Friday, July 11, 2014

Huzir Sulaiman tackles the thorny issue of Ketuanan Melayu (repost)

The Malaysian Insider
A middle class Malay perspective
WIDE ANGLE WITH HUZIR SULAIMAN
Sunday Star, December 14, 2008

The children of the Establishment tackle some difficult issues.

IN the strident and unnecessarily unpleasant debate over the concept of ketuanan Melayu and the Malay community’s political future, the quiet voices of urban middle-class Malays have yet to make themselves heard.

As a partial corrective, I spoke to several members of a tribe that, while small in number, is intriguing from a social anthropology perspective.

The Malays of the anak Datuk class – the children of senior civil servants and technocrats whose parents’ careers in public service predated the Mahathir era – are interesting in that their values and ideas about Malaysia must have been formed at least in part by their families’ experiences of nation building.

As their parents made the country, it stands to reason that they would have a considerable emotional stake in how it develops in the future.

Even within this rarefied sub-caste of children of the Establishment who are not themselves involved in politics, however, their feelings about ketuanan Melayu show a marked diversity.

Fahmi Fadzil (The Nut Graph)
Fahmi Fadzil, 27, is a writer and performer. He is the son of Datuk Fadzil Yunus, the former director-general – and later general manager – of the Felda group of companies, and Datin Fauziah Ramly, a senior civil servant who was most recently a Commissioner with the Public Service Commission.

I asked him what he makes of the concept of ketuanan Melayu.

“I never grew up thinking about it very much. My parents never spoke to me about it. Even when I was in college the whole matter was never really present in how I saw things.

“I think because I live in KL – and especially because my parents came from that group of earlier middle class Malay civil servants – I don’t think I would subscribe to ideas of ketuanan Melayu.”

But does he subscribe in any way to the idea that the Malays are the natural leaders – or in some way the owners – of Malaysia?

“No. On my father’s side I’m the fourth generation born on this peninsula, on my mother’s side just the third generation, so I see myself as a pendatang too. I don’t subscribe to the idea of a natural leadership role for the Malays.

“More than that, as a Muslim, I don’t see the need for this. There is no such thing as one group being ethnically superior to another.

“The thing I remember most from school, from kelas agama, (is that) from the early days of Islam there was a clear message that you were all the same. Whether you were Arabs or not, you are all the same now.

“We should be talking about values and principles held by people rather than subscribing to simplistic ideas of certain ethnicities being the owners of the land. I don’t subscribe to that, and even if I did, I think the rightful owners would be the Orang Asal.”

Zahim Albakri (The Nut Graph)
Datuk Zahim Albakri, 45, the director and actor, is the son of Datuk Ikmal Hisham Albakri, the first Malay architect and the first President of Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia, who designed the National Library, Putra World Trade Centre, and the Bank Bumiputera headquarters in KL.

Zahim’s grandfather, Datuk Seri Mustafa Albakri, of the Malayan Civil Service, was the first Commissioner of the Election Commission and the first Keeper of the Ruler’s Seal.

For Zahim, coming to grips with the concept of ketuanan Melayu means dispelling ambiguity: “There seems to be a confusion between the bumiputera policy (the New Economic Policy) and the idea of ketuanan Melayu. The bumiputera policy was a reaction to the riots of 1969, whereas ketuanan Melayu, in the Constitution, I don’t think is particularly giving special privileges or rights to the Malays, it’s to ensure that the Malay Rulers have a certain place, to ensure that those institutions continue.

“I grew up in a family where we were brought up with the understanding that the Malay rulers are there, and this is our history, our culture.

“I grew up with my granddad being proudly Malay, and proudly Orang Perak. There was this sense of being proud of our culture. But never were we made to think that being Malay gave us a right to something beyond.

“I was brought up (to believe) that every citizen in Malaysia was equal. I was never brought up believing that Malays should have more than everyone else.”

How would he feel about a non-Malay Prime Minister?

“I have no problem with a non-Malay PM. It should be about their competence. It should be the best person for the job.”

Saidah Rastam
The composer Datin Saidah Rastam comes from a family steeped in public life. Her maternal grandfather was Perak’s 14th Datuk Panglima Kinta, who held 56 public service posts at the time of his death. Her father is Datuk Rastam Hadi, the former managing director of Petronas and former deputy governor of Bank Negara. Her husband is the urbane lawyer-turned-banker Datuk Charon Mokhzani (who, with exquisite politeness, declined to be interviewed for this article).

Says Saidah, “I think the races should be treated equally and the biggest thing that makes me uneasy about the concept of ketuanan Melayu is that it’s increasingly being used in fascist ways.”

She believes that the NEP “was a necessary thing at the time, given the racial tensions, but that’s different from the concept of Malay supremacy”.

She points to the historical record: “Tun Razak said that that was only for that time, and this NEP thing would end at some point, so that’s different from the notion that there’s an inherent Malay supremacy that can’t be questioned, which I’m very uneasy with.

“I’m somebody who benefited from the policies which favoured Malays – at the outset I’m happy to admit that. But looking at things today, my personal view is that we should give everybody equal opportunities because the policies favouring Malays haven’t been used properly.

“And given that the people who are supposed to safeguard the correct implementation of the policies are the same ones who benefit from them, I’m not optimistic that those policies will be correctly implemented.”

Dain Said
Dain-Iskandar Said is a writer and film director. His father was Datuk Mohamed Said Zain, a diplomat and intelligence officer.

He sees the concept of ketuanan Melayu as “outmoded, out of step with the times we live in, when the world is becoming more and more global. The world over, people are bringing down barriers of race, yet we are trying to instill and install those outmoded values.”

In his eyes, there are many aspects to the problem. “First, what is a Malay? Most Malays I know are some kind of mix, so who defines being Malay? Who are the guardians of the definition?

“The definition of ketuanan Melayu seems to be Umno; it always seems to lead back to Umno’s agenda.

“I’m not saying that outside of it it’s not valid; it may be valid to a lot of people. I can understand that. The main problem is the way it’s implemented. The tone of it is fascistic.”

Mahathir Mohamad: the ultimate Melayu?
For him, the promotion of the tenets of ketuanan Melayu “exposes deep insecurity, because if you really believe you are leading this country, what are you so scared of? I don’t think any of the other races want to take that away from you. They can’t, because in the Constitution are enshrined certain precepts.”

Dain argues that our debate is impoverished. “While many of us middle class Malays can be liberal and open, there’s never been any kind of infrastructure that supports ideas or traditions of openness.

“So on the one hand you have people who are willing to be open and liberal, but on the other hand it is so easy to destroy it, because there is no critical, intellectual or educational infrastructure to support those ideas.

“When you attack something that has no support, it is so easy to play to the rural Malay masses, to instill that kind of fear, and make people feel extremely powerless.

“There’s no tradition of talking critically about race and identity politics. You’re almost suspended in a vacuum.”

This is a vacuum that we need to fill with the plurality and diversity of our opinions. It has always been the position of Wide Angle that Malaysia’s many problems and tensions should not be ignored; they need to be addressed by continued, forthright yet respectful debate by citizens, and the issue of ketuanan Melayu is no exception.

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Huzir Sulaiman writes for theatre, film, television, and newspapers. 

[First posted 18 May 2012]

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

THE SALIERI SYNDROME (revisited)

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
I saw Miloš Forman’s film of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus five times at the same cinema. And I’ve watched the VCD at home at least three times. What impressed me most was F. Murray Abraham’s oscar-winning portrayal of Antonio Salieri, court composer to the Hapsburg emperor Joseph II.

Today everybody agrees that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a divinely inspired genius. A few of us know he died a pauper at 35 and was buried in a mass grave – and that his monumental musical legacy lay largely forgotten for more than 70 years - until Ludwig von Köchel published a descriptive catalogue of the 626 works Mozart composed in his short but intense career.

Portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
In Shaffer’s fictionalization of Mozart’s story, Salieri’s professional envy of the gifted upstart becomes the central motif of the drama. Salieri is one of a small handful of academic musicians with sufficient savvy to appreciate the full extent of the man’s extraordinary talent; but he chooses to thwart Mozart’s destiny in every way possible. Nevertheless, Mozart succeeds in seizing a brief burst of popularity with his vibrant operas. The pious Salieri eventually loses his faith in God, and murders Mozart by posing as an anonymous Count and commissioning a Requiem, with an impossible deadline and a monetary reward Mozart couldn’t possibly refuse (being in heavy debt, owing to his hedonistic habits). Salieri thereby pushes the already frail genius beyond the edge of exhaustion to an untimely demise. For his efforts, Salieri ends his days in an insane asylum, where he pontificates about the rectitude of mediocrity and blesses his fellow inmates for their lacklustre and wasted lives. Two centuries down the line, nobody remembers a single melody written by Antonio Salieri; while Amadeus triggered a worldwide Mozart revival which would have made Wolfie posthumously richer than Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, Sir Paul McCartney, and Sir Elton John combined.

The theme of genius unrecognized and unrewarded, I must confess, has obsessed me for the greater part of my early life. In my schooldays only three teachers noticed I was a precocious kid – and one of them happened to be a Peace Corps Volunteer from Baltimore. This may have encouraged me to spend a year in the U.S. as an exchange student, and it was then that I finally received the ego nourishment my soul craved. Ironic that the glitzy culture that spawned Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and “pre-emptive” war has also provided me with the greatest amount of positive feedback. Perhaps the land of superlatives got that way by giving its kids the hearty encouragement all kids require, to grow up brimming over with initiative and innovative chutzpah. My own initiation into adulthood in Malaysia taught me not to bother applying for a government grant unless I snip off my foreskin.

Which brings us to the Malaysian Dilemma: here we are, a feudal society abruptly thrust into the Digital Age by “market forces” that emphasize competition over cooperation. No matter how often we yell “Malaysia Boleh!” - and no matter how much official sponsorship is invested in some guy who sails solo around the world to claim his Datukship, or that well-heeled lady who solo-trekked across the Antarctic, only to have her victory inundated by the most spectacular tsunami within memory – we’ve shot ourselves in the foot so many times, one could remark that our national ego has clay pigeon feet. At least we can brag about our fantastic marksmanship: it’s no mean feat, you know, to shoot your own foot when you have to crane your neck just to see where your feet are. Well... burp... there are no starving hordes in evidence in Potbellyland – and that’s something we can be proud of without even trying!

So... are we really doomed to remain a mediocracy forever? Is there no cure for the Salieri Syndrome? Indeed there is. You only have to take a stiff swig of this ancient Chinese prescription: “One does not grow taller by chopping off other people’s heads.” That’s right, folks. Ego insecurity breeds jealousy. Which is (I keep reminding people, especially my wife) the root of all evil. For that matter, one does not grow taller by wearing platform shoes either. But that’s an entirely different disease called TLFC – The Lord Farquaard Complex – which can be easily treated with a little bit of dragon magic.

[Originally published in the April 2005 issue of VIDA! First posted 8 January 2007]

Monday, July 7, 2014

A WHODUNIT WITH HEART, MIND AND SOUL


Coming up with a good opening line is every author’s challenge – especially so if one happens to be debuting as a crime novelist. For his maiden attempt at producing fast-paced pulp fiction with pith, Alois Leinweber settled on this one: 

“The woman sat down close to him, close enough for him to feel her warmth through his trousers.”

It worked for me as I found myself turning all 252 pages of Jasmine for the Dead with eagerness and ease. Set in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, the book starts off as a classic whodunit, with an honest cop as the main protagonist and much of the action revolving around the discovery of a naked white body by the steps of the national monument – dead, of course, skull bashed in with a hard object and a bullet wound in the neck.

Turns out the murder victim is an Englishman named James Hollander, freelance journalist and former British soldier posted in Malaya. Apparently he has been shot with an army issue pistol from the early post-war era.

Chief Inspector Chee Keong is the sort of detective who rarely gets in the news – simply because he takes his job seriously and enjoys it. Assisted by his trusty sidekick Haris Askandar, Inspector Chee Keong is modeled after famous fictional sleuths like Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot – a cop with razor-sharp intelligence and a bloodhound nose who somehow manages to remain likeable and human despite his less-than-pleasant job.

The English translation of his book was launched at Bukit Kiara Equestrian and Country Club on 11 May 2014

Leinweber takes pains to develop the Chief Inspector as his central figure, so that within a couple of chapters he serves as the reader’s alter ego even as he pulls together the various plot strands. Apart from his detective work, Chee Keong has a personal life. He jogs, he has a wide circle of friends, he’s well read, likes his food, enjoys travel, and he has an alluring Malay girlfriend named Sharifah. The author uses the romance between Inspector Chee Keong and Sharifah to shed some light on problems confronting interracial couples, and I don’t doubt that some of it is autobiographical.

Investigating the murder of James Hollander leads the dedicated sleuth down many intriguing paths across a broad span of time and space. We learn that the murdered Englishman is linked with the 1948 Batang Kali massacre – another ugly blot in the history of British colonialism wherein 24 unarmed Chinese villagers were brutally executed as a warning to others against collaborating with Communist insurgents. Relatives of those killed in Batang Kali have waited 66 years for the British government to apologize and compensate them – but in vain. Was James Hollander a member of the Scots Guards platoon responsible for this bloodbath? Why had he been visiting Batang Kali and seeking out surviving relatives of those shot in cold blood?

The dead journalist, we learn, was previously married to a German named Petra Schmidt, senior executive in a Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical firm with a few skeletons in its closet involving contaminated medicines (which they were foisting off in Southeast Asia through their Bangkok office). Although long estranged from one another Petra and James had yet to formalize their divorce.

True to his calling as an investigative journalist, Hollander had been digging into this scandal and had uncovered enough documentary evidence to do an exposé that would have devastating consequences on the pharmaceutical firm. Instead of admitting to unethical practices, the company had invested in a high-powered public relations agency based in Kuala Lumpur to do some damage control.

Funnyman Harith Iskander jokes with Alois Leinweber

Inspector Chee Keong also learns that the dead man had had a keen interest in Malaysia’s notorious human trafficking syndicates. Hollander had apparently taken it upon himself to establish a special fund to help stranded foreign workers, lured over to Malaysia by unscrupulous recruiting agents, who then confiscated their passports and forced them into slave labor. Realizing that negative publicity alone wouldn’t solve the problem because of entrenched corruption within the Malaysian bureaucracy, James Hollander had begun extorting “donations” from agencies recruiting foreign labor, which he then channeled into his fund.

To further complicate the plot, James Hollander shared an apartment with his gay lover, a German expatriate named Hubert Gehrcke, who seemed troubled about his partner’s promiscuous tendencies.

With so many different leads to work with, Inspector Chee Keong is hard pressed to find out which one to follow. On top of all this, he has to deal with a less than supportive Chief of Police, his immediate boss, the crusty Datuk Nazim Ahmad (whose personal secretary, Azleena, happens to have a soft spot for Inspector Chee Keong, thereby easing the tension a little).

Another Datuk enters the thickening plot, Azmi Hamid, director-general of the Immigration Department. Suspicion surrounds this suave character who openly admits to the detectives that he was once a partner in a foreign worker recruitment agency. Datuk Azmi solemnly warns Chee Keong and Haris that there are moles in the Police Force they must flush out.

With Dr Hans Volker Wolf (former director of Goethe-Institut, Kuala Lumpur)

What Leinweber has achieved with Jasmine for the Dead is nothing less than a craftsmanlike tour de force. It’s not easy to keep so many balls in the air with a plot so rich in false trails and red herrings. For a first novel, he has succeeded admirably in serving up as a main dish a mature and intelligent crime thriller in the classic whodunit format – with lots of titillating side dishes thrown in.

In the process Leinweber manages to address a plethora of political issues that constitute the shadow side of Malaysia’s sunny disposition – the smiling face she presents to the casual tourist. Particularly poignant are his revelations on exactly how human trafficking works in Malaysia. The nightmare zone he leads his reader through is stark and vivid. Indeed, it was what triggered my decision to review Jasmine for the Dead – just to get the message out to more people who need to know what’s going on.

The author himself is certainly no casual tourist, having lived several decades in Malaysia with his German-educated Malaysian wife. I was introduced to him many years ago as someone with wide ranging interests and skills. Apart from being (yes, you guessed it) a freelance journalist, Alois Leinweber also teaches German, literature, and music in an international school. He has also written travel books and produced a 30-minute documentary (Rebel Dancer, 2003) on legendary classical Indian dancer and choreographer Ramli Ibrahim. Apart from that, he’s a passionate accordionist and aficionado of the arts.

I assume he can also cook, as he pays loving attention to what his characters consume at every meal, making his whodunit work overtime as a culinary guide to Malaysia. It was a distinct pleasure to see my own country through his eyes and I heartily applaud Alois Leinweber for doing a thoroughly magnificent job of capturing the subtle flavors and nuances that make Malaysia so unique.

A bit of chamber music for the book launch

If I wished to nitpick, I might pounce on the fact that I found the ending a bit of an emotional letdown. As Malaysians we have become almost paralyzed by our inability to vote out the corrupt regime that has bled the national coffers for almost 44 years – or since the introduction in 1970 of a barely concealed apartheid system that has effectively promoted mediocrity to the very top, forcing a massive brain drain of talent and oppressing those who opt to stay).

It has reached the point where we feel deeply disappointed whenever the big fish get away with murder – as they invariably do, and continue to do so, even in works of fiction.

And this may sound petty but as a lifelong smoker, I couldn’t help feeling slightly affronted by his constant harping on people’s tobacco habits. But apart from that, Leinweber’s preliminary venture into pithy pulp fiction gave me so much pleasure, I am already looking forward to seeing Inspector Chee Keong and his assistant Haris Askandar in their next detective adventure.

Who knows, somebody might even have the good sense to buy the movie rights to this stimulating sizzler.

Jasmine for the Dead was originally written in German and published as Jasmin für einen Toten. The English translation was published under the Aletheia imprint in May 2014 and is distributed by Gerakbudaya.