constant. But it would be a boring person who never changed his mind, and we are not dealing with Mr. Grey here.

The cover has several photos of the titular politician rubbing up against one another. You normally see this kind of collage on a CD inlay of a musician who’s fond of image changes, such as Bowie or Madonna. But thankfully we don’t get to see the doctor with peroxide hair or gender-bending trousers. It’s the same point, though: at different times in his career, he has seemed like different things to different people, and it is this changeability that has ensured survival and admiration, although often of the grudging sort.

To illustrate its title, the book starts with a bravura set of ‘paradoxes.’ Some read like epigrams, as witness: “Anxious to secure the survival of the Malays, Mahathir seemed prepared to see the end of ‘Malayness.’”

There are many other paradoxes that you can reel off, too. To pick just one: He is an anti-feudalist politician who managed, in his 22 years at the top, to fashion a modern form of populist feudalism.

It is the populism that some people, especially those who didn’t live here during those years, don’t get. He actually looked like he was trying; he always had a sense of unfinished business; he always seemed ready to grab us by the collars to go who-knows-where, and we would often be willingly dragged along, because we were bullied, true, but also because it seemed like a brave new world, so why not give it a try? Part of his allure was the power of incumbency (of course) but there was also an ineffable glamour, especially in the earlier years.

The Mahathir era, long as it was, was an anomaly in Malaysian politics. No other leader had achieved such a maximalist grip on the country. The institutional damage is well-known by now, but what of the psychological?

Although he’s an ace academic with fastidious footnotes, Khoo is not a wizard. So when this book came out in 1995, he could not have foreseen that things would change so dramatically in three years. He then wrote a follow-up, Beyond Mahathir: Malaysian Politics and its Discontents (2003), a shorter and almost activist-minded report that was very much a sign of those post-reformasi times. Taken together, they form a fascinating portrait of a man who would not keep still.

Even today, in another paradox, the politician often accused of being an anti-democrat is helping to keeping democracy alive by continuously lashing out at the administration. When he uses terms like “police state” and “no freedom”, it’s now up to us to weigh those words and apply them back to his own time. I mean, it’s the least we can do. After all, we’re all grown up now.

(Malay Mail, 11 June 2008)

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

In praise of BS

(Part of my regular column on old Malay movies. I define old as 'made before I was born lah.')

So there I was, watching Sejoli (1951) when I realized something: The six earliest surviving Malay films, from Cinta (1948) to Dewi Murni (1951) were all directed by the same man. His name was BS Rajhans.

His contribution actually goes back even further into the mists of time. He also directed the very first, now lost, Malay film, Laila Majnun, in 1933. But although no copy of it has existed after World War Two, it’s amazing how many scholarly descriptions are written of this film as if the scholar just viewed it yesterday.

And yet, do we have a Jalan BS Rajhans, Dewan BS Rajhans or even Anugerah BS Rajhans anywhere in the country? Don’t answer all at once!

Part of the reason for this neglect: he died in 1955, and so didn’t get a chance to imprint his image and personality onto the TV generation. But mainly, it’s because he was an expatriate Indian who never became a citizen, and so was always seen as an outsider.

This is a shame, as his jasa are there to see. The first successful film to be directed by a Malay was P. Ramlee’s Penarik Beca (1955); the previous ones were all by expat Indians and Filipinos. But the officially sanctified version of film history does not care to much document the films made from 1948-55.

In fact, one of the most offensively obnoxious pieces I have ever read was published in the UiTM film journal a few years back. The writer (a lecturer, God help us) went on about how P. Ramlee heroically rescued Malay cinemas from the clutches of the Indians, thus revolutionizing (and ‘circumcising’, no doubt) the entire medium. Her thesis is another type of BS. Anyone who watches old Malay movies in chronological order can see how the change from the ‘Indian directors era’ to ‘the P. Ramlee era’ was not nearly such a violent and easily classifiable rupture; they had much in common.

Anyway, on to Sejoli. The plot is a very busy one and spans two generations. First, we see Neng Yatimah stuck in an unhappy marriage. Her husband is such a louse and loser that she is left wandering the streets and has to give up her baby. This baby is raised by a rich couple, and grows up to be Kasma Booty, as some babies are wont to.

The big scene here is when Neng and the teenage Kasma meet for the first time. Only Neng knows of the family connection, which is where the poignancy comes from. The two women look and sound remarkable alike. In fact, you might think they are the same composite actress (Neng Booty?) separated only by fancy studio trickery, like mirrors or something. But they are two separate women.


If one were to wax poetic, one can see Neng as representing BS Rajhans and the other expat directors, while Kasma represents P Ramlee and the indigenous directors. Serupa tapi tak sama. The family ties are obvious to the viewer, but the younger one on screen is in a state of blissful unawareness.

Sejoli itself wraps up nicely with the family links clarified, and Kasma even snatches the charms of a young army officer (R. Ramlee, wouldn’t you know). The two generations are reunited..

Now, have we also come full circile? The Best Film winner of last year’s local awards was Cinta, which not only has the same name as BS Rajhans’ film, but was similarly directed by an expat Indian, Kabir Bhatia.

Kabir’s PR status is why he was not eligible for a Best Director nomination. Let us hope there are now no more silly distinctions based solely on nationality or place or birth.

(TELL magazine. June 2008)

Monday, 9 June 2008

How I will heed the PM's call

Let it not be said that I never help the government in anything.

In order to lessen the blow of the recent fuel hike – which will spill over into many other areas of our lives – I hereby commit to keep the prices of the books I publish on the low side.

I was actually planning to publish two books in hardcover (as a first edition) of around RM60, but I have decided to scrap that plan. I will stick to paperbacks and will not charge more than RM30 for any book, at least for the coming year.

This means that, alas, I may not always choose the best locally available paper, like what I have been doing so far. But I will still not use that horrid glaring 'photostat paper' so beloved of some large local publishers (those who actually make enough money to be able to afford better, if I may gratuitously add).

Times are gonna be tough. But I don't want to make 'em any tougher.

Friday, 6 June 2008

'Sharing the Nation' book launch

(No, I did not publish the book, but I did write about it.)

Strategic Information and Research Development (SIRD) will host a Book Launch: “Sharing The Nation: Faith, Difference, Power and The State, 50 Years After Merdeka”

The Social Contract and Its Acceptance


The accepted wisdom is that Malaysia’s national independence and its Constitution are grounded upon a political bargaining process and an ensuing ‘social contract’.

Two major questions still exist in this area:
1. The actual terms, current standing and enforceability of this ‘social contract.’
2. The agreed constitutional position of Islam in a multi-religious society.

For the respected intellectual Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz, the ‘social contract’ was a fantasy concocted by self-serving politicians. Tun Dr. Mahathir disagreed strongly, claiming it is a verbal contract that promises citizenship to the Chinese in the hope they would support Malayan independence.

As for religion: Just how ‘secular’ was our original Constitution, and how much of that has changed over the decades, and in what way?

Sharing The Nation is a collection of essays that clarify the issues at the very core of Malaysia’s political philosophy, then and now.

This book will be officially launched by Senator Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Law Minister in Prime Minister's Department

Following are the details of the book launching:

Date: 24th June 2008 (Tuesday)
Time: 8.00pm – 10.00pm
Venue: Rumah Universiti, Universiti Malaya

Programme:
7.30 pm : Arrival of Guests
7.45 pm : Welcome Speech by Executive Director, SIRD, Mr Chong Ton Sin
8.00 pm : The launch is officiated by: Senator Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, Law Minister in Prime Minister's Department
8.30 pm : Panel Discussion
Panelist: 1) Norani Othman ( Professor & Principal Research Fellow at IKMAS)
2) Mavis Puthucheary ( Associate Professor, University Malaya)
3) Clive Kessler ( Emeritus Professor, University of New South Wales)
9.30 pm : Q & A session
10.00 pm : Closing


We cordially invite you to the book launch. Light refreshment will be served. For further details please contact Mr Zul or Mr Loo at: 03 79578343/ 8342

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Can't Malays be more Jewish?

The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia by M. Bakri Musa (Merantau Publishers, 1999, 368 pages)

PICTURE it: A politician named Dr Mahathir Mohamad is out of Umno after criticising its leadership. No, the year is not 2008 but 1970.

Back then, the decision for him to leave came not from him but from the party president, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Dr Mahathir then wrote a book The Malay Dilemma, that promptly got banned. (This was before blogs, remember).

The Malay Dilemma is one of the key Malaysian books of the 20th century. Not because of the beauty of its prose nor the strength of its arguments, but because it revealed so much about Malaysian public policies from the late Seventies (after Dr Mahathir was brought back into government) until today.

The Malay Dilemma Revisited, on the other hand, is not a sequel or update, or even fully a rebuttal. Although the initial chapters address The Malay Dilemma directly, most of the book is devoted to the author's polemical observations — and prescriptions — for the issues of the nation.

The author, M Bakri Musa, is a surgeon in California. Like the author of the original Malay Dilemma, he is a man of science; unlike him, he has no immediate political affiliation or ambitions.

I have never met Dr Bakri but I feel like I have shared many dinners with him. Each chapter reads like a monologue from a particularly opinionated host. Each paragraph leaves you in no doubt about where he stands on a particular issue, and he tends to wrap things up neatly, just in time for dessert.

One would imagine that an actual dinner will leave you exasperated at not being able to put in a word edgewise, but encountering him in book form allows you at least temporary respite through the simple means of sometimes laying down the thing.

Mahathir's original thesis (although not in the academic sense) ascribed Malay economic backwardness to a combination of internal (outdated customs, deleterious genes) and external (ruthless immigrants!) factors.

Bakri's best chapter here debunks Mahathir's "simple Mendelian" concepts of genetics, which basically meant that Malays were biologically destined to be obtuse. Bakri points out that Biology had already moved on from this concept and holds Mahathir culpable for perpetuating a concept that's both destructive and masochistic.

Although that chapter draws on Bakri's medical training, the rest of the book attests to his reading in other fields and his general keen interest in things. There are many illustrative anecdotes, often comparisons between the Malaysian and American ways of doing things.

The chapter on affirmative action, in particular, should be compulsory reading for ethnic vanguards who want to maintain quotas at the expense of quality.

In America, affirmative action made universities and corporations better places because the best of minority races helped make these institutions more representative of the societies they serve. Ironically enough, all-black colleges, for example, produced better graduates before the era of segregation because discrimination simply made people work harder.

The Malaysian parallel can become a case of wanton wastefulness: continuously awarding special privileges to Malays who neither need nor deserve them. This will make the community soft.

Malays should instead learn from the Jews, who are numerically small but highly successful. (Although, as he says, the Orthodox Jewish way of being obsessed with religious rituals should not be emulated lah).

Bakri's "snap out of it, sucker!" pronouncements are Mahathirian in some respects. In order to become "competitive " (a word he uses often), Malays must not take ‘soft' subjects like Islamic or Malay Studies but go into more difficult terrain; power should also be rolled back from the bloated religious bureaucracy; feudal habits discarded.

The book is not only better-researched but more entertaining than The Malay Dilemma. It has more jokes, too. (The two pages itemising why Malays are similar to Hispanics, for example). And how many doctors, even those who live here, can reference so many Malaysian novels and sociological theses?

Written only in 1999, some of the things that Bakri saw as a given have quite changed, such as the "limited appeal" of Pas and the idea that ethnic Indians will always be pliant and docile. These are not quite misreadings as he was merely working on the data he had back then.

And luckily for us, this gentleman scholar is still producing books, so we can accompany him in keeping track of these changes.

(Malay Mail, 4 June 2008. The paper changed the heading to 'Back and forth – and now what?)

Monday, 2 June 2008

Online DVD shop

You can buy the DVDs of films produced by Da Huang Pictures (including one by me) over heah !

Jangan malu-malu! All DVDs come with extras and all.