Thursday, 28 May 2009

Malaysian Gods in Berita Harian

True, it's the Singaporean rather than Malaysian Berita Harian , but it's still nice, considering none of our local papers has written anything about it.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

She’s gotta have it

CATATAN HATI NIK NUR MADIHAH by Nik Nur Madihah with Ummu Hani Abu Hassan (Hijjaz Records Publishing, 2009, 126 pages)

Nik Nur Madihah binti Nik Mohd Kamal of Kelantan achieved national fame when she became the first student to score 20 As in her SPM. So naturally I wanted to find out what a huge nerd she is. (Yes, I’m terribly jealous, not that you can tell.) 

We can already guess how hard she studied, but what immedately strikes us is how poor her family was. The only time her mother laid hands on her was when she’d spent RM1 on snacks, an unseemly luxury. Her father, a fisherman, brought home less than RM500 a month, and would get even less if the weather wasn’t kind. 

Madihah decided early on to fast every Monday and Thursday; it helped her to save a few sen and also emulated what the holy prophet did. It was a good decision: academic brilliance is, as she soon finds out, right next to godliness. 

In this short memoir (she’s only 18, what did you expect?), she speaks of her life and dreams.  Although their dress sense could not be more dissimilar, she reminded me a bit of Xandria Ooi, whose book we discussed earlier. They are both goal-oriented young women who spend lots of time honouring their parents. 

The more demure of the two, however, displays no discernible sense of humour. Can a teenager really be so serious? There are no references at all to playing, having a laugh with friends, or to cute Kelantan boys. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the only subject in which she scored an A2, rather than A1, was Biology). 

She was of course a model student, although not a ‘model’ in the Xandria Ooi sense. Times have obviously changed: back in my day, someone who always sat in the front row and asked questions every five minutes (as one of her teachers says) would be just asking to get beaten up at recess. But no, everyone seems to love her, because they see her as a chance for their school to once again get in the news, like when her senior got 18As. 

Similarly, a student with the creepy habit of going to the staff room every day just to ask if her teachers are doing all right (which is what she did) might get called all sorts of names, none of them particularly godly. But hey, they probably do these things differently in all-girl religious schools. (Five out of her 20 subjects are related to Islam or the Arab language.)

She’s driven and disciplined, sure, but was there a price to pay? She’d never left Kelantan until after SPM, because her father didn’t want her exposed to ‘pengaruh tidak sihat’ (unhealthy influences).  He also had this habit of surreptitiously following her after school to make sure she wasn’t heading to tempat tak elok (improper places): charming! And one of the tips she gives to become successful in life is ‘selalu bersenyum sesama Muslim’  (always smile to fellow Muslims).  So if she meets you and scowls, it’s nothing personal: it’s probably your religion.

She seems to exist in an entirely Islamist enclave and doesn’t seem to have met a single non-Muslim. (Even this book was sponsored by a nasyid group: nasyid seems to be the only music she digs). By analogy, I can imagine children in vernacular schools going through a similar parallel existence. Without having to resort to the 1Malaysia slogan, is this really what we want the next generation to become? 

If Madihah didn’t exst, we would have invented her. She’s the logical product of not only our record-breaking desires and emphasis on paper qualifications but something even darker: our increasing communitarianism, in which each self-righteous group keeps requiring new heroes. Until we break out of these bad habits, we will remain dumb no matter what the Exam Board tells us.

(Malay Mail, 27 May)

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Charlene debuts at #2

MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers
for the week ending 17 May

1. Yakjuj & Makjuj: Bencana Di sebalik Gunung
Author : Muhammd Alexander; Wisnu Sasongko

2. Taxi Tales On a Crooked Bridge
Author : Charlene Rajendran

3. The Creation of Money Without Money
Author : Chan Chin Cheung

4. Benarkah Iskandar Bukan Zulqarnain
Author : Afareez Abd Razak Al-Hafiz

5. The Malaysian Insider: A Year in the Life of a Country
Author : Leslie Lau

6. Have a Meaningful Malaysia: Zubedy Print Ads 2001-2008
Author : Anas Zubedy

7. Buat Duit dengan Blog: Rahsia Menjana Wang Cara Mudah (Bisnes & Pengurusan)
Author : Yazid Yahaya

8. Kemilau Peribadi Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat (Seorang Ulama yang Memerintah, Pemimpin Ulung Abad Ini)
Author : Abdul Shukor Haron; Annual Bakri Haron

9. Saya Pun Melayu
Author : Zaid Ibrahim

10. Quranic Law of Attraction: Serlahkan Potensi Diri Secara Optimum dengan Kuasa Tarikan Berteraskan Quran
Author : Rusdin S. Rauf

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The talkative fabric

THE BOOK OF BATIK by Fiona Kerlogue (Archipelago Press, 2004, 191 pages)

This isn’t a Malaysian book. The author is a mek salleh and it’s printed in Singapore. Worse, Malaysia is barely mentioned it in. There’s a list of museums at the end which have batik collections, and we weigh in with three, but Germany and the UK have six each!

And so it comes to pass that The Book of Batik is all about Indonesia. But that’s no reason to get upset: I am sure there are other books that explore what this craft has come to mean within our own shores. (It’s the sort of topic that our politicians’ wives tend to sponsor books on anyway, but since I have not picked up those books I can’t be certain.)

I am no expert (the few batik shirts I have are, I suspect, inspired not by ancient Javanese motifs but by the efficacy of the Hawaiian tourism board) but I became interested after attending a talk by Farish A Noor on it. He made the subject so vivid that I rushed out to get this book. Luckily for me, it happened to be on sale: culture always goes down easier on a budget.

Farish stressed that batik was a lingua franca in this region, much like any spoken language. The patterns and colours functioned as sophisticated codes for the wearer to announce details about her or his class, race, age, marital status, mood and so on. It was a responsive medium in which artists (most often women) recorded the world around them. Far from being a homogenous kampung medium, batik was primarily an urban form with each city having specific styles.

his very attractive book even talks about batik tiga negeri where the cloth needs to be taken to (you guessed it) three places, because each specialises in a certain dye. The use of natural dye has been mainly supplanted by industrialisation, but some diehards (or dye-hards) persist, so good for them! Even the original use of wax to create batik patterns is on the wane, but was there ever a lovelier phrase to explain the process than, simply,  "wax resists"? 

The story of batik becomes, rather movingly, the story of an evolving nation. It was initially such an exclusive craft that use was restricted to members of the aristocracy. Arcane variations in patterns did a lot to signify rank and allegiance, although this may strike the more democratic among us as being as useful as the bit in Gulliver’s Travels about cracking eggs at the narrow or broad end.

Colonialism played a big part, because the Dutch (we are talking about Indonesia, remember) inspired new motifs and also got into production. Imported cloth from Europe threatened the native batik and unwittingly helped trigger nationalism. And even the idea of ‘native’ is problemmatised because of the many Peranakan styles; the Chinese, for example, preferred blue and white, in the style of Ming porcelain.

In the field of Theology (and no, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know who Theo is), we can see how Hindu-Javanese motifs gave way or combined with Islamist styles. An apt syncretic symbol comes from how the wings of the garuda (the mount of Vishnu) can also be interpreted as those of Bouraq (the other winged horse, this time carrying the Prophet Muhammad to heaven).

It’s also the story of how different, previously distinct, regions were made to assimilate in post-independence: Sukarno encouraged a standard style (batik Indonesia) as a nation-building strategy, although I don’t know if any had a 1Indonesia logo. Luckily for scholars, regional particularities still exist: I am particularly intrigued by how batik Jambi produces “the impression of shimmering gold” although you won’t get any spoilers from me.

Word has it that Malaysians are getting sick of political parties, but even out jaded selves would be intrigued by the communist-inspired sickled hammer batik that was produced in the 1960s.

I enjoyed the stunning pictures here, and the text has an unfussy vitality. It made me think about all those things around us that we have been taking for granted all this while. Sometimes it’s good to shut out the chatter and let a deeper language do the talking.

(Malay Mail, 20 May)

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Look back and lepak

KACIP by Pipiyapong (Sindiket Sol-Jah, 2009, 103 pages)

Speaking of Salleh Ben Joned’s poetry, Lat said it was like “meeting Hang Jebat on his day off.” Reading this blook (a neologism that combines blog and book) feels like meting Lat’s enduring creation Mat Som.

Unlike the archetypal rebel-hero of Malay antiquity, Mat Som is already so lepak (chill) that he doesn’t need a day off. And so it is with Pipiyapong, who is the nom de blog of one Firdaus Abdillah, twentysomething.

I don’t know him personally so cannot attest how many of the entries are strictly factual and how many fanciful. Surely, the one about rescuing Siti Nurhaliza on the day of her akad nikah can be safely categoried in the dreamy Mat Jenin category. But did he really hold down so many blue-collar jobs, usually in repair shops, that lasted no more than a couple of months?

Kuala Lipis is mentioned often enough for us to assume that he is indeed that town’s most famous export after the aforementioned chanteuse. A particularly funny chapter here describes his boyhood anticipation whenever the family would visit Kuala Lumpur; one of the main spoils would be the thrill of taking out his new pensil picit and telling pals where he’d bought it. It’s enough to make up for the sick-bag that needs to be brought along for the winding road journey.

This thoroughly charming book is in the vernacular Malay that you won’t get in Dewan Bahasa publications. Take the image of the makcik exiting a post office while announcing (perhaps smugly) that she’d just paid her Astro bill. The response of the writer (who is currently indignant at the slow collection of letters: he’d just posted a job application) thinks: “Hek eleh…kecoh. Orang lain ada juga tapi rileks saja.”

The various anecdotes start from the small-town kutu rockers’ era of the 1980s right to the present, with all those hapless jobs in between. As the cover makes plain, there’s also plenty of smoking, because what’s the point of mengaji (which means, in this context, not studying the Quran but – ba doom dush! –hanging out at a warung cendol known as Aji) without nicotine?

I particularly loved the way in which idioms that have permeated popular consciousness get themselves all twisted. To pick just one example: “azan sudah berkumandang menandakan Doraemon dah nak start.” The tone is never strident, but such sweet bathos is often used to puncture pomposity.

Aside from blog entries, this also reproduces a short story that is written in a lightly parodic ‘proper’ young-adult literature style, replete with complete sentences like: “Aku ada satu rancangan!” And also an interview with himself where he comes across as even more sweet and laidback.

In his blokey, self-deprecating style, he is our very own Nick Hornby. Lightly fragmented though it is (after all, it’s a compilation rather than a book book) Kacip gave me the same thrill as reading Fever Pitch when it came out –even though, unlike the two writers, I don’t give a toss about football.

Kacip (it’s a slang word that’s similar to ngam: when things go together nicely) is a limited-edition book that is not sold at shops. It is the strategy of Sindiket Sol-Jah, the collective that published it, to ensure a certain cult status. Is this some kind of anti-capitalist agenda? More likely, it’s a cheeky acknowledgement that being modest actually makes a person more interesting. Just like the way the young Siti Nurhaliza would always seem shocked whenever she won one of her numerous awards –- which was before she wanted horse-drawn carriages for her wedding.

(Malay Mail, 13 May)

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Recommended: SELL OUT! (($311.0u7!)

A beguiling concoction of spanking good jokes, game bad jokes, in-jokes, corporate satire, Network, Monty Python, insouciance, Billy Wilder, accents, hunks, babes, Metropolis, deathbed slapstick, songs, pastiche, melancholia, trippy tangents, self-consciousness, topped off with a swirl of indignation and sprinkled with the edible gold-dust of movie magic, Yeo Joon Han's debut feature is in cinemas now.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Now on DVD: "Malaysian Gods"

It's riiiight heah!

With this, I will take a break from movie-making for a few years. (And shut up you in the back who said: "Why stop at a few?"). Writing and publishing will take up most of my time from now on. There's also a dream of opening a shop ... but we shall see where that goes. 

It feels nice to have Malaysian Gods as my final movie for some time. It's a work in which I was not trying to prove any points; I was just hanging out in the spaces (both physical and historical) that have meant something to me, but which can still surprise me. I hope that those who watch it can get something out of it, too. 


Thursday, 7 May 2009

From a Lat interview that I remember from yonks ago

NST: With which historical figure do you most identify?

Lat: Hang Kelubi, the sixth member of Hang Tuah's troupe, who quit to take up pottery instead. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Model behaviour

LOVE, WORK AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN by Xandria Ooi (MPH, 2009, 372 pages)

I had no idea who Xandria Ooi was before picking up this book. The back-cover calls her a ‘celebrity’, but an old fogey like myself only tends to notice those who can spin on their heads, like Amber Chia did in the film Possessed.

Almost 400 pages later, I can safely confirm that Ooi wears several colour-coordinated hats in the entertainment/media/PR line. This book compiles her columns from The Star, so she has a sterling ability to keep several balls in the air.

I must quibble with the title, though. She stresses time and again that she loves her work, so surely there’s not much of “everything” that can fit between the two concepts of Love and Work? It’s like that Dorothy Parker line about an actress “running the gamut of emotions from A to B.” (And no, she wasn’t talking about Amber Chia.)

Luckily for us, she can write. I hereby dub her the spiritual heir to Adibah Amin’s Sri Delima columns of the 1970s. There are obvious differences, of course: Adibah didn’t insert many glossy pictures of herself in her books, for one thing (how could she, when she was using a pseudonym?)

There’s also the fact that Adibah was older, and there was a sense of hard-won wisdom. Xandria is only in her mid-20s, so it might gall some people now to take advice (and the tone does get message-y) from someone who wasn’t even around to wonder who shot JR.

She mentions The Secret (which I haven’t read) but the book this reminds me the most of is The Last Lecture. So this is where I had to confront my own prejudice: I’d never heard of Randy Pausch before picking up his book either, and who’s to say that an ang moh professor, even a dead one, can give better insights into life than a Malaysian host?

Like Pausch, Ooi loves her work and places great importance on time management, goals, self-esteem and valuing others. Unlike him, she uses the word karma and also uses spaghetti-straps, but these can be ascribed to cultural differences.

As a creature of the media, she has a disarming awareness about being, as it were, a product. This sets her apart from most first-person female columnists, who assume a harried Everywoman persona.  She cites from management theory (for example, one hapless establishment had “over-promised, under-delivered and had zero service-recovery”) to demonstrate, several times, how businesses that give just a little bit more can stick around longer. It’s not only capitalism with a human face, but making sure that face has enough lip-gloss.

If anything, she appears too sensible; aren’t celebs supposed to be eccentric? But her Confucian work ethic keeps her grounded; even the chapter called “Time to trim down” is about the economy, rather than her diet. 21st century dating isn’t presented in slapstick strokes, but I did appreciate the brusque way she says she and her boyfriend “plan to have children (together or otherwise) in the near future.” 

So, in a shiny thimble, the book is about Loving Your Work, and also Working at Love. (I really should be writing press releases).

Ooi can doll herself up when need be but she’s no airhead, and came up with a pithy description of ‘celebrity’ that I can’t better: “when [complete strangers] know my name before I even introduce myself.” I, too, now know – and I believe!

(Malay Mail, 6 May)

Monday, 4 May 2009

MALAYSIAN GODS: screening and futuristic talk

Malaysian Gods screens this Thursday :-)

Venue: KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Jalan Maharajalela, KL:

There will be a panel discussion after the screening by Elizabeth Wong (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), Arul (Parti Sosialis Malaysia) and (we hope) an UMNO Youth representative who has yet to confirm. The session will be chaired by myself. 

The panel will put on their futuristic glasses. We all know what happened in 1998 and 2008, but what will the country be like in 2018? 
8pm: Arrival of guests
8:15pm: Screening of MALAYSIAN GODS (70 min)
9:25pm: Screening Ends
9:26pm: Panel discussion - "Reformasi, Tsunami & Beyond" featuring Elizabeth Wong (PKR), Arul (PSM), TBA (UMNO) and Amir Muhammad (
10:40pm: Ends

Admission: FREE.