August 16, 2016 § Leave a comment
(A shorter version of this review is up on The Star.)
Malaysia’s Original People: Past, Present and Future of the Orang Asli is a dense, far-reaching compendium of essays edited by Kirk Endicott, a professor with the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College in the US. His bio states that Endicott has carried out fieldwork with the Batek and various other Orang Asli groups since the 1970s; hence, this anthology naturally features other academics and researchers who have spent many years with the Orang Asli in various capacities. The essays run the gamut from pieces on Orang Asli religion, language, and culture to the legal battles and political situation that renders them displaced and marginalised within the nationalist framework.
Published by the National University of Singapore, the book is systematically divided into several sections under the categories mentioned above. However, as the writers are mostly academics and researchers, each essay is packed with information from several angles; so an essay on Orang Asli animism and cosmology, for instance, is also rife with facts about the history of oppression they’ve faced on the Malay Peninsula, starting from Malay and Indonesian slave raiders of the 18th and 19th centuries. There is no beating around the bush here in an attempt to neutralise or even erase colonial British and Malaysian government complicity in the systematic displacement and marginalisation of the Orang Asli. In fact, this displacement occurs under the guise of “modernisation”; but as Duncan Haladay shows in his essay, “Notes on the Politics and Philosophy in Orang Asli Studies”, around the 1980s, within the rubric of development, the Orang Asli “were subjected to resettlement and pressures toward acculturation, and their sanctuaries were subjected to appropriation and extensive deforestation”. It cites a case study from 1997 that “government policies … appear to be transforming Orang Asli into a demoralized rural lumpenproletariat”. Not the words you’ll see in local media reports on Orang Asli, which, as multiple essays in this book point out, often quote government officials tied to the Jabatan Kemajuan Orang Asli (JAKOA), which is in itself is part of the problem.
Not quoting these words in a review of this book will be intellectually dishonest; from start to finish, these essays excavate the devastating impact of capitalism via the oil plantation and logging industries, for example, and the bureaucratic nature of the capitalist democracies like Malaysia whose state interests are, with greater intensity and frequency, tied to the profits of corporations. As such, states that claim to protect minorities often make decisions in favour of profit and surplus value to the detriment of its people. This is standard anti-capitalist critique; for many Malaysians, however, the ideas might seem new, even ludicrous. We are often encouraged to think of “development” as an abstract idea that is for the greater good, but the Orang Asli were aware of the rampant consumption of resources required for development as a potential ecological and natural disaster from decades ago.
Because it’s written by academics, some essays tend to read as though they were written for other academics and the non-specialist reader might find certain words and terms going over her head. While the essays on Orang Asli religion are fascinating, they are complex and verbose; whole pages were sometimes indecipherable to me because it merely regurgitated a string of words in Orang Asli languages, couched between linguistic concepts, terms, and phrases. Despite these occasional hurdles, these essays demonstrate that Orang Asli beliefs about animism and interconnectedness between humans and non-humans are the key to how they manage the land and resources. It’s not that Orang Asli abstain from eating meat, or clearing land; it’s that they do it within a belief system that says they shouldn’t take more than they should, and that for what is taken, something should be done on the part of humans to restore the balance. As such, blaming indigenous practices of slash-and-burn on the yearly haze, for example, is outright falsification by logging and oil palm companies and stakeholders in order to maintain their image.
Orang Asli practices are managed for the greater good of the community that abhors greed; a key tenet is that one group or family should never have more than the other. They see their biological and spiritual wellbeing as tied to the land and the trees, the rivers, and the wildlife. An interesting concept among most Orang Asli groups is the taboo about mocking or insulting nonhuman life. This is an idea that is almost alien to the money-obsessed, work-driven middle-class urban professionals. To me it demonstrates something beautiful; the value of words and ideas, and the effect it has on one’s own wellbeing and one’s community and family. This interconnectedness makes it hard to close one eye and sanction widespread ecological destruction through various excuses, such as “We need to modernise” or “The technology helps us in the end”. The oil palm industry, on the other hand, is built on profit and works within a system that rewards people who gain more at the expense of others. Whose practices do you think is destructive to the environment?
Another key point is the practice of nonviolence among the Orang Asli; researchers who have lived with them for years explore how it is possible that they never abused their children, or their wives, even when they disagreed. To me, this is astonishing: no child abuse, no rape. These disagreements are always sorted out verbally through intense discussions; and it’s never individualised, as all parties involved must participate. Some speculate that their adherence to non-violence grew out of a reaction to the brutalities faced by the Orang Asli when slave-raiders regularly tore threw the forest to abduct them. Interestingly, a concomitant fact about their practice of non-violence is the communal nature of their societies. Private property doesn’t exist; in the instances where some Orang Asli groups tried to absorb capitalist values and enter into market-based living, earning more at the expense of others, their attitudes changed, and they became selfish. They hoarded what was theirs, which was alien to most Orang Asli. The connection between private property and violence is interesting, here, but as these are anthropologists and not Marxists, it’s not explored in detail.
Malaysia’s Original People is required reading for all Malaysians, but it’s heft and price may be a detriment to some. It’s too bad that such information is not widely available to local readers by local publishers at affordable prices; reading about these issues will engender a seismic shift in most Malaysians’ thinking and our ready acceptance of capitalist values as the best values for competition, innovation, and development. Seen from the point of view of the Orang Asli, however, it looks different. They foresaw the dystopian future most of us are now aware of with regards to climate change from more than a mile away. However, they continue to struggle against oppression against a nationalist framework that valorises them as “the original people” in theory, but in practice, ensures that they remain irrelevant and on the margins, displaced in resettlement villages, and left out of educational opportunities that lead to better-paying jobs. Forced out of the forest by an intricate legal framework that gazettes their ancestral land for “wildlife reserves” (oh, the irony) and development, and forced to assimilate into Malayness (an official “secret” until the 1990s, as Diana Riboli’s essay makes clear), some of the Orang Asli have survived by retreating further back into the forest and refusing the state’s demands to assimilate, convert into another religion, and erase themselves. More Malaysians should learn not to accept what’s being done to them in the name of a so-called developed Malaysia. We, like the Orang Asli, should learn how to say no.
March 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
Thus the age of anxiety and of electric media is also the age of the unconscious and of apathy. But it is strikingly the age of consciousness of the unconscious, in addition. With our central nervous system strategically numbed, the tasks of conscious awareness and order are transferred to the physical life of man, so that for the first time he has become aware of technology as an extension of his physical body.[i]
The younger of the two, who is happy to tell people “I’m the IT guy”, taught me how to download YouTube videos on my overpriced, overvalued smartphone, and now the gadget puts me to sleep, too. Over the last week I’ve been downloading Jem and the Holograms episodes and watching them before bed. I haven’t watched the cartoon in years, probably decades, but I was obsessed with it when I was younger, and while I used to want to be Jerica/Jem mainly because of her access to Synergy (by way of really funky star earrings), now I watch Jerica/Jem being perfect and I want to vomit. I see The Misfits driving tractors through mansions and I feel a true fellow-feeling of solidarity. The Misfits “are allergic to work” say one of the members of the Holograms, and they all smirk, because the Misfts are mean and they’re lazy, but I can relate. All I want to do these days is have big hair, sing shit songs with my shit-sounding nasally voice, drive tractors through mansions, refuse work, and scream.
Jem and her friends are so earnest. I want to ask them why they abide by the rules that were made by someone else. Do they think they will be granted a space in hologram heaven? And if so, what does it mean to them to be good girls in the here and now? Do they get the boyfriends? The record contracts? The cool earrings? The mansion? The legacy from dead daddy?
(All of the above.)
Just when I want to write a Marxist reclamation of the Misfits, I remember that the “leader” of the group, Pizzazz, is basically a rich twat. This complicates matters, because her group-mates all come from a poor(er) backgrounds. The Misfits are made to appear “tacky”—loud, brash, uncivilised and unladylike in comparison to the docile, polite, and pastel-attired Jem and friends, who speak proper English, not slang, in modulated voices. Jem and the Holograms are a band of Kate Middletons. Even if they are not well-off, or orphans, they come from good stock. They have a claim to a legacy of good breeding. But the Misfits are always destroying things, even property.
Property is the problem. Even for Tom Branson, the sexy Irish chauffeur-revolutionary turned sexy Downton Abbey husband. Downton domesticates; it wants to tame Branson’s wild side. Alas, Branson was found to be present during a protest at a Dublin castle, a protest that involved burning the said castle. The Earl of Grantham, hitherto utterly nice and utterly useless, has now found his raison d’être, or rather the raison d’être of his entire class: to be really really really angry about the destruction of property. He’s really angry, the Earl. I mean, he was almost resigned to losing his property but now it is saved, and so he knows about real tragedy, the Earl, and it is with this full force of the pain of an almost-lost Downton Abbey that he takes it out on Branson. He is really angry. ALSO, HE IS AGAINST VIOLENCE AND WANTS TO KNOW IF BRANSON IS AGAINST IT, TOO? Branson capitulates; half-revolutionary, half-son in law. Yes, Branson was at the meetings where the planned this attack, but no, Branson does not condone the burning of property and violence against harmless aristocrats. Really, Branson? THEN WHY WERE YOU AT THE MEETINGS?
The writers of Downton Abbey can’t come up with anything so nuanced or sensitive as such an answer might require, so they leave us with silence and the face of Allen Leech, hoping that his sad, beautiful eyes will distract us.
It does, but only for a bit.
Branson is also uncomfortable being in Downton Abbey—first as tragedy servant, then as farce family. He wants to hightail it out of there.
Then why marry the Earl’s daughter? Don’t you know that the Earl’s daughter comes with the Earl’s family and however many centuries of dead ancestors? How did you think you were going to outrun that, foxy Branson? One look at this family, Branson, should have reminded you of Marx’s words: “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
Luckily, Branson’s wife dies, leaving behind a young daughter. Branson gets to live out the life that his wife would have wanted for him. He knows this is the life she would have wanted for him because everyone else tells him this. The housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes—not a fan of the rich, as such, but like all the servants in Downton, committed to and invested in class difference—tells Branson not to be embarrassed that he’s a rich fuck now, and part of a rich fuck family. She uses different words, but the message is the same. Mrs.Hughes tells him that he has “come so far”, and it’s a good thing.
This is a relief, as the formerly Marxist Branson is now co-manager of the vast estate Downton estate. He can forget about the people, think about profits, raise his baby, enjoy stately bedrooms, be waited on hand and foot.
He has come quite far.
I’ve been thinking about witches and spinsters and property. Once I started reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner I realised it spoke to my unmarried spinster witch self in a way that so many books by women don’t, anymore, because: 1) now it’s important to show how women are a hot mess in a sexy way (i.e. you must be a mess but sexually available to men, and not that those stories are wrong and shouldn’t be told, but the underlying premise is that you must be sexually available to men and you must perform your femininity in this socially idealised ways and above all, please be pretty, try to be pretty); and 2) “modern” stories also remove the extended family from the equation. The assumption is that all single women the world over live lives like those of American or European women in big cities—where they’re single in a way like Charlize Theron’s character is single in Young Adult. It’s interesting to me that the character of Lolly Willowes is given a brother as patriarchal gatekeeper after her father’s death. I quoted this bit out of Juliet Flower MacCannell’s The Regime of the Brother on Tumblr while I was reading it and I’m quoting it again because it’s relevant:
What then does this son enjoy in replacing his father? Well, he gets to act as if, without having to take any action. A father-figure, he mimes, selectively, the father’s features. But he also gets to imitate and mock up relations to all other family members, too: not only is he the “father” (but only metaphorically) he is the mother’s lover (the object of her love, but only in her dreams) and he is his brother’s lover (but only rhetorically—the brotherhood of man). But most of all he is his sister’s boss, and really so. It seems that what he “enjoys” is the power to distort and center all familial relations on himself alone, warping the world into a fiction of fraternity, the dream of a universal, which becomes the nightmare lie of the family of man. Agent and sole heir of patriarchy’s most negative features, he creates as many false leads and artificial ties as he needs to cover his destruction of his real familial roots and relations. And he thus absolves himself of any obligation toward them. He does not have to fill the father’s role any more responsibly and positively than the tyrant had: he is only acting, after all. It is he who is a pro forma father, without a communal or global species-saving goal, a despot, a mute sovereign, the (only) one who really enjoys.
If there’s one thing you learn about being an unmarried woman in a Tamil family is that Tamil culture really needs the sister to be bossed around; if not her father who is sadly now dead, if not her potential husband who is sadly nowhere in sight, then a brother or an uncle will do in a pinch.
What relatives don’t want to talk about when they’re exhorting you to get married and “start a family” is that you’re out of place, overstaying your welcome in your original family, because inevitably it’s about property. You must belong to a father or a husband but not exist in a liminal state of belonging to no one, especially if you’re doing it on family property. (How about belonging to yourself, you might ask, and others will laugh—we all belong to someone, if not a husband for life, then maybe a corporation.) So Lolly Willowes, in the world of 1920s Britain, is shunted about from one brother’s home to another brother’s home because as a genteel woman she is not meant to work for a living.
The thing about being a witch woman like Lolly is that there is a still a male presence in the form of the Devil. Clearly the Devil is interchangeable with capitalist patriarchy. There’s no escaping the male power. When I see the Misfits driving a tractor through the property of a rich man I feel satisfaction even while I recognise that their brand of liberal feminism is thoroughly self-serving: they are not even there for each other. Their manager is the one rubbing his hands together in glee, thinking of publicity and future sales. Behind every so-called misfit is a male manager/disciplinarian waiting to make a profit. Sometimes it’s money; sometimes it’s an investment in souls.
More from The Regime of the Brother:
The way it works in traditional Oedipus is that the woman is the living embodiment of a deficient male identity: wanting physically and emotionally. The girl-child is supposed to assume an identification with the father and then be left with/as nothing—unless or until she becomes a mother, her only acknowledged relation to sexual difference. But the mother is precisely what Oedipus rejects and is designed to reject, so the cycle begins anew.
The girl under patriarchy is faced with an inhuman choice: to do without an identity, or to identify with what she is not (it amounts to the same thing).
she can demand no special love—except according to a male agenda, set by a father, a husband, or a son.
This mother desires only a phallus (a baby, a son, power) and forgoes other options for her desire.
Under the modernized Regime of the Brother, however, the father/son relation ceases to have centrality. Woman potentially comes into her own.
the “patriarchy” in modernity is less a symbolic than an imaginary identification of the son with the father he has completely eliminated even from memory. He has thrown off the one—God, the king, the father—to replace it with the grammatical and legal and emotionally empty fiction of an I who stands alone and on its own: “his majesty the ego.” Self-created, however, he is only a figment of his own and not the father’s desire. This is the dilemma he simply refuses to acknowledge: he makes the law.
The brother denies his sister her identity, affirming his own. This is not just in the abstract, no mere question of repressed instinctual desire. Because the brother cannot recognize his absolute reliance on her for his identity, her place and her desire are “not there.” While the mother of Oedipus might want her son and the phallus, the post-Oedipal sister is permitted to want nothing. To regulate woman’s desire—and thereby her identity—was always the way of the patriarchy; to outlaw it and do away with her identity is a cardinal feature of the Regime of the Brother.
In volume one of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, the brother permits his sister to want nothing. It becomes quite clear how patriarchy nurtures (produces?) the regime of the brother with its careful disciplining of women’s bodies. Clarissa is kept to her room for not performing her duties as daughter and sister and marrying the man the family has decided upon. The brother is an engineer of both her punishments—the potential marriage to a man she finds repulsive, and the current punishment where she is kept mainly to her room and ostracised by her family who won’t see her directly or talk to her. Clarissa seems content to see her problems as her own, which is perhaps not her fault—surrounded by her odious family members on all side and increasing lack of agency/independence, she can hardly be faulted for not seeing some commonalities between the personal and the political. Her friend, Anna, to whom she writes, is clearly the only feminist killjoy of the story we can hope for, thus far. Anna zeroes in on the mother’s role in Clarissa’s predicament:
Your mother tells you, ‘That you will have great trials: that you are under your father’s discipline.’-The word is enough for me to despite them who give occasion for its use.-‘That it is out of her power to help you!’ And again: ‘That if you have any favour to hope for, it must be by the mediation of your uncles.’ I suppose you will write to the oddities, since you are forbid to see them. But can it be, that such a lady, such a sister, such a wife, such a mother, has no influence in her own family? Who, indeed, as you say, if this be so, will marry, that can live single? My choler is again beginning to rise.
Why all the fuss about marriage if a mother can only subject her female child to the whims of the father, the brother, and the uncles? Who indeed , if this be so, will marry, that can live single?
How brothers (sons?) are inducted into the regime.
I’m not a mother, just as aunt, but I can see how boys grow into young men, and how the ideal of masculinity means that boys often have to suppress the part(s) of them that are sensitive, tender, loving, affectionate, in order to “become a man”. And when you notice how it becomes a requirement for boys to hurt others in order to achieve this ideal—then you truly realise how men are made. Hurting others is part of the deal; it is how men are defined as men. To put others in their place and to claim their space as yours. And it hurts to watch young boys who have been taught not to hurt others struggle with the full force of societal expectations that makes it (implicitly or explicitly) known that they will have to hurt others in order to become men.
The eternal problem: We need to talk about sons/we’re always talking about sons.
There has been “unrest” in Sabah for the last few weeks. Property is the problem. Who “owns” Sulu?
The Malaysian twitterati, its bourgeois heart ever in its proper place, is grieving over the death of Malaysia’s policemen involved in the “clashes” with “armed militants”. Malaysian policemen have died while trying to take out these intruders/militants/insurgents (i.e. they were protecting the nation). What’s interesting about the nation that is protected is that we still don’t want to think about how some of us are more protected than others. Sabah, on the East Coast, is one of the poorest states in Malaysia; there is no protection, it seems, from economic impoverishment. But there are tweets from the West Malaysian public thanking the “security forces” for their service to this country. There are tweets praying for their souls in heaven or wherever they might be. Everywhere on Twitter people seem to be simultaneously praying and wishing violence upon the enemy. This ritual is meant to keep the good ones, we the citizens, safe.
The police. The soldiers. Law and order. There are self-proclaimed Progressive Activists ™ who bring the MILF into the picture and cry out “the militants are everywhere in Sabah!” with every tweet. The macho politicians and lovers of Malaysia who cheer on a “military offensive” with encouraging, optimistic tweets like, “Kill or be killed” or “Just gas and smoke ‘em”.
Malaysian Defence Minister, Zahid Hamidi, tweets about the military assault as a “clean-up operation”. (Tweet is in Malay.)
People might be of a land, but there are false borders now demarcating different nations and these borders may not be trespassed.
Meanwhile: “Kiram’s people are demanding Malaysia recognize the sultanate owns Sabah and share profits from economic development in the state.”
Profits. Economic development. Who “owns” Sulu and who profits? Malaysians don’t really care, but “we” are here now, and “they” are not; property is for those who claim it by any means possible. And perhaps the Sulu sultanate is also flexing its muscles. As for the people who are put to work on these lands?
“Filipinos living in the tension-gripped Sabah territory in Northern Borneo said they have been segregated according to tribe and that their movements have been limited and closely monitored by Malaysian authorities.”
“A farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed men was turned back by the police early on Monday.
Police feared the food supplies he was carrying could fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm for his twice-a-month harvest.”
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
The Malaysian twitterati is not impressed with how our government for its soft-handed approach. They have ideas, these Malaysians, and it involves Malaysia flexing its military might. We must let the intruders know that “they” are on “our” soil, and the military will convey this message. Men on Twitter berate our ineffectual Prime Minister, exhort him to “be a man” and protect this country, take action. I have no interest in defending our Prime Minister, and as much as I might want to write a separate 3,000 word essay on gender performance and construction, this is not the point (although it’s part of the point). But this demand of a Prime Minister to be a man, a father figure, to exercise force and violence if he must, to defend his property is so chilling precisely because these demands are not self-aware. Malaysians on Twitter—a good number of them of the upwardly mobile, “educated” and comfortable, their lives mediated by gadgets and social media, are okay with owning property and being property—tweet about the stupidity of feudalism and think capitalist democracies are the best thing, the ultimate manifestation of human progress. Yet, they want to be protected by a violent patriarch. They want a “man” in charge, not in form necessarily, but in spirit.
They have no time for history, or maybe it’s just an inconvenience in a time when we have to be militarily efficient. Improve border control. Prioritise domestic security. Stamp out terrorist activity. Enemies are everywhere. We must smoke ‘em out.
Be a man. This land is your land.
[i] Marshall McLuhan, “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis” in Understanding Media
November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment
(This was first published in Kakak Killjoy on November 11, 2011.)
Just say no to bans
Seksualiti Merdeka’s name directly translates to mean Sexuality Independence/Freedom, and loosely translates to mean Free/Independent Sexuality. The core message on its website shows that it brands itself as a sexuality movement that attempts to provide a space and public platform for people who identify as non-heteronormative. It allows for people to explore, learn from, and educate one another on all the in-betweens of sexuality and gender that often fall through the cracks or are frequently rendered silent and absent. In particular, it’s a movement designed to amplify the voices of the marginalised. Quite naturally, then, the Inspector General of Police declared an official ban on Seksualiti Merdeka and all events associated with it, and the propaganda machine of the local mainstream media almost lost their shit in falsely and breathlessly declaring it a “free sex” festival (otherwise known as SEKS BEBAS!).
This issue has become a sudden hot-button topic even though Seksualiti Merdeka was launched in 2008, because it’s a convenient platform from which rabid politicians and their acolytes can engage in dubious political manoeuvering. The issue of queer rights allows the far right conservative voices in Malaysia to use the “this is against Malaysian/Muslim-majority values” agenda for political leverage, as they have done in recent times against Christians and communists. In some cases, these voices call for Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan’s “banishment” for merely being Seksualiti Merdeka’s officiator. In Perkasa’s case, it reignites a long-simmering resentment over her involvement in Bersih through yet another manufactured scare-tactic. This simmering brew of warring factions is a complex mess. Many “oppose homosexuality” on the basis of what they perceive religious and moral beliefs, while political factions and groups put forth their objections under the guise of various populist sentiments like “Malay unity threatened” or “Islamic rights threatened”. This is in order to maintain racial and religious supremacy at the expense of minority groups.[i]
The confluence of law and religious prohibitions is often framed as the “natural” way of things, but Malaysia’s anti-sodomy laws are a legacy of the British colonial laws. Religious prohibitions are something to be navigated by each individual on his or her own terms. But the law, as noted by The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) in a wonderful statement released on November 5 against the Seksualiti Merdeka ban, is something that every individual has a right to disagree with. In the interest of political gain, power, and leverage, the law is often presented as the result of moral and religious pre-conditions, but more often than not it’s just a way of obscuring its historical context and the people and institutions these laws serve to protect. The important question to ask is why colonial laws are still maintained and propagated in more insidious ways in a country that won its independence fifty-four years ago. This is precisely what Farish Noor points out in his essay “From Pigafetta to Panji” in his book What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You:
Talk of preserving Asian values and Asian identity as a pretext for maintaining and reproducing heterosexist gender distinctions and their accompanying gender stereotypes is something that begs the historian’s response.
For is it not the case that the complex, rich and fertile history of Southeast Asia is a wellspring from which we may draw a counter-factual example of multiple and alternative sexualities at work?
He then proceeds to outline a little bit of this complex, rich, and fertile history for his readers in this essay – providing us with a glimpse of our past that far exceeds the modern imagination of gender politics that exhorts us to merely tick off the boxes of L, G, B, or T, or adhere to a strict, rigid heteronormative existence.
The virulent hate directed toward Seksualiti Merdeka organisers and supporters, as well as to the gay, trans, and queer communities at large, is a particular strain of hate that has found a voice and a public platform through state-sanctioned laws that criminalise varied expressions of human sexuality because it is deemed “abnormal”. I’m not sure how to deal with the hate, to be honest. Some people are hell-bent on despising others because of real or perceived differences. Among some of the tweets about this issue that I found alternately heartbreaking and rage-inducing were the reminders that “LGBT people are human, too.” That we need to remind each other of our humanness is in itself a potent enough reminder that hate and oppression have long been valuable weapons used to keep societies and communities divided and at odds with each other.
But to only view the backlash against Seksualiti Merdeka as the result of “religious extremism” reduces a complex conversation about national identity into an “us v. them” scenario, which is exactly what these politicians want. I’m alarmed by some of the more so-called progressive supporters of Seksualiti Merdeka who have been quick to deride its opposition as Muslim extremists, even though a quick scan through Twitter or Facebook will reveal many Malaysians from diverse religious backgrounds who object to Seksualiti Merdeka. It seems necessary at this point to think about how to separate Islam, as a religion and practice, from forms of political Islam used by groups like Perkasa and parties like PAS and UMNO to gain leverage. The language of “moderate Islam v. extremist Islam” is one that has grown out of a largely hysterical, Islamophobic discourse post 9/11 in the United States and Europe, and it is a language that should be resisted in the Malaysian context. [ii]
As Charles Santiago points out in his article, “LGBTIQ community has rights, too”:
The government, instead of fanning hatred and inciting anger, could move to oppose all forms of stereotyping against the LGBTIQ community.
It should condemn the bullying and name calling the community has had to endure and ensure they have equal access to education and employment opportunities, including enjoyment of basic rights of equality and freedom of expression and association.
The members of the community are targets of verbal abuse, physical and sexual violence, harassed at the work-place, ostracised by their families and face hate crime-related sexual assault.
They occupy the lowest positions in the job market, face discrimination in schools and are unable to access public housing because of their sexual orientation. In fact, they experience the worst forms of discrimination. They need compassion and state support. Not further discrimination.
But, driven by the need to stay in power, the government has fashioned the controversy surrounding the festival for its own political mileage. Clearly the ban demonstrates the ongoing persecution against Ambiga who spearheaded the call for electoral reforms.
The government is playing a dangerous game as it has carelessly pitted different communities against each other, while prime minister Najib Tun Razak trumpets his 1Malaysia policy, which aims at national integration.
But we are not our government, and we should (and can) think and act about this in ways that foster understanding and empathy. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society still dealing with a potent colonial hangover, it is important that people strive to denounce both hate (whether in the guise of morality or religion) and censorship (in the guise of law, morality, and religion). This is not the same thing as demanding that queer communities should work within systems of oppression and refrain from rocking the boat. The boat should be rocked, and no one should be pressured into “keeping quiet” in order to appease religious or moral chauvinism.
Respecting and understanding the local Malaysian context in terms of religion and culture is not an excuse for those of us striving for a more egalitarian society to overtly or silently support the police ban on Seksualiti Merdeka. In order for people to engage with a movement, a movement must be allowed to exist, and it must be given the space and sanctity to put forth its views. Shutting down Seksualiti Merdeka also shuts down the ensuing debate and conversation. Sexual and gender rights are for everyone, and just because you identify as straight or heterosexual doesn’t mean that this ban doesn’t affect you. It does. It limits your rights as a human being to explore your identity beyond state-sanctioned norms of what is right and acceptable. The rights of one person are contingent upon another’s, and the moment we start thinking in terms of “my rights” or “my community’s rights” as more important or inherently more valuable than the rights of others, we start heading toward a very dark area of insular, hyper-conservative politics and its potentially fascist laws and policies.
The complexities of a Malaysian queer movement
On the flip side, there have been numerous criticisms levelled at the Seksualiti Merdeka movement itself for privileging gay rights over others, and for sidelining issues of misogyny, sexism, biphobia and transphobia that affect its lesbian, bisexual, intersex, and transgender members. This was elucidated at length by a fellow Kakak Killjoy, Yuki Choe, some months back in her piece titled, “So What Is Wrong with Malaysian LGBT Movement for Sexual Rights?”. I encourage you to read Yuki’s piece to learn about some of the ways people have felt marginalised and exploited by Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda.
Seksualiti Merdeka’s mainstream discourse is established along the lines of LGBT identity politics, which may override or elide some of the more complex ways queer Malaysians express their identity. I’ve been thinking about this since reading Akshay Khanna’s superb piece on “Aid conditionality and the limits of a politics of sexuality”, which I also encourage you to read in its entirety. In particular, this passage struck a chord (emphasis mine):
This idea, that ‘who you have sex with defines what you are’ is just about a century old, and arises in a very particular political-economic context where medical professionals claimed a monopoly over defining the ‘truth’ of desire. This peculiar idea is far from universally experienced. In several parts of the global south, South Asia, for instance, people experience and express same-sex desire without needing to think of themselves as in any way different from the next person. In other words, same sex desire is expressed without reference to the idea of personhood. Activism in these parts of the world has recognised this diversity and addressed the politics of sexuality in a far broader way.
In India, for instance, the Queer movement, which has succeeded in overturning a colonial anti-sodomy law, has been critical of an ‘LGBT politics’.
This has been a movement that recognises the politics of sexuality as affecting everyone – not just those who fall into the politically constructed category of LGBT – and being central to the politics of caste, class, race, religious fundamentalism, nationalism and economic development.
As its supporters or would-be supporters, part of a genuine critique and consideration of Seksualiti Merdeka will be to think about how the movement imitates or replicates Western-centric discourse of sexual identity politics. Does one have to adhere to the politics of LGBT to be a part of the movement? In other words, must sexual desire always be thought of and expressed in terms of personhood, as Khanna explains above? The politics of visibility and “coming out” should be interrogated. Not everyone who sees his or herself as queer necessarily identifies as such in public, or feels the need to “come out” and lay claim to an identity, such as it were. For many people, sexuality is fluid and defies easy categorisation. For some, queer may be a state of mind or existence, a means of how one may choose to view and navigate sexual and gender politics at large. Perhaps sex and choice of sexual companions doesn’t even factor into it, especially for people who live and exist in more conservative spaces or with extended family.
Queer activists and thinkers like Judith Butler or Haneen Maikey, a Palestinian activist, urge us to remember that queer politics are not separate from other political and social movements. In envisioning a local queer rights movement that is egalitarian, it will be important to avoid a reductive perspective of “choice” activism that amplifies individual rights over social, cultural, and community systems and structures. This form of choice activism puts the focus on people who are able to articulate their needs and desires and claim a political identity.
Typically, choice activism maintains socio-economic privileges, particularly as it tends to speak to urban, relatively affluent KL-ites who can afford to live on their own or with their partner/others who share the same views, network within the same circles, and enjoy enough social and cultural cachet so as to be able to “rock the boat” and wear it as a badge of honour. The queer movement, just like feminism or anti-racism, is one that must consider all forms of oppression that keep patriarchal, racist, heterosexist, classist systems in place in Malaysian society. It’s a tall order, certainly, and I don’t mean to imply that a local queer rights movement like Seksualiti Merdeka should solve all of Malaysia’s problems in one fell swoop. I’m merely reminding those of us who care about these things to think about ways in which queer rights are not isolated from other rights but a part of it in the wider fight against oppressive power structures. In a recent radio interview, co-founder of Seksualiti Merdeka, Pang Khee Teik, addresses this in the context of jeopardised minority rights in Malaysia. That he situates queer rights among other minority rights is a move that should be encouraged and welcomed.
Haneen Maikey co-authored an article on the International Day Against Homophobia with a fellow activist, Sami Shamali, and while it is written from a Palestinian perspective, the piece is chockfull of valuable, helpful points that is of relevance to Malaysian queer activists, as well. This one in particular is worth quoting at length:
During the past ten years of our work, we have noticed that the dominant discourse around homophobia—be it a gay response to a homophobic charge or a homophobic discourse trying to publicly fight homosexuality, falls within the same cycle; this cycle reinforces the same power relations and determines what is “gay” and what is “backward”. This divides society into two groups only, the same dual polarized categorization that we are fighting in our larger discourse on sexuality (man/women, feminine/masculine).
There is the homophobe, then, who is now the “backward” Palestinian society that persecutes homosexuality and that must feel shame, and on the other hand there are the gays and lesbians that must feel proud, supported by allies and friends with a progressive human rights discourse, which is, unfortunately, a liberal discourse most of the times. There is no space in this polarization for more complex and less public expressions and statements; more importantly, this discourse pushes back any attempt to analyze homophobia deeply enough for the sake of dismantling it.
And the worst thing is that this discourse prevents the gay and queer community from taking an effective role in the general social agenda, because of the claim that our oppression is different and particular. This is a part of the liberal discourse that ignores the analysis of power relations and prefers to look at every issue on its own. And thus it deals with the gay issue apart from all other social issues, turning a blind eye to the fact that the gender and sexual struggle, which includes the gay struggle, is an integral part of a wider resistance agenda that is not “particular” or “different”.
People who fall beyond heteronormative standards of sexuality are not “new” in our society, either. LGBT identity politics, however, is relatively recent development in Malaysia. The modern inception of the global LGBT movement itself stems from the various gay-rights movements that flowered between the late 1940s and 1960s in parts of Europe and the United States. Thinking about the existence of non-heteronormative people in Malaysian society does not necessarily mean that they’ve identified themselves as “person with X sexual preferences” and/or embraced the LGBT identity. Therefore, involvement in the kind of activism and public participation encouraged by Seksualiti Merdeka is not necessarily the only way to show support for or to align oneself with the Malaysian queer rights movement. Precisely for this reason it’s crucial to remember that critique of Seksualiti Merdeka as a movement is not the same as being anti-queer rights.
I want to quote at length another point made by Maikey in an article she co-authored with Lynn Darwich, because I think it really hammers home the point:
Within an LGBT framework, our struggles become issues of representation and privilege. We want those privileges too. We contribute to hierarchies that leave the transgenders, the non-identified, the bisexuals, the intersexed, the disabled, the migrants, the colored, the illiterate, and many more, at the bottom, and unworthy of rights.
Instead of looking at the ways privilege works to undermine any resistance in our societies, we focus instead on how it excludes us, and only us.
When one’s sexual orientation is a site of struggle, there is (little or) no examination of the privilege that still comes with “being a man” in conservative societies and within gendered legal frameworks, for example. Instead of identifying dominant norms that have historically produced exclusions based on any category of identification, we invest in centralizing our marginalized struggles as LGBT, and leave others to do the same for theirs. We forget that “those other struggles” may be ours too.
Instead of critiquing the normative, in all its forms, we apologetically try to prove that we, the gays, the lesbians, are natural/normal too. Accept us. Support us. We ask for LGBT tolerance and acceptance, when we could be working towards justice and freedom from heteronormative patriarchy.
It would be a significant mistake to assume that everyone who objects to Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda is a homophobe or transphobe, or to view the vehement opposition through groups like PAS and Perkasa only through the prism of religious extremism without considering the various political factors at play in Malaysia. Equally vital is to keep in mind that there are many others who condemn the ban and the homophobic and transphobic hate while remaining critical of Seksualiti Merdeka’s agenda for reasons outlined in the second half of this essay. In this light, perhaps the ban on Seksualiti Merdeka should be viewed as an opening through which an expansive conversation about the local queer movement can take place. A ban can’t stop us from talking. We should not be afraid to keep the conversation going.
[i] Fellow Kakak Killjoy Alicia Izharuddin talks about this at length in her piece published in Merdeka Review, “Seksualiti Merdeka dan pengaruh homofobia Melayu”.
[ii] To reiterate, I don’t consider this a specific problem inherent in Malay-ness or Islam, but an issue that stems from majority politics. In Malaysia, the political majority is Malay-Muslim. If our majority was White-Christian, for example, we’d be the United States and still dealing with similar problems of marginalised minority rights, albeit within a different context of white supremacy and right-wing Christian politicking.
*Image from Raphael Perez’s collection.
August 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Neither the Vedas
Nor the Qur’an
Will teach you this:
Put the bit in its mouth,
The saddle on its back,
Your foot in the stirrup,
And ride your wild runaway mind
All the way to heaven.
– Kabir (translation by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra)
Interesting days in Malaysia. Lots of things happening here and there, happening here, happening there. Most recently – and by recently, I mean yesterday – there was the 8TV ad thing. The 8TV ads are no longer available to watch on YouTube because it has been pulled by Media Prima and removed from all networks after a hue and cry by the irate people twitterers of Malaysia.
For relevant information, I point you towards Free Malaysia Today’s article ‘Of armpits and morality’, mainly because the title pleases me.
Due to a lack of time and the abiding belief that once things are on the internet they stay on the internet FOREVER (what’s wrong with me?), I only made time yesterday to catch one of the ads as soon as I caught wind of a potential controversy, thinking that I’ll watch the rest later. Later was already too late, because Media Prima pulled all the ads much too soon.
I was still thinking about it today because I found it interesting that the creators chose not to feature, say, a man doing all the wrong things. Instead, the ads featured a woman, who, presumably because she’s Chinese, is not Muslim.
But, you think, so what if she’s Chinese? Could she not have been Muslim?
No, of course not. Religion and ethnicity are so interwoven in Malaysian political and social imagination that one cannot expect a Chinese woman to be Muslim. The complex identity of ‘Muslim’ is shoehorned to ‘Malay’, and that is that.
The ads were meant to be funny, someone might interject. Chill and don’t overanalyse, someone might say.
Oh, wait. Someone did say it:
Chill guys. Don’t overthink the ads. It’s written, produced and directed by a multi-racial team. If you overanalyse, anything will be bad.
Those words came from Media Prima’s head honcho dude, some chief-something-or-other. These are also words that are of interest, or depending on your point of view, words that compel one to smash a head against the wall. The irony in exhorting people “to chill” in defence of ads that didn’t, in fact, take its own advice and chill but purported instead to send a “message” (the ads were displayed as PSAs).
Who gets to tell someone else to chill? The creators of inane, unimaginative ads are the ones who tell the intended audience to “chill” and to refrain from “overanalysing”. In other words, ad people say: don’t think, just experience it for what it is – a reductive, harmful, and essentially bigoted view of the rich and complex tapestry of the Malaysian population.
Also, hey – MULTIRACIAL TEAM MADE IT! THAT’S GOOD, RIGHT?
(On another note, those ads were not funny because those ads were not funny.)
But, anyway. Where was I? Oh, yes. Woman, not man. This ad doesn’t take kindly to female underarms. Secondly, it assumes the inherent differences in how men and women occupy public spaces as natural; the female body occupies visible space and is always-already an error.
The ad revealed the ever-present logic of gendered relations in Malaysia, and sent a subliminal meaningful message to us members of womankind. The message is this: your body is not a wonderland but an ever-present faux pas[i].
Furthermore, it appears we are constantly fighting multiple wars on multiple fronts. We have to grapple with unchecked Western hedonism of SEX! NUDITY! ORGIES! BAD THINGS IN GENERAL! and our “own” traditional Asian Values™ which are about PROPRIETY! PROPERNESS! APPROPRIATENESS! GOOD THINGS IN GENERAL! and also the tug of war between ISLAM! IN MALAYSIA! AND ALL OTHER RELIGIONS! YOUR GOD! OR MY GOD! WHO WINS?
In these many wars which Malaysians apparently wage on a daily basis, the 8TV ad was an unconscious poke that burst the imaginary 1Malaysia bubble, the bubble which sees people from all genders of all races and religious backgrounds living together in smiling, linked-arm harmony with nary an underarm exposed at the wrong time or at the wrong place.
The poke is perhaps necessary. But it matters how we’re poked, and by whom. And where.
The next time someone asks you to “chill”, you tell them you’re riding your wild runaway overanalysing mind all the way to heaven, and that is why you will never make an ad like the one they just did.
[i] (Unless it is revealed at the right time, unless it is revealed the way I like it, unless it is a body I like and want and desire –which is, of course, is the very essence of a faux pas: the wrong place and time, except in this case with the added caveat of the male gaze: and the wrong/undesirable body.)
June 29, 2011 § 10 Comments
In the midst of a seemingly incoherent yet systematic crackdown by the Malaysian police force on politicians, activists, and citizens found to be associated with Bersih’s upcoming July 9 rally for “free and fair elections”, I couldn’t help but focus on the more mundane or trivial aspects of it – the policing of clothing. In Malaysia’s cultural climate, the policing of clothing is a collective national interest – as any woman will be able to tell you. But today’s announcement by Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein really drove home the point of the policing of clothing:
Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein said today T-shirts with messages in support of Bersih have been outlawed because they were related to an illegal assembly.
“The Bersih T-shirt is related to an illegal assembly, then whatever they are wearing is illegal,” he told reporters.
Malaysia has a constitution that apparently grants us freedom of speech and expression [Article 10] that should, technically, grant each citizen the right to wear what she or he pleases. Yet, this freedom can be revoked at any point because, as Art Harun reminds us,
Article 150, Clause 6 of the Federal Constitution allows the Parliament to pass any law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to promulgate any ordinance during state of emergencies and those laws and ordinances will be valid even if they are repugnant or inconsistent with any of the provisions of the Federal Constitution.
At any point, then, something could be deemed illegal – and a piece of clothing associated with the something-illegal will become illegal clothing. This isn’t new; I suspect that clothing has been banned, outlawed, and deemed illegal in various ways for as long as clothes have been in existence. Gang-affiliated clothing. Clothing affiliated with political parties or movements. The burqa. Yes, women’s clothing, in particular, has always been suspect and subject to policing. Clothes are the easiest points of reference in the policing and surveillance of the field of ‘visuality’, which as Nicholas Mirzoeff explains in his superb essay ‘The Right to Look’, is the authority that lays “exclusive claim to be able to look.”*
What confounds me about this context is once again the arbitrariness of the authority of visuality that deems something illegal. That the Home Minister could come down hard on an article of clothing, as opposed to his past wishy-washy response to the display of cow heads, for example, is something that has kept Malaysian twitterers going for some days now. The spectacle of dead animal heads was seen by the Home Minister as a legitimate form of expression, as one of rightful dissent. An article of clothing, however, its outlawed. Ultimately, the law is used and will be used. But how the law is justified and implemented depends on an entirely arbitrary set of circumstances. This is how it has always been done in Malaysia. I am tired of this nation’s circular logic that presents confusion as a gift to its citizens. A state of the perpetually-mystified. It is not the blind leading the blind so much as it is the over-seeing authority leading the rarely-seeing. Visuality in the eyes of the few.
I am trying to wrap my head around thoughts but these thoughts are fleeting and elusive because I’ve been relegated to the not-think section of my mind for a week now, finishing a copywriting assignment that demands the brain be stopped while the body churns out words. The things you do for money, as they say. But this thought about clothes and the outlawing of clothes makes me think about the ‘The fabric of democracy’ essay on South/South and ‘Ignorance and the Moral Fabric of the American State’ on zunguzungu. What does it make me think? I am not sure.* I just know that I can’t quite make sense of what this means yet for the fabric of the “flawed democracy” of Malaysia.
[* Thanks to @southsouth for the link to the Mirzoeff essay. I read it yesterday and it’s so dense and rich with ideas that I’ll have to return to it and reread it in order to do it justice.]
[** What is the point of a blog post of uncertainties? I am not sure. But I wanted to try something on this blog – to write regularly and think out loud without fear or shame of my writing / thoughts “not being ready”. Not-ready has been the bane of my life. But I’ve somehow fallen away from the initial goal of blogging and have allowed this blog to sort of flounder. Not that it should matter to anyone but myself. But since it does matter to me it should somehow be rectified.]
[Image from Dancing Canvas on deviant ART.]
April 7, 2011 § 4 Comments
It seems that Malaysia only has one prominent public intellectual and he is Farish Noor. Public intellectuals, it seems, are a rare breed over here – or if they exist, it’s like they’re shrouded under a mountain of invisibility cloaks. Perhaps if one is an intellectual, one tries not to make it public. The act of thinking is always regarded with a certain amount of suspicion. So it’s a shame that our only prominent Malaysian public intellectual doesn’t live and teach in Malaysia.[i] In his introduction to What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You, Farish talks about the difficulty of doing the kind research and academic work that matters – the kind that goes against the status quo or isn’t government-sanctioned:
It was by chance that I began to read and write about Malaysia’s convoluted history, as a result of several years of frustration while trying to do something that resembled decent research in the region. The lack of books, archives, and primary sources meant that much of my material had to be culled directly from interviews; searching for books that were out of print in the second-hand bookstores of London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Leiden; and piecing together fragments of a history that seemed to have been deliberately torn apart.
I can sympathise with this position. While not even doing anything remotely close to sustained research, I found it hard to know where to start to write a basic undergraduate paper in a Critical Theory class on orientalism, Malaysian history, and Anthony Burgess’ The Malayan Trilogy. I heard about Syed Alatas and The Myth of the Lazy Native for the first time ever in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, which filled me with a sense of shame that I still find somewhat eviscerating many years later. The notion that one had to learn about home by-way of people outside of it was a common one, however, for many of my friends who were also undergraduates at the time in various humanities disciplines.
This is precisely what Azmi Sharom (the Robin to Farish’s Batman? In a scholarly manner, I mean) alludes to in his preface to What Your Teacher Didn’t Know:
Academic freedom, the autonomy to teach and to research what one wishes is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity. Unfortunately, it is in rather short supply in Malaysia. We have ridiculous laws in this country that hang over the heads of academics like the sword of Damocles, waiting to fall if the government feels that one is being disloyal to it.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
It’s an additional shame that What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is only a book instead of the 10-part reference series I was hoping it would be. This is, after all, Malaysia. Those of us who attended national public schools in Malaysia and then went on to pursue undergraduate and tertiary studies abroad will have at some point or another come to this realisation: there is a whole lot of shit our teachers didn’t tell us. It is, of course, the inevitable fate of the Malaysian humanities student to discover a shitload of information about her country in the reference library of her university located in the wintry prairie depths of a White Man’s Country and not, as it so happens, while living in her own. I remember history lessons in secondary school where classes began with all of us standing up. Our teacher would go around asking questions, and those who got the answer right got to sit down. The last girl standing, of course, is meant to be the paragon of failure. I was the last girl standing quite a number of times, because I was never good at suck-and-spit. Get your mind out of the gutter, dear blog-reader. What I refer to as suck-and-spit is the way in which history lessons were taught in school: suck the marrow and the joy out of history and life (memorise, memorise, memorise), and spit (regurgitate all that you’ve memorised). Surely I wasn’t the only one having trouble keeping straight our various incarnations of Sultan Mahmud of Melaka? There was the first Sultan Mahmud, and after that there were a whole bunch of ‘em, but who gives a shit when all you had to do was keep the names straight without really understanding what these various Sultan Mahmuds did?
The thing called World History was indeed summarised in one or two short chapters; so much so that my abysmal knowledge of the history of other nations shocked even my mother, who enjoyed rubbing it in that “even in my village school in Sri Lanka I learned more than you.” So yes, What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is an essential book for every Malaysian – so essential that I hope by the time I’m done writing this review I’ll learn that it has been translated into Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. It’s a thick, very beautifully-produced book by Amir Muhammad’s Matahari Books, amply illustrated with pictures and maps from Farish’s personal collection of Malaysiana or taken from what’s available in the public domain. As it happens, this book ends too soon. As it also happens, it whets your appetite for more more more… gimmeMOARKNOWLEDGE.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You is culled from Farish’s series of lectures at The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, none of which I managed to attend. There are six essays altogether, but only five are from the original lecture series. The sixth is a “bonus” written for the book, one assumes, and it shows because it is the least engaging one. It’s an important essay on the early “left-leaning years” of PAS, which as we’re all aware, has now transformed into an ultra-religious party with ultra-right leanings (even as there are remnants of its early pioneering spirit). But it’s also a heavy essay that sometimes borders on the ponderous. It lacks the spice and verve of the rest, probably because it wasn’t intended to be a lecture designed to enthral and educate a broad-based audience. The other five chapters in the book, in contrast, are imbued with a sense of play and creativity, no doubt an indication of the general spirit of those Annexe lectures.
At the heart of all of Farish’s essays/lectures is the complex and engrossing subject of intertextuality and intersectionality in Malaysian history. Whether he’s talking about the genesis of the keris in socio-cultural use, the roots of conceptions of sexuality in Southeast Asia and Malaysia, the colonial construction of race politics, or the current incarnation of feudal politics via the Barisan Nasional machinery, Farish’s consistent and laudable aim is to point to the multifariousness of our roots and the futility of trying to find or create a single, unified source. This is precisely the danger of current political rhetoric in Malaysia, with its full-on slide into conservative, right-leaning singularity. Singularity of thought, mind, and future – where our differences, which should be recognised and celebrated – are subsumed under tepid nation-state sloganeering. 1Malaysia, yes, but whose Malaysia?
Much like everything in our shared, collective culture, the keris, as Farish describes in the first chapter, has become an “over-determined signifier.” In his exhortation to us to “pity the keris, not blame it”, Farish attempts to rescue it from nationalist posturing and chauvinist patriarchy by tracing the intricate roots of its symbol and meaning from the Malay-Hindu epic, Hikayat Pandawa Lima (taken from the Mahabharata) and its journey through the lands of Java, Champa, and much of the Malay peninsula:
Thanks to the influx of ideas and beliefs from both the mainland (Champa, Lankasuka, Siam, Patani) and the islands (Java), the Malay world was exposed to Vishnuite and Shivaistic schools of Hindu thought as well as aesthetics. The keris, as the ritual object into which these new forms, ideas, and meanings had been invested, became the living embodiment of the dominant Hindu cults of Shiva and Vishnu and it had penetrated deep into the popular imagination of the Indo-Malay peoples.
I’m unsure why Farish chose to use the word “cults” to describe certain sects of Hinduism that exist up until today. Etymologically, the word cult doesn’t have the resonance with the “freaky” as it does in current parlance, but the Shiva and Vishnu sects are not mere ancient forms of belief, if Farish intended to use it in that particular context. The Saivite and Vaishnavite sects are still two of the key sects of Hinduism still in practice. There other moments in the text when Farish’s choice of words gave me pause, such as when he talks about the keris gaining popularity among the landed merchants, traders, and Muslim clerical class. “The keris enjoyed new patronage and custom from these new groups,” he writes, “but also became popularised and vulgarised in the process.” This easy slide from ‘popular’ to ‘vulgar’ contains a not-so-faint whiff of Eau de Elitism; my nose thus wrinkled in minor WTF-displeasure.
One gets the sense that Farish values the sophisticated and the elegant, and occasionally his work lacks a sharp focus when it comes to critiquing ancient or modern practices in terms of class and gender. In the chapter on the history of sexuality in Southeast Asia, for example, which he revisits through the Hikayat Panji Semirang texts, he writes:
In both cases, the men and women who are attracted to Panji are struck by her/his sexually androgynous appearance and her/his refined (halus) manners. The ideal type that is constructed in the narrative conforms to the traditional Javanese register of halus culture, as contrasted to the kasar category of the brutish, vulgar and excessive.
This contrast of halus versus kasar is interesting, not least because androgynous, fluid (bi)sexuality is celebrated in these tales, as opposed to the rigid “heterosexist gender distinctions” that are accepted and touted as the norm. But it’s also interesting because the characters in the Panji are earthly manifestation of gods and goddesses, and these semi-divine figures belong to the aristocratic semi-heavenly court of kings, queens, princes and princesses. Farish is somewhat uncritical of the distinction between halus and kasar and attempts to recapture it as a positive reading of fluid sexuality – the refined androgynous man-woman as the ultimate object of desire – without locating it in the class divisions of the semi-divine monarchs versus the… regular folk. His reading of the Panji is uncritically positive and focused only on selective parts that boost his argument. While sexual mores may have been fluid and playful in the past, the happy ending at the end of the text – as described by Farish – only comes by way of the characters finally falling into their prescribed gender roles as man and woman. This is not something Farish chooses to focus on.
But in light of the Malaysian public’s current preoccupation with the very act of sexual intercourse, whether it be of the male-male variety or the male-female variety, this chapter is an illuminating one – signalling that our conceptions of halus and kasar are always shifting. The current spectacle of sex that has graced the pages of our newspapers and online websites and social media focus on one person – Anwar Ibrahim – and on the threat he apparently still represents to the ruling coalition. This is a spectacle in which not only are the emperors naked; their subjects are, as well. This spectacle of sex has stripped the Malaysian public naked, with our so-called Asian values left hung out to dry. The revelatory point is that these values are as “dirty” as everything it purports to be “against”. The loud defenders of our Malaysia-truly-Asia values have revealed these values to be essentially filthy in its very conception not because of sex, but precisely because of the element of corruption and truth-smearing and its basic core of hypocrisy. This hypocrisy relies on the laziness of its manipulation: using sex by which to project an image of filth or depravity to obfuscate the indulgence in lies and nepotism by public means (cover-ups of police and custodial deaths or election fraud, for example, of championing the strengths of a despot in Sarawak).
Pornography is banned in Malaysia, as is prostitution, but our leaders manufacture videos to display pornography – that of a prominent opposition leader, supposedly, having sex with a prostitute – and expects the rakyat to pretend that we’re all still fully-robed; that none of it is ludicrous and an insult to our collective intelligence. If anything, reading the Panji tales by way of Farish arouses a feeling of deep melancholy, an ache for a time in the past where different modes of sexualities were not merely in existence but celebrated; a time when people were encouraged to and were expected to respond to their own impulses of lust and desire with both feeling and thought. With sex used as a weapon or a means of political obfuscation in our current discourse, the ability to both think and feel seems more antiquated than ever – like the heart and mind are relics of history, and all that we are left with is brutish, aggressive anger with which to harness our biological drives.
Similarly, the recent brouhaha over school literature text, Interlok, and the objections by both the Chinese and the Indians to its supposedly racist content is one that will be put into relevant context for Malaysians after reading Farish’s chapter on ‘The Lost Tribes of Malaysia’. The government, missing the point and the opportunity of the controversy surrounding Interlok to address and find solutions to perennial, simmering race-based tensions, have instead tried to find the easiest way out – by amending the literary text. Artistic integrity, issues of censorship and textual modification, racism – in one fell swoop, all these issues are at once elided and ignored in this pea-brained solution. As Farish points out, Malaysia’s pre-Islamic, pluralist history is consistently concealed in favour of a right-wing, ethno-nationalist discourse that favours Islam and ketuanan Melayu. Race groupings are inherently unstable, which is why the fixation on ‘Malay’ identity is doomed before it even begins, why race-based policies are doomed from its very inception. Try as you might to erase history, you can’t erase the people in whom history lives. Our former Prime Minister of twenty-two years, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who mastered the breathtakingly sinister art of championing ‘Malay rights’ while holding ‘Malay people’ in contempt, has ethnic roots in South India that he carefully elides while trumpeting his apparent ethnic Malayness.
Dr. Mahathir wrote Malay Dilemma in 1970, a book that along with Revolusi Mental by Senu Abdul Rahman, comes under strong critique from Farish:
The most striking thing about both the Malay Dilemma and Revolusi Mental is that both texts have accepted and reproduced the conventional stereotypes of Malay identity that were first formulated and instrumentalised by the colonial masters. As Alatas (1977) has shown, both texts are entirely devoid of auto-critique and introspection, and they both faithfully reproduce the logic of colonial racial difference and race-relations in an uncritical manner.
Having had our independence from the British handed to us on a silver-platter (and, we should note, handed over to the silver-spoon elite), we have since 1957 repeated without fail the pattern of politics rooted in colonial race-based discourse that, in Farish’s words, remain “configured along divisive sectarian and communitarian” lines, dominated throughout by one ruling coalition comprising three parties representing the “three main races” of Malaysia – the in-betweens, the indigenous, and the “lain-lain” be damned.
Further clues to the political mire we seem to be in can be found in his chapter ‘Of Rajas, Maharajas, Dewarajas and Kerajaan’, which attempts to trace the genealogy of four thousand years of feudal politics with roots in Hindu-Buddhist governance and monarchy, leading to what is our current ampu bodek culture – which Farish notes isn’t unique to Malaysia alone, but continues to exist in different degrees in present-day Thailand and Indonesia. Launching a much-needed critique on Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Farish writes:
Most of the accounts given by writers like Mahathir (1970), Chandra (1979), Andaya (1982) and Abdullah (1985) have noted that the Tunku’s style of government was very much determined by his own elite background, values, and worldview. In their reading of his style of government and leadership, many of these scholars have dubbed the Tunku a traditional Malay ruler, governing in the typically autocratic manner of the Kerajaan establishment. So deeply ingrained was the feudal mentality of protection and patronage within UMNO under the Tunku’s leadership that it even became part of the party’s vocabulary and ideology.
Taken from the Malaysia Design Archive
Lest we assume that all this is in the past, all we need to do is bring ourselves back to the present, where current Prime Minister Najib Razak sees fit to warn Malaysians not to “question the social contract” or “question Malay rights”. The key factor of a social contract – the consent of the governed – that surely renders the social contract negotiable is never referred to or even honoured. We didn’t have to fight for our independence, and we’ve never had a revolution. Malaysia’s comfortable trajectory has traversed Kerajaan-style monarchy to colonial-rule to, finally, a colonial-inherited parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch (how’s that working out for you?). This is something Farish alludes to in the chapter titled ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, and it’s worth quoting at length:
The Federation of Malaya inherited the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy, along with a constitutional monarch as its head of state, something that the UMNO leaders in particular were keen to install. Because of the consensus of values and ideology that already existed between the two sides, the transfer of power and authority from the departing colonial powers to the traditional Malay ruling elite proved to be uncomplicated. In the words of Chandra [Muzaffar, whose Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia Farish cites] “both feudal history and British colonialism had thus conspired to bestow the privilege of power upon this group.” It was just a matter of legal procedure before the Malay Sultans were installed as the ideologically potent symbols of Malay power, while the Malay aristocratic elite manoeuvred themselves into positions of real political power as the de facto rulers. Decades of British colonial rule had ensured the integrity and viability of the Malay royal families, something which the conservatives of UMNO were quick to recognise and exploit in what Roger Kershaw has termed a ‘sociological symbiosis’. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that The Times of London reported the birth of Malaya with a resonant chord of approval.
Like most Malaysians, Malaysia herself proved to be a good, obedient student who follows the rules unasked. First rule for free colonies: If the colonial power from whom you gained independence is cheering you on, you know something’s wrong.
This chapter on ‘The Red-Green Alliance’, which focuses on the “left-leaning years” of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is further indication of how a distinct lack of class consciousness among Malaysians makes it unable for us to successfully and collectively fight for rights from the bottom-up instead of the top-down approach that views the middle-and-upper classes as the default point of origin. Farish traces the roots of PAS’ pro-rakyat tendencies, when it was led by the charismatic and formidably intelligent Dr. Burhanuddin al-Helmy from 1956 t0 1969. Dr. Burhanuddin’s “philosophy of Islamist-nationalism”, as Farish puts it, was greatly informed by Marxism, leading to a kind of Islamism that “called for the Malays to transcend their narrow ethnocentrism and parochialism to focus on the wider struggle against foreign domination and exploitation of their economy.” Much of this is lost in the current incarnation of PAS, which in response to UMNO’s increased move towards conservative neoliberal policies under the guise of globalisation, has opted to respond with an increasingly right-wing agenda of narrow, parochial Islamic governance.
After twenty two years of our very own Maggie Thatcher, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, class consciousness seems to be all but erased among the post-80s generation. From activism to civic rights campaigners and young politicians, all assume a hyper-capitalist, middle-and-upper class mode of being as the default – and therefore promote and advance causes from that particular starting point without any critique of their own position. This is precisely why the Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) folk give me the heebie-jeebies, inspired as they are by “the vision of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, the first Prime Minister of Malaysia”. Part of their philosophy is quoted below:
Our mission is to improve the level of understanding and acceptance of public policies based on the principles of rule of law, limited government, free markets and free individuals.
“Free individuals” inspired by the Tunku is, if we agree with Farish’s assessments thus far, deeply suspect indeed. A “limited government” with a “free market” – what does that mean? A government limited only by its abilities to protect the free market, as opposed to its people? I’m being facetious, no doubt, but one need only look to the US to see how this has worked out for them.
That we’ll continue to reap much of the same without end in sight is pretty much guaranteed for as long as UMNO is in power (Barisan National, as we all know, is just a front for UMNO-rule. MIC who? MCA what?) This pretty much bears itself out among the “younger generation” of UMNO politicians, particularly in one Khairy Jamaluddin, whom the liberal elites drool over as a symbol of potential change in UMNO. Khairy recently tweeted this:
That’s like the Ghost of Dr. Mahathir past, present, and future all in one tweet. That the Twittering elite, with their multiple iPads and Mac laptops – and where Khairy is concerned, Oxford-educated, privileged, moneyed, and with a former Prime Minister of Malaysia as his father-in-law – are able to sum up “the Malay mind” as “backward” with no one, as I’ve seen thus far, objecting to it, says a lot about how we view ourselves and our respective privilege. [I’ll also like to take a moment, since this is my blog, to note my distaste for Khairy and his stable of middle-class yuppie male fanboys ready to retweet him at any moment.] Do they ever take a moment to consider his privilege, and their own, the position from which he speaks and the position from which they retweet? I mean, seriously, this[ii]:
Farish’s work does have its hiccups, and this is mainly where his own analysis doesn’t seem to leave much room for gender and class-based critique. While he is an excellent historian, teasing out strands from the past to deftly weave them into a coherent, elegant narrative fabric, his own preference for the culture of halus over kasar, and throwaway comments about the popularisation of the keris among the masses leading to its “vulgarisation” are occasionally jarring. I don’t know Farish but have attended some of his other lectures and book launches in the past, and while humour is not his forte, his brand of serious and precise oratory has always been consistently compelling. Yet somehow in this book his prose occasionally veers into snootiness of the nose-in-the-air variety, and this cannot but entail the attendant eye-roll on the reader’s part. There may have been some self-consciousness on Farish’s part with regards to how to present his prodigious and intellectually-demanding research in a manner that is accessible to readers at all levels of knowledge, resulting in the occasional attempts at cheekiness and jokeyness that unfortunately fall flat. The line between scholarly and popular is a broad chasm, and one may occasionally stumble.
That said, Farish’s doing valuable work, and if you’re the least bit interested in understanding Malaysian history beyond government-dictated history textbooks, you best ensure that you own a copy of What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You. If you find it difficult, at this precise moment, to imagine a better Malaysia – perhaps a journey back to the past can provide the stirrings for creative reimagination. Or, at the very least, it allows you to envision a Malaysia unhampered by the screaming far-right rhetoric of the present-day news and saves you from flushing your head down the toilet.
[i] If anyone can point out others (besides Azmi Sharom), please do. I’ve thought and I’ve thought, but I can’t come up with anyone else. Can anyone think of a Malaysian public intellectual who’s a woman?
January 26, 2011 § Leave a comment
Last night while staying glued to Twitter for developments in Egypt, a tweet came in from a Malaysian with the words “The Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 will be amended” and my heart almost stopped for a moment. Buoyed, no doubt, by the idealistic energy that comes from watching a revolution onscreen while seated in a sturdy-backed chair in the comfort of my study, I thought for a moment that the Malaysian government was considering “amending” the PPPA in terms of limiting its scope, and scaling back. However, I’m clearly delusional – because if Najib Razak has shown us one thing, he has shown us that he is the rightful heir to Mahathir-style authoritarian conservatism. I cannot imagine any form of fundamental, systemic difference in this country if the same ruling coalition continues to rule for the continuing decades like has for the decades past.
He said among other things, the Home Ministry was looking at the definition of “publication” and whether it should include Internet content.
Mahmood said the ministry was working with the the Attorney-General’s Chambers in going through the proposed amendments which were expected to be ready for tabling in Parliament in March.
“For example, what does the publication process mean? Is it inclusive of Internet content or what is said on Facebook?” he said at a press conference after presenting appointment letters to members and associate members of the Film Censorship Board and Film Appeal Board today.
“We have to expand the act so that it does not only cover print media. Nowadays the landscape is totally different. We are talking about publication, but what about what is in digital form?”
Mahmood said the amendments were not meant to tighten control over the press but to address loopholes in the law and make it more inclusive.
I marvel at the ability of the Home Ministry to think about things – the definition of “publication”? Wow, that’s pretty heavy stuff. “What does the publication process mean?” Amazing. All this in service of keeping the Malaysian public further suppressed, oppressed, and repressed. I mean, it’s a truism that all governments are stupid yet when there’s a will, there’s a way, and if it means keeping you in line they’re going to THINK VERY HARD ABOUT THIS.
And, I like this particular phrase: “to address loopholes in the law and make it more inclusive” – it sounds like a grand old party. “Inclusive” is always a good word, no? It brings to mind multiculturalism and happy parties and we-are-the-world-type sisterhood and brotherhood. You can feel the long, skeleton arm of the Printing Presses and Publications Act reach out and bring you in close for a rib-crushing “inclusive” hug, whether you want to or not.
Do head on over to Uppercaise for more in-depth coverage:
Unable to effectively counter the barrage of exposés, leaks, commentaries and analyses being published on the Internet, the Government is now falling back on repression through legal muscle, in a throwback to conditions existing in the late 1980s, when the Mahathir Mohamed government tightened press controls and introduced annual press licensing.
Najib, as we’ve all suspected, is just another Mahathir, but that pink-tinged baby face that makes you forget this very, very easily.
Update: After the Home Ministry secretary-general spilled the beans said some stuff, there was obviously an emergency meeting held along the lines of, “Fuck, we’re a democracy… oops, maintain the façade!” and therefore our Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Aziz – I’m not sure what he does, really – came forward to say, “Hey, we’re not going to restrict stuff online, but perhaps we will, it’s up to us really, because we may have tabled Bills in the past, but we can revoke the Bills, especially if you’ve been bad, so we won’t censor you, but we actually can and will when we want to.” Or, something along those lines. Then, along came the Home Minister himself – the esteemed cousin of our Prime Minister – Hishamuddin Hussein, to tell us, “Hey, you can’t judge what we haven’t yet done because my ministry’s secretary-general lacks PR skills! I mean, you can’t judge how we restrict your freedom of speech until we actually restrict it! You know?” Or, something along those lines. In the meantime, PKR responds to this proposed PPPA amendment with a WTF? Furthermore, in this piece our National Union of Journalists says firm, principled things, and Edmund Bon points out how a future caveman age is upon us if we go down this route. And Steven Gan says, “You mofos aren’t taking us back beyond our-already shitty past.”