Wednesday 7 May 2008

# 1 / 60

Today I will begin my new weekly column in Malay Mail (the revamp seems to have removed 'The' from the paper's name). This will be my first time writing for this paper.

It's called Pulp Friction, and I will devote each article to one local book. Most of the books will be new but some will be older, including some out-of-print titles. The column is meant to flow from one book to another.

I was inspired to do this after reading Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column in The Believer magazine.

The idea is to get around 60 pieces, which will then be rewritten slightly and reformatted as a book! Just like Nick (he seems so matey so I will just call him Nick) did with The Polysyllabic Spree. I will need to find another publisher for this, as Matahari Books does not republish newspaper columns, so there.

The first piece:

More fun than Ziana Zain

Keganasan, Penipuan & Internet: Hegemoni Media Daulah Pecah
By Hishamuddin Rais (SIRD, 292 pages, 2008).

The name Ziana Zain pops up quite a few times in this new book by Hishamuddin Rais. She doesn’t appear on the cover, though. That honour is reserved for an inadvertently famous Mongolian named Altantuya.

The juxtaposition of the sultry chanteuse and the tragic model/interpreter is enough to give a clue as to the contents of Keganasan, Penipuan & Internet. It looks at current issues (most often political) through an accessible, even pop, gaze. The sub-title adds that the State’s media hegemony has been broken. (So now you know what daulah means!)

Although the pieces were written before the March 8, they offer a refreshing primer on the public groundswell of discontent that the Barisan Nasional government ignored at its own peril. The trouble with the BN is that it started to believe its own hype, as churned out by its mostly docile print and electronic media. And Hishamuddin’s columns here appeared not in the mainstream Malay or English press but Oriental Daily, Suara Keadilan and Malaysia Today.

BN’s arrogant incumbency was ample fodder for a satirist and libertarian hipster like Hishamuddin, as the nightly news becomes a rich source of comedy. And he often takes things further than others would. For example, while conservatives and liberals wrestled over just how ‘offensive’ the Negarakuku music video was, he gleefully points out that our national anthem is itself copied from foreigners. (For added measure, he wants us to know that our flag is, too).

Rather than make piecemeal suggestions on how the government can improve (which is what most of our captive liberal columnists would timorously do) he opines that the whole system itself is rotten. If it cannot even acknowledge how our nation was built (on the blood of leftist fighters), then what hope does this Establishment have of survival? More to the point: Is its continued survival such a good thing?

But his targets aren’t confined to corruption scandals and official doublespeak: the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ noveaux riche pretensions of Malaysian, particularly Malay, society are also a gift that keeps on giving.

Hishamuddin is known as a former ISA detainee and former filmmaker, although these two facts are absent from his three-paragraph bio. More to the point would be his activities as a campus student leader in the early 1970s, before the University and University Colleges Act (UCCA) robbed student radicalism of its cojones. He fled the country for two decades following a government clampdown.

Hishamuddin’s politics are progressive and secular. Whenever he uses the word ‘we’, you can be sure he speaks not of the ruling or even liberal elite but of the street-level throb he experiences around him. There are very few Malay-language columnists like him, since he does not hide behind religious platitudes or academic bamboozling. There are, to be sure, atavistic echoes of Pak Sako and Salleh Ben Joned, who knew how to be earthy and jokey even when serious.

He is pithy, sarcastic, anecdotal: in Freudian terms he is a raging Id.

There are times when this becomes a problem. His championing of counter-cultural sources leads him to some dodgy places, such as giving the 911 conspiracy theorists credit for being far more respected than they are.

The phrase ‘champagne socialist’ is normally a putdown for bleeding-heart liberals who don’t have to sacrifice anything, but he wants to show that, if one is not too tied to dogma, it is possible to partake of both socialism and champagne as parts of a consistent lived philosophy of democratic enjoyment.

On the minus side: Like many Malaysian books, it’s actually a compilation of opinion pieces published over the years. Hishamuddin takes a dig at Ungku Aziz for never having written a real book, so I hope he can do better someday.

There are also more typographical errors than the norm. Some of it’s quite charming, because the writer still evidently uses old-fashioned Malay spelling, but if only it were used consistently …

Finally, this non-fiction book needs an Index. In this case the Index would contain items such as Firaun (look under: Mahathir) and of course Ziana Zain, She would be sandwiched somewhere between Zainuddin Maidin and zombie, which is not exactly where any kind of girl would like to be – and I don’t care how progressive she is.

(Malay Mail, 7 May 2008).


Anonymous said...

On both counts, a good first impression; your foray into Malay Mail and my first and only encounter with the maverick author (a mere bon vivant then). It started on a London tube, and what a memorable meeting that was (for me). I was with a friend who has met him before. He then invited us to his digs situated in an unfamiliar suburb in London. In the conversation with my friend on the tube, I remember he liked to use saucy French words such as amour. And yes, at his place, he reminisced about his MCKK and UM days … high table, Pak Ungku, etc etc. We listened to his bohemian rhapsody in rapt attention.

Amir Muhammad said...

There is already quite a discussion on this book over at Cari. Unfortunately none of the people discussing it have read it.

Burhan said...

like the part where you wrote isham rais is a "raging Id".

saat omar said...

great idea..local author really needs your treatment. But please dont just focus on Silverfish publication but also DBP and others too as well..good luck :)

Amir Muhammad said...

there have been 3 books so far, takde Silverfish pun! mwahaha!