Art for Politics' Sake
By S. Jayasankaran, Far Eastern Economic Review

October 15th, 1998

All you reporters from around the world
Got a crazy situation here so keep your ears unfurled
Anyone suspected of impurity
Is now considered a threat to national security
Watch your words, watch your words
Be careful what you say
If they don't like your speeches they'll come and take you away

- Shut Up by Rafique Rashid

The crowd is young, mostly ethnic Malay, and they're sober, drinking Cokes and sipping coffee in this cavernous barn of a Kuala Lumpur nightspot. They grin and some pump their fists in the air. But it's good-natured, all mock bravado, "wow-can-you-believe-what-I'm-doing" kind of stuff. The singer is Rafique Rashid and his frenetic spoof of 1980s American funk band Cameo's song Word Up isn't lost on the audience.

Rafique is the rare musician in Kuala Lumpur, one who is not only outspokenly iconoclastic but also occasionally writes his own material. This time, he's talking about Malaysia after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked his former heir apparent and deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim, for "moral misconduct." Anwar has since been expelled from the politically dominant United Malays National Organization and faces 10 criminal charges ranging from sodomy to corruption.

The ousted deputy is currently being held under the colonial-era Internal Security Act, which permits indefinite detention without trial. And he recently showed up in court sporting a black eye and bruises, which he alleges were the result of a beating by his jailers.

The bewildering turn of events has prompted street demonstrations calling for reformasi, or reform of the country's judicial system and the stamping out of corruption. A less conventional response has come from a group of artists -the Extremely Extended Arts Community - that includes everyone from writers and actors to television personalities. The group, about 60-strong and growing, has vowed to take individual "actions" to promote awareness of a perceived erosion of fundamental liberties in the country.

"We're trying to be the voice of the silent people," says Puvan Selvanathan, 30, an architect, columnist, playwright and one of the group's organizers. "This is all about the right to question."

That right was taken to its literal conclusion on the evening Anwar was arrested. Minutes after the former deputy premier delivered an impassioned speech outside the National Mosque, the group's volunteers handed out postcards emblazoned with a large black question mark on a yellow background.

All the postcards were already addressed to "The Right Honourable Dato' Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad" at his official residence, Seri Perdana. The cards featured the words "What's Up Doc?" in English and Malay.

"Would you send it?" the REVIEW asks a young Malay couple. "Yes, of course," comes the instantaneous reply. But would you sign your name and address on it? "We'd have to think about that," is the hesitant reply.

Good morning Mr. NGO, how do you plead?
Can you give a valid reason why you should be freed?
Is there anything we've overlooked?
Any stone unturned?
This case is closed as far as we're concerned

- Mr. NGO by Rafique

Rafique is musing about the government's disdain for non-governmental organizations, but the specific reference is to an NGO-organized meeting on the situation in the Indonesian island of East Timor held in Kuala Lumpur in November 1996. The meeting was broken up by a mob led by members of the ruling party's youth wing, and many NGO activists were arrested.

Sabri Zain, who says he wandered into the meeting of the artists and came away impressed with what he heard, says he isn't an Anwar supporter. He says, however, that he has supported the aims of reformasi ever since he began working for a green group years back.

So what's he doing about it? For Sabri, the answer is the Internet and the information revolution. He translates literature about human rights or simply foreign news reports into Malay and leaves it to others to disseminate. "The tools of reformasi aren't bombs or guns," he says, adding they are "the fax, the photocopier and the Internet."

People like Sabri and Puvan say that their protest will be peaceful--satire, plays, art, music, symbols. Reformasi supporters are encouraged to wear ribbons of white--the colour of innocence--while on October 30, Puvan says he plans to organize a massive "festival" that would encourage questioning.

Well, they're with you everyday
Every step along the way
They will know where you go
What you do or say
The Thought Police
The Thought Police

- The Thought Police by Rafique

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