Monday, 23 September 2013

Merdeka and Malaysia Day

I had begun writing for Sin Chew Jit Poh on 11 September 2013. Below is  my first article for them. I have no idea what title they used as I do not speak or read Mandarin, so the only reference I can give is the date of publication.


Last week was Merdeka Day and next week it will be Malaysia Day. It seems to me that over the past few years, every time these two celebrations come around, there is a great deal of hand wringing about how unpatriotic people have become. Desperate measures are then taken ranging from the usual finger wagging at the public, to the most recent government action of making cinemas play the Negaraku before the film screening.
The government acts as though the public’s perceived lack of patriotism is a personal affront to them. And therein lies the crux of the issue. Merdeka Day and Malaysia Day is about this country. It is a time to celebrate independence from the British and the partnership forged between the Western and Eastern parts of Malaysia. It is also a time to take stock of ourselves as a nation and to look forward to the future.
What it is not about, and should never be about is the government, or more specifically, the ruling political party. Unfortunately, this is what the official approach towards these two days, especially Merdeka Day, has been.
It is of course a crude oversimplification on the government’s part to take this approach. Any student of history will see that there were many players who had a role in the acquiring of independence. Not least the Malayan left wing whose activism scared the British into working with the current political elite. Let us not forget that in 1946 UMNO was not calling for independence, just the abolition of the Malayan Union, It was the PUTERA- AMCJA that actually called for independence.
So to simply hog all the glory on the part of UMNO, MCA and MIC is disingenuous and also not very accurate. Sure they were the ones who steered the country towards independence, but they were in no way the only ones.
Now fast forward fifty six years. After decades of propaganda where Merdeka is associated so intimately with the ruling political parties, we see a nation that is politically much divided. This is a natural thing as our foetal democracy develops and matures. But what it means is that over fifty per cent of the people in this country simply do not support the ruling parties.
How then can there be enthusiasm mustered for a celebration which is so intimately and purposefully linked to those political parties?
And when ordinary people try to raise the issue that UMNO MCA and MIC was one group amongst many in the quest for independence by symbolically unfurling the Sang Saka Malaya flag in Merdeka Square, they are arrested and charged with sedition. This shows a powerful desire on the part of the powers that be to have only their version of history known.
It is this narrow world view which makes it difficult for a thinking public not aligned with the ruling party to whole heartedly celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day. These celebrations have been hijacked by the ruling elite to be a celebration of them and only them; when really the celebration should be about us the people and the concept of our independent and free country.
If the government really cares about people celebrating these two historic occasions and showing some semblance of patriotism then they have to do two things. Firstly they have to make it absolutely clear that racist bigots who insist that this country is for only one race are not supported by them and that they will work towards a more just Malaysia. Secondly they should just stop the usual chest thumping every time late August and Mid-September comes up and leave the people to celebrate this time in any way we choose.
This is of course impossible and unlikely to the extreme. What is more likely and desirable is we the people simply reclaim these days as ours. We can begin by not allowing those who will divide us between first and second class citizens to cow us into submission. We can stand and fight for our rights and for our vision of a just Malaysia. We can then, if we choose, ignore the normal propaganda that comes with this season and celebrate Merdeka and Malaysia Day in our own way, whatever it may be. After all these days are ours, and not the governments.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Merging of three partners

Brave New World (The Star)
18 September 2013

This is reflected in the 18 and 20 point agreements that Sabah and Sarawak made when they decided to join Malaya and create Malaysia as well as the many special provisions put into the Constitution to cater to them.


I HOPE you had a good relaxing Malaysia Day break because I certainly did. Apart from the welcome two public holidays in close succession, the celebrating of Independence Day and Malaysia Day is one of those wonderfully weird things that make Malaysia unique.
It takes a bit of explaining to the non-Malaysian that’s for sure. I for one, embrace it.
I am very glad that Sabah and Sarawak decided to join with Malaya and create Malaysia. I like having these two states as part of the family.
The few times I have been to the East, have all been great fun. I would like to explore more of course, in particular I would like to visit the interior and experience life outside the big cities.
However, I don’t think I ever will because I don’t want to do so as a tourist.
There is something uncomfortably voyeuristic and slightly condescending when outsiders go to a village or a long house to watch the lives of “exotic” people. So, unless I’m invited by a mate to his home, this is one trip that isn’t going to happen.
Be that as it may, like I said earlier, I am very pleased that Sabah and Sarawak are there. I am not sure if our brothers and sisters over the South China Sea feel the same way though.
There is, I believe, some deep resentment towards Malaya. This takes the form of the material in the shape of natural resources that disproportionately comes this way, and the more ethereal, like the perceived lack of respect shown towards them.
I can understand such feelings. Although Sabah and Sarawak are listed as “states” of the Federation in the Constitution, they actually had the potential to be independent countries before they decided to form Malaysia with Malaya.
As such there is a justifiable belief that what Malaysia is, is more akin to a merging of three equal partners.
This is reflected in the 18 and 20 point agreements that Sabah and Sarawak made with Malaya as well as the many special provisions put into the Constitution to cater to them.
In 1963 there was a concern that Sabah and Sarawak were going to be overrun by Malayans and thus they would lose their identity and their autonomy. The agreements and the Constitutional Amendments were meant to ensure this did not happen.
In order to ensure that the peoples of the two Borneo states remain happy within this little Federation of ours, there is a need to revisit the implementation of the agreements and the Constitution.
Sabah and Sarawak, historically and legally, are not like the other states of this nation and thus need to be treated as such. A deal is a deal as they say.
On the more intangible issue of respect there has to be awareness on the part of Peninsular residents of just how much our Eastern cousins contribute to the wealth of the nation, economically and culturally. And this has to be done in a manner that is more than just skin deep and without the usual condescension thank you very much.
For this to happen, we need to hear the story of Sabah and Sarawak and their relationship with Malaya, from Sabahans and Sarawakians.
Maybe it has happened somewhere but I am just ignorant of it. If so, it would be great if someone would point it out to me, because it is criminal that I know so little of the two states without whom Malaysia cannot even exist.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Hard to teach history via movies

Brave New World (The Star)
4 September 2013

Calling for a ban is ill-advised as any artistic work should be judged on its merits


IF you want to learn about history, read a book. In fact, read more than one because opinions and analyses will differ.
What you don’t do to learn about history is watch a movie.
This is because movies have a primary desire to entertain and in so doing will rarely, if ever, be an accurate depiction of what happened.
Sometimes, the inaccuracies can be pretty harmless, done to add a bit of drama and excitement to the otherwise dull reality.
Take Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story for example. I really enjoyed the movie although by and large, the fighting scenes had more in common with Jackie Chan’s acrobatics than Bruce Lee’s own devastatingly bare bones Jeet Kune Do.
But the one scene that struck me was about how Bruce was almost crippled by a back injury.
In the movie, he got the injury fighting a muscle bound Kung Fu master with long flowing locks who cheated by executing a flying kick into Bruce’s back after he had been soundly defeated by the Little Dragon and Bruce was walking away.
Much more exciting than the truth which was that Lee crocked his back by doing good morning exercise with an overloaded barbell.
There are some movies, though, which distort the truth until it becomes offensive.
U 571 is a World War II movie about how a group of American navy types bravely and heroically managed to obtain the Enigma code machine from the evil Nazis and by doing so, turned the tides of war.
All very thrilling; except that the ones who actually did get the Enigma machine was the Royal Navy and they did it before the Americans even joined the war.
An “affront” to British sailors was how then Prime Minister Tony Blair described it.
I suppose that is what the “Based on a true story” disclaimer is for.
Which brings us to Tanda Putera.
Now, I admit that I have not seen the film and I have no desire to see it.
This is not for any ideological reasons.
I am not going to watch it because my time is precious and if I am going to make a trip to the cinema I will make darned sure I am going to watch movies that I will enjoy.
I had watched Shuhaimi Baba’s last movie, Hati Malaya: 1957, and it was an excruciatingly turgid bore.
So, I am not going to waste my hard earned RM10 on any of her films, no matter how much hype is generated.
This being the case, I am in no position to make any comment on the content of this movie.
Is it crude propaganda aimed at demonising the Chinese? I don’t know.
What I do know is that in no way should it be banned.
I think what the Penang state government did was ill advised.
Sure they did not ban the movie, merely “suggested” that cinemas not screen it, but even so, they are a government and their words carry weight.
I am uncomfortable with the banning of any artistic work.
Let it be judged on its merits. By all means criticise a movie, condemn it if it is dreck, but don’t ban it.
Eventually, it will be exposed for what it is.
Take Birth of a Nation, a 1915 American film that was hailed as a wonderful work of art in its time but is now exposed as the disgusting racist propaganda that it really is.
And this applies to all forms of artistic expression.
I find it hilarious beyond measure that the Minister for Culture suddenly became a paragon for artistic freedom by telling off the Penang state government and yet within a week of his statement, police officers had torn the pictures by J Anu from an exhibition wall under the misguided idea that they “insulted Islam” and another Minister was calling for the banning of a heavy metal concert by Lamb of God.
The words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” come to mind.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Those in power should not be allowed to dictate what we watch and listen to, especially if they are going to practise selective prosecution banning what they don’t like and supporting what they do like.
To do so would be behaving like the title character in Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator and we know what a joke he turned out to be.

The B-Side September 2013 11 -- Love worth fighting for