Thursday 28 June 2007

Lyrics needed

Does anyone here have an MP3 or at least the lyrics to the song "Cinta IT"? You know, the one written by former Information Minister Mohamad Rahmat and sung by the wonderful Siti Nurhaliza?

Quite odd that such a ubiquitous song of a few years ago has no presence at all online. Although I don't impute, as yet, any sinister motives to this...

Much obliged!

NST: 28 June

(NOTE: Two sentences are, um, different in the print version).

Where have all the doctors gone?

Although I can’t claim to have known him well, the passing of actor Izi Yahya still affected me -- and made me angry.

During our brief working acquaintance about a decade ago, one could immediately notice his blokey appeal and his refusal to be bogged down by pettiness. And his laugh!

Best known for his villainous roles starting in 1985’s Ali Setan (where his dastardly deeds prompted the now-famous line from novice actress Sheila Majid, “Tipah tertipu bang!”) he gained inadvertent notoriety with his over-the-top Japanese commander in the public-funded Embun (2002). A rape scene in there had some people threatening to prosecute the makers for producing pornography!

But this unproductive fuss faded away, as they do. And when he did make the news again, it was for the most unfortunate reason imaginable.

According to a Bernama report, he died without regaining consciousness after a fall during the shooting of a documentary called Darurat (Emergency).

Why a documentary (unless it is an experimental one) would require actors, the report did not say. Perhaps there are elements of re-enactment.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the title alone gives the impression that it’s about the Emergency (1948-60), the longest and bloodiest undeclared war in the history of the Commonwealth. The fact that it’s produced during the 50th anniversary of the independence of Peninsular Malaysia might lead one to surmise that we should now be grateful for all we enjoy, thanks to all those who fought and died to keep us a democratic-capitalist state.

That in itself is not the issue. Such programmes seem an inevitable part of our discursive landscape.

But what angered me was that, after Izi fell, he required surgery for brain haermorrhage, and there were no specialists to attend to him in Seremban Hospital. Or even Selayang Hospital. Or Sungai Buluh Hospital. Or Kuala Lumpur Hospital. Or even the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre.

Is our country, despite all the progress we seem to enjoy, so lacking in medical personnel? Where have all the doctors gone? And how many other similar cases involving lower-profile people would have gone unreported?

Rabble-rousing documentarian Michael Moore is in trouble with the US authorities for bringing September 11 rescue workers to Cuba for them to check out the free socialized medical care they can get there, despite a trade embargo between the two countries. He has been accused of exploiting the misery of others to score points against the increasingly expensive American health-care system. But others would say that such a seemingly outrageous gesture is what’s needed to jolt viewers out of a certain complacency that everthing is A-OK.

But in this new Malaysian case, I wonder what the outcome would be. Will there be a call for an investigation to be conducted? Will such an investigation produce anything?

Perhaps we are still too reticent and fearful of pursuing such matters. After all, to question the circumstances of someone’s death and whether it could have been avoided might be seen as “going against divine fate”.

This is despite the fact that, through the centuries, the idea of “fate” has been used to keep powerless people down, and to escape accountability. Think of the example of a few years ago when a structure collapsed, killing people at a religious ceremony. The authorities in charge invoked “divine will”; they were very peeved that anyone could even suggest the deaths could have been avoided through better planning, since to do so would be tantamount to questioning God!

If there was indeed something that could have been rectified in the most recent case of Izi’s death, we should know about it. Although the prospect of ending up as a frantically litigious society is not an appealing one, questions should still be asked.

If they are not asked, the idea of celebrating the freedoms that Darurat is presumably asking us to celebrate comes with a bitter -- you can say fatal -- irony.

Back down, Sir Salman!

Back when I read it in my teens, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children struck me as the greatest novel ever written.

Its exuberant use of language, literary English and yet unashamed of different flavours deriving from its Indian locale; its plot that had the real, the hyper-real and the fantastical all rubbing up against one another -- everything combined to persuade you that the much-bemoaned Death of the Author had been greatly exaggerated.

It won the Booker Prize, but don’t let that put you off. I would still recommend it to anyone.

His essays too were lucid on a variety of contemporary and literary topics, sometimes to do with the ‘post-colonial question’. But then something happened to eclipse all that.

The fuss over The Satanic Verses, generated by people who had not read the book, sentenced him to live underground and made him many enemies. It had the unfortunate effect of tarnishing an entire community of believers.

A dense literary novel like The Satanic Verses surely is not on the same level as the Danish cartoons, produced for a contest calculated to provoke. But it led to a similar clash which some would even have dubbed a “clash of civilizations.”

Now he is to be called Sir. The decision to award him a knighthood caused a political backlash, perhaps not a major one as yet, and it would be naïve for Britain to claim that it’s unexpected.

But what’s bewildering, at least to me, is why he accepted the honour in the first place. As a leftist, why would he need validation from that kind of Establishment? It was one thing to seek protection from the police of “Mrs Torture” (as the British Prime Minister was dubbed in The Satanic Verses) as his very life was at stake. But to accept a title that just reeks of ossified values?

True, the experience of living in virtual isolation (save for the occasional surprise appearance with U2 on stage) may do certain things to you.

A less talented British writer, Benjamin Zephaniah, rejected the Order of the British Empire (OBE) when it was offered to him; he said it reeked of colonialism. I know Zephaniah is less talented because I saw him perform in Kuala Lumpur.

The local poets who came on before him had more fire in their bellies; one in particular was quite shocking. None of the locals would be offered a Datukship anytime soon; for this we should be grateful.

A knighthood is a bigger deal than an OBE, of course, but after all he has been through, you’d think Rushdie would be made of sterner stuff.

Sunday 24 June 2007

Come lah :-)


A screening in conjunction with "Processing The City" exhibition
by Valentine Willie Fine Art and The Annexe, Central Market

Curated by Amir Muhammad and Pang Khee Teik

Venue: Gallery I, The Annexe, Central Market [ Map ]

Friday, 29 June, 8pm:

28 Hours Later
by Ng Ken Kin
Low-budget Malaysian DV meets big-budget British DV in this cheeky intertextual ride. A party-goer wakes up after a night of disco fun, only to find himself alone in the city. (14min)

18? by Danny Lim
Who's spraying the number 18 around the city? What are they trying to say? Are Malaysians running out of spaces to express themselves? (18min)

Ciplak by Kharil M Bahar (83min)
A Malaysian student in UK makes extra cash by smuggling pirated Hollywood films back to England. Unfortunately, the day he's supposed to deliver his supply happens to be the day of the biggest raid in the city.

Saturday 30 June, 8pm:

Welcome to Kuala Lumpur by Eleanor Low
The city speaks. But is anyone listening? (3min)

by Saiful Razman
Enigmatic urban odyssey where people literally never say what they seem to. Named after a part of the Quran. (7min)

Majidee by Azharr Rudin
Two strangers at Puduraya struck up a conversation while walking to Klang Bus Station. What do you know – they are from the same hometown! (15 min)

The Big Durian by Amir Muhammad
In 1987, a soldier ran amok with an M16 in Chow Kit. It triggered rumours of racial riots. Suddenly, over 100 political dissenters were arrested under the Internal Security Act. The film speaks to real and fictional Malaysians to uncover the facts and myths surrounding this event. (75min)

Sunday 1 July, 8pm:

Detour by Jassim Alsaady
How safe is KL for backpackers? No, not from snatch-thiefs, but from weirdos. (27min)

A Day in the Life of by Syed Omar
A perfectionist civil servant in a "jabatan khas" escapes his reality only in his dreams. (10min)

Bukak Api by Osman Ali
A classic! A safe sex educational video turns into a drama about the trials and tribulations of the sex workers in Chow Kit. (80min)

~ ~ ~

Don't forget, we also have a FREE talk:

Saturday 30 June, 4.30pm:

Urban Originals

The Dogma of Economics
by Kevin Mark Low (designer, writer)

Democratic Spaces
by Nani Kahar (architect, curator)
& Hishammudin Rais (filmmaker, cafe operator)

Performing on Site
by Anne James (actor, arts activist)

Thursday 21 June 2007

NST: 21 June

It's good to talk

Last week, Karen Armstrong came down to give a public talk! It is not often we get a famous author on these shores, so we were right chuffed. Who knows, another blonde woman scribe by the name of JK Rowling could be next. Then we’ll really get bring out the kompang and bunga manggar.

But all was not what it seemed. There was actually some anxiety among the population – oh all right, the segment of the population prone to attending public talks – that the event would be cancelled.

This is because several books by this religious historian and former nun are banned in Malaysia. The books are A History of God, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet and The Battle for God: Fundamentalism is Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Ironically, in the West, this same author is sometimes criticised by secularists as being too sympathetic to Islam!

I don’t think any proper explanation has been given for the bans. I doubt it has anything to do with the type of fonts or paper or binding that the books used. I don’t think our authorities had any quarrels with her grammar, either.

So we should assume that the ideas in them were considered somehow … dangerous. (But dangerous in what way? Do they have instructions on how to make bombs?) But maybe dangerous is too strong a word. Should we settle for iffy?

Iffy it is then. So if the ideas in the books are considered iffy, would they not be iffy in spoken form too?

The more alarmist coffee-shop pundits had visions of Armstrong being denied entry at the airport or a troop of enforcers marching into the hotel ballroom to arrest everybody. (Yes, bookish alarmists tend to pine for some drama in their lives). But thankfully nothing like that happened. Judging from reports, the appreciative crowd of 1,400 included quite a few VIP types and everything went well.

What makes matters seemingly weirder is that the talk was co-organised by the Institute of Diplomacy and Foreign Relations Malaysia (IDFR), which I have never heard of but which sounds frightfully official. This might point to some subtle contradictions within the Establishment.

Not quite a case of “the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing” but a matter of different priorities, agendas and interests coming into play. In the best cases, these contradictions then open up some spaces for the rest of us to swim around in. And so, even the Foreign Affairs Minister attended the talk -- but the books were banned by the Internal Security Ministry.

The phrase “internal security” itself is an intriguing one, is it not? (Then again, so is “foreign affairs”, but that’s a different story). It means that, even though we have padlocks on our external gates, there is something deep within our houses that is not yet secure. In which case, shouldn’t these internal insecurities be resolved by ourselves instead of punishing external agents such as writers who are knocking at our gate and just trying to flog a few books?

I am all for the books being unbanned, as I am now curious to read them, and a few other titles as well, such as the one on the Kampung Medan clashes.

After all, the Prime Minister this week said that Kua Kia Soong’s book “May 13” will not be banned as it does not contravene any laws. Just a day after it was launched on the eponymous date, some Senators (who would not have had time to read the book) were already calling for “action” to be taken against the writer. But I am glad that these reactionary voices did not have their way, and I hope the good vibes will spread even further.

There are some pro-choice (to borrow a term from the American abortion debate) readers who would say, rightly, that not many people read books anyway, so what’s the point of banning? This argument has a polemical purpose but is ultimately depressing. Are we so proud of the fact that we don’t read? And (let’s admit it) isn’t it boring to live in a country where there are no taboos?

The percentage of Malaysians who read books might roughly be the same percentage that goes to university, but I certainly would not make the elitist assumption that the two groups are one and the same. But the university analogy might prove a useful one: True, not everyone wants to go there, but there is always the choice. Just as in buying books.

Just as universities should be respected, so too should the rights of readers. It’s no use making a fuss about, say, maintaining the Universiti Malaya campus in its present location if we do not also put into practise the very ideals that a university is supposed to embody. These, by coincidence, happen to be not dissimilar to the ideals of reading.

Nude in Kelantan

Who says life in Kelantan is boring?

Even though it is run by a party that does not go out of its way to portray a partying image, there are some interesting things going on there.

A Bernama report of three days ago exposed the existence of a female bomoh with an unusual method of curing ailments. A woman who went to her with a mysterious illness (suspected to be the result of black magic) got a shock when this bomoh brought out some young men. No, these men were not there to perform a dikir barat for the patient’s entertainment, but to disrobe and dance in the nude around her. While this was going on, the bomoh was seated on a chair under a yellow umbrella, chanting.

The men were described as being “from a neighbouring country.” I wonder if this phrase was chosen out of an ‘all these foreigners look alike’ vagueness or in the interest of Asean discretion.

The place where she did the voodoo that she did so well is also interesting: Jalan Pantai Cahaya Bulan. Older readers will remember that the famous beach in Kelantan was renamed from Pantai Cinta Berahi, which was deemed too passionate. But a name-change has not deterred a certain sauciness, which probably burst forth from being suppressed under the repainted road-signs all these years, like something from a magic-realist novel of the Garcia Marquez or Rushdie mould.

The fact that it’s a female bomoh also reinforces the popular image of Kelantanese women as being more business-minded. And although I am enormously interested in Mona Fandey, it’s time that a few other female bomoh got into the news for other reasons. For a long time, Mona was in danger of spoiling the market. And the royal connotations of that yellow umbrella!

But one thing about the news report bothered me, though. It’s something that I would have expected any self-respecting news agency to have highlighted immediately: It failed to mention if the treatment succeeded.

Friday 15 June 2007

Lamenting the loss of Batang Berjuntai

(Blast from the past! #5)

By Amir Muhammad

NST. 11 September 1999

You may have spent the last few days going about your daily business, totally unaware that a significant era has passed. No, this has nothing to do with any court case or the KLSE or any elections. I’m talking about something far more fundamental, something that will forever alter the spirit of our national life.

Batang Berjuntai is no more. That famous area near Kuala Selangor has been renamed. Yes, you read right. You can weep all you want, but I don’t think you can change this prickly fact.

A news report on 2 September stiffly stated that the change was made to “reflect (the area’s) stature as an education centre.”

The Selangor Menteri Besar (Chief Minister of Selangor) was quoted as saying that the town needed a new identity because the campuses of the new Selangor Industrial University (Unisel) and Institut Teknologi Mara branch will be erected there.

The implication here is that Batang Berjuntai did not sound intelligent or sophisticated enough. A more visionary name was needed. The Menteri Besar revealed that a new name was chosen “after the state heard views from various political bodies, government agencies and non-governmental agencies.”

Seems like a lot of research went into it. The new name? Berjuntai Bestari.

The short news report did not mention this, but the switch may have been made because Batang Berjuntai has always had a rather sexy connotation. (For those of you not terribly conversant in our national tongue, please seek an explanation from someone else. You can’t expect me to tell you everything lah).

Batang Berjuntai has for generations served as the punch-line for hundreds of perhaps thousands of Malaysian jokes. It’s one of those things that kept us together during hard times.

There is an Instant Café Theatre skit where a researcher plans to use the area to set up a manufacturing plant for the local version of Viagra.

The ingredients: “Tongkat Ali and coffee. It may not get you very far but it’ll keep you up all night.”

Well, all the jokes and innuendo will now be gone with the winds of politically-correct change. And subsequent generations of Malaysians will be all the poorer for it. I can’t imagine anyone using Berjuntai Bestari for ANY kind of punch-line, can you?

There will come a time in the distant future when a young Malaysian will look on in puzzlement as some old geezer (probably you or me) starts to reminisce about the golden days of Batang Berjuntai.

“What’s that?” the clever young dick will ask. And when you explain, he will be incredulous: “Tipulah! (You’re bluffing!) Next thing you’ll be telling me is that KLCC used to be the tallest erections in the world!”

The word Bestari may have been picked because it is the term for our much-hyped Smart schools, which should be operational any minute now. Plus, with the name change, the area will have the same initials as before.

Be that as it may, I am not sure if Berjuntai Bestari sounds cleverer than Batang Berjuintai. The latter at least evoked a concrete image in your mind – exactly WHAT image it was would depend on the type of mind you have. The new name doesn’t do anything, unless I’m missing something.

It was a similar shame when Pantai Cinta Berahi (Beach of Passionate Love) in Kelantan underwent a linguistic clean-up and became known as Pantai Cahaya Bulan. (Beach of Moonlight). (Same initials, notice?)

The authorities probably felt that the old name would whip couples into an erotic fervour and make them act out choice scenes from The Blue Lagoon. Now, people presumably go there just to look at the moonlight, and keep their hands to themselves.

Maybe I’m just a romantic at heart, but a lot of our new place-names sound so bland. Where our ancestors were once innovative enough to come up with Gelang Patah (Broken Bracelet), Pedas (Spicy), Balik Pulau (The Other Side of the Island) and Bukit Rakit (Raft Hill), we now can do no better than Subang Jaya, Kelana Jaya, Cyberjaya and Putrajaya. (I suppose it’s a small mercy that we have Berjuntai Bestari instead of Berjuntai Jaya or, Lord help us, Batang Jaya).

What’s so bad about a little sauciness? Batang Berjuntai had style; I could bring a smile to anyone’s face. True, I can’t imagine actually living there. Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t say so. I’d probably just say “Around Kuala Selangor.”

To have to deal with people’s comments would probably qualify as a mild form of sexual harassment.

But when all the bestari-smart kids move into their campuses, I hope they find a way of commemorating their locale’s former name.

A simple plaque will do; a play will be even better. Education, despite what you may have been told, isn’t just a matter of memorising facts. It’s about building character. And to me names like Batang Berjuntai were full of character. Even though it no longer exists in reality, make sure it exists in your hearts.

And in the meantime, please enjoy existing places like Janda Baik (Good Divorcee), Rantau Abang (The Man’s Region), Kampung Seronok (Fun Village) and Bukit Katil (Bed Hill) while you can. Their days might be numbered.

* POSTSCRIPT: It appears that the name-change was not absolute. There are still road signs that say Batang Berjuntai in 2007

Thursday 14 June 2007

NST: 14 June

(NOTE: Only one of the two articles got published).

Stop me if you've heard this before

Plagiarism in general and in literature in particular has always intrigued me, not so much as a moral but as a psychological phenomenon. This can take many forms, from the charmingly innocent to the tortuously artful.

Not too long ago, a senior politician sent a congratulatory poem to another on the occasion of a happy day. This poem consisted, as poems are wont to, of several lines. Well, wouldn’t you know it, every single line was taken wholesale from two previous poems not written by any politician!

Although the poem was published in the print media, the plagiarism exposé emerged only online, probably because newspapers had run out of paper on that day.

Now there can be many reasons for one to plagiarise; although none of these reasons is good, some are more contemptible than others. A student rushing for a deadline and with a wonderfully packed social schedule might resort to cribbing a few lines he’d read earlier. More sinister is a lecturer passing off a student’s work as his own, since someone who is older and more esteemed should presumably know better.

If you are a chic relativist, you might say that there are no original ideas anyway; all words have been in the mouths of others before, so just go ahead, but make sure to gargle first. But this is not the place for such cynicism.

In the case of the politician, what could have driven him to do such a thing? Could he have been persuaded by a few reports in our English-language papers that the poetry scene is really thriving in the Klang Valley, and so wanted to tag along for the ride? Or this might be a bit like that Umno General Assembly in the 90s when a few folks started talking about “Brutus”, although most seemed to have been very recently briefed as to what the play Julius Caesar was all about.

If a politician can brazenly take the words of others to pass off as his own, would it not be reasonable to expect other breaches of ethnics from this bloke? Or maybe the concept of moral right and intellectual property just isn’t considered such a priority; after all, it’s not like stealing money, where your victim will be literally poorer. Stealing someone’s poem will not make anyone financially poorer. A more psychologically lurid explanation would be that he was begging to get caught, as in “Stop me before I write again!”

A few days after this exposé, the press secretary of this politician clarified that he was the one responsible. He was the one who’d included the poem in the congratulatory message. He just forgot to credit the original writers. So that’s all right then.

I am a trusty sort, so let’s say I believe the explanation totally. (Didn’t I just say no to cynicism?). But it also makes things more interesting. Where does this leave the position of press secretaries (and speech-writers and spin doctors…) in the grand scheme of attribution? After all, there are so many educated people who can string a sentence together, and among the jobs open to them would be those that can be summarised as “putting words into the mouths of others.”

So can we now assume that the words uttered in official speeches are not those that came from the minds (or even minda) of the speech-giver? This would be sad. What if all those great quotes attributed to Gandhi – like “An eye for an eye and soon the whole world will go blind” – were actually penned by some anonymous hack who sold off these nuggets for a few rupee?

All the more reason, then, for us to cherish those off-the-cuff moments that could never have been scripted, since they provide a clearer glance into the minds behind them.

By the way, the first paragraph of this article is plagiarised from a Malaysian writer. See if you can guess whom.

A comic history that's no joke

A few weeks ago, I received in the post a photocopy of a Malaysian book. Yes, yes, I know photocopies breach copyright and all that, but this book has been out of print for years, so do forgive the sender and myself.

Titled Where Monsoons Meet: A People’s History of Malaya, it was written in 1979 by a group of people who chose to be known only as Grassroots. (Who were they and where are they now?) It is a comic history of the country; not comic as it rib-tickling but because it is told through lots of drawings and speech bubbles. Yes, a “graphic non-fiction novel” of sorts. True, it’s not as sleek as something by Neil Gaiman or Frank Miller, but it’s about us, damnit!

The version I have was published in 1987 by Insan. (What complicates matters is that there exists another, different book with the same title published in 1956, but with the subtitle The Story of Malaya in the Form of an Anthology.)

I think that Where Monsoons Meet (the comic, that is) should be required reading in all National Service programmes. In fact, even the kids’ parents should read it, instead of whining all the time about safety standards and whatnot.

Our nation’s history is told through a somewhat different perspective because it foregrounds the role of economic exploitation in the shaping of our society. There are lots of interesting nuggets that may not make it into standard history texts. For example, did you know that 59% of the revenue of the Straits Settlements a century ago derived from selling opium to immigrant Chinese labourers? And did you know that in 1947, well-organised workers’ movements managed 291 major strikes, resulting in the loss of 696,036 mandays to management? (If you don’t know what a strike is, perhaps this book can serve as a start).

Yes, it is didactic, but the facts and figures are often leavened by wit and sarcasm, courtesy of the drawings, and also a propulsion in the chronological structure.

The book also makes you consider parallel scenarios; for example, what would have happened if the British had not stopped immigrant Chinese and Indian workers from planting rice? We would now have a multi-racial peasantry, with arguably different repercussions for how we view ourselves now.

Although it ends in 1957, this is not a story marked by mothballs and cobwebs. A progressive history of this country is well worth telling. Although it has its blind spots, these can perhaps be better appreciated after reading the whole thing and contrasting it against the standard ethno-nationalist narratives with its ruling-class heroes, which you are presumed to already know about.

It would be great if an intrepid publisher can bring it back into print, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the lowering of the Union Jack on these shores.

Tuesday 12 June 2007

To bodek or not to bodek?

(NOTE: Blast from the past! #4)

NST. 26 May, 1999


You may think, ladies and germs, that the biggest problem facing the modern Malaysian writer is whether to use pencils or pens, but you would be quite wrong. There are several greater dangers. I would like to talk about just one of these dangers, but I'm warning you: It ain't pretty. Feel free to scream out loud or clutch at the shapely arm of a loved one while I unfold this tale of horror.

Here's a newsflash: Our nation is still organised along semi-feudal lines. Feudalism is a medieval European concept in which a vassal was expected to give his all to the landowner, with no questions asked. In our own continent of shiny Asian values, this type of total surrender was once associated with a despotic monarchy, which was capable of butchering anyone who dared to Just Say No.
There are enough tales of just how cruel, tyrannical and plain not-nice a monarch could be in those days. Many of these stories have been duly turned into colourful movies and mini-series, so there's no need for me to set them down here.

That was then. Monarchs are now on the whole relegated to a ceremonial role. They are trotted out once in a while so that we can ooh and ahh their pretty clothes, but you rarely hear of them behaving in a horrible way. The worst thing you can say about them is that they play too much golf. That's the good news, at least.

The bad news, however, is that the culture of subservience has not gone with the wind of democratic change. It has instead mutated into a different type of beast and plonked down in the arena of politics. Powerful politicians now expect a similar degree of unthinking loyalty from the public. The awful thing is that these politicians don't even have the decency to wear nice colourful robes while they dispense their duties. As a French saying almost goes: "The more things change, the more things get screwed up."

What has this got to do with writing? Well, a strain of story-telling during the days of powerful monarchs is literature commissioned by the royal court. Scribes would be compelled to create fantabulous tales revolving around the heroic deeds and mythical powers of the relevant king, sultan or emperor. The actual ruler could be a puny piece of nothing, a dweeb, a nerd in the herd, but in the stories they are descendants of God who can fly and read your mind and break all kinds of Sukom records. As if!

You can plainly see that the purpose of these stories is not just to entertain the masses but to ensure that the feeling of subservience is entrenched even more firmly into their skulls. Folks then won't dare say anything against their ruler because they'd been hearing only the most miraculously wondrous things about him. To complain would just make you seem like a spoilsport.

Be that as it may, the natural human spirit is to question any kind of autocratic tyranny. Some of the most popular folk tales from around the world attest to this. A folk tale that can be repeated with pleasure for generations is usually a valuable indicator of some form of uncanny, resonant truth.

Think of the nameless mat salleh (white) boy who alone dared to point out that the vain Emperor was buck naked. The tyke could speak out because, unlike his elders, he had yet to be cowed by the system of suffocating hypocrisy. A grimmer version can be found in the fate of Hang Nadim, the kid who solved the vexing ikan todak (garfish) problem of Singapore and was duly executed for being cleverer than all the Sultan's Ministers. The subtext of both these tales is that there is nothing super-human about our rulers. Worse, they can get awfully touchy if this fact is pointed out to them.

As the world turns, in the days of our lives, we see the same soap opera now being enacted in modern dress. The contemporary equivalent of court literature now goes by the unofficial name of sastera bodek.

Here's a fun fact: Bodek is a word that originally referred to testicles. The colloquial term for hernia is even sakit bodek (testicular pain), further proof of how shockingly explicit Malay medical terms can be. (This is after all the same language that brought you kencing manis (sweet piss) for diabetes.)

I'm no doctor, but I fear that we are witnessing an upsurge in yet another type of sakit bodek. The symptoms of this particular ailment cannot be easily detected or remedied by your friendly neighbourhood clinic, as it has to do with the other definition of bodek: sycophancy.

People afflicted with sakit bodek manifest their symptoms by going to great lengths in proving their "loyalty" to the order of the day. Any sense of idealism or critical intelligence that does not fit this narrow agenda will be quashed. In the process, the objects of veneration then acquire super-human powers not too remote from the semi-divine monarchs of yore. It's a bore and a chore, to be sure, but that's the way things go.

In the sastera bodek genre, anything the ruling elite does is A-OK. The job of the public then is to accept without question or risk being branded, at best, ungrateful. The assumption is that you should be eternally thankful that you have roads and scholarships at all, regardless of the fact that such things came about through your own tax money to begin with.

There is not enough timber left in Sarawak to produce the paper needed to catalogue all the sastera bodek in recent times. There are people who make a healthy living out of it. It's different if you felt they were writing through some genuine convictions, but their stances are as unpredictable as the lalang blown by the breezes near Parliament. Even they don't seem to take themselves seriously; how on earth are we now expected to do so?

I may sound like a total pessimist, but I cannot suppress my naturally sunny disposition for long. All is not lost. There exists in Malaysia a vibrant alternative in cyberspace.

The Internet offers an array of information that seems initially bewildering but which actually, given the right attitude, can instil a healthy scepticism. You DO get a lot of contemptible drivel, but I daresay that the ratio between worthwhile items to worthless ones is roughly the same as what you get in the printed media anyway. You just get a lot more of it. And since it's not treated as a fully 'legitimate' medium yet, you get a lot less bodek.

When stalwarts of the mainstream media squeal in alarm at the "irresponsibility" of the stuff you get on the Net, they are actually voicing their trauma at the prospect of losing their own long-held hegemony on information. They are traumatised by the full implications of democracy. (Be that as it may, I hope that the spirit of openness - oh all right, only the "responsible" kind! - will now creep and crawl its way into the traditional media.)

A few months ago, everyone was agog over cyber-pictures of pop stars which may have been superimposed over naked bodies. But in the long run, it doesn't matter who's doing who: That's just an admittedly entertaining side-show. What's truly important is that for the first time there's a possibility that we too can say whether an Emperor is naked or not.

Dare we finally break free of these neo-feudalist shackles? Or must we continue to shelter behind a few antiquated notions? There IS a cure for sakit bodek, but the 'balls' are in our court.

Monday 11 June 2007

Erotica and ethnicity

(NOTE: Blast from the past! #3)


NST. July 7, 1999

YOU see them everywhere, these lurid paperbacks which stare at you from newsagents near bus-stops and pasar malam stalls. They carry titles like Bohsia Blues (Teen Slut Blues) and Akhirnya Aku Jadi Pelacur (I Finally Became a Ho). Yup: you are about to journey into the realm of local erotica, a genre for which there are no literary prizes but apparently loads of readers.

I've often been tempted but have usually managed to resist these come-hither books. Call me a prude, but I just couldn't bring myself to purchase something called Pengakuan Seorang Janda (Confessions of a Divorcee) or Gigolo. I mean, what would my bourgeois peers think of me? So I would always sigh wistfully at the colourful covers before forking out my money for something far more intellectually respectable, such as URTV.

But recently (I blush as I type this) I lost all my inhibitions. I gave in to my baser instincts. I knew I would hate myself in the morning, but I wanted to surrender just once. So I bought a few books. How many? Eight. Yes, I know what you're thinking, but I don't care: I followed my heart.

These books make fast reading, due to a certain fleetness of pace and shallowness of characterisation. I never had to read any sentence more than once, and the vocabulary certainly doesn't aspire to the Nabokovian heights of a proper sastera (literary) book. But, wouldn't you know it, they were fascinating all the same!

Most of these books are written under pseudonyms and are full of misprints. But the anonymous, rushed feel only adds to the ambience. Reading them, you feel like you're in the middle of a clandestine encounter which might be raided by the anti-khalwat cops at any moment, so you better hurry lah.

I hate to disappoint you, but the sex scenes themselves tend not to be very explicit. You just get a lot of vague sentences in which someone would ramas (caress) or gomol (ravish) someone else's gebu (glowing) or tegap (firm) flesh, or metaphors to do with sailing into the sea or watching a flower bloom.

These sequences would be connected by elliptical triple dots, which is sort of the print equivalent of a movie fade-out. Bummer, dude!

I am, of course, too much of an intellectual to read these books simply as a no-brain diversion. Time and again I would try to relate them to the pertinent issues facing our turn-of-the-millennium majmuk (pluralist) society. I am glad to say that I did not look in vain.

A book called 2 Lawan 1 (Cinta 3 Segi) (2 Against 1 (Love Triangle)) is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the racial dynamics of the contemporary Malaysian realpolitik. The author is someone who wishes only to be known as Rauf, but that's OK.

The plot shocked the hell out of me. Hunky Ariff is in love with a bodaceous Chinese girl named Linda. Not just in love, for these youngsters can't seem to keep their hands off each other:

Melihatkan kelakuan Linda yang membiarkan sahaja perkara yang dilakukan oleh Ariff, lalu Ariff mula melancarkan serangan dengan hebatnya. Tangan Ariff mula meraba seluruh tubuh Linda yang cantik dan putih itu. Kemudian berlakulah apa yang dikatakan perasaan semula jadi kaum Adam dan Hawa. (Seeing as how Linda was all for it, Ariff launched a ferocious attack. His hands were all over her pretty white flesh. Then what happened next came naturally to the descendants of Adam and Eve).

That's about all that we get, but we get it several times in the course of the novel. Since they are of different races, do they face any problems? Well, check out their conversation:

"Linda makan daging babi tak?"
"I bukan macam orang China yang lain, Linda belum pernah makan daging babi seumur hidup I ni," sambil menjeling dengan ekor matanya seolah-olah tidak setuju dengan pertanyaan itu.
"Apa Linda marah dengan pertanyaan I ni ...?"
"Tidak, I tidak marah, tapi lain kali jangan tanya macam itu lagi. I tahu babi itu adalah haram bagi orang-orang yang beragama Islam."
Sekali lagi Ariff memaut badan Linda dan mencium dengan sepuas hatinya.

("Linda, do you eat pork?"
"I am not like the other Chinese, I have never eaten pork my whole life," she glanced at him as though unhappy with the question.
"Are you angry with my question or...?"
"No, I'm not angry, but don't ask me something like that again. I know pork is forbidden to Muslims."
Once again Ariff clung to her body and kissed her to his heart's content)

I can't help feeling that Linda has just passed a kind of test. The presumably male, Malay reader is meant to be reassured that Linda is not THAT different from him; why, she's practically an honorary Malay! As an erotic fantasy, it's particularly telling.

Complications arise when Linda's friend Rozy comes into the scene. Rozy has the hots for Ariff, One Thing Leads To Another, and the three end up in a cosy ménage à trois at Ariff's house. The three are having so much fun that I waited for the inevitable Divine punishment.

Sure enough, Linda's parents die in a car crash. Then silly Rozy gets herself pregnant. Ariff and Linda want to sponsor a Manila abortion, but a bunch of armed rubbers come bursting through the door and start shooting. Bye-bye, Rozy!

Ariff and Linda live in wedded bliss, somehow escaping further retribution. This is what shocked me the most, actually. I had conditioned myself for a taubat (repent) scene, but the novel had brilliantly subverted its generic conventions. My jaw is still on the floor at this moment.

Cinta Bangla (Bangla Love) by Nazar Hashim is one of those books where the title says it all, really. It's a more 'legit' enterprise than 2 Lawan 1 because it has an ISBN number. It's also better written.

Yunalis is so gorgeous that at school she was called Yunalis Hangat. She's now a factory Personnel Manager who's hot 'n heavy with her dishy boss, Azman. They get up to all kinds of vague mischief on a beach: Asmara yang dipadu oleh kedua-dua pasangan ini berlarutan hingga larut malam (The love they made lasted the whole night).

Complications arise when Yunalis suddenly notices a Bangladeshi worker named Jahangir:

Jahangir bukan sahaja kelihatan cerdik tetapi menarik dengan penampilannya seperti hero filem Hindustan. Yunalis memerhatikan wajah yang mirip Salman Khan dan kulitnya yang lebih cerah daripada rakan-rakannya yang lain (Jahangir didn't just look intelligent but cool, like a Hindi film star. Yunalis thought he looked like Salman Khan and he was fairer-skinned than his other friends).

Here we see that Jahangir is exoticised but still kept within the realm of the desirable because he's fair-skinned. Cinta Bangla is thus a valuable document of socio-cultural attitudes with regard to skin tone.

Yunalis sexually harasses Jahangir by calling him to her office to discuss all sorts of trivial matters. She soon jumps on his bones, but their affair must be kept a secret, because People Just Won't Understand! There is genuine suspense here: what will Azman do when he finds out?

Well, wait no more. Azman spies them doing the funky chicken in a store-room. Azman explodes in anger but the happy couple manages to escape and flee all the way to Bangladesh, leaving only a bilingual note for all their associates. The guy's in shock: "Aku tak sangka kau sanggup tinggalkan aku untuk lelaki Bangla itu," keluh Azman sendirian ("I never thought you'd leave me for that Bangla dude," Azman sighs to himself).

He soon stops being such a wuss and resolves to track Yunalis down. He and some chums hop on a plane to Dhaka and rescue her. Does she need rescuing? Yes, actually. Yunalis is now virtually a slave, wearing "pakaian ala-Bangla" (Bangla-style clothing) and doing a mountain of laundry by a well in the spare moments when she's not being abused by her hubby. I can imagine the reader now saying: "Serves her right!"

Yunalis runs gratefully back into the arms of Azman, filled with a new-found sense of purpose. She now has a mission in life. What is it? To return to Malaysia and rescue naive native girls: Yunalis tidak akan biarkan gadis-gadis lain menjadi mangsa seperti ini. Dia tidak akan beri kekebasan berlebihan kepada pemuda Bangla (She won't let other girls become victims. She will not let Bangla youths have their way).

Cinta Bangla made interesting reading because it's eerily reminiscent of those American 'white slavery' cautionary tales of about a century ago, in which innocent Caucasian women make the fatal mistake of consorting with libidinous black guys. The erotic content may seem transgressive but the
ultimate effect is still reactionary.

Since these books are so popular, undergraduates across the land should discuss them in an effort to understand how ethnicity is perceived in Malaysia. Our newly multi-racial dorm mates should then contrast these fantasies with their own realities, before lighting a cigarette and asking each other, "Was it good for you too?"

Saturday 9 June 2007

Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu?

(NOTE: Blast from the past! #2)

PERFORATED SHEETS fortnightly with Amir Muhammad:

NST. 13 Oct 1999

Somewhere in Jonathan Swift's great novel Gulliver's Travels, a debate rages on whether it's better to crack eggs at the narrow end or the broad end.

This episode was meant as a satire on Catholicism vs Protestantism, but it can generally refer to any dispute with no real hope of conclusive resolution. The pointlessness of the exercise is precisely the point. (Besides, everyone knows eggs are meant to be cracked at the broad end!)

It's also very tempting to always divide people into two neatly differentiated schools of thought. As I have never been able to resist temptation, I happily go along with this tendency to make dichotomies.

Dog person or cat person? PC user or Mac user? Pro-Mahathir or anti-Mahathir? These, gentle readers, are just a few of the ways in which people choose to differ, and sometimes differ very loudly.

Not all the debates are futile, of course. There are a few topics in which the stand you take can reveal a bit about the kind of person you are. I think the issue of what we should call our national language is one such topic.

Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu? It started off as the latter, then shifted to the former before a U-Turn back to the latter. A reliable guide to this is the name given to government exam papers on the subject, because we know they are never wrong.

If we accept that Bahasa Malaysia / Bahasa Melayu isn't merely a semantic or grammatical distinction (like goreng pisang / pisang goreng [for banana fritters]) or quaint cross-cultural confusion (like to-MAY-toe / to-MAH-toe) then ... well, well, well, what have we here?

The official position now weighs in with Bahasa Melayu. The rationale is that the language originated from the race, and the name should reflect this. This is how the argument goes: "The name may reflect Malayness, but the language is universal. After all, Americans call their language English without feeling that they are capitulating to England, so the same principle should apply here."

This is true up to a point. But most Yanks are proud to point out that they speak American English. And there are enough cross-Atlantic differences for someone (probably Shaw) to quip that America and Britain are two nations separated by a common tongue.

Besides, why seek guidance from so far abroad? Surely this is not in line with our current policy of being hyper-vigilant against Western intervention. Look closer at the example of Bahasa Indonesia, which has its roots in Malay but is meant to unify the many different races in that large, diverse and endlessly news-making country.

Back in the sadly under-rated Eighties, the most common term for our own lingua franca was indeed Bahasa Malaysia. When the subtle shift in policy came about, not many people commented on it. There are probably some people who are unaware that the shift even took place.

I did a check through the computer archives of New Straits Times Press publications since 1991 (who says this column doesn't require any research?) and found what I expected. The English-language papers used the term Bahasa Malaysia 6,954 times versus Bahasa Melayu only 1,362 times (a ratio of roughly 5:1), while the BM papers used Bahasa Malaysia only 2,392 times versus Bahasa Melayu 9,359 times (a ratio of about 1:4).

This immediately suggests that the term Bahasa Malaysia is favoured by those who write in English. There is an irony here somewhere, but you can figure it out for yourself.

You may genuinely believe all this doesn't matter: "At the end of the day, it's still the same language lah!" But - oh, humour me for a minute, wontcha? - a few slips could be made. Do you want an example? Of course you do.

There was a review of the National Theatre musical Rubiah in Mingguan Malaysia recently. The reviewer was basically kind, but she still had a few complaints. Among them: the actor Ramli Hassan has a bald head.

What's wrong with being follically challenged? She said that it symbolised "Buddhist elements" and thus should not be allowed in a Malay play! Furthermore, she suspects that the state of Ramli's head (and, by extension, his character's religious credentials) can be blamed on his previous association with (shock! horror!) English-language theatre!

Is there any oxygen in the house? If she thinks that all bald men are Buddhists, there are a few Star Trek characters I would love to introduce her to.

So we can see how a discussion on the merits of a "Bahasa Melayu" production can easily get tied up with all sorts of racial assumptions, and then lost in a deep, dark ethnocentric hole. If she had used the term Bahasa Malaysia instead, there is a slim chance she would have paused before casting Buddhism as something that needs to be expelled from the stage.

Let's get real here. The vast majority of young Malaysians went through the national education system, in which BM is the medium of instruction. Even those who went to national-type schools need a pass in BM to go further. It is the first or second language of most of us.

It would be fallacious to say that BM has failed in its duty to unify. It's not only fallacious, heck, it's wrong. But more should be done if we want the language to be a truly national medium of communication, and not merely the appointed National Language.

The English / Malay difference is increasingly one of social background and inclination, not a simplistic equation of "Malays are more likely to speak Malay" or "non-Malays refuse to speak Malay." Even the old slapstick standby of having non-Malay characters speak in stilted apek or tambi accents will grow less valid with each passing year.

I often hang around government schools and private colleges (exactly WHY I hang around them is no business of yours, thankyouverymuch). Both places are multi-racial even though the first uses BM while the second uses English. What's interesting is that in each case, the relevant language used IS very much the unifying factor.

Some of the liveliest and most adept practitioners of BM are not so-called "native speakers." A great example is Uthaya Sankar SB, the superbly talented young fictionist who's won numerous awards.

It was Uthaya who mischievously brought up the Bahasa Malaysia/ Bahasa Melayu confusion recently in the print media and mass-circulated e-mail. I say "mischievously" because I'm sure he's intelligent enough to have guessed at the reaction he would get.

Uthaya prefers the term Bahasa Malaysia and has used it all his life. But in a few cases, he says editors took it upon themselves to change the term in his writing. In a splendidly faux-naif move, he even sent a letter on the subject to The Malay Mail Hotline page, which duly contacted the relevant linguistic authority.

When Uthaya expressed his dilemma through a popular literary mailing-list, there were a few who defended the choice of Bahasa Melayu on very rational, linguistic grounds. But others instantly went into defensive mode and used inflammatory racial phrases which I'm too shy to repeat here.

As a realist, I know that changes in terminology can only do so much. The problems faced by black Americans didn't automatically disappear the moment they were dubbed African-Americans. But there should be room for some ideals as well, and, in this case, the ideal of having a united nation is worth it. So that's why I'm in favour of Bahasa Malaysia.

I would like to close with something borrowed from the stage actor Adlin Aman Ramlee. He did a monologue on reformasi last year, in which he paused and asked the audience: "Anda semua sokong Datuk Seri Mahathir atau Datuk Seri Anwar? (Do you support Datuk Seri Mahathir or Datuk Seri Anwar?)" No one in the audience dared to answer, and then Adlin said: "Saya sokong ... Datuk Seri (I support...Datuk Seri)."

So, to avoid any tedious arguments later, if anyone were to ask me whether I support Bahasa Malaysia or Bahasa Melayu, I will say: "I support BM."

Friday 8 June 2007

How to be moral

(NOTE: Blast from the past! # 1)


. June 23, 1999

I HAD not cracked open a school textbook in quite a while, but in the interest of "getting close to the younger generation" I decided to reacquaint myself with this dusty, much-maligned genre. I expected to be bored out of my skull, but I was actually entertained and energised. Who wouldda thunk it?

The book that I chose was the Form 5 Pendidikan Moral (Moral Education) text by Mohd Sawi Abdul Hamid, Siow Siew Sing and Annamalai Arnasalam (DBP, 1992). The writers are described as experts in the field of morality, so I suppose they are the type of people who always slow down at yellow lights and never steal sweets, no matter how yummy-looking, from the hands of babies.

The authorial line-up is also reassuringly muhibbah, a vibe reinforced by cover pictures of our multi-racial badminton team and of a bunch of Asean Ministers demonstrating a silly handshake.

I had narrowly escaped taking this subject in school, and the idea of taking an exam in Moral Studies still strikes me as a très quaint notion. I mean, imagine what would happen if you failed!

Picture the ignominy of telling your prospective in-laws or employer that you can't grasp the fundamentals of accepted morality; you might as well tattoo the word 'Degenerate' on your forehead.

The resultant despair must be enough to drive you to suicide, a prospect that must have occurred to this textbook, because right there on page 34 you are forced to consider this: Mengapakah seseorang yang cuba membunuh diri boleh dikenakan tindakan undang-undang? (Why can a potential suicide be liable for prosecution?) There's no escape, I'm tellin ya!

What I remember most from my own textbooks of yore was that you always got these three kids named Ali, Ah Chong and Ramasamy who would run themselves ragged (going camping, dividing marbles, opening up a stall, whatever) simply to demonstrate principles of grammar, algebra and micro-economics to us. This indefatigable trio - together with their distaff compatriots Siti, Ah Moi and Devi - was a feature as regular as rain.

Well, times have moved on, and we now get a much wider range of protagonists vying for our attention. This book features the trials and tribulations of people like Michael Yapat, Jaylin, Garai, Meling, Jampang, Salman and Gumbiron alongside the boringly inevitable Siti. It's a heartening tribute to the throbbing diversity of Malaysian life; either that, or the authors just made the names up.

Multi-racialism is repeatedly stressed. We are asked to list the benefits of mixed marriages, and the book ends with a stirring call for a Bangsa Malaysia. In fact, there isn't a single character here who only hangs out with "his own kind", something which, according to recent reports, isn't quite the case in our own institutions of learning.

I had hoped for the book to feature at least a few boo-hiss racist villains, but they don't seem to officially exist. There's a thin line between a feel-good portrayal and a whitewash. The book should be a lot more honest in its depictions of politically- motivated communalism, instead of pretending that everything is A-OK.

There's no real point in pretending that factors like religious bigotry and the quota system have not bred a certain degree of resentment. It's one thing to tell students to treat each other as equals, but quite another to ignore the structural inequities that exist all around them. Morality isn't just a matter of random good deeds.

An example? When Maniam's car breaks down on page 110, Datuk Shafie's family goes out of its way to help by giving food and shelter for the night. Maniam's family go to sleep still in awe at the great treatment they received. Would this sense of awe continue if, let's say, Maniam's little son grows up and figures out that he's less likely to get a scholarship than the Shafie scion? We are not told.

The first chapter is called Kefahaman Asas Keharmonian (Understanding is the Basis of Harmony) and while we all agree that we should try to understand one another, the cultural differences presented here seem contrived and skin-deep, like something from a tourist brochure designed to show how 'exotic' we are.

This is supposed to describe all Chinese households: Biasanya tuan rumah menghidangkan minuman ringan tetapi tetamu janganlah minum kecuali setelah dipelawa beberapa kali oleh tuan rumah (Hosts will normally serve light refreshments but the guests should only drink after being asked repeatedly). Do all or even most Chinese hosts behave in this way? Isn't it just as likely that your host will be exasperated by your rather coquettish behaviour?

The next paragraph tells us that Indians mainly visit one another during the Hindu New Year (even the Indians who are not Hindus?) as well as on occasions to do with house-warming; newborn babies; setting off or returning from an overseas trip; illness and death. Is that all? Are Indians expected to stay cooped up the rest of the time?

There are some nice profiles of people like Tunku Abdul Rahman and Pak Sako as embodiments of principled behaviour. The profiles are brief and very bowdlerised, but then again, I didn't seriously expect them to include sentences like "He also enjoyed betting on horses!" or "You should have HEARD the things he said about Dr Mahathir!"

There's also a schizophrenic feel to any book that wants you to think seriously about why kerajaan asing tidak harus campur tangan dalam pelaksanaan undang-undang sesebuah negara (foreign governments should not interfere in the administrative affairs of a country) before going on to excoriate apartheid and communism! But it gets marks for at least praising the courage of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Tiananmen Square protesters, by saying that the struggle for true democracy in this region may be slow but it's inevitable. (Yeah, reformasi!)

Maybe it's just my idea of a good time, but this book was fun reading. To say it's didactic would be like saying Hannibal Lecter's a bit on the anti-social side, but the real appeal of this sort of book lies in all those illustrated stories of heroes and ... well, not quite villains, but people who take a Temporary Wrong Turn before deciding to taubat (repent). We get reformed drug addicts, disco-goers, arrogant theatre directors and even a guy who's breathlessly eager to tell his English pen-pal all about our Prime Minister's launch of the Kampungku campaign. I kid you not.

This moral menagerie can provide Jins Shamsuddin with enough melodramatic plots for another Esok quartet. Gasp in horror when the grotesque Albert (p.55) would rather watch TV than buy cooking oil for his mother! Weep in despair when Daniel Joseph (p. 47) recalls how his drug addiction caused both his parents to drop dead from heartache! Cluck in disapproval as Meng Hua, Maniam and Rustam (p. 24) spend all their money livin' la vida loca in discos!

The most memorable story is the cautionary credit-card tale (pp. 84-6) simply because one of the characters ANNOYED THE HELL OUT OF ME. This is what happens:

Hock Seng and Fikri go shopping. Hock Seng is a greedy pig who splurges lavishly because he's got three pieces of plastic. But Fikri is such a moral guardian that he keeps popping up with unsolicited, faultlessly grammatical advice: "Kalau boros begini, wang kamu cepat habis dan kamu akan berhutang dengan bank atau syarikat kad kredit (If you spend so much, you will run out of money and you will be in debt to the bank or credit-card company)" Then later: "Biarlah kita berbelanja sederhana, janganlah boros. Biarlah kita hidup bebas daripada hutang (Life a moderate life, don't be wasteful. Let us be free from debt)." Still later: "Kamu mesti berhati-hati menggunakan kad kredit. Kalau kamu terlalu ghairah menggunakannya kamu akan berhutang sekeliling pinggang (You must be careful when using credit cards. If you're too eager to use them, you'll end up with a pile of debt)." And STILL later: "Sederhana dalam perbelanjaan perlu dijadikan amalan hidup kita (Moderation in spending should be our way of life)."

If I were Hock Seng, I would have cheerfully used my credit cards to slit Fikri's smug little throat by now. But of course this doesn't happen. Hock Seng, true to form, overspends and regrets his actions. When Fikri points out The Error Of His Ways, Hock Seng's response is not "Shut the hell up, you sanctimonious prick!" but simply "Terima kasih atas nasihat kamu (Thank you for your advice)" -although I hope he had the decency to say it sarcastically. After all, Man cannot live on morality alone.

The fever of repression

I was recently asked to write an article for SEA-Images, which promotes "film exchange between Asia and Europe." I decided to write about a Malaysian movie that had, as yet, not screened in Europe.

I was annoyed that most of the local reviews of Puaka Tebing Biru didn't seem to get it. So I wrote a kind of response here. It's constrained by an 800-word limit and I had to explain a bit more to a non-Malaysian audience, but I'm glad I wrote it. Perhaps it can be the basis for a much longer piece someday, somewhere, somehow.

Thursday 7 June 2007

NST: 7 June

(NOTE: Some sentences did not appear in the paper).


The second reprint of the fourth edition of the venerable door-stopper Kamus Dewan (2007) is out. It no longer contains a few words considered derogatory to some Malaysian Indian associations. So you can search for Keling karam (a noisy person) and Keling mabuk todi (someone fond of talking nonsense) but you will not find them.

This journey to shorten the dictionary began four years ago with protests against the publisher, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. Then came the police reports and lawsuits. It looks like the pressure succeeded to a certain extent. Since they are no longer in the official dictionary, does this mean these words will no longer be uttered? Who knows?

My own view is that a dictionary should compile rather than proscribe. This was in fact the view taken by those who didn’t see what the fuss was. It seemed like a case of political correctness run amok. And yet, no one seemed to notice that the dictionary was silent on arguably more popular terms, such as janji Melayu (unreliable promise). But memelayukan (to make Malay) and meyahudikan (to make Jewish) are both reassuringly there, albeit with rather different value registers.

I say, let all the insults and stereotypes be displayed, at least for sociological reasons. Of course, if someone were to use the words in polite company or in a less polite place like the Parliament, then they are merely advertising aspects of themselves that will be to their own detriment, or so we hope.

But a gamelan performance, of all things, that I saw a few months ago did something interesting with the gender terms in the same dictionary. The women in this show simply read out the definitions of laki-laki (man) and perempuan (woman). A good actor is supposed to make the phone book seem like riveting material when reading it; but our dictionary doesn’t require much of an additional push.

The usage examples of laki-laki (on page 870) uniformly describe positive values: hatinya memang laki-laki (he has a manly heart). There’s also a bloke who sounds like the best catch since Raja Nazrin: Alias memiliki sifat kelaki-lakian yang tulen, jujur, ikhlas, berhemah tinggi serta berupa kacak. (Alias has true masculine virtues, he’s honest and trustworthy, polite and dishy too).

Contrast this with the distaff side on page 1182. You get penyakit perempuan (female disease, i.e. syphilis), perempuan gatal (‘itchy’, lascivious woman), perempuan jahat (bad woman), perempuan jalang (prostitute), perempuan joget (dance-hall girl), perempuan jungkat (another lascivious woman) and perempuan simpanan (mistress).

Check ‘em out! With all these bad girls in our midst, it’s a wonder how anyone can get any work done, in between partying away at dances, registering new phone numbers so the wife won’t find out, and of course checking into VD clinics.

“Frailty! Thy name is woman,” said that dithering boy Hamlet. But it looks like he could have used a few other choice names as well, although perhaps not directly to his mother’s face.

I wonder if any women’s associations will take up this issue with Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. But wasn’t it recently women leaders who were up in arms at the thought of “little dragon ladies” from China coming over here to steal their husbands? So perhaps they have other concerns.

Disapproving footnotes

We were mooching around a bookstore last week and one of us picked up the newly-launched Malay translation of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (1922). While flipping through it, he said “This translation is so funny.”

I expected the usual howlers along the lines of movie subtitles that say “Itik!” when a cop tells someone to “duck”. But instead there were footnotes which said things like “Amalan ini bertentangan dengan agama Islam” (This belief is against Islam). This is the first instance I have come across of footnotes, presumably from the translator, cautioning us against the text.

Why choose this book to translate in the first place, then? Wouldn’t the title alone give an inkling that it deals with a religion of the Other? The novel is set during the time of Buddha although the protagonist is someone else, but it’s about a process of spiritual enlightenment too.

And yet, and yet. Perhaps there was pressure from some kind of third party, as they don’t just exist in court trials. If some people can discover this German Nobel laureate through this book, then so be it. It’s better than nothing.

Actually. the most offensive footnote I have ever read comes in a translation of Kama Sutra, of all things. But it’s so outrageous I’ll get into deep trouble for reproducing it here. So I will just think of it now and gasp anew.

Bestsellers at last?

Two recent books, in English, by Malaysian writers have been spending months on our best-seller lists, and I am frightfully jealous.

Dina Zaman’s I Am Muslim and Kam Raslan’s Confessions of an Old Boy are both enjoyable reads. Sure, they cheat a bit by putting together previously published pieces (in Malaysiakini and Off the Edge respectively) but it’s good that they are reaching a new audience. Stylistically they are rather different (where Dina is saucy and dishy, Kam is droll and ironic) but both books are slices of the Malaysian pie to be savoured.

I am sure there is another local bestseller out there; it has a red cover but I can’t recall much about it at the moment, though.

For years, publishers have been moaning that local readers do not like to read local books – in English, that is. Well, perhaps the time for moaning has passed although perhaps we shouldn’t break out the sparkling grape juice yet.

True, most local books in the past were packaged in a very boring way; they had all the sizzle of text-books without any of the exam-boosting potential, so why bother? Placed there on the shelf next to some sexy foreigner, they looked doubly sad. It was like the way some opposition parties campaign in elections; they are so used to losing that they don’t even make an effort.

But these new books have a shiny, cosmopolitan confidence. The writers have been toiling away in the print media for years. Rather than hacking their lives away, they have honed everything they needed to hone. And although some of the best Malaysian writing these days take place in blogs (not necessarily the most newsworthy ones), it is always reassuring that honest-to-goodness books are still being published and consumed.

Their success has made me think many things, chief among them “Me, me!” Yes, dear reader. I plan to come out with my own volume later in the year; it’s called Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things. It is a compilation of 100 quotes that have gobsmacked us over the years, accompanied by some charming drawings. I am almost done with the selection but if you have urgent suggestions, do let me know!