Wednesday 25 March 2009

The Malay/sian dilemma

SAYA PUN MELAYU by Zaid Ibrahim (ZI Publications, 2009, 311 pages)

This is a well-timed missive. While the author’s first book In Good Faith (2007) was cobbled together from speeches and essays, Saya Pun Melayu has the more coherent feel of a sustained argument.

I hope that, instead of snoozing through speeches, delegates at a certain party assembly can while away the time in a crowded, air-conditioned hall by reading this instead. It will prove much less soporific.

It’s not for nothing that the first other local book he cites is Dr. Mahathir’s The Malay Dilemma. Both of them were by opinionated politicians who had previously made names for themselves in non-political fields, and written right after they were expelled from UMNO!

But there are differences, too. The Malay Dilemma was first written in English for a British publisher, while this is in the ancestral language of the people it most urgently addresses. This has nothing to do with the ethno-nationalist credentials of either man, just differing realities of the publishing industry.

A more important difference is that while the older book had an “Us vs. Them” worldview, this seeks to articulate a Malay nationalism that is simultaneously a Malaysian nationalism.

If Saya Pun Melayu is also a wake-up call, it’s less for any particular hegemonic party to reform itself, but for the Malaysian polity as a whole to reorient ourselves to a new scenario where justice and accountability must become more important than ethno-centric conduct.

Zaid Ibrahim starts by reminding us that he is our shortest-serving Cabinet Minister ever. (Compilers of The Malaysia Book of Records, take note!) Roped in by the Badawi administration as de facto Law Minister last year, he resigned after only 6 months at the government’s decision to use the ISA against perceived political opponents.

He defends his decision, but wants to do much more. The very title Saya Pun Melayu immediately intrigues. The ‘pun’ (not in the ‘no pun intended’ sense) seeks to break ethnic identification with any particular party. For the Malay race to be vibrant, it should not be “united” if unity means a corrupt, unthinking consensus. Any race necessarily breaks up into different ideologies and inclinations; otherwise, everyone might as well be produced by factory assembly-line.

Two words that keep recurring in this book are bangga and malu. Both simple words, but with deep connotations, and certainly not as emotive or brow-beating as megah and perkasa for the former, or hina for the latter.

He is justly proud (bangga) that he is a self-made man who rose from a low-income background (walking 6 km to school in Kelantan, and even doing his own study in London because, possibly, a Mara scholarship contract made the mistake of not including his tuition fees!) to become a successful lawyer. It would be an insult to assume that all successful Malays had to depend mainly on race quotas to get ahead.

Malu in this book is more interesting. Aren’t Malays embarrassed (malu) to surrender their autonomy, integrity and self-respect to an establishment that commits all kinds of hijinks and discrimination in their name? Shouldn’t Malays also be embarrassed to keep ‘threatening’ non-Malays even though it’s the latter group that pays the taxes to make the government bureaucracy such a generous employer?

It’s not all doom and gloom. He cites examples from past politicians, and artists like P. Ramlee, who didn’t resort to reactionary defensiveness. Those men and women had cosmopolitan ease and principled stances, as opposed to the desperate politicos who play the race card to get ahead.

By being in Malay, this is an important book to indigenise democratic dissent. Words like liberal and (gasp!) secular are approvingly invoked, and their benefits are shown through anecdotes near and far. Asking a Malay-Muslim to imagine what would happen to one of their kind in, say, China if that country preached ‘ethnic Chinese supremacy’ is one such example.

The middle section is a memoir, but there are some tantalising gaps. Was he really so naïve to be shocked, at age 42, that he could not win even a low-level UMNO contest without having a ‘godfather’ from HQ? Why did he join the party in the first place, when his father was an avid PAS supporter? And why don’t we get insider gossip on the workings of UEM, the company that made his corporate name when he was entrusted to represent it?

The last one might be asking too much. Zaid’s vision of a mature society where right trumps might, and where we all have a place in the sun, should be enough to call this The Malay Dilemma Revisited if that title wasn’t already taken by Bakri Musa. There is also impish humour: he affirms the Federal Constitution as the nation’s highest law, regardless of whether we do yoga or not.

(Malay Mail, 25 March)

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Did I just buy the only Malaysian copy of this book?

Among the great hikayats, serats and sukuns that have emanated from the Indonesian-Malaysian archipelago, the Javanese courtly epic the Serat Centhini has to stand heads and shoulders above the rest ...

I first heard the Serat Centhini discussed when I lived in Jakarta 5 years ago; and since I didn't just nongkrong with pervs (although I did dugem with a few of them) it was not just for the Kama Sutra elements of the text, either. I never got the chance to read it.

So it's with some joy that I found out, via the ever-vigilant Farish (read his review here), that a comprehensive English rendition is available. I called up a few Malaysian bookshops. Kinokuniya didn't have it; neither did the entire Popular chain. There was only one copy in one MPH store (Subang Parade), and that is now mine.

Monday 23 March 2009

"Malaysian Gods" at UiTM Shah Alam this Wed.

Malaysia / 2009 / 70 Minutes / in Tamil with English subtitles

Wednesday / 25 March 2009 / 8.10pm
Studio Pancha Delima, Academic Building, UiTM Kampus Puncak Perdana

*The director Amir Muhammad will be in attendance for Q&A
FREE Admission / ALL are welcome


Thursday 19 March 2009

Now on DVD: 'Bukak Api' + 'Malaikat Di Jendela'

Bukak Api (2000) is a groundbreaking movie which started life as an educational video for the transsexual prostitutes of Chow Kit. But it evolved into something richer: an entertaining, deliberately melodramatic and highly impassioned defense of difference. It was never officially acknowledged as a 'film', but its 80 minutes glitter with chutzpah and compassion: one of the real achievements in modern Malaysian cinema. It's certainly the ultimate portrait of nocturnal KL.

Although the director Osman Ali was later given bigger much budgets for Puaka Tebing Biru and Anak Halal, those never quite captured the initial spirit he displayed here.

Now it is finally on DVD and can be ordered here! It includes Osman's very pretty 30-minute short Malaikat Di Jendela.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Brave new world

MARCH 8: THE DAY MALAYSIA WOKE UP by Kee Thuan Chye (Marshall Cavendish, 2008, 324 pages)

This book has been around for many a moon but I deliberately waited until the first anniversary of the titular date to begin reading it. I wanted to see how much of it would ‘hold up’, and on this count alone the book does succeed.

Kee Thuan Chye’s Introduction and opening chapter breathlessly recount his spine-tingling excitement at the result of our last General Elections. The great change that has taken place can be found in his words right there: just five years ago, for example, would a highly-placed editor in a nation-building paper like The Star have been brave enough to say that he’s always supported and voted for the Opposition? He’d more likely have been told to get a job at a non-existent paper like The Moon instead.

This, more than any statistic or data analysis, confirms the optimistic premise of this book: Malaysians have finally shown that we are capable of living without fear (Well, on a pedantic note: He’s no longer an Opposition supporter, at least not at the State levels of Penang ,where he’s from, and Selangor, where he lives.)

Kee’s is the only name on the front cover, but it’s more accurate for him to get an editor credit than an authorial one. There are many essays here by other public intellectuals who seek to answer the “why?” and venture thoughts on the “what next?” There are also interviews with politicians and members of media and civil society, and most of them are indeed sober and considered.

The few that are not so sober and considered provide, not surprisingly, the most memorable sections. To pick just three:

I loved Ann Lee’s Sabahan perspective; she moved effortlessly from childhood memories of collecting yo-yos to explaining why the citizens of her home state have every right to be peeved at how much they have been used and abused by the mainstream political machine.

I was also thoroughly charmed by Anil Netto’s debut venture (as far as I know) into printed fiction. He posits a utopian future for Penang, which is now so environmentally sound and effortlessly egalitarian that it reads like the optimistic version of Iain Buchanan’s Fatimah’s Kampung.

Among the interviews, the most attention-grabbing was Raja Petra Kamarudin’s. It’s in his trademark provocateur style, although he’s one of the few who says that if the Malay masses knew that they would get this result, they would have voted differently. It’s just a short remark but it helps to temper the sadly unfounded theory that Malaysians have finally gotten rid of racial politics. Raja Petra chooses to be coy only on the subject that forms the title of his interview: “How big are your balls?” And for this we can only be grateful; although I am in favour of a Freedom of Information Act, there is such a thing as knowing too much.

We are a year older, and Malaysians are getting sick of politicians. (That’s why I’m not mentioning any of their names here.) The Government has not learned to be fully responsive to the people, and some in the Opposition seem addicted to gimmicks, such as the alarming plan to take over the nation via defections.

In hindsight, this book would have benefitted from a chapter on the role of an unelected institution like the monarchy, to show that even non-politicians can have crucial political roles – that is, if we allow them. It should also have included some of the BN titans who suffered at the polls – were they not approached? It would have been fun to see their views challenged, or for them to challenge the editor’s views.

For views on how to improve the political situation, just pop into one of our warung kopi or engage the services of a garrulous taxi-driver. I wish there were a few chapters of that sort. We already hear a lot from the urban liberal intelligentsia. (But you know we love you!) For starters: having elections very regularly, every four years or so, would surely get rid of some unproductive suspense, and avoid the dates always favouring the incumbent … although they did seem to miscalculate this time.

I would like the incumbent coalition to some day become a good opposition front. The keyword here is ‘good.’ It would be good for the Malaysian psyche to have different people taking turns to represent us, so that we can further learn to separate party from government. Most countries in the world can do this without undue fuss, so what makes us so special?

Such a result would also be good for the present-day incumbents. Not holding Federal power will help the parties get rid of unwanted baggage in the form of hangers-on who are just in it for the cash and glory. This will help to strengthen and streamline the parties to really focus on delivering the goods.

Is this as much a dream as Anil Netto’s non-polluting tram cars of the future Penang? I think not. Just because we have woken up, this doesn’t mean we should ever stop dreaming. Remember: the ‘balls’ are firmly in our court.

(Malay Mail, 18 March)

Thursday 12 March 2009

"Malaysian Gods" premiere & discussion in Singapore International Film Festival

World Premiere

MALAYSIAN GODS/2009/70min/Tamil with English subtitles

In September 1998, Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. His expulsion and subsequent trial for corruption and sodomy triggered a wave of street protests that gave birth to the 'reformasi' (reformation) movement.

Malaysian Gods revisits the actual locations of the demonstrations, about a decade later, and talks to the people who are living and working there to find out what has changed since then.

An informal seminar titled "Post-Reformasi Malaysian Society and Cinema" will be held before its world premiere to discuss the forces which helped to bring about that unprecedented movement in Malaysian society, its impact on artists and the young, as well as changes that have taken place in national cinema since then.

The panelists are Dr. Ooi Kee Beng of the Institute of South-East Asian Studies (ISEAS) (author of, among others, The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr. Ismail and His Time), Charlene Rajendran (writer of the forthcoming Taxi Tales on a Crooked Bridge), and Malaysian Gods director Amir Muhammad.

Tickets (S$9.50) go on sale this weekend for the general public! Booking link here. Hope to see you there :-)

Event: 22nd Singapore International Film Festival
Venue: Guinness Theatre, The Substation
Date: 18 April, Saturday
Time: 11.30am

Wednesday 11 March 2009

Sex and the city

URBAN ODYSSEYS: KL Stories edited by Janet Tay and Eric Forbes (MPH, 2009, 339 pages)

This handsomely produced volume is a good excuse to talk about Malaysian Literature in English (MLE). Like the dragon of Lake Chini, the MLE is a semi-mythical creature that is occasionally discussed but never parades itself in public; it’s not even known whether it has any offspring.

Oh, there have been occasional sightings over the decades. The late Lloyd Fernando edited a few anthologies of local English stories. Then came Skoob Books, Rhino Press and most recently Silverfish -- all eager to prove that the shy monster does exist and is very approachable, and for only a modest fee.

Something sexier is needed. There are many things that can be done with English, either in public or behind closed doors, but our official policy has always made it utilitarian. It’s a dead giveaway that out of all possible subjects to be taught in English, the government chose Science and Mathematics – left-brain, IQ-intensive, upwardly mobile realms. But you can only learn to love a language once it stops being respectable!

Urban Odysseys: KL Stories is the latest attempt (by the private sector, of course) to sex things up. This anthology of mainly fictional stories (with a sprinkling of essays) is set against the city that a French writer almost a century ago dubbed Kuala L’impur – because of our many brothels. The bright lights of the big city still illuminate all kinds of grime and sleaze, so it’s a very good place to start.

It goes without saying (which isn’t gonna stop me from saying it) that any anthology is a mixed bunch. So this collection isn’t as consistently enjoyable as, say, Shih-Li Kow’s Ripples and Other Stories, which you should rush out and get if you have not. The sublime and the boring rub up against one another like so many harried LRT passengers – but the journey’s the thing!

KL is mainly a Cantonese-speaking city with most signs in Malay, so where does English fit in? There’s a small typo on the lucky page 88, where teh tarik becomes the tarik. I draw your attention to it not out of schadenfreude (God knows the books I publish have enough typos) but it’s oddly troubling that such an iconic local beverage tends to get automatically ‘corrected’ (into a mistake) each time you type it on a computer. Does our local reality resist being rendered in English?

It doesn’t have to, as long as the writer has a good ear. The best stories in here burst with life, while the worst merely pile on details without the benefit of a pulse, and just don’t sound right. Malaysians spend more time talking than thinking (oh, listen to me!) so if the dialogue is off, the rest of the story often collapses, and I don’t care how eloquent those interior monologues are.

I’d like to concentrate on my three favourite stories here. If you’re a cheapskate you might want to read them for free at the bookstore, but the crafty editors chose relatively long stories (average length: 15 pages) and besides, what makes you so sure we have the same taste?

Preeta Samarasan’s Rukun Tetangga starts in a shopping mall – which, as a KL story, already sounds so right. We follow a conscientious but lightly eccentric man as he seeks to rid the city of those nasty kidnappers of children he has been reading about. We are totally in his power-walking shoes throughout, and it looks like it will all end horribly for him – and in a subtle way it does, but not in the way we had expected. It’s an acute, affectionate but quietly devastating snapshot of human values in the age of surveillance.

Ho Sui Jim’s Bentong delightfully reminded me of the opening chapter of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Instead of pasta, it’s mutton curry that’s being cooked. And it’s the cook’s husband that’s missing, not a cat. A rambunctious comedy that I wanted to go on forever, and the scene in Puduraya (horrors!) is a particularly pitch-perfect treat.

Jennifer Tai’s Small Mother is an old-fashioned melodrama, right down to the thunder and lightning at the end, and so what? You can feel the passage of time (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) and those sepia-tinted interactions at the hair salon achieve an erotic frisson all the more potent for being so buttoned-up.

It was only when I read the biographical notes at the end that I realised all three of those writers live overseas! What gives? But perhaps we shouldn’t get all worked up about that; KL, like many cities, treats transience as a constant. And we should be happy there was a muddy confluence that enabled the stories in this book to come together in this way, to make us stop and see things anew – at least until we are taken at the next flood.

(Malay Mail, 11 March)

Monday 9 March 2009

Towards a Malay novel canon for the 20th century

Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in association with a company called Rhythm Consolidated has come up with a list of the 42 most important Malay novels of the 20th century. (Why 42? Who knows?) The novels are being reprinted in hardcover (I just saw a whole bunch at Kinokunya), but they are being rolled out gradually rather than all at once.

Unfortunately the list doesn't seem to be anywhere online, so I will type it out myself from the back pages of one of the novels I bought. 2/3 of the novels have been released so far. In chronological order:

1932: Melati Sarawak - Muhammad Rakawi Yusuf

1939: Melati Kota Bharu - A. Kadir Adabi

1959: Musafir - Hasan Ali

1961: Salina - A. Samad Said

1963: Tikus Rahmat - Hassan Ibrahim

1964: Desa Pingitan - Ibrahim Omar

1966: Biru Warna - Awang Had Salleh

1971: Interlok - Abdullah Hussein

1971: Sandera - Arena Wati

1973: Srengenge - Shahnon Ahmad

Juara - S. Othman Kelantan

Hari-Hari Terakhir Seorang Seniman - Anwar Ridhwan

1979: Ngayau - Amil Jaya

1981-5: Lepaskan Aku Kembali Ke Laut (Vol 1-3) - Shaari Isa

1982: Saudagar Besar Dari Kuala Lumpur - Keris Mas

Seorang Tua di Kaki Gunung - Azizi Haji Abdullah

Rimba Harapan - Keris Mas

1986: Senjakala - Baharuddin Kahar

1987: Hujan Pagi - A. Samad Said

Sakura Mengorak Kelopak - Arena Wati

Tunggul-Tunggul Gerigis - Shahnon Ahmad

Empangan - Zakaria Ali

1990: Jaringan - Rosmini Shaari

1993: Panrita - Arena Wati

1994: Pemberontakan - Jong Chian Lai

1996: Menongkah Lumrah - Azmah Nordin

So there are 14 titles yet to be released, anywhere from the years 1925 - 1996.

The ones in red are the ones I have read, or plan to get to any month now. (Ahem!)

Friday 6 March 2009


I am back, and hundreds of photos were taken, but somehow I wanted to share this sight, which was next to our hotel in Mexico City:

An ad for an upscale department store that reads: "Better to have 365 Days of Style than One Hundred Years of Solitude."

I await a Malaysian insurance billboard that says: "Lebih Baik Panas ke Petang Daripada Hujan Pagi."

* Photo by one of our guides, Gaby, who found the sight blasphemous!

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Fine young jihadists

DETEKTIF INDIGO by Faisal Tehrani (Utusan, 2005, 188 pages)

The author of last week’s Tuhan Manusia has written many other novels throughout his career. In fact, he’s been winning prizes since he was a teenager, the lucky thing.

His earlier books Cinta Hari-Hari Rusuhan and Perempuan Politikus Melayu were, by his own reckoning, substantively different from his recent output. Although similarly concerned with social justice, they were in a more populist form. But he has since disowned such a ‘secular’ format and now writes from a theologically censorious perspective.

A good illustration of this epistemic shift can be found by contrasting his sensuous appreciation of Yasmin Ahmad’s film Rabun (2003) against his shrill attack on the same director’s Gubra (2007).

Some of his latter books, such as 1515, can be described as Occidental re-imaginings of the Malay-Muslim world’s encounters with the West. Others, such as Bila Tuhan Berbicara, adopted radically different forms (in this case, a theatrical format, the least playful play you will ever read) all the better to cram in as much pious didacticism as space permits.

You’d have to be privy to contemporary Islamist discourse here to appreciate that he isn’t your garden-variety conservative, however. He has written much about the need to be sympathetically inclusive when it comes to Shi’ite beliefs (Tehrani itself is a pen-name) and this has been enough to brand him some kind of deviant. It’s a measure of Malay-Muslim complacency that no one wants to question why the Shi’ite belief is still banned in Malaysia, despite the fact that Iran is probably the most intellectually and scientifically progressive state in that region.

But is it all heavy-going? Faisal is not even 35 yet; surely he’s capable of fun? Well, here’s his lighter mode: a children’s book! Detektif Indigo reminded me a bit of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, although a character in it does made a reference to JK Rowling’s enduring creation. To be precise, Harry Potter is referred to as “si ahli sihir bodoh”.

The Indigo Detectives are students at a top-secret academy for super-bright Muslims. They not only have high IQs, some have psychic powers or are gifted in endeavours such as music. (See kids, music isn’t haram, but one must make sure one’s music exists to increase devotion to God, rather than to shake one’s booty.) No wonder a non-religious boy-wizard seems stupid in comparison.

When I read the back-cover synopsis and saw names like Cheng-Chung and Izamu, I thought that this book would feature some non-Muslim protagonists, for a change. The joke’s on me: both are not only Muslims, but very good ones too. It’s the author’s way of making sure Islam is always bigger than Malayness, although local right-wing political demagoguery would conflate the two.

But the fact that this academy only has Muslim teachers (of all races, natch) does make one wonder: would non-Muslim staff seem contaminating? We all groaned at the Ali, Ah Chong and Ramasamy of primary school text-books, but won’t their world have seemed much blander if they had only one religion among them?

Take the case of the fat girl Mihrimah. Her corpulence could easily have triggered an authorial sermon on the dangers of greed and sloth, but her tubbiness is taken as cute. But even this chub has a religiously self-righteous side. She actually tells a non-Muslim doctor that the latter should “menemukan agama yang betul dan akidah yang suci.” And this is someone she just met! If I were Dr. Nancy, I’d slap the sanctimonious tubbo enough to make her chins wobble.

And when it turns out Izamu knows how to make a bomb, his joking explanation is that Muslims have been victims for so long, it’s time they (or we) learned to fight back. At least, I hope he’s joking; I don’t hear enough Japanese Muslim humour to know for sure.

One of the signs of an indigo child (the term actually originates from New Age types in the West) is rebellion towards authority. But the 12-year olds here never question the point of anti-khalwat patrols in their midst, so I suppose some forms of rebellion are more kosher than others.

The novel mixes Islamist revivalism with wishful thinking. The academy is shaped like a pentagon (read: Pentagon) but with a mosque at its centre, which says it all. This is a world where the Organisation of Islamic Countries is efficient enough to fund an academic institution and keep it a secret from everybody else, and where the Malaysian Prime Minister doesn’t shake women’s hands.

But it clips along at a fast pace, and is actually fun. It’s like eating a bowl of cendol that contains a few bits of incongruous gristle – but the Jews among us can rest easy: it’s made from beef bacon.

(Malay Mail, 4 March)

Tuesday 3 March 2009


MPH Local Non-Fiction Bestsellers
for the Week Ending 1 March

1. Mahathir Mohamad: An Illustrated Biography by E. Yu

2. Eat Well, Live Well: Your Healthy Lifestyle Guide by Chia Joo Suan

3. Malaysian Politicians Say the Darndest Things (Vol 2) by Amir Muhammad

4. 50 Days: Rantings by MM by Marina Mahathir

5. Urban Odysseys: KL Stories edited by Janet Tay and Eric Forbes

6. You Wear Suspenders? - The Wordy Tales of Eh Poh Nim by Lydia Teh

7. Supermodel’s Secret of Success by Amber Chia

8. Blog Merentasi Halangan by Mahathir Mohamad

9. Politik Baru:Mematangkan Demokrasi Malaysia (Bilingual) by Saifuddin Abdullah

10. Buat Duit dengan Ikan Keli by Mohd Fakhrulrazi Safiai

Sunday 1 March 2009

Entries closed

Entries are now closed for Body 2 Body, Malaysia's first queer anthology. We received 59 submissions. If you want to get mathematical about it, this is 47.5% more than our target. Almost half the entries were sent on the last 2 days.

Thank you for your stories and essays! The deadline will not be extended.

The two editors, Jerome Kugan and Pang Khee Teik (as quoted in!) will now select their 20 favourite entries. The identities of the writers have been hidden from them, so it will be interesting to see who gets picked.

The writers will be informed in about a month. Looks like we are on track for a launch in early August, so wish us luck! I trust that this ground-breaking anthology will drop a few jaws, melt a few hearts, and quicken a few pulses -- and that's just the Introduction.