Thursday 31 January 2008

Brian's essay printed in full

Brian Yap's essay from New Malaysian Essays 1, which is called "The Trouble with Malaysia" is printed in full (minus the photographs, but including all the footnotes) in the February issue of Off the Edge magazine, which goes on sale today. Very timely considering elections are just around the corner. It takes up 9 pages, probably the longest single thing the magazine has ever published.

It's a terrific issue and includes a free, collector's-edition CD of contemporary Malaysian music, curated by Hardesh Singh and CH Lor; and a cover interview with Marina Mahathir.

Wajib beli!

I am off to France in a few hours, sans MacBook, and may not have time to post much on this blog until Feb 11. So Gong Xi Fa Cai and keep it goin' on.

Wednesday 30 January 2008

Do come to the launch :-)

... and do help spread da word by putting up this poster (and trailer!) on your site.

Poster by Saharil.

Trailer by Selvan!

Monday 28 January 2008

Indie book

When I was turned down by the big distributor, I did seek out a smaller one the very next day. His words: "If they [the big shops] don't take it, it won't be worth my while – or yours."

So I have decided to distribute New Malaysian Essays 1 myself. I don't wanna go crawling back to any big or small company, asking to reconsider.

I am calling up the managers of selected bookstores and trying to be, as the quote from Pulp Fiction goes, "one charming motherfucking pig." (They should know me, since the first title by Matahari Books sold quite well...)

Perhaps I will not go through a distributor for all subsequent volumes of New Malaysian Essays. This means that the reach will be somewhat niche but that's OK. I always knew it was a niche book: it has over a hundred footnotes, for God's sake! But if people want the book, they should be able to get it.

I am lucky to have found a printer brave enough to publish the thing, but I might not be able to count on that forever. Maybe, to be safe, I should start asking around for foreign printers, those not so cowed by Malaysian printing legislation ...

We should get the 1,000 copies the day before the launch. The writers have received their advance royalties (am I the only Malaysian publisher that pays this?) Now let's see how, and where, the copies move.

New Malaysian Essays
is an annual series that is independent in spirit. If I think an essay is worth publishing, I don't wanna be cowed by censorious commercial considerations.

Doing this annually will also stop me from being so complacent in letting the distributors and bookshops do the selling for me. We shall see how it goes!

Sunday 27 January 2008


MPH Non-Fiction Bestseller List
for the week ending 20 January 2008

1. Kuasa Di Sebalik Solat by Syaikh Jalal Muhammad Syafi'i
2. Chronicle of Malaysia by Philip Matthews
3. Ahmadinejad: Singa Baru Dunia Islam by Muhsin Labib and Ibrahim Muharam
4. Xuan Kong Flying Stars Feng Shui by Joey Yap
5. Teh Hong Piow: A Banking Thoroughbred by Paddy Bowie
6. Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things Vol 1. by Amir Muhammad
7. Feng Shui For 2008 by Joey Yap
8. I Am Muslim by Dina Zaman
9. Juara Lelongan Hartanah by Azizi Ali
10. Common Cents Managing Your Wealth by Andrew Chua

# This is the 11th non-consecutive week in the chart, and the first time it is charting in 2008.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

Why 'New Malaysian Essays 1' will not be in most Malaysian bookstores

What a difference a day makes.

At 3pm Tuesday, I reached a verbal agreement with a large distributor in PJ to handle New Malaysian Essays 1. We agreed on the quantity, retail price, some modest promo stuff.

At 9am Wednesday, I got a call from the printer. This printer is also part of the same corporate family as the distributor. I was told that the corporation is "unable to associate itself with the book". It refuses to print or distribute it.


I was told that this is "the Datuk's orders." A hastily convened meeting the day before (which ended at 10pm) came to the conclusion that New Malaysian Essays 1 is somehow 'politically sensitive.' There's also the business of 'the vulgar words.'

I explained that while there are certainly some bits in the essays that are pointed and provocative, there's nothing that can be construed as libel, slander or sedition. Thus, there should be nothing wrong from the legal standpoint. (As for the vulgar words in my essay: I was being educational).

Ah, but these are difficult times. (The word 'elections' was used).

I should have been dismayed or upset by this act of corporate self-censorship but the main thing I experienced was panic: The launch would be in less than 4 weeks (which would include the protracted Chinese New Year holidays) and I didn't have a printer!

Phone-calls. Emails. Checking of bank balance.

Luckily, later in the afternoon, I managed to get a printer. But I still have no distributor.

Without a distributor, I would not be able to get into the main bookstores.

Well, I have since decided something.

I have decided that it's no big deal.

So what if the book doesn't get into the main shops? I will just distribute the thing myself. I am sure there will be a few independent bookstores/venues that will stock it. For sure it will not be in any MPH, Times or Popular, though.

I reduced the print run to 1,000. The fact that I don't have to surrender such a large cut (55%) to this distributor also means I can now price the book at RM30.

Where exactly will it sell after the launch day? Well, there's always Kinibooks, that plucky online shop run by Malaysiakini.

After the Thaipusam holiday (which now spreads to KL, thanks to the efforts of Hindraf to push the government to think of the Hindus for a change*) I will speak to a few other retailers too. Can't promise anything at this stage but you shall be updated!

* I wonder if this sort of sentence qualifies as 'politically sensitive.' There are quite a few of them in the book. Ah well. It's not something that a certain corporation in PJ will have to worry about now.

Tuesday 22 January 2008


I really like indexes (indices?). I don't understand why Malaysian non-fiction books tend not to have 'em. I would someday like a more specialised one but since we lack the skills at the mo, we came up with this bare-bones index that lists names and titles. Reading these four pages alone is to celebrate some incongruous juxtapositions.

Friday 18 January 2008

Postal pre-orders now open

Hmm. I was gonna announce this only next week, but since Howsy asked, I might as well open it now.

Yes! You can pre-order New Malaysian Essays 1 for RM30 each. The price includes shipping anywhere within Malaysia. If you are outside Malaysia, kindly make friends with a Malaysian resident who can then post it to you.

You can send the money to my Maybank account: 014105120512. Once you have done so, send me an email at to let me know your address. If you'd like an autograph, let me know to whom it should be addressed :-)

Closing date is Thursday, Feb 14. The books will be posted on Feb 15.

Have a good weekend!

The bare details


New Malaysian Essays 1
is the first of a planned annual series concentrating on local non-fiction writing. From polemic to ode to memoir, this series invites Malaysian readers – and writers – to notice, analyse and interpret the living, throbbing, squelching vitality around them. Multi-disciplinary, multi-tasking and best appreciated on multi-vitamins, this first collection takes us from Brian Yap's election-era critique to Amir Muhammad's alternative lexicon by way of Burhan Baki's elegant deconstructions, Aminuddin Mahmud's seminar on branding and Saharil Hasnin Sanin's knockabout ruminations on language before rounding off with Sonia Randhawa's stirring call for national (and therefore personal) self-realisation.

Writers: Brian Yap, Aminuddin Mahmud, Burhan Baki, Saharil Hasrin Sanin, Amir Muhammad & Sonia Randhawa

Length: 256 pages.

Size: 21cm (height) and 17.9cm (width)

Language: English (80%) and Malay (20%).

Published by Matahari Books

Design & Layout by Bright Lights at Midnight

Printed by Academe

Retail price: RM36

ISBN: 987-983-43596-1-4

National Library Catalogue-in-Publication

Launch date: 16 February 2008 (8pm; Central Market Annexe, top floor)

Thursday 17 January 2008

The paper

One of the joys of publishing books: getting to choose paper! And one of the sorrows: realising how limited our choices in this country really are...

After weeks, I finally decided upon acid-free Japanese cream 84gsm paper. It ain't so cheap but it's nice. The close runner-up was actually this paper that me and the printer started calling "the Shahrizat paper" because that's what the politician is using for a hardcover puff book about herself. But the Japanese cream trumps it because it won't yellow with age. (It's already cream, anyway...)

Since this book is going to be in a "weird shape" (as I have been told often), it was also extra-difficult to get paper that came in the right size, without too much wastage. But I am glad I chose this format; a normal-sized paperback would not have been as fun to work with.

Thanks to Chuah Guat Eng who introduced me to the paper supplier! Her name is Fallon, which of course brought back fond memories of Alexis, Blake, Krystal, Adam, Stephen and the rest of the gang*

The first print run is gonna be 1,500 books, which requires 14,000 sheets of paper.

* Some of you may be too young or too serious to remember. Ah! Too bad.

Wednesday 16 January 2008

"A Manifesto for Independence: Fifty Years to Merdeka?" by Sonia Randhawa

(The sixth and final essay).

Malaysia is in crisis. This essay raises worrying questions about both our present and our future.

45 pages

The wordiest essay (15,000 words) but Saharil's pips it for page numbers by having more illustrations!

Sample page:

"Unwelcome Words" by myself

(The fifth essay).

100 word meanings you will not find in the 2007 edition of Kamus Dewan.

20 pages

The shortest essay!

Sample page:

Tuesday 15 January 2008

"Teroris Bahasa" oleh Saharil Hasrin Sanin

(Esei yang keempat).

Ketika kamu membaca ini, ada bahasa yang sedang mati dibunuh...

54 halaman

Satu-satunya esei yang dicetak dalam Bahasa Melayu.


"Yes, We Must Move On: Theoretical Notes on Various Things Malaysian" by Burhan Baki

(The third essay).

Multiculturalism, politeness, etiquette, Hang Tuah, death, finely-crafted keris daggers, night terrors, forgiveness, 'Deeparaya', fetishes, the Rukunegara, the Petronas Twin Towers, ghosts, toilets …

41 pages

The only essay to be divided into several (six) sub-essays.

Sample page:

Monday 14 January 2008

"Branding - Mamak Style" by Aminuddin Mahmud

(The second essay).

You eat and hang out there. Now take some business tips.

35 pages

This is Aminuddin's first published work.

Sample page:

"The Trouble with Malaysia" by Brian Yap

(There are six essays in the book. This is the first).

Malaysia is in trouble – everyone knows that, and just as many have an opinion why. Here's yet another one.

32 pages

Trivia note:
This is the essay with the highest number of footnotes (89).

Sample page:

Friday 11 January 2008


Just got back from this!

This exuberant and cheeky comedy (in black and white!) is Mamat Khalid's best work yet. It's a kind of spoof noir, it's wonderful to look at (courtesy of the DP Raja Mukhriz), and Rosyam Nor is at his most relaxed and charismatic as a 1950s newspaper hack who stumbles across the strangest town – and strangest story. There are in-jokes and deliberate anachronisms, and the game cast (colourful despite being monochromatic) lets you in on the fun.

It has the highest number of quotable quotes of any Malay film since ... maybe since Bukak Api. An Italian film critic who saw it said it "has more cinema in one minute than [he mentions a certain big-budget Malay film] in two hours" – and here's the thing: he saw it without subtitles.

A baik punya start to the movie-going year.

Thursday 10 January 2008

Weird book

A book I will be publishing early next year is called Weirdest Malaysian News Stories of 2008. I have hired Brian Yap (pic) as editor since, as his piece in New Malaysian Essays 1 proves, he's very good at following the news!

What do I mean by weird? Well, as Louis Armstrong said when asked to define jazz: "If you have to ask, you'll never know."

But here's one from today.

Don't keep your eyes wide shut, and let us know if you come across stuff :-). These are usually not front-page news but in the 'local' or 'national' section, and we are only citing daily newspapers rather than those weekly tabloids.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Sumber ilhamku

The size and design for New Malaysian Essays 1 are very much inspired by a Singapore journal called Focas. You've never heard of Focas, of course, so let me introduce it.

Focus stands for Forum on Contemporary Art & Society and if you think that sounds dead serious, wait till you read the stuff in there!

You can read about all the six issues (and maybe even buy a few of them) starting here. After that, just type Focas into the search box and more delights will unfold.

Focas is no more because the Singapore government pulled the plug on its funding! Is it because the journal was too critical of government policy, especially in relation to censorship? Focas was always written in such a rarefied manner that it's hard to imagine any bureaucrat taking offence – but then again, Singaporean bureaucrats probably know fancier words than ours.

RIP Focas! I shall make sure the editorial board gets a free copy of NME1 in return for not suing us for ripping off their look.

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Tokyo Magic Hour

A movie of mine that I don't show all that often is Tokyo Magic Hour, because it freaks people out! But the music-man Hardesh Singh and I like it quite a bit.

It's a love story told through 60 pantun, narrated by a series of young men. It's the most obscure but jiwang gay love story imaginable; an American critic even wondered if it should be called "a distant Muslim cousin to Brokeback Mountain."

I've been looking at the text again because Italian subtitles (!) will be made. Since quite a few of the pantun are not online, I thought of putting them all down here. Who knows, they might be useful for ngorat or emo purposes :-)

The soundtrack is available on Hardesh's CD and represents his most trippy work.


All love affairs take place in foreign cities.
– Jalal Toufic.


jika tidak kerana bulan,
masakan air pasang pagi?
jika tidak kerana tuan,
masakan saya datang ke mari?

anak angsa terenang-renang,
itik jati dalam perahu;
duduk jauh terasa bimbang,
duduk dekat terasa malu.

gelang emas di atas peti,
ambil lampu padam pelita;
barulah puas rasanya hati,
jika dapat bertentang mata.

dari mana punai melayang?
dari paya turun ke padi;
dari mana datangnya sayang?
dari mata turun ke hati

apa guna pasang pelita
kalau tidak dengan sumbunya?
apa guna bermain mata
kalau tidak dengan sungguhnya?

apa tanda hari nak petang?
anak merbah terciap-ciap;
apa tanda cinta nak datang?
darah di dada gerap-gemirap.

tinggi-tinggi si matahari,
anak kerbau mati tertambat;
sudah lama saya mencari,
baru sekarang saya mendapat.

layang-layang sambar kenari,
madu kelapa dalam tampiran;
hancur luluh rasanya hati,
jika tidak memandang tuan.

burung merpati meniti batang,
terbang kumbang meniti udara;
wajah tuan bila ku pandang,
bagai melihat pintunya syurga.

kuda kelabu menyeberang,
terendam hati pelananya;
hati gila mabuk seorang,
tuanlah sebab kerananya.

bunga rampai di dalam puan,
bunga selasih di dalam peti;
sebelum jumpa dengan tuan,
sungguh hidup serasa mati.

nyur semantan bukan;
nyur dimakan bulan.


ikan belanak hilir berenang,
burung dara membuat sarang;
makan tak enak tidur tak senang,
hanya teringat abang seorang.

nasi basi atas para,
nasi masak dalam perahu;
pucat kasih badan sengsara,
hidup segan mati tak mahu.

limau purut lebat di pangkal;
sayang selasih condong uratnya;
angin ribut dapat ditangkal,
hati kasih apa ubatnya?

laksana buah kepayang:
dimakan mabuk, dibuang sayang.

akar keramat akar bertuah,
akar bertampak di gua batu;
nabi muhammad cintakan allah,
di manalah tuan masa itu?

buluh perindu berdahan tidak,
ke tepi perigi rumputnya senget;
hatiku rindu bertahan tidak,
seperti bumi menanggung langit.

kalau roboh kota melaka,
papan di jawa saya dirikan;
kalau sungguh bagai dikata,
badan nyawa saya serahkan.

terang bulan cahaya berseri,
nampak dilihat jauh saujana;
seksanya tuan cinta berahi,
semua dibuat serba tak kena.

anak undan meniti batang,
berasa dahan terlampai;
melihat bulan dipagar bintang,
bagaikan rasa hendak dicapai.

kalau tuan pergi ke laut,
pesan saya ketam jantan;
kalau tuan menjadi pulut,
saya menjadi kelapa santan.

lancang pilan dari selatan,
angin bertiup dari utara;
sudah ada dalam genggaman,
bilakah dapat hidup bersama?

kayu jati pelampung pukat,
buluh perindu tidak berdahan;
buah hati marilah dekat,
hati rindu tidak tertahan.


kerengga dalam buluh,
serahi berisi air mawar;
datang hasrat dalam tubuh,
abang seorang jadi penawar.

merak emas, merak dewata,
hendak makan cendana muda;
mari intan marilah nyawa,
marilah kita bersukaria.

di mana tempat murai berbunyi?
pokok kekabu di tepi kolam;
di mana tempat kita berjanji?
di dalam kelambu di atas tilam.

hilang dadu pada dadih,
dadih bercampur minyak bila;
hilang malu kerana kasih,
kasih bercampur hati gila.

guruh berbunyi di dalam awan,
merbuk terbang dari seberang;
lucut baju pada badan,
terurai kain pada pinggang.

sedap sungguh belayar kapal,
kapal masuk sekali setahun;
sedap sungguh tidur sebantal,
tangan memeluk kaki memanggung.

jikalau pasang air di laut,
mahukah tuan bersama mandi;
jikalau datang ajal dan maut,
mahukan tuan bersama mati?

gajah langgar kuda beraksa,
mayang di mana dihempaskan;
sama lebur sama binasa,
tuan tiada saya lepaskan.

sampan pukat sampan serani,
boleh belayar tanah seberang;
tuan umpama bintang nurani,
makin ditentang bertambah terang.

orang aceh pulang ke aceh,
mengail kurau dapat senangin;
bukan mudah kita berkasih,
laksana wau melawan angin.

orang aceh pulang ke aceh,
manisan lebah dalam perahu;
tidur sebantal menunjukkan kasih,
hati berubah siapa tahu?

bukan cempedak kami katakan,
buah delima dalam pasu;
bukan telah kami katakan,
pandang pertama cinta palsu.


kusangka nenas di tengah padang,
kiranya pandan yang berduri;
kusangka panas sampai ke petang,
kiranya hujan di tengah hari.

anak cina menebang keranji,
habis buah bertabur-taburan;
tuan umpama panji-panji,
ditiup angin berkibar-kibaran.

api-api unggunan kandis,
tumpah damar di kulit tengar;
laki-laki mulutnya manis,
jika bersumpah jangan didengar.

buah jering di atas para,
diambil budak sambil berlari;
hingga kering selat melaka,
barulah tuan tepati janji.

limau manis condong ke paya,
boleh buat ampaian kain;
mulut manis kepada saya,
hati kasih kepada yang lain.

orang membajak dengan kerbau,
kerana hendak menanam padi;
di dalam tidur hatiku risau,
kerana janji sudah dimungkiri.

anak punai anak merbah,
sambil terbang membawa sarang;
anak sungai lagi berubah,
inikan pula hati orang.

rakit buluh dari seberang,
dulang terletak atas geta;
sakit sungguh kasih seorang,
orang tidak kasihkan kita.

kerbau menguak di tengah padang,
turun mandi di dalam paya;
cantik manis di mata orang,
hodoh buruk di mata saya.

dahulu parang, sekarang besi;
dahulu sayang,sekarang benci.

apa lauk nasi rendam?
sayur petola dinihari;
apalah ubat hati yang dendam,
air ditelan serasa duri.

tinggi melampai pokok beringin,
beringin ada di hadapan kota;
hendak berpesan kepada angin,
angin tidak pandai berkata.


banyak orang mengetam pulut,
saya seorang mengetam padi;
banyak orang karam di laut,
saya seorang karam di hati.

hujan panas siang hari,
berteduh badan bawah bayang;
hilang emas boleh dicari,
hilang kasih nyawa melayang.

ubur-ubur sepinggan dua,
pakai cincin di hujung jari;
satu kubur kita berdua,
kanda di kanan saya di kiri.

kalau ada duit sekupang,
boleh beli cuka menaun;
habis padi burung terbang,
ulat tidak kenangkan daun.

bawa permata sampai ke lukut,
jatuh ke tanah gilang-gemilang;
kasih umpama embun di rumput,
datang mentari nescaya hilang.

cincin biru permata selan,
dibawa orang pergi meramu;
jika tidur pandanglah bulan,
dalam bulan kita bertemu.

buah berangan masaknya merah,
terbang kelekati dalam perahu;
luka di tangan nampak berdarah,
luka di hati tuhan yang tahu.

kapal berlabuh di lautan sisi,
patah puteri naga-naganya;
bantal dipeluk saya tangisi,
hendak mati rasa-rasanya.

padi dituai antara masak,
esok jangan layu-layuan;
hendak menangis bukannya budak,
tidak berguna padamu tuan.

pagi-pagi awan berlari,
bintang sebiji membelah bukit,
bukit tinggi menjulang awan,
bukit bernama gunung ledang;
kalau dapat gambar di hati,
dunia dipandang tinggal sedikit,
ditutup oleh wajahmu tuan,
hingga aku buta memandang.

lubuk paik lubuknya dalam,
anak seluang jatuh ke riba;
mimpi baik saya semalam,
mimpi bulan jatuh ke riba.

kalau tuan mudik ke hulu,
kirimkan saya sebiji nangka;
kalau tuan pergi dahulu,
nantikan saya di pintu neraka.

Monday 7 January 2008

Jury duty in France

At the end of this month I will fly to France to serve on the International Jury for the 30th Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. I have to watch 73 short films! But since this festival is supposed to be the best one of its kind in Europe, it's bound to be fun.

(Check out some of the brilliant posters it has had over the years, too).

I will also represent the Malaysian shorts in that festival's South-East Asia focus this year. (I didn't do the selection, so don't blame me if some of my own stuff is there). The section is punningly called Tropical Melody,a reference to a brilliant Thai feature film. (But wouldn't Tropical Medley have made more sense?) So for the festival catalogue I wrote a short overview of Malaysian shorts, with this as the opening paragraph:

Because Malaysia is so very bourgeois compared to the rest of South-East Asia (with the noble exception of Singapore), shorts used to be a waste of time. We have no tradition of independent artists or filmmakers making shorts, such as Indonesia’s Gotot Prakosa.

Since I refuse to be outdone in the pun stakes, the essay is called Waiting For Gotot.

Laugh la...

Friday 4 January 2008

My intro to 'Glimpses'

Good Neighbours: The Art of Adibah Amin

If you are a Malaysian who is picking up this book, chances are you will be familiar with Adibah Amin’s recently reissued, two-volume As I Was Passing, first published as newspaper columns in the 1970s. If so, you will certainly need no further encouragement – from me or anyone else – to get your grubby mitts on Glimpses.

The articles here were written more than a decade after As I Was Passing, and although Adibah’s inimitable wit and warmth continue to shine through, there are greater hints that things are not going so well with the Malaysian project.

The multicultural ease of Malaysians as recorded in As I Was Passing seems to be under threat, due to increasingly entrenched communal sentiments. Racial jokes that used to be taken in good fun by one and all now have a darker undertow. (It has been said that Malaysians are becoming more sensitive, but the opposite is true: We are becoming more insensitive).

What happened in the meantime? Perhaps the capitalist short-cuts of the 1980s put too much emphasis on physical monuments, brushing aside intangible but arguably more important things. But once we have bolted out the door, is it still possible to go back and retrieve what we forgot?

It is a measure of Adibah’s moral strength that she neither sweeps these problems under the carpet nor seeks escape into an unreconstructed nostalgia based on an idyllic past. Although she notes that Malaysians seem to be getting further apart (and drawn together mainly on food-laden occasions such as festive holidays) she is well aware of the structural inequalities that have given rise to this. These inequalities ¬– and attendant insensitivities – are at the root cause of the polarisation that she laments.

Adibah is able to put herself into the footwear – be it the leather sandals, terompah or humble selipar Jepun – of others. This is not as easy an accomplishment as it sounds, especially in a society where you can get very far by playing your racial or religious card. A demagogue would see the rights and even basic existence of the Other as a threat. Adibah is the opposite of a demagogue.

The level of empathy she displays could only have come about through a keen intelligence, instinctive curiosity and a firm sense of fair play. Her pride in our imagined community isn’t of the obnoxious bragging variety; we all know that bragging is a sign of insecurity, anyway. She continues to have hope because she has met some very good people, and knows that there are many more out there. And goodness has certainly never been the monopoly of any particular group of people.

To pick just one seemingly innocuous example: Her essay on some neighbours she has known sneaks in the word ‘temples’, the sole indication that the family she’s speaking of must be from a different faith. Nowadays, when temples (or mosques, or churches) became part of public discussion, they would just as likely become signifiers in the contested terrain of ‘our rights’ versus ‘their rights.’ And how many of us now would fail to foreground a person’s creed the moment we refer to him or her? But Adibah concentrates, with sly wit, on the more important qualities – such as the simple ability to return borrowed items! – that a good neighbour should possess.

A particularly striking essay, one of the longest here, is on the implications of Merdeka. Read in the context of our national orgy of self-congratulation (which often became the exclusive channel for the political elite to promote and perpetuate its hegemonic legacy), it shines like a star in a fog-filled sky. How many writers could point out that there are many other political fighters, particularly of the leftist variety, that have been forgotten? Or to mention the perception (perhaps silenced now) that our Independence was a relatively painless and contingent one compared to what our neighbours can boast of? Or, perhaps more importantly, to listen to what the young, seemingly apolitical, voices have to say without hectoring them into submission? That she can accomplish all this and more, while never seeming to have an axe to grind, is testament enough to her artistry.

Part of this artistry is the ability to render ideas in concrete, personal terms. In recognizing the integrity of the whistle-blowing schoolgirl in the case of the leaked exam papers, she invites us to ponder the bigger implications of living in a time when we often ‘close one eye’ to corruption. And her unusually intimate account of the breakdown of a relationship due to the man’s surprising (to the woman) reliance on patriarchal power tropes strikes you in the heart. Self-deprecating but no pushover, she knows when something’s amiss.

Fifty years after our much-vaunted Merdeka, there are precious few writers who have managed to achieve the pan-national appeal of Lat, P. Ramlee or Sudirman. Adibah would seem to be the fittest candidate: her unassuming demeanour, transparent prose and disarming humour are for keeps.

Humour, oh yes! Although this Introduction is sadly free of them, the book itself is full of jokes, trust me. I laughed many times – and so will you, unless you are a really uptight type, in which case you are better off reading one of those ‘How to be a millionaire or die trying’ things that will be abundant in the bookshop where you picked this up.

Her humour is often pointed but never cynical. If a cynic is one who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing” (who said this? what do I look like, the Google page?) then Adibah is empathically not a cynic. She ain’t too impressed by price-tags, but she knows what truly matters – and even if you were broke, her “love don’t cost a thing” (to quote a slightly different Western icon).

If we had more neighbours like Adibah, none of us will ever think of moving away.

Thursday 3 January 2008

Malaysians in snow

The 18th edition of the Tromsø International Film Festival in Norway has a Malaysian Focus! This is on the heels of Tokyo, Pusan, San Francisco, Brisbane and all those other film festivals that have chosen to Focus on our country in the past three years or so.

The festival runs 15-20 January and will show work by me, Yasmin Ahmad, Tan Chui Mui and James Lee. I would have liked to attend (I've never been so far north) but I had to turn down the invite since I have to concentrate on New Malaysian Essays 1.

Anyways, this is the Festival Director's introduction to the Malaysian section:

Even though I will not be shooting any new movies for at least a few years, it does my heart good (it sure does) that our work manages to travel somehow. But home is where it's at.

Wednesday 2 January 2008

Malaysian box-office 2007

1. Jangan Pandang Belakang (director: Ahmad Idham, company: Metrowealth): RM6.3 mil
2. Otai (Razak Mohaideen, Line Clear/Grand Brilliance): RM3.5 mil
3. Nana Tanjung 2 (Razak Mohaideen, Line Clear/Grand Brilliance): RM2.5 mil
4. Zombi Kampung Pisang (Mamat Khalid, Tayangan Unggul): RM2.4 mil
5. Impak Maksima (Ahmad Idham, Metrowealth): RM2.1 mil
6. Mukhsin (Yasmin Ahmad, Grand Brilliance): RM2 mil
7. Waris Jari Hantu (Shuhaimi Baba, Pesona): RM1.7 mil
8. Qabil Qhushri Qabil Igam (Zaili Sulan, Sonata): RM1.6 mil
9. Anak Halal (Osman Ali, Tayangan Unggul): RM1.5 mil [*completed screening Jan 2008]
10 = Sumolah (Afdlin Shauki, Vision Works): RM1.2 mil
10 = 9 September (Pierre Andre, Metrowealth): RM1.2 mil
12. Puaka Tebing Biru (Osman Ali, Tayangan Unggul): RM1.03 mil
13. Chermin (Zarina Abdullah, Starry Eye): RM0.8 mil
14. Orang Minyak (Jamal Maarif & C.K. Karan, Infohibur): RM0.6 mil
15. Syaitan (Bade Azmi, Tayangan Unggul): RM0.5 mil
16. Haru Biru (Shadan Hashim, JAS): RM0.4 mil
17 = Diva (Sharad Sharan, Astro Shaw): RM0.3 mil
17 = Kayangan (Raja Ahmad Alauddin, Raden Pictures): RM0.3 mil
17 = 1957: Hati Malaya (Shuhaimi Baba, Pesona): RM0.3 mil
20. Budak Lapok (Anwardi Jamil, Matahari): RM 0.2 mil
21. Cinta Yang Satu (Zulkiflie M Osman, Wan's): RM0.1 mil

a) There were only 21 films released widely last year, a drop from 26 of the previous year. This despite the fact that more films are being made than ever. What gives?
b) There are five first-time directors: Zarina, Zaili, Pierre, Osman, and the team of Jamal & C.K.
c) Sharad is the only expat; he has made a previous Bollywood movie.
d) Two of the films explicitly invoke old movies (Budak Lapok riffs on the Bujang Lapok series; and Orang Minyak does the same to the three films (one lost) with the words Orang Minyak in them.
e) Contrary to the thesis advanced by smart-alecks of the past, people stayed away most from the only film that had 'cinta' in the title!
f) The most prolific director is Razak Mohaideen who's made 21 films.
g) Two films have the directors also acting in the lead role: Sumolah and 9 September
h) In contrast to the last 2 years, there are no widely-released local feature films in languages other than Malay.
i) For some much-needed perspective: Transformers made over RM18 million in Malaysia. And Sivaji made over RM8 million. If we were to compile a Malaysian Top 10 of 2007 regardless of film origin, only one local flick would be on it.

Tuesday 1 January 2008

Love in the time of Emergency

(The January issue of TELL magazine kicks off my year-long column on old Malay movies. Here is the first one. You should still get the magazine because of a 6-page Scary Datin Fashion Parade that has already provided much joy around here. TELL doesn't have a decent website but a Nigerian magazine of the same name does).

The oldest surviving Malay movie is called Cinta (or, to use the spelling of the time, Chinta). It was released on 31 October 1948 even though it is not a Halloween-themed movie. So this year marks its 60th anniversary. It is also the 75th anniversary of the first (now lost) Malay film, Laila Majnun (1933).

To celebrate this double anniversary, I will talk about selected old Malay movies, chronologically. My definition of “old” is a shamelessly subjective one: “before I was born.” So we will travel from 1948 to 1972.

Watching Cinta for the first time, what struck me most is how erotic it is! Most of it is set on a fishing island, where the pace of life is idyllic. There are plenty of bare shoulders and thighs on display, and lots of time to cavort while singing and partying. In fact, there’s a conspicuous lack of actual fishing going on.

Siput Serawak plays a damsel who is very forthright indeed. When two strangers wash ashore after a shipwreck, she immediately takes a fancy to the younger and handsomer one; he is played by S Roomai Noor. She literally takes him by the hand to go swimming and they sing about the birds and the bees. This is intercut with actual footage of insects landing on flowers. The sea is always available to them, since no one seems to be fishing.

Surprisingly, her father never retorts with “You’re not going out dressed like that, Missy!” Although not explicitly referenced except for two mentions of ‘dewa’ (and an actual Balinese-style idol statue) the setting is somewhat pagan, so there is no danger of khalwat squads busting them.

Unknown to Siput, Roomai is actually the King of the neighbouring Indrapura. He just doesn’t want to reveal his identity. This is OK; her love don’t cost a thing. The two have such great sexual chemistry that it continued into real life, for the couple then wed to give the world a diva named Anita Sarawak.

The only person unhappy with this liaison is a poor fisherman, (played by P. Ramlee in his first role) who has the hots for Siput.

When Cinta was released, the Federation of Malaya had just entered a state of Emergency. A few months earlier, rogue communists had killed European plantation managers, and this marked the state of curfews and a clampdown on freedom of association. Left-wing parties were banned. These parties had just a year before organized a very successful nationwide strike that threatened to cripple the economy. So 1948 marked the decline of leftist influence. These parties were the first to call for Merdeka. As of 1948, the slogan for the 2-year old UMNO was still ‘Hidup Melayu” rather than a call for independence.

This backdrop of political agitation is mirrored in only an oblique way in Cinta. The second half of the film contains a flashback that reveals Siput’s true identity: She’s actually a princess who was smuggled out of her kingdom (Indrapura!) to escape a murderous coup. The guard who smuggled her out had been raising her as his own daughter. (Perhaps his awareness of her royal status is what prevented him from lecturing her on the impropriety of cavorting with a male stranger. Either that, or he’s a liberal).

Since we now know that both of them are from the Indrapura royal family, I was kinda worried that I had been watching a film about incest. But it’s not that: Roomai is actually the son of the successful, now deceased, coup leader. But then again, since many royal tussles take place between siblings, perhaps the two are cousins after all?

So her step-father tells Siput that she must avenge the death of her parents. How? By killing the current King. She doesn’t know how he looks like, but she agrees to go on a regicide mission. (There were no photographs at that time. Otherwise, she would have noticed her lover’s portrait hanging on the wall of every government department and most mamak restaurants she passes).

She and her step-father sneak into the palace and almost kill the King in his sleep. But this will not be a tragedy. There is a ‘recognition scene’ and she also recognises the futility of revenge – just in time for a happy ending. Even P. Ramlee, instead of vowing his own revenge for losing the girl, is left singing the blues with his mates.

The fact that a bloody coup could be resolved through the love of the next generation is a sweet one. The history of Malaya did not prove to be so forgiving. The Emergency, which was just starting, is among the longest and bloodiest undeclared wars in the history of the Commonwealth, with thousands of casualties on each side. All you need is love, eh?