How safe are you?

September 11th, 1998

I was fortunate enough to have been at a meeting of those who consider themselves to be within the extended 'arts' community in KL this evening. I cannot claim to be a member of the hallowed ranks of the 'extended arts community' (the few mediocre, humble postings I have made in that den of anarchy called the Internet being the only 'art' I can boast of). But I can quite confidently say that I am a proud member of the community's captive audience and it was certainly heartening to see some of the sentiments expressed at that meeting.

I need not repeat those sentiments here - they were discussed at length. And talking about sentiments, I am scared stupid now. Never have I seen so much strength and power mustered, not against a host of opposition parties or anti-establishment activists - but against a single man, and one of their own. If this allowed to happen without even a whisper of dissent or dissatisfaction, how safe are any opinions that are not in line with party policy? How safe are the NGOs, the unions, the human rights groups, the squatters, the weak and unprotected? How safe are you from a poison pen letter reproduced in booklet form, with 50 dalils on why you should be imprisoned for your political or religious beliefs or the colour of your skin? How safe are you from your name and your loved ones being dragged in the filth in a servile, emasculated media? How confident will you be that the courts will deliver justice to you?

How safe is an environmentalist when he says that Bakun should be stopped, or Tanjung Tuan should be saved? How safe is a human rights activist when he champions the rights of the detained dissident or the Achehnese refugee or the Timorese activist? How safe is a playwright when he writes play about money politics or cronyism?

How safe are we all against absolute, unbridled, unquestioned power?

That is the question you have to ask your audiences - theatre-goer, novel reader, art lover, live music fan. Forget about reform for the moment - I suspect even Anwar doesn't know what he means by it. It is now but a hazy ideal that does not yet have the form and substance to be a lethal weapon. If I am kicked in the nuts by a bully, I do not ask how I am going to reform him and his pals. I want help to have him stopped.

Someone mentioned at the meeting that the role of the artists is to comment and question. I do not think you should stop at that. There are already enough questions - the role of the artist to create change, to inspire action. Because this is what artists do best - create feelings. Sadness. Fear. Disgust. Anger. Like I said, I am scared stupid now. And so are a lot of people I know who previously had no interest at all in politics or UMNO or leaders. There is the overhwelming feeling that a great injustice is unravellng before their eyes and they are powerless to stop it. They need you to articulate those feelings - and turn it to action.

So please ... let's not talk about what is the politically-correct liberal / progressive thing to do or what act will be truest to the finest ideals of the Art. Let's not talk about coming out with our greatest novel or our finest painting if it does not make an iota of a difference in stopping the brink we are rapidly approaching. Let's talk about change and action, and the feelings we need to inspire to create that hunger for change.

Let's talk about the tools we need to use to make it happen. We need a few damn good writers here on the Internet. My office store clerk showed me a photocopy of something I'd posted on Sang Kancil some weeks ago and asked me if the writer Sabri Zain was me. This is a man who has no access to computers and knows nothing about computers. Today alone, I had at least dozen calls from friends asking me if I could print out "something on the Net" they heard about related to the Anwar issue. That is the power of the Net - a level playing field they can't buy or silence or manipulate or control.

Let's talk about going to the masses with these tools - not just for a day or a week but until this wrong has been made right. A few heads shaking mournfully at the plight of the nation outside a few cafes in Bangsar is not going to bring down the edifice. Photocopies of few well-written flyers at Jalan Setiamurni can find their way in the furthest reaches of Terengganu or Permatang Pauh in a matter of days. A crisp, damning poem or a poignant caricature on injustice will be faxed and re-faxed ad infinitum across the whole country - if it is moving enough. A subtle but poignant poster in front of a bookshop will do more to inspire and change than a dozen front-page Malay Mail headlines screaming sodomy.

Let's talk about timing. We do not have much time to write the great Malaysian novel guys. Just before the euphoria over the Games is about to peter out, the triumph of the October Budget will be hailed. After that, it's anyone's guess - constituitional changes, elections, cabinet reshuffles, party purges, arrests. Whatever it is, power will be (and is already being) consolidated and opponents silenced - and the fickle Malaysian public would have forgotten this whole sorry affair or are too preoccupied feeling the sharp end of the economic 'gawat' wedge to bother. And how many of us will still be left after all that?

We need to take action - real action - now.

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