This is a delightful interview on Malaysiakini where the interviewee debunks the superficial "achievements" of Malaysia Boleh, or in his eyes, Melayu Boleh. Furthermore, he gives examples and questions why the achievements of non-Malays were never put on the same pedestal as those of the Malays, even when the former's achievements were no less significant to the nation. A good read indeed.
I'm sure this will get comments that it is anti-Malay or anti-Bumi. But read it again. And then read it once more. Kee is not being anti-Malay. He is simply questioning why the UMNO-led Malaysian govt is being anti-non-Malays.
Thanks to Ipoh Timur Opposition Member of Parliament Lim Kit Siang for reproducing this interview on his blog. Btw, YB, how come the street lights in Ipoh Gdn where my parent's house is, don't work 6 days in a week? I know you're busy in KL, keeping BN in check and all the other important stuff... but don't make the residents of Ipoh Timur proud of you on a national level but damn-kow sick of you at a local, day to day - I can't walk out of my house at night because it's so fcuking dark that I'll get mugged and thrown into a ditch - level.
Kee to deciphering Umno semiotics
Helen Ang Nov 15, 07 12:51pm
Kee Thuan Chye is an author, actor-director and dramatist. He has written four major political plays: ‘1984 Here and Now’, ‘The Big Purge’ [read at the Soho Theatre in London, 2005], ‘We Could ****You Mr Birch’ and ‘The Swordfish, Then the Concubine’ [adjudged one of the top 5 entries to the International Playwriting Festival 2006 organised by the Warehouse Theatre in the UK.
He’s also a journalist of 30 years’ standing, beginning his career at The National Echo in 1977. Q & A follows: (The views expressed here are strictly the interviewee’s own and do not reflect the stand of any organisation that he is with)
Helen: You’re someone who works intimately with language and having broad experience of the mass media – which in Malaysia is the channel for communicating the dominant narrative. As such, I’d like to get your reading on the ideas behind some of the things said and done at the recently concluded Umno general assembly.
Let’s start with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi saying: “The act of unsheathing and kissing a keris is part of our cultural heritage but its meaning has been twisted to spread fear among non-Malays, and the image of Umno and Malaysia has been smeared overseas.”
The PM was referring to Youth chief Hishamuddin Hussein who at the wing’s assembly in 2005 started his so-called ‘tradition’ of brandishing the keris. He has since said he expects non-Malays to eventually become “de-sensitised” to his waving this ‘symbol’, and in fact pronounced that naysayers should get used to it.
Deputy PM Najib Abdul Razak believes the act should be celebrated by all races. What do you make of the semiotics of the Umno keris? Is it a “symbol of protection for everyone” as Hisham and the local media would have us think?
Kee: I certainly don’t think it is a symbol of protection for everyone. This kind of talk is typical of Umno politicians who often twist semantics for the purpose of fooling the people. Well, it can fool those who are easily swayed by superficialities but not the intelligent public. Many Umno politicians appear to be pretty superficial themselves and therefore tend to misperceive that the thinking of the rakyat is mainly of the lowest common denominator.Helen: Well, to go on to next in the hierarchy, Najib’s address this year was themed ‘Reaching for the Stars – Elevating a National Civilisation’, doubtless to ride on the “Malaysians walking a few inches taller” hype generated by the first Malay to go into space. I note a resolute semantics when one man’s ‘space tourist’ is another man’s ‘angkasawan’, while a cynic’s ‘joyride’ is the administration’s ambitious ‘space programme’.
The keris is a striking visual image. When it was first brandished in 2005, it naturally sent fear waves among the non-Malays. The body language of the person wielding it and the words uttered in accompaniment and, more significantly, the tone in which they were uttered combined to even more dramatic effect.
In 2006, the second time it made its appearance, the event looked choreographed – with Hishammuddin raising the unsheathed keris heavenwards and his Umno Youth brethren raising their fists in unison alongside him, in rows of solidarity. It was fearsome, like a military phalanx. All the signs pointed to aggression.
Hishammuddin was theatricalising a moment, and it was theatre with a powerful message – all the more effectively communicated because it was televised ‘live’ and it went out to millions of viewers.
And when you unsheathe a keris and hold it in that way, you’re bound to incite certain sentiments among your followers and to provoke them to ask when you are going to use it, as Hashim Suboh did. This inevitably recalls the moment of a day 20 years ago when Najib reportedly wielded a keris and vowed that there would be Chinese blood on its blade by the end of that day.
In Hishammuddin’s theatrics, the context was clear. It was an Umno Youth assembly, which is a strictly Malay gathering. The aggressive stance, the iconic Malay keris and the invocation to uphold the Malay struggle – all these pointed to an ethnocentric concern.
Other races were certainly not being defended; on the contrary, they were implied to be the enemy.
With weapon in hand, Hishammuddin was unequivocal in his assertion that Umno Youth wanted the return of policies favouring the Malays and would take action against those who opposed the movement’s proposal to revive the NEP. He later said that the keris represented Umno Youth’s “renewed spirit in empowering the Malays”.
So now for Hishammuddin to say that he would use the keris again in 2007 as a protector of all Malaysians – not just Malays – is disingenuous. Any intelligent Malaysian can see through the doublespeak.
What is even worse – and insulting – is what he said about “desensitizing” non-Malays to the issue of the keris. Only a person with a supercilious attitude would behave that way. What he implies by that statement is that non-Malays must accept what he does, no matter how revulsed they are by it. It’s like slapping someone in the face and then slapping him again and again, and telling him that he has to tolerate it each time until he gets used to it. What arrogance!
The arrogance surely stems from the idea of ketuanan Melayu that has been the focus of Umno’s propagation the last few decades. One could read into that “protection” doublespeak an implicit statement of Malay supremacy lording over the other races. This is the same kind of arrogance exhibited by Puteri Umno in its recent criticism of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP). A mere wing of Umno had the gumption to tell a partner of the Barisan Nasional to “stop making noise”.
This is the same kind of arrogance exhibited by Hishammuddin when he issued a warning to the MCA leadership last July to stop saying that Malaysia is a secular state. The leader of a Youth wing had the gumption to tell a senior partner of Umno’s in the BN to shut up. On an issue of national significance, to boot.
In supporting Hishammuddin’s keris antics, Abdullah reveals himself to be contrary to what the mainstream media have hailed him as – “a Prime Minister of all Malaysians”.
It undoes what he had been trying to do throughout this year’s Umno general assembly, which was to be conciliatory towards the other races by not bringing up issues that would be sensitive and threatening to them, particularly religion. No doubt Abdullah knows he cannot afford to alienate the non-Malay voters in light of the upcoming general election. He could have reminded the Umno delegates about this on the eve of the assembly when he briefed them on what issues to avoid. He could also have advised Hishammuddin to take that soft approach with the keris this time.
It was all rather predictable. Umno is inadvertently transparent that way!
In any case, how could Abdullah be considered a PM of all Malaysians when he was the one who stopped any further discussion of Article 11 of the Constitution; did little to clear the air about whether Malaysia is not a secular state; did nothing to quash a proposal by none other than the Chief Justice (then) to replace common law with Syariah law; rejected a proposal to set up an inter-faith council; told ministers within his own Cabinet to withdraw their memo to him calling for a review of laws that affect the rights of non-Muslims? One could go on.
The use of ‘angkasawan’ is blatantly deliberate; I find the English papers parroting this Malay word too. I’d read earlier that Nasa does not see Dr Sheikh Mustaphar Sheikh Abdul Shukor as an “astronaut” but rather a “space participant”. Is the ‘angksawan’ another case of Boleh creative accounting (adding and subtracting)?
Kee: Given the political reality we are in, a reality that has evolved under a campaign of institutionalised racial discrimination over the last 30-plus years, very few Malaysians would have expected the candidate for space to be other than a Malay. The non-Malay contenders were, to put it brutally, merely tokens. The final selection came as no surprise then.Helen: I would say we found a new ‘leng chai’ poster boy to set women’s heart aflutter … but in any case, to look back, there was the less than enthusiastic reception of the Everest conquerors that were Indian. Whereas a Malay man swimming the English Channel was rewarded with a Datukship – a feat that even a 12-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy (Thomas Gregory / 11 hr 54 min in 1988) accomplished minus the sort of state support and sponsorship given our Malaysian ‘hero’ Abdul Malek Mydin (17 hr 40+ min).
The more cynical among us would also have deduced that it was all part of the Malay agenda of creating “towering Malays”. And there was not only one candidate, there were two. The second is now a spaceman-in-waiting, and to all intents and purposes, he will get his day in the stratosphere, because he will add to the list of “towering Malays”.
(I like the use of the term “spaceman” to describe each of our two aspiring angkasawan; as my dear friend Azmi Sharom pointed out astutely in his column for The Star recently, Sheikh Muszaphar is a man and he was in space.) More important, however, are the questions on a lot of people’s minds: What did our spaceman really achieve? And what has our nation achieved? Did we build our own rocket? Did we find a new way of going to space?
Kee: Non-Malays who have accomplished greater feats tend not to be lionised as much. As you rightly pointed out, the Indians who scaled Mount Everest got short shrift. This also happens in the field of sports.Helen: Lack of a maintenance culture.
The Sidek brothers were elevated to legendary status for their success in badminton, totally overshadowing the non-Malay greats who had led the way long before them (Wong Peng Soon, Ong Poh Lim, Ooi Teik Hock, Eddy Choong, Tan Aik Huang, Tan Yee Khan, Ng Boon Bee, etc).
When Mohd Hafiz Hashim won the All-England singles title in 2003, he was rewarded with a car, land, money and a hero’s welcome home. When Koo Kien Keat and Tan Boon Heong won the All-England doubles title last March, they were rewarded with only a fraction of what Hafiz got. Not that such rewards are necessarily good. Sadly, Hafiz hasn’t outdone himself since 2003.
Kee: I have a theory that our performance in sports started to decline with the inception of the NEP. Before that, we had great athletes like Jegathesan, Rajamani, Ishtiaq Mobarak and Nashatar Singh, and our football team was as good as South Korea’s. But from the ’70s onwards, things took a turn for the worse. I put it down to the decline in national morale. And of course also to the team selection criteria.Helen: Where does it all lead?
Kee: It all leads to further superficiality. That’s what our leaders are good at – creating the myth of Bolehness by resorting to the accomplishment of superficial ‘feats’. These would include having the tallest flagpole in the world, at one time the tallest building in the world, the paean to Bumiputeraism called Putrajaya (which now appears to be a white elephant), etc, etc. Is there a biggest ketupat in the world too?Helen: Most certainly, but could have been eaten by now.
Kee: But what it amounts to realistically is spending millions and billions of ringgit, which you and I contribute to whether we like it or not. To the movers of the cause, it doesn’t matter what the cost is as long as it serves the Bumiputera-building exercise. I think that’s unfair. Non-Bumis also deserve an even chance. We contribute too. I was disgusted when I visited Putrajaya at night a few weeks ago – all that money spent on maintaining it, all that energy to light up the streets and the buildings, and all for what?Helen: To blink at spacemen in Russian stations? But do go on…
Kee: I’ll tell you what disgusted me even more recently. When I visited the Independence Memorial in Malacca last May and looked at the exhibits (pictures, write-ups, etc), I found almost everything centred on the efforts of the Malays. The contributions of non-Malay nationalists were blatantly neglected or marginalised. A handful of Chinese and Indian leaders got mentioned in passing, but that was about all.And sean-the-man, has an example too. Our very own (former) WRC (World Rally Championship) Group N Champion Karamjit Singh. He's a bonafide, true blue world rally champion, winning the world Grp N title once and the Asia Pacific title numerous times. No shortcuts, no punches pulled, not quarter given.
Unless I missed it, I didn’t even see a single portrait of Tun Tan Cheng Lock in there. And he was the leader of the MCA at the time. Not only that – his record shows that he was a true nationalist who was president of the All Malaya Joint Council for Action (AMCJA) which, together with Pusat Tenaga Rakyat (Putera), rallied for Merdeka long before Umno got wise to the idea.
I don’t buy that ‘National Civilisation’ hogwash. “National” is just another abused word for “Bumiputera”. But many non-Malays have been conditioned into believing the Umno propaganda, first from having their mindset programmed in school, then from being exposed to the spin-doctoring of the mass media daily and the grand-scale theatrical extravaganzas staged by the BN government occasionally.
When the general election comes around, they will probably vote like they have been doing over the decades.
He is by a country mile, the most successful racing driver ever produced by Malaysia - but he's never gotten even a mere fraction of the huge official sponsorhips that never-win-anythings like Tengku Djan, Fairuz Fauzy etc have. He practically has to fight each and every season to keep his drive alive. But despite being largely ignored by the country's sports establishment, he wins championships nevertheless, and never fails to bear the Malaysian flag when he does.
And is he a datuk? Far from it. If a round-the-world sailor who didn't actually finish sailing round the world and an English Channel swimmer who swims slower than pre-pubescent little boys and girls get datukships, I don't see why Karam shouldn't.