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.


Kenny Mah said...

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

Kam Raslan?

Anyway, I'm glad this new blog of yours is more focused on writing --- I missed the days of Perforated Sheets. :)

Amir Muhammad said...

No, it's not Kam :-)

Anonymous said...

I'd wager either Seri Delima aka Adibah the Divine or the late irrepressible SH Tan.

Amir Muhammad said...

and you would lose that wager ;-)