Friday, 30 January 2009

"Malaysian Gods" restricted by the Censorship Board

Details at The Nut Graph here.

So I will be arranging screenings in colleges and so on. Any takers? :-)

I have not made international film festival plans for it. I'd rather it be seen by Malaysians first.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Invasion of the campus softies

SEXUAL IDENTITY: Effeminacy Among University Students by Noraini Mohd Noor, Jamal Farooqui, Ahmad Abd Al-Rahim Nasr, Hazizan Md Noon and Shukran Abdul Rahman. (International Islamic University Malaysia, 2005, 231 pages).

This is one of the fruitiest books I have ever read. The fact that it evangalises against fruity behaviour does not invalidate this verdict, since the world is rife with paradox. (To use an analogy: Pro-democracy activists are not always democratic, no?)

In 2003, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Siti Zaharah Sulaiman claimed there were too many lelaki lembut (‘male softies’) among university students. “Where have all the cowboys gone?” she almost asked. This book came out a mere two years later. The five writers also want more cowboys, and they don’t mean of the Brokeback Mountain variety! This is the International Islamic University, and cows must produce only halal meat.

Having five writers might account for some contradicting passages. We are told of mak nyah (transvestites): ““society frowns on them, but they are tolerated to an extent.” A mere paragraph later, these people “are viewed as a significant social problem.” So what are they?

But are all lelaki lembut potential mak nyah, anyway? The book sometimes thinks so, and other times has no clue. But it does want softies to have typical male characteristics, to be “forceful, dominant, competitive and sure of themselves.” (But don’t these sterling qualities also describe many women, such as the book’s muse Siti Zaharah herself? Or am I thinking more of the woman who took back the Wanita Umno leadership from her? But I digress).

The researchers questioned various IIU students on this phenomenon. Astonishingly, only 5 lelaki lembut were actually interviewed. The other 20 are all normal students (and this book, free of irony and relativism, never puts ‘normal’ in quotation marks) who give their usually negative opinions, e.g. “Most respondents felt that softies spent their time gossiping with each other.”

The males, females and softies had to fill out a questionnaire to determine how masculine, feminine or androgynous they were. Stuff like knowing how to read a map or fix “something mechanical.” They are also asked whether they prefer to sit on the left, the right, or just anywhere in a movie theatre. (My own answer would be ‘the centre’ but this option is not included. I always knew I was special.)

Based on these questions and some self-evaluating ones (e.g. on a scale of 1 to 5, how satisfied are you with your sexual organ?), some conclusions are drawn. The book gleefully points out that softies tend to exhibit lower self-esteem than normal men and women. But, astonishingly, softies also tend to exhibit lower stress levels. What gives? “They may not be telling the truth.” Oh, OK then.

Another possibility for the lack of stress could be that “this group of softies is closely knit and very supportive of one another.” Therefore, “such interaction needs to be stopped.” Make no mistake: the authors want to “make the campus environment unappealing and unconducive to effeminate males.” No wonder only 5 softies agreed to be interviewed! And judging from the interview transcripts, they didn’t seem too comfortable with the questions, either. When asked how much he spends on ‘cosmetics’ every month, one answered uncertainly: “Does facial cleanser count as cosmetics?”

The interview process was not free from slapstick. There were “logistic difficulties…partly due to the University’s regulations that require students to observe certain rules with regard to the male-female relationships on campus.” This meant that unmarried men and women couldn’t be in private, and so these interviews were conducted in public places and were frequently disrupted by “noise and external activities (such as passers-by staring at both interviewer and interviewee, causing both parties to feel uncomfortable)”.

This little anecdote alone is an excellent illustration of how conservative gender taboos impede work. If the university authorities weren’t so hung up about sex, perhaps their people can come up with better research. That is, after all, what a university should be doing, instead of getting their students to suggest “military training” or “public punishment” for men who prefer volleyball to rugby.

Then there is the suggestion for each softy to be assigned a masculine male as “a role model for traditional ways of male interaction, carrying oneself, handshaking, and even urinating.” It was at this point, after picking myself up from the floor, that I suspected the whole book to be an ingenious hoax, but then I perished the thought.

I learned more about gender and sexuality from that bit in I Shot Andy Warhol when one of the maestro’s Superstars was asked: “What are you? Are you a woman trapped in a man’s body? A transvestite? A transsexual?” –- and then came the answer: “But darling, what difference does it make, as long as you look fabulous?” Amen to that.

(Malay Mail, 28 January)

Sunday, 25 January 2009

< 5 weeks to deadline

Don't forget, boys and girls and everyone in between: You have until 28 February to submit stories or essays to Body 2 Body, Malaysia's first queer anthology!

I blogged the details right here. Klue magazine has been the only representative from the print media to give publicity to it, here. (Why the silence from everyone else?)

We have received 10 entries so far (but only 2 by women). This is not bad considering Malaysian anthologies tend to get a deluge only in the final month. I have hidden the authors' names and forwarded the entries to the two editors, so that they will not be biased.

We posted the Call for Entries on the forum of a website where the members often display only selected portions of their anatomy, and it received over a hundred responses. So to clarify some of the points that were raised on that forum, here is an...


1. Do I have to be queer to take part?
No. We will not check your credentials.

2. Would it help if I were queer?

3. Would it help if I were a good writer?
Oh yes.

4. Is that the book cover?
No. It's a poster thingy we did for the Call for Entries.

5. Is obscenity acceptable?
As Nabokov once said (I am paraphrasing) in defence of Madame Bovary: "A work of art is never obscene."

6. Are there any other books of this sort?
Why, yes, but in other countries. You might wanna check out this Indonesian one:

But that only has fiction. We accept essays too.

7. Can I use a pseudonym to remain anonymous?

8. Why not?
Because the photo-shoot on launch day will be a real bitch otherwise.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

News from Rotterdam

Greetings from Rotterdam!

I am here to do a 'Haunted House' installation, and to present Susuk.

I was also asked to kick off the Guest Column for the festival's daily paper. So, seeing as how there are tens of thousands of cinephiles here from all over the globe, it seemed like a plum chance to introduce a Malay film that literally no one here would have seen.

The paper is online here and I am on page 2.

Oh yes, I also did another installation at this unique place -- dubbed the world's smallest art gallery -- that changes its display every Friday. The gallery is precisely the size of a bar window display. This time, I adapted one of my favourite Malaysian short stories, and made use of some unusable furniture.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Among the believers

AL-ARQAM Di Sebalik Tabir by Ann Wan Seng (Penerbit Universiti Malaya, 2005, 178 pages)

The chili sauce did come to mind, I admit. Back when I was a university student, robed, turbanned and bearded Malay gentlemen would peddle it to us, together with a few other halal provisions. We were many miles from home, but these Al-Arqam goods were just as potent in bringing back the memories, alongside the Sheila Majid CDs that we had –- but that these robed guys probably didn’t play in their vans.

This book, unfortunately, doesn’t have the recipe for that sauce. But it does give a broad overview of one of the most remarkable social phenomena that Malaysia saw in the last few decades; and who is to say that its time is really up?

Al-Arqam started in 1968 as a religious study group in Datuk Keramat. By the early 1990s, there were 10,000 full-time members who could be instantly recognised by their attire. Their women were always in severe black purdah, leaving only a slit for the eyes, and their sudden emergence helped create the modern ghost known as hantu kum-kum.

This spooky creature is also absent from this book, but its mere existence showed that Al-Arqam did manage to penetrate our consciousness to a great degree. Judging from the popularity of their publications in particular, there were probably hundreds and thousands of supporters.

You didn’t have to fill out a membership form to join, but there was a vetting process. Its many thriving settlements or communes, including the biggest in Sungai Penchala, received all kinds of visitors. Although most wanted to brush up on religious knowledge, it’s fair to say that some just wanted to get inspired by the Arqam business model.

Ann Wan Seng, a Muslim convert who is also the author of bestsellers such as Rahsia Bisnes Orang Cina, admires both the spiritual zeal and entrepreneurial spirit of Al-Arqam. He brilliantly posits that Islamic revivalism among the Malays had much to do with economic jealousy and insecurity in the face of ethnic Chinese success. As explanations go, it’s more persuasive that simply dredging up Khomeini. It also proves, as if any proof were needed, that Islam has always been a discourse that is socially and temporally contingent.

The rise of Al-Arqam chronologically parallels the new bumiputera class as aided by MARA and ITM (now UiTM). What made Arqam even more remarkable was that it didn’t need government funding or bailouts. Its self-sustaining methods were less corrupt and wasteful. Despite their ‘retro’ (ahem) dress-sense, its members were progressive and often professional. They probably had more female doctors per capita than the rest of Malay society – although you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart, unless you were very adept at differentiating eyes.

Unlike punier movements like the ‘tea-pot kingdom’ of the recent past. Al-Arqam existed very much in the public realm. Its success also gave the lie to the then-dominant UMNO’s raison d’etre – namely, that Malays needed this party to get ahead in life.

Rather than become a confrontational force, this book shows that Al-Arqam craftily made attempts to cosy up to government leaders to ensure survival. But this was not enough: the movement was banned in 1994 and there came a spate of ISA arrests against its leaders.

In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for some time. The excessive veneration accorded its leader Ashaari Muhammad (his followers took him as an ‘assistant’ to the coming Messiah, who was able to converse with the Prophet Muhammad) also made it easier to dismiss it as a loony cult with probably all kinds of crazy ideas to take over the country. (The Home Ministry’s innuendo about plans for armed insurgency has never been proven).

And if you want to be a conspiracist: Al-Arqam’s model simply pointed to the relative failure of the government’s bloated religious bureaucracy. And that is why ‘action’ needed to be taken.

Although a bit on the slim side, this book is non-judgmental enough to give due credit to Al-Arqam for helping us see that it’s possible for people to inhabit alternative spaces. We could have actually learned something from them, although the leaders’ polygamous habits would not have endeared them to liberals.

Despite the ban, alarm bells are periodically rung in the media about an imminent ‘revival’, especially through the channel of Ashaari’s business empire Rufaqa.

There’s actually a Rufaqa mini-market near my apartment! I used to shop there but I am sad to report the service is slow and the carrots limp. Perhaps the new breed isn’t as gung-ho? Millennial, messianic movements ain’t what they used to be.

(Malay Mail, 21 January)

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Better the diva you know

BREAKING THE SILENCE: 55 Reasons Why Sharifah Aini Was NOT Lying by Jackson Yogarajah (Sales Excellence Training, 481 pages, 2005)

On 14 October 2004, Sharifah Aini was found in a traumatised state outside the TV3 building. She claimed to have been assaulted by men unknown, who also injected her with a liquid similarly unknown. The panic-stricken visage of the chanteuse was splashed all over our tabloids (and don’t get all self-righteous on me –you know very well you are reading a tabloid right now).

Things became curioser and curioser when CCTV footage showed no sign of her alleged assailants. Doctors also failed to locate needle marks or toxins in her. Many journalists and even police officers came to the conclusion that the veteran entertainer was – how does one put it delicately? – a few sequins short of an evening gown.

Jackson Yogarajah proved to be her knight in polyester armour. An expert in body language, he made the news when he announced that she was not lying. This was based on the diva’s TV interview right after the mysterious incident. Her physical movements, speech patterns, rhetorical style – all pointed to a woman who deeply believed what she was saying.

But is “Mr. Jackson”, as the diva calls him (and I know you’re just dying to sing along: “Miss Jackson if you’re nasty!"), an entirely impartial witness? He appears to be a bit of a fan: “Malaysia is blessed with a wonderful gift … She radiates with a fair and honey porcelain complexion. Simply gorgeous! … Anyone is spellbound by her beauty! … Her lush voice transcends generations and genre … People can cry with their mouth open!” And that’s just in the first 10 pages.

Despite the misleading title, Mr. Jackson didn’t write the whole book. A hefty chunk appears to be the lady herself, telling us about her life and amazing career. Her tone is effusive, aggrieved, cajoling, sometimes all at once. Many a time, she sweeps you into her bosomy embrace, and you simply can’t let go. Hapuslah Airmatamu (Dry Your Tears), you want to whisper to her, if only she’d let you speak.

The book is hardly a tell-all. Those of us with too much time on our hands know that she was at that time being accused of defamation for forwarding a nasty email about a younger singer. The younger singer is Siti Nurhaliza, a name nowhere mentioned in this book, although we do get a few gritted-teeth references to “this young lady.”

But Kak Pah insists she’s not jealous of Siti's success; perish the thought! She admires “smart and intelligent female artistes like…” and then proceeds to list down the 18 most famous Malaysian female celebrities who don’t happen to be called Siti Nurhaliza.

She wants to use this book to also correct some of the horrible rumours that have been swirling around her. Did she really once sue her mother? No, she sued a tabloid that had interviewed her mother. Besides, the latter had given her up when she was a baby, anyway, which is why the maternal bond was not so strong. Another pesky rumour she dismisses is the one that had her dissing Saloma during the biduanita’s last days.

My favourite paragraph includes the lines: “I have to say that I have nothing against lesbian reporters … but please, when you are half-drunk and just had a big fight with your partner, do stay away from reviewing any shows as the anger might seep through in your writing!” Are these the only people who have given her concerts bad reviews? But you can’t bear to quibble: she is an institution, we love her songs and besides, we are still stuck in her embrace.

The rest of the book is padded out with fulsome testimonials from her friends, all testifying to her niceness and sanity, including “Sharifah Aini has daringly sported the lion hair look and wore the same strap dress more than 3 times in telecasted TV performances.” So that’s all right then.

Then we are back to Mr. Jackson. The most boring section is the one that lends the book its title, including stuff like “Dishonest people can’t look directly into the camera.” (Oh sir, I could share a few stories there!)

Campy, breathless and eminently quotable, this hefty hardcover retails at RM99 but is a handy thing to have in your car. If any crazy people dare to attack you, you could do a lot worse than hit them over the head with it.

(Malay Mail, 14 January)

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Free screening of the final version of MALAYSIAN GODS

For a period of a year from September 1998, public demonstrations were held in Kuala Lumpur in the wake of the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as Deputy Prime Minister. This was the core period of what was known as the 'reformasi' era. Malaysian Gods takes us back to the iconic KL landmarks where the demonstrations took place, and speaks to people there about their lives, hopes and fears. Interestingly enough, everyone is speaking Tamil. As with my previous documentaries, archival footage is eschewed in favour of the here and now.

Duration: 70 minutes. Tamil with English subtitles.

Screening details:

8:30pm. Friday, 16 January.
HELP University College auditorium., Pusat Bandar Damansara KL.
Admission: Free. No need for reservations. But donations will be collected for Mercy Malaysia's relief campaign in Gaza. (Further details at Yasmin Ahmad's blog) The cash will be deposited that night itself.

If you can't make it, it will re-screen at 1pm Sunday at KLPac as part of the KLPac Open Day. But I won't be there as I will be in Europe by then. And it has been said (usually by me) that my Q & As are more entertaining than the actual movies.

Do spread the word to anyone who might be interested :-)

* Poster by Alexdrina Chong, who also did the poster for Histeria!

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A history of amnesia

100 YEARS THE UNIVERSITY OF MALAYA by Khoo Kay Kim (University of Malaya Press, 2005, 171 pages)

Although not advertised as a three-hanky weepie, this book will make you weep. It’s not just the distressingly ugly cover. It’s not even that the spelling veers erratically from American to British – although you’d think that the proofreaders at University of Malaya Press would know the difference between the two.

No, the root cause of your weepiness is hinted at in a quote that’s still in the pre-Independence era, when a mat salleh was the university’s Vice-Chancellor. This was his rationale for allowing politics on campus: “If you can’t hammer out your ideas on politics … in a university, where can you?” he asked.

Fast forward two decades, and what do we get? The independent government introduced legislation that banned political activities in universities! This and related constraints effectively neutered student activism and even independent academia.

The 1960s and early 1970s were a particularly dramatic time for UM activists. There were protests against the visiting Thai Prime Minister (on the welfare of Patani), the Japanese Prime Minister (for the country’s newly resurgent economic imperialism) and the US embassy (for that country’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). The highlight: demos in support of the rubber smallholders of Baling in 1974.

Students then were so radical that a student organisation temporarily seized control of the UM campus! It’s hard for us to imagine such well-organised chutzpah.

But imagine it we must, since this book neglects the episode entirely. The prominent names at that time – Anwar Ibrahim, Hishamuddin Rais, Kamarazaman Yaakob – are absent. But a chapter tantalisingly titled “Transformation and the Seventies” does, however, contain a 5-page report on “The Importance of Sports.” Gee, thanks.

Although the author does mention, en passant, the Universities and University Colleges Act, we don’t get a sense of the controversy surrounding it. Similarly, when Dewan Tunku Canselor burned down in 2001, he does not mention that it stayed news for some time because pro-reformasi students were wrongly accused of torching it, on the eve of a visit by the Prime Minister. We instead get a feel-good paragraph about how “graduates and members of the public responded generously to appeals for funds to repair the Hall.”

Many other dramatic episodes are missing. Yes, I know this isn’t supposed to be UM Babylon or a campus edition of Melodi, but the gaps are too numerous to ignore. The book has the feel of a corporate prospectus seen through the ‘politically correct’ (though not in the American sense) blinkers of the present-day Establishment.

The author and publisher might claim lack of space. True, 171 pages for a century is pretty skimpy. Why, then, do we get a glowing three-paragraph CV of the “extremely versatile” Vice-Chancellor who was at UM when the book came out? Surely someone like Ungku Aziz or Syed Hussein Alatas deserves more of that precious space. Can you even remember who the V-C was in 2005? Thought not.

Despite our frustrations, there are still glimmers of what the book could have been. The prejudice against local medical graduates in the colonial era is nicely sketched. We also get a sense of how the university was forced to expand too quickly to answer the demands of a new nation, and the pressures of, in the initial years, maintaining campuses in both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

But even then, there are gaps: We hunger to know more about the split between UM and what is now known as the National University of Singapore; we are specifically interested, of course, in why the latter is doing so much better.

The last chapter is called “A World Class University”, so we know that standards are important. But wait a minute! UM has “from time to time” been “called upon to do ‘national service’ [and thus] could not entirely focus on achieving an increasingly higher international standing.” This seems more like apologist PR than an objective evaluation of UM’s slipping standards.

The ‘national service’ is a reference to the post-1969 social engineering that demanded more places for Malays in education. UM previously had a relatively non-racial image, but the graduates now look like the target audience for Akademi Fantasia. We have yet to see how this academic fantasia makes for a “world class university.”

UM is not just the nation’s oldest university, but the only one that has a Department of History. (Isn’t that sad?) The author himself is synonymous with the study of history, which is why I expected more from this book. It’s not like it was written by some anonymous hack in the PR office. History should be made of sterner stuff.

(Malay Mail. 7 January 2009)

Friday, 2 January 2009

Postal pre-orders now open

Hear ye, hear ye! We are now taking postal pre-orders for Vol 2 of Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things!

The bad news is that, for reasons we shall not go into, bookshops will only get this title in February. So if you'd like to order straight from me, you can email . If you want an autograph, let me know to whom :-)

Each book is RM25 (which is gonna be the bookshop price) with free delivery anywhere within Malaysia. (If you're outside Malaysia, you can already order from

The books will be shipped out twice, on 15 January and 31 January.