A Reformasi Diary by Sabri Zain
|Strangers Within the
A Study of Modern Malay Identity in U-Wei Hj Shaari's Jogho and Sabri Zain's Face Off by Khoo Gaik Cheng
by Khoo Boo Teik
Publication: Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs
Author: Dr Khoo Gaik Cheng
Publication Date: 2002
IntroductionMy main purpose in this article is to contest the common discursive idea that modernity, individualism and urbanisation connote a loss of traditional values of community rooted in the Malay village or kampung. The idyll of the kampung as a place of communal cooperation, harmony, and other positive traditional values tends to go unchallenged by the average Malaysian and has always been a dominant theme in Malaysian cultural representations. In fact, Malaysian films and literature of the 1970s and 80s, even the 1993 film Balada (Ballad), continued to portray the city as a place of corrupt values and greed which has to be abandoned in favour of a return to the moral purity and ties to tradition that are preserved in the kampung. Films such as these suggest that modern urban Malay identity is heavily vested in the notion of the kampung as a bastion of tradition and positive communal values. However, some writers and filmmakers of the 1990s have made significant departures from this notion. This is not to say that attitudes towards the kampung have changed completely over time and that the positive discourse of the ‘kampung as community’ no longer circulates. I suggest, however, that an alternative viewpoint that challenges such a discourse has emerged since the mid-1990s.
I would like to do two things. First, I want to show how some new Malaysian film and literature challenge the discourse that idealises the notion of Malay community and highlight the negative aspects of kampung life. In the texts I examine, the kampung is portrayed as a locus of homophobia, misogyny and intolerance of outsiders. My second aim is to look at the representations in these texts of other forms of community outside or beyond the discursive, imaginary kampung. These alternative communities emerge in a variety of social contexts, and are not necessarily ethnically homogeneous, such as is the case with representations of the stereotypical kampung community. The documentary-like nature of texts like Bukak Api and Face-Off: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary leads me to move from the study of discursive representations themselves to a discussion of the social context in which the texts are embedded and which they are mediating in their depictions. Such representations of alternative multiethnic communities disrupt the assumption that the small Malay kampung community is a metonym for Benedict Anderson’s larger concept of imagined community or multiethnic nation. In social practice, the concept of ‘the nation’ and national identity is fraught with contradictory meanings that Malays and non-Malays of various political and class positions are constantly contesting. I find that these texts reflect this tension. I suggest also that the city, where villagers flee in order to escape from the social control and conformity of the kampung, may have its own forms of social control and surveillance, exerted by the state and religious authorities. In the second section of my essay, I employ Michel de Certeau’s theory of spatialised subjectivity because it provides a refreshing way of thinking about, challenging and subverting these forms of surveillance and control, ultimately making the city the more liberatory idealised space that modern urban living promises.Kahn on Malay Rural Identity
My discussion takes as its starting point Joel S. Kahn’s essay ‘Subalternity and the Construction of Malay Identity’ (Kahn 1994). Here Kahn argues that the discursive formation of Malay cultural identity was constructed for the consumption and identification of the Malay middle classes by the political elite and the Malay intelligentsia. This discursive construct was very much motivated by the consequences of the National Economic Policy (1971-1990), together with urban and industrial development. According to Kahn, the Malay-language rural novels of literary laureate Shahnon Ahmad, the tourist industry, domestic leisure and entertainment industries, as well as architecture and urban planning reconstituted and reified the idea of Malay cultural identity as embedded in the kampung. Such an investment of Malay cultural identity in images of the traditional kampung might have seemed contradictory to the modernist vision and modernising imperatives of Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Nevertheless, it was actually a politically prudent position to support such a national cultural project in order not to alienate the traditional (rural) Malay voters of UMNO (United Malay Nationalist Organisation).As a political move, such a discourse targetted urban Malays, reminding them to keep their village tradition and not succumb to corrupt western materialist urban culture. Simultaneously, it also functioned to reassure them that development and urbanisation would not endanger or compromise traditional kampung values. The state, in effect, appeased the urban Malays with this cultural icon that concealed the state’s actual embrace of global and local forms of capitalism. It was a valorisation that ran counter to the actual experience of urban Malays during this period, seen for example in the effects of the privatization of telecommunications, tollways, waste disposal and other former state-owned enterprises since the 1980s. The kampung was intended to signify ‘community’ for Malaysians of all ethnicities. For example, the kampung practice of bergotong-royong, of the whole village community getting together to help one of its members move house or clean up the village, has been promoted in government-sponsored television commercials since the 1970s and transplanted to the suburban housing estates, small towns and cities which are inhabited by all ethnicities. Kahn ends his essay by suggesting that the discursive symbolism of Malayness rooted in the kampung icon should be ‘firmly located within that set of social, economic and political processes which have given rise to the new Malay middle classes’. He adds that ‘it is in the context of the lives and aspirations of those middle classes, rather than of the “subaltern” Malays for whom they purport to speak, that we must analyse the emergence of the new forms of Malay identification’ (Kahn 1994, 40).
Kahn sufficiently problematises any simplistic understandings of who the new Malay middle class might be: ‘The new Malay middle class cannot in general be defined by a capitalist logic’ (Kahn 1994, 38). He adds that most of them are government employees, yet are neither a uniform nor homogeneous group. Kahn and anthropologist Maila Stivens elsewhere have posited that the plural term ‘middle classes’ better suits a description of the new Malay bourgeoisie. For the purposes of this essay, I posit too that one of the factors that merit the use of this plural term is the language distinction. The new Malay middle classes consist of the Malay-language elite and the English-language elite (not to mention those who are bilingual). However, given the affirmative action policies of the NEP towards Malays and its encouragement of migration from kampung to urban areas, this new wave of Malay middle classes ‘appears to be firmly urban-based and urban-oriented’ (Kahn 1994, 39).The last point I want to take up from Kahn is his idea that the new Malay middle classes, although oriented in critical ways towards the city, ‘have not yet produced a characteristically urban culture’. Instead, he writes, they live mostly on the fringes of
Kahn’s paper was published in the early 1990s. From the perspective of the mid- to late 1990s, Kahn’s point that ‘the new Malay middle-classes constitut[ed] a breeding ground for new forms of anti-Chinese sentiment’ is disputable (Kahn 1994, 39). Instead, the Reformasi movement and, subsequently, the formation of an opposition political party, Keadilan, demonstrated that the emerging urban culture of the Malaysian middle classes might, if only momentarily, be multiethnic. This is because Keadilan purported to unite all ethnicities under the rubric of social justice and democracy for all Malaysians. While some elements of the new Malay middle-classes may have ‘constitute[d] a breeding ground for new forms of anti-Chinese sentiment’ during the research and writing of Kahn’s essay, the subsequent intercommunal solidarity rallies sparked off by Reformasi are important reminders of cross-racial alliances in Malaysia’s history of race and communal politics. Like the effervescent Sabri Zain, I believe that the mass street demonstrations and the largely urban-based Reformasi movement that emerged from 1998 are significant markers in Malaysian history and politics. These events collectively raised Malaysian social consciousness and debate about national identity and its constant nexus with race and class to a level that no one political event has ever succeeded in doing in the past. However the political scientist Maznah Mohammad predicts that despite Reformasi, the spectre of racial conflict still looms, as long as the tension between moderate Muslims and fundamentalist Islamicists is not solved. This situation is exacerbated by the economic recession, the tensions that arose out of the 1999 elections, the internal factionalism facing Barisan Alternatif (the Opposition coalition) and UMNO’s attempts to cater to its Chinese voters (Maznah Mohammad 2001).Kahn’s focus on the discursive formation of Malay cultural identity provides a springboard to larger matters, such as the shift from an ethnically homogeneous (Malay) community to a pluralistic (Malaysian) imagined community. The putative impermeable boundaries of ethnic communities, and their ability to exclude or estrange others, need to be exposed as already violated, transgressed by a minority who persist in working across racial boundaries for common shared goals, confounded by marginalized groups whose cross-racial alliances have been erased or conveniently forgotten in the nation’s writing of the master-history as Malay Muslim.
Finally, I should point out that the texts I discuss below are largely the expressions and perceptions formed by the Malay middle-classes who are English-educated, and most often, bilingual. In fact, with the exception of S. Othman Kelantan’s novel, Juara, all the written sources I discuss appeared originally in English. The films are in Malay, although the filmmakers themselves have been trained in the West. These cultural producers are no strangers to modernity themselves, and their own critical self-consciousness and positionalities outside tradition and inside modernity, must be taken into consideration even in films such as Jogho that make no overt commentary on modernity.Strangers within: alienation and regulation in the kampung
other contemporary Malaysian cultural
producer captures the theme of Malay rural alienation more vividly than
filmmaker U-Wei Haji Saari. In his controversial first film, Perempuan,
Dan ...? (Woman, Wife and Whore 1993), the blatant
daring of the female protagonist, Zaleha, a newcomer married to Amir,
perceived by the villagers to be transgressive of the patriarchal
the kampung. She is finally dealt a violent death at the hands
jealous, cruel and violent husband.
U-Wei’s next auteur film,
Bakar (The Arsonist 1994) centres around an immigrant
family constantly on the move from kampung to kampung
Thematically consistent with U-Wei’s other auteur films, Jogho is again a story of alienation: the macroscopic is the cultural, religious and social alienation of the Patani Malays in a predominantly Buddhist nation; the microscopic is the settling of scores between the men in two Malay families over a murder committed after a bullfight. Thai hegemony appears only as an external intervening coercive force that highlights the macroscopic issue of Thai-Malay relations when the microscopic tensions threaten to destabilise Thai laws. The Thai police appear at the kampung each time a crime has been committed in the film. When they come to arrest Mamat for Dolah’s murder, one of them berates him with the words, ‘Can’t you be more civilized?’ In this sense, Muslim Malays in
Yet, by the film’s conclusion, Mamat rises to the occasion and illustrates that, indeed, the subaltern Malays in
Unlike the novel from which the film is adapted, Jogho avoids focusing too much on the disillusionment that many rural Kelantanese Malays felt for the unkept promises of change and progress made by the Malay nationalist party, UMNO, after the achievement of independence in 1957. During the 1950s, the rural Malays who did not benefit from independence felt like strangers within an imagined community that, reclaimed from the British, was supposed to be finally theirs. Positioned twenty years after Malayan independence, the narrative seems to suggest that the Thai Muslim community has been cast adrift to fend for itself. The audience learns that Mamat’s past involvement in Malayan realpolitik has devolved into fighting only in the bull arena. Contained within U-Wei’s narrative is an exploration of Malay identity as rooted in gender (masculinity), religious principles and nationality, in the fulfilment of kinship and communal obligations.
This is not to refute the possible contemporary political readings viewers may bring to bear on the film. For example, when viewed against the more recent battle between Dr Mahathir and his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, Jogho becomes a new political allegory. The unfair murder of Mamat’s brother by the sore loser in the bull arena may be intepreted to reflect Dr Mahathir’s unfair treatment of Anwar. Just as Calet’s victory over Pak Isa’s bull meant that people like Dolah and Pak Isa lost a great deal of money in the betting, Anwar’s rise to power also constituted a threat of financial loss to Mahathir’s business cronies. The Mahathir/Anwar conflict marked a split in the ranks of UMNO, the traditional political and cultural champion (‘jogho’) of Malay rights, severing the national imaginary in a way impossible to conceive in the past when Malay communal identity appeared homogeneous, seamless and whole.Jogho strongly critiques Malay male identity, as was subtly noted by the Malaysian film critic and animator, Hassan Muthalib, in conversation with me in July 2001. Muthalib pointed to the scene where Sani, the young son of the dead Lazim, threatens to run amok if someone else were chosen to be the bull trainer or jogho in the bon rather than him. In this film, the amok mentality is provoked by one’s feeling of being slighted or rejected; in this case, it is a threat uttered by one who is sulking (merajuk). If the amok mentality is one upheld by Malay males as a final resort when they cannot get what they want, then this is one of several instances of gender critique in the film. There are in fact two instances of merajuk, both enacted by male characters. The second case of merajuk occurs when Minah, Mamat’s wife, comes to visit him in gaol. When she refuses to take his hint about how it would be nice to get out of gaol (if she were to find bail money) and instead, says, ‘It’s better you stay here. You can get some rest’, he sulks and then whines pathetically, ‘Don’t you love me any more?’ Mamat and Sani’s behaviour is abhorrent when viewed in the context of the overall gender dynamics of the film. Throughout, the women have been marginalised into playing supportive, nurturing and romantic roles for the men whose sole attention has been consumed by vengeance evoked through violence when their livelihood—gambling and bullfighting—is threatened.
U-Wei’s portrayal of Jusoh, the young son, highlights the Muslim element of a contemporary 1990s Malay identity as originally shaped by the 1970s. Here, Jusoh is a sombre, studious songkok-wearing youth. We encounter him only once in the film, at an Islamic school in Kelantan. In this scene, he advises his father: ‘Dad, thou shalt not kill. There are laws. Vendetta is a sin. Leave it to the police.’ When Mamat claims that avenging Lazim’s death is a question of honour (‘maruah’), Jusoh says: ‘Two wrongs don’t make a right’. In another scene, Sani tells the other men that Jusoh would never be a jogho as he feels bull-fighting is cruelty to animals and gambling, a sin. Interestingly enough, it is Mamat himself who wants his son to have a different life and neither be a politician nor a bullfighter. He wants Jusoh to be educated in
U-Wei’s representations of the kampung are thus less than idealistic. Always strongly patriarchal or dominated by narrow-minded, egocentric, self-righteous and brutal men, this kind of community does not allow strong women’s voices to prevail, though such women certainly exist to create a reluctant, resisting presence in all his films. In Jogho, Mamat’s wife and daughters whom he ignores most of the time in favour of his prized bull and his young son, are alienated by his chauvinistic attitude (in both senses of the word). They are forced to support him and wordlessly care for him while he gambles their savings away on bullfights, his ego totally invested in his expertise as a champion or ‘jogho’. They cook and clean, wash his clothes, nurse him when he gets injured by the bull, feed his bull, work on the land, manage the finances and raise money for his bail and for betting. As his wife rightly mutters, ‘Men, they never grow up.’Indeed, the alienation of women in the Malay kampung is a constant leitmotif in U-Wei’s works and the gender tension in traditional Malay kampung is emphasised and highlighted in U-Wei’s adaptation. For example, in a conversation with Kak Joyah, Mamat’s wife, Minah, confesses to knowing very little about bullfighting since it is regarded as a male sport. She realises that she has to carry on with the fight the next day, despite her husband being in gaol. The two women and Minah’s daughter are forced to confront Mamat’s opponent when he and several men show up, hoping to trick the women into allowing them to inspect Mamat’s bull. In this gender confrontation, the women suddenly assume expertise in the sport and refuse to allow these men access to Mamat’s bull. Kak Joyah states strongly, ‘We stick to the rules. Even we women know the rules of bullfighting. After all, we’ve been doing this for generations.’ They also declare that they are going to go through with the fight no matter what and to substantiate their words, produce a wad of cash to show the men. The next day, the women turn up at the coffee shop in front of the judge and their competitors with their bet. While gender bilaterality still exists—the opponent does not care if it is a woman or man who is jogho, it is the money that counts—the men all laugh complicitously when the opponent says, ‘but if you lose, don’t come crying...’ Clearly, patriarchal attitudes prevail among the men in the kampung despite the women’s pragmatic strategies, their ability to work and organise collectively as well as their mediating roles in achieving peace and supporting their husbands’ aims. The women manage to bail Mamat out of gaol and upon release, he assumes male supremacy once again, telling his wife and daughters that the bon is no place for women and to stay at home while he sets off to do his job as a man and a jogho. Hence, the women are not even given the opportunity to prove their male opponents wrong.
U-Wei’s film succeeds in reflecting several points about rural Malay community: the complex gendered roles of women that are marginalised by the men in the kampung, the alienation of the Patani Malays from Thai majority rule as well as from Malaysian nationalism, and perhaps lastly, the alienation of the individual Kelantanese (anak Kelantan) whose authenticity (jati), leadership and maleness come under question by their social peers when, in contradistinction to a tradition of blood feud, he fails to carry through the violent vendetta. When the Thai police arrive, Mamat’s purposeful but wooden statement, ‘Blood has to be repaid with blood’, has a hollow ring about it. U-Wei’s Mamat is a tragic flawed figure who, when finally blessed with the self-realisation and individual (and perhaps spiritual) growth which merit going against the beliefs of his fellow villagers, is unable to stop the inevitable bloodshed from occurring.
from U-Wei’s films which broach kampung attitudes about gender,
films also reflect the kampung’s non-acceptance of
identity in its attempts to preserve a homogeneous collective identity
solidarity. In the film Bukak Api (1999),
the intolerant nature of the kampung is mentioned by a male
prostitute who has found her way to
The case of Bukak Api is one extreme example of gender and sexual transgression not being tolerated in the kampung Yet, more moderate moral and sexual transgressions in the kampung are not accepted either. Mulaika Hijjas’ short story ‘Confinement’ shows a kampung community’s failure to be supportive and inclusive of those who transgress moral boundaries: ‘The people at the mosque gave us some money, until the story got out that the father of the baby was not my father’ (Hijjas 1999, 86). Apart from Mak Teh, who babysits the young girl Ria’s two younger brothers in exchange for doing her laundry, and Pak Abas, who periodically drops by with some spare cash, ‘twenty ringgit a month, to sooth his guilt’, Ria’s family has no other friends in the kampung (Hijjas 1999, 86). Ria’s widowed mother is pregnant with Pak Abas’ child after Ria’s father died of dengue fever. Her mother has become mentally unstable since her pregnancy and I surmise that she was raped by Pak Abas, Ria’s father’s ‘friend’. The pregnant woman is confined indoors away from prying eyes and village gossip. ‘Pak Soud said such-and-such a thing to me the other day about your mother, Ria, and I was so shocked I hardly knew what to say!’ being one such example of gossiping (Hijjas 1999, 84). It then becomes the joint responsibility of the grandmother and the young girl to sell off the baby to a Malay woman and her white husband from the city to ensure their economic survival and to preserve the reputation of their family in Kampung Air Keruh.Pak Abas’ unethical involvement in the pregnancy is hinted in several ways. The grandmother insinuates that he is ‘a man who was only clever at chasing other people’s wives’ (Hijjas 1999, 88). Later when Pak Abas learns of the plan to put up the baby for adoption, he tries to forbid it, only to be countered by Ria’s grandmother: ‘Who are you to forbid anything? Only the father has that right. If you were the father, we would of course follow your wishes. And if you were the father, you would support the child, and us too’. When Pak Abas refuses to back down and threatens to report them to the religious department, the old woman also issues her threat: ‘And I’ll see to it that your friends the officials get the full story. Anyone in this kampung will be happy to tell them. And they will see to it that you are punished—with a crazy wife and seven more mouths to feed’. Obviously the whole kampung community knows the truth but is complicit in not undermining the power of a man who ‘had a van, a television, and contacts in the government’ (Hijjas 1999, 88-89).
Similarly the 1998 film Panas (Heat) portrays the kampung as a place of alienation, perversity and despair as well as complex and morally difficult sexual relations. In this narrative of near incest, a licentious middle-aged man marries his beautiful stepdaughter almost immediately after his wife’s demise. His sexual perversity is not tolerated in the kampung and he and his young reluctant bride are forced to leave. This film too deconstructs the myth of the traditional kampung as an ideal place of community and mutual support, subverting the ‘invention of tradition’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983). Polite Malay kampung society does not deal with incest and rape by fathers, stepfathers and uncles, so these works clearly identify and address sensitive, real sociological problems encountered by women in the village. These cultural works expose the underpinnings of kampung society as a dominant structural means of regulating social behaviour and values, finally re-establishing hegemonic mores over those who challenge them.The examples of film and literature discussed so far question the assumption that individualism and community are easily separated into the urban-and-rural or modernity-and-tradition dichotomy. In Jogho, Mamat, the protagonist wants what is best for his community but in the end realises that what he wants for the good of the community as a whole and in the long term, does not cohere with the desire of the community. In ‘Confinement’, it is Ria’s grandmother’s sole decision to sell Ria’s little sister to the urban childless couple in order to support the rest of her grandchildren in the village, a decision made without the help, knowledge or support of other fellow villagers. These texts critique the rosy perception of ‘traditional kampung values’, suggesting that the kampung, like other spaces, is a cultural site that is vulnerable to socio-economic and cultural changes. Jogho is strongly critical of the distortions of ‘traditional values’ integral to the Kelantan and Patani Malay kampung communities—blood feud and the defence of male honour, although these can actually be read as extreme forms of communal loyalty and support. In this way, this first section of the paper has shown that some Malay writers and filmmakers have questioned the usefulness of continuing certain traditional values. Moreover, as shown in Bukak Api, the repressive climate of the kampung also drives out non-conforming individuals who find comfort in the anonymity of the city where they are better able to assert and exercise their dreams and desires of personal freedom in more liberal ways.
Why are contemporary writers and filmmakers re-focusing on the idea of community and kampung? Some, like kampung-bred U-Wei, may want to capture the essence of village society while others are perhaps reacting to the nostalgic, whitewashed renditions of the kampung in official discourses. Through critical lenses, U-Wei’s un-nostalgic films encapsulate the feel, look and senses of kampung society. But more generally, perhaps the re-focus on the kampung is as much an exploration of Malayness at a time when the semiotics and meanings of tradition and modernity are still unstable: sometimes clashing, sometimes melding—the modern questioning and breaking down the traditional, the two transforming each other in significant ways to form new, even hybrid notions of Malay identity. While the P.Ramlee films of the 1950s and 1960s may arguably be ‘modernist’ and have explored what it meant for Malays to be caught between tradition and modernity, the 1990s NEP generation remains more unique and serious in their exploration of Malay identity because of the major role the state, the NEP, and Mahathirism have played in altering Malay consciousness and society (Hilley 2001). A conscious engagement with that discourse of what the kampung signifies exists because the new urban Malay middle classes still retain strong ties to the kampung, as evidenced by the emptiness and quiet of Kuala Lumpur during the Hari Raya holiday upon completion of Ramadan, when the majority balik kampung (return to the kampung).
Even within the span of one generation, in the last thirty years, Malaysia has undergone tremendous rapid urban development, technological and economic improvement and modernity. Thus, Malaysian modernity may perhaps be categorized best as uneven. This is apparent in the expanded layout of the city, Kuala Lumpur, and its changing skyline of eclectic architecture, which narrates a multi-layered history of multiple cultural influences. Like any other city, Kuala Lumpur has become ‘the primary source of estrangement’ (Bookchin 1986), more visibly so in the post-NEP period than ever before, as signs of development and technological progress fill the landscape: smartcard tollbooths at the end of highways, mega-projects like the Petronas Twin Towers, The Mines Resort City, KL Tower, light rail transport, KLIA (the Kuala Lumpur International Airport). Yet, the belatedness of modernity, (or postmodernity, according to others like Ziauddin Sardar), what Homi Bhabha calls ‘the coeval, often incommensurable tension between the influence of traditional “ethnicist” identifications that coexist with contemporary secular, modernising aspirations’, (Bhabha 1994, 250) suggests the persistance of communal identification among new migrants to the city, or at least an attempt to recreate communally-shared identities in an alien urban environment.Alternative sites of community: cyberspace and urban spaces
It should come as no surprise that more positive values associated with the kampung have been transferred to the city and suburbs by the post-NEP generation, not only appearing in some urban-located films and literature, but also being channelled through government television commercials into many suburban households. In contrast to U-Wei’s kampung-based films, Malaysian woman filmmaker Shuhaimi Baba’s urban-centred films serve to reassure viewers that modernity, individualism and urbanisation can coexist with kampung communal values. They validate both rural and urban sites and sometimes even demonstrate how the kampung is fashioning or renovating itself as modern. I will discuss her films, as well as Sabri Zain’s Reformasi diary, in order to illustrate that communities can be found in urban spaces, protest zones and cyberspace.Like some other new filmmakers of the 1990s, Shuhaimi Baba suggests in her work that alternative communities are located inside as well as outside the kampung. Her films show her as belonging to the group of post-NEP Malay middle class cultural producers who consciously or unconsciously attempt to recuperate adat, Malay custom, perhaps as a sign of resistance to resurgent Islam, which threatens to purify Malay culture of its animistic and Hinduistic elements (Khoo 2000; Khoo 2002). Shuhaimi’s contribution to this recuperation is encoded visually and musically in her films. Scenes of magical or traditional healing, love charms and massage, playing of traditional instruments (the rebana drum in Selubung) and ritual and trance-like dances (the kuda kepang dance in Ringgit Kasorrga) are all featured in these films. Significantly, she is also careful to suggest that community can be found or made not only in the kampung but also in urban spaces. For example, in Layarlara (1997) the movie set crew becomes family or community for the self-absorbed Ena; in Selubung (1992) it is the volunteers at Rescaid who come together as good Muslims for a common cause—to donate their time and expertise to collect money for Palestinian war victims. In Ringgit Kasorrga (1994), the quarrelling girls in the rented house learn how to get along with each other from the stable heroine. Shuhaimi shows that modernity does not spell the end of community or collective enterprises. Instead, urban communities simply take a different form and appearance than kampung collectivities. Shuhaimi’s films reflect a very cosmopolitan, secular middle class Malay outlook, and she does not valorise kampung community over urban community. Indeed, she even attempts to blur urban and kampung in Mimpi Moon (1999), her latest feature, which has the distinction of being the first English-language Malaysian film. The multiethnic casting of rather cosmopolitan English-speaking Malaysians gives the appearance of urban transplants in a kampung, characters who are there only to fulfil the filmmaker’s continued quest of recuperating adat. In the film, Dr. Mansoor is researching the medicinal benefits of the golden sea cucumber, gamat emas, in the sleepy coastal village of Batu Suara. As if to make connections between local and global, gamat emas is found to cure victims of landmines and a scene showing a Cambodian boy who is a landmine victim is included to secure this point. The orphan Cambodian boy is healed by Dr. Mansoor’s gamat emas ointment and then accepted into the family and Batu Suara community as a surrogate son, a brother to the doctor’s daughter, the clown figure and the person who reconciles the young lovers.
Thus, Shuhaimi’s outlook on community is one that is receptive of strangers and celebrates the diversity they bring to the community. Similarly, community, in the sense of support, solidarity and strong friendships, can also emerge in the most unlikely places. This is especially true for the transexuals and prostitutes who find community with each other down in Chow Kit Road in the educational melodrama Bukak Api, co-sponsored by Pink Triangle and the Malaysian AIDS Council. The characters were played by real-life sex workers who worked closely with these non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the director and his crew to come up with the plot, dialogue and situations. Grassroots NGOs like Pink Triangle function to foster a sense of community among their ‘clientele’ by providing a safe space and support and advocacy for them.Nevertheless, the notion that the city is a (sexually) liberal space is debatable, in light of the panopticon-like and punitive powers that the Islamic Affairs Department (Jabatan Agama Islam) wields over the social behaviour of urban Malays. Even though it was established shortly after independence, the department’s role as moral enforcer was expanded only in the mid-1990s, when Malaysia’s syariah (Islamic family) laws were strengthened (Paddock 2000). This occurred as a result of ‘rivalry between the state and Islamic revivalists’, who were (and still are) contesting the ‘cultural identity and the imagined community of modern Malaysian Muslims’—their contestation largely motivated by local and global forms of modernity and social change (Norani Othman 1998, 186). Norani Othman refers to the ummah, ‘community of Islam’, as another place of belonging and defining of the self for modern Malays. Muslim identity has become more and more integral to Malayness by the 1990s, as highlighted in U-Wei’s film Jogho where the religious son judges the father’s clinging on to adat as ‘berdosa’ or sinful.
Yet, instead of leaving it up to individuals to be good Muslims, the Islamic Affairs Department regulates Malay Muslim behaviour and identity through policy-making and enforcement. One provision under the Malaysian syariah laws is the rule against khalwat (‘close proximity’) in which any Muslim found with an unrelated member of the opposite sex ‘in any secluded place or in a house or room under circumstances which may give rise to suspicion that they were engaged in immoral acts shall be guilty of an offence’ punishable by a fine up to a maximum of RM$ 790 (Paddock 2000). Famous local pop stars and politicians have been arrested for khalwat in places like hotel rooms and parked cars, sometimes based on ‘tip-offs’, suggesting again that a network of surveillance prevails. The issue of privacy in the city has also since been problematised by the widely-publicised charges of sodomy levelled at Anwar in the local press in 1998, blurring the lines between public and private, and local and global, as Malaysians talked about Anwar in the same breath as the Clinton-Monica Lewinsky sex scandal.However, the mere existence of syariah law does not necessarily mean that it governs the lives of all Muslims in a totalising manner or that they live everyday under the constant fear of being arrested for breaking these sometimes rather vague provisions. Instead, urban Malay Muslims in the ‘practice of everyday life’, negotiate within and around the precarious panoptic structures, sometimes ‘transversing’ them (Reynolds and Fitzpatrick 1999) through the simple process of ‘walking’ (de Certeau 1984), ‘shopping’ (Sabri Zain 2000) or ‘bukak api’ (Osman Ali 1999).
Perhaps the foremost example of alternative communities in the post-NEP climate is the Reformasi movement. Sabri Zain has published in book format his Internet postings of the street demonstrations, the pro-Anwar rallies and his coverage of the support for other outspoken opposition leaders and activists like Lim Guan Eng and Tian Chua around the time of Anwar’s arrest. In his book Face Off: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998-99), we get a notion of how alternative sites for shared communal values are created. Media censorship and blatant government propaganda during the Anwar affair led Malaysians to turn to alternative sources of information. The internet was the first and sometimes primary source for many Reformists, with numerous internet discussion lists such as Gerak-Net Adil-Net, Anwarxtpm, and Sedarlah appearing during and immediately after the affair.Cyberspace therefore permitted Malaysians space to exercise their right to free speech, a right curtailed by the government through its enforcement of the Internal Security Act (indefinite detention without trial). Wendy Mee’s analysis of homepages set up by Malaysians, and Malaysian email discussion lists before the Anwar debacle, argues that ‘at the very least, such technologies can intensify nationalist sensibilities, even through the process of building extra-national relations’ (Mee 1998, 227). Mee sets out to demonstrate that instead of destabilizing the nation-state, globalizing technology like the Internet can also enable and foster the imagined community. In fact, her analysis shows numerous socio-cultural and geographic factors which reinstall the nation not just as a territory but also as cultural identity (Mee 1998, 232). In this case, such an identity is premised on multiculturalism. The Malaysian Internet users Mee mentions unself-consciously practise ‘everyday engagements with national identity and culture’ in decorating their homepages with icons of nationalism like the Malaysian flag, and sometimes through sharing their distinctly Malaysian English jokes, or in their discussion of Malaysian politics and society. In light of this, I would argue that the Anwar websites and internet discussion forums undermine one conception of the Malaysian nation-state, but also actually strengthen the democratic muscles of the modern nation as well.
In my reading of Sabri Zain’s book, I have found Michel De Certeau’s imaginative and utopian essay ‘Walking In The City’ in The Practice of Everyday Life extremely useful as a way of theorizing community practices and subjectivity on the streets of urban Kuala Lumpur. Its relevance to the Malaysian context hinges on Certeau’s idea that the formation of subjectivity or selfhood includes both a sense of space and place. In other words, space is deeply implicated in the formation of subjectivity. Just as the kampung is considered the locus of Malay identity, the KL streets during Reformasi shaped the identity of the ‘Malaysian protester’. At the same time, the stories, personal histories and one’s memories of certain places, even spirits that haunt certain locations, all subject-ify, communitize and give special meaning to those spaces. They are forms of spatial practice that invert the panopticon by providing an alternative and perhaps subversive meaning to that which is intended. Certeau’s observation of the functioning panopticon in New York City, which I will discuss below, is also important because it injects irony into the idea that the planned modern city (whether set in the First or Third World) is a liberating anonymous space for those escaping the traditional kinship web and claustrophobic surveillance of the village/kampung. After all, as mentioned earlier, privacy in the city may be more elusive than anticipated. Simultaneously and paradoxically, Certeau’s theory of spatialised subjectivity offers an optimistic way of considering agency in the process of ‘walking’ (acting/enunciating), or ‘shopping’ and thus gives form and appearance to alternative communities in urban spaces.In his essay, Certeau begins from the 110th floor of the former World Trade Center. He looks down on New York City from a distance, ‘like a god’ (Certeau 1984, 92) but he is unable to perceive the ‘ordinary practitioners of the city’ who ‘make use of spaces that cannot be seen’, at least, not from the top (Certeau 1984, 93). These pedestrians in their daily walks reappropriate for their own particularistic usage the panopticon space constructed by city architects and urban planners. For example, the walker can decide to take a shortcut or a detour. She can decide to go through a ‘no entry’ door or carve out new footpaths through grass instead of taking the paved pathways. The idea is that the subject’s daily practice of walking subverts structures—physical (and ideological) space—that may seem designed to constitute rather than liberate. For Certeau, the walkers, ‘far from being regulated or eliminated by panoptic administration, have reinforced themselves into the networks of surveillance, and combined in accord with unreadable but stable tactics to the point of constituting everyday regulations and surreptitious creativities that are merely concealed by the frantic mechanisms and discourses of the observational organization’ (Certeau 1984, 96).
Certeau suggests that memory, stories and daily practices can construct meanings that are very different from that of institutional structures with regard to geographical spaces and constructed order. I would like to extend his idea of the potential subversion in daily practices to include extraordinary practices such as the Reformasi movement in Malaysia. ‘Walking in the city’ implicitly focuses only on the ways individual daily practices rupture the panoptic order. The mass Reformasi street demonstrations, however, reveal a communal practice that signifies an open challenge to the existing political order. Thus, my primary focus is still subjectivity as it intersects uncannily with space in the concept of kampung and community. Deploying Certeau in this case sheds light on the operations of electronic and non-electronic discourse around Reformasi and notions of subject(ive) resistance at a level that evades state and spatial structures.
The analogy between Certeau and the Malaysian Reformist street demonstrations in KL is apparent in Sabri Zain’s accounts of the people regaining some sense of agency by reclaiming the streets while being keenly conscious of that panopticon surveillance mechanism that is not only manifested in the strong presence of police and the Federal Reserve Unit (FRU) on the street level, but also situated (or geographically ‘placed’, to use Certeau’s precise meaning) up in Bukit Aman overlooking Dataran Merdeka, where these events took place:The historic heart of modern Malaysia is perhaps Dataran Merdeka —Independence Square. On its hallowed ground, at the stroke of midnight, on August 31, 41 years ago, the flag of a new nation was raised here—a nation that could elect its own lawmakers and make its own laws. Looking down on this field, atop a hill, like an omnipotent sentinel, is Bukit Aman—The Hill of Peace—on which sits the headquarters of the Royal Malaysian Police—the institution that enforces those laws. (Zain 2000, 36)
Thus, the ‘omnipotent sentinel’ or, coincidentally, as recorded by Sabri Zain, the police headquarters becomes that ‘“proper” place in which to exercise their [Foucault’s panoptic procedures] authority’ (Reynolds and Fitzpatrick 1999, 67).The Reformasi demonstrators employ strategies similar to those of Certeau’s daily pedestrians even though demonstrations in KL are extraordinary practices. Demonstrations without permits are illegal in Malaysia and the size of the mass gatherings in 1998—varying accounts put the numbers at 20,000 to 100,000 people—may not have been seen since Merdeka (Independence) itself. Here, the demonstrators were ordinary citizens doing the extraordinary in the streets between Dataran Merdeka, Masjid Jamek, and sometimes extending as far out as the National Mosque and Ampang Road. They were ‘living space’ or ‘spatialising’ Kuala Lumpur through their stubborn inhabiting of space at a particular date and time when they should not have been there. As someone from the Ministry of Information announced over a loudhailer in a truck: ‘This is an illegal assembly. RM10,000 penalty. One-year jail. Disperse now’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 25). The crowds eluded discipline not simply through their everyday practice of walking in the city, but by protesting—voicing dissent with their sheer mass presence and their reclamation of public streets in the service of freedom of expression and assembly. Ordinarily, however, the people walking along these streets and these places—Campbell Road, Jalan TAR (Tunku Abdul Rahman), Masjid Jamek, Central Market, Chow Kit Road—would be going to work in their offices, going to the mosque, the banks or shopping. Such daily movement in the streets Certeau would regard as ‘living space’ too, because it is not the destinations and what people do at their destinations that matter but the sheer act of traversing the streets that count as ‘walking rhetorics’. Admittedly, the act of inhabiting KL streets as a political mass to demonstrate against the government is dangerous and more blatantly transgressive compared to the everyday ‘walking’ one usually does in this particular location. Ultimately it is, I believe, the collective communal identity of the Reformasi protesters which is perceived as more threatening to the state order than the daily, varied individual pedestrian acts not united by a particular cause.
This communal, shared act of subversion occurs at multiple levels. For example, the names of shopping complexes like Sogo, Pertama Shopping Complex, Campbell Shopping Complex become landmarks to Sabri’s readers who may have been out there on the streets that very day. However, the names in this situation ‘detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define and serve as imaginary meeting-points on itineraries which, as metaphors, they determine for reasons that are foreign to their original value but may be recognized or not by passers-by’ (Certeau 1984, 104). In other words, the names of places Sabri Zain’s readers would ordinarily associate with the consumerist act of shopping start to accumulate a significantly different meaning as sites of political struggle, possibly, for those ‘in the know’, who become part of the community. In Sabri Zain’s eyewitness accounts, these shopping malls serve as the markers of conflict and targets of refuge between ordinary citizens and the police. For example, the journalist ‘heard shouts from the Pertama Shopping Complex across the road’ where some policemen had surrounded a boy and ‘were kicking him mercilessly’. When asked to move after having witnessed this, Sabri and his partner ‘complied and walked away towards Campbell Shopping Complex’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 25-26). Here, Campbell mall acts, presumably, as a refuge.Apart from being able to provide and identify alternative meanings to names of places, subversion appears when the protesters hide behind the permitted spatial practice of consumption. The inability of the police to distinguish between shoppers, bystanders and protesters leads to the subversive excuse of ‘shopping’ in order to be present downtown exercising one’s democracy and freedom. ‘Lesson Number One when you go out “shopping”—wear fitting running shoes’, Sabri Zain explains cheekily when his partner loses her shoes in their hurry to leave the area of conflict (Sabri Zain 2000, 28). Several times the journalist refers to ‘shopping’ in inverted commas as a pseudonym for attending a peaceful protest: ‘I say “shoppers” because they were not angry young men—there were children, elderly men and women, families. No one was shouting, or chanting or singing. There were no banners or placards. People seemed to be just milling around, talking to each other, minding their own business’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 24). In Certeau’s framework, words like ‘shopping’ or the names of malls ‘become liberat[ing] spaces that can be occupied. A rich indetermination gives them, by means of a semantic rarefaction, the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning’ (Certeau 1984, 105). Hence, one could argue that how we think of the geography of KL is forever altered by the public events of 1998.
Although some place or street names may have slippery meanings, the street actions of the Reformists actualize, re-activate or revive forgotten symbolic meanings attached to some of those very names. Dataran Merdeka, usually the locus of staid ritualistic pomp and official ceremony once a year during National Day celebrations, regained its historical meaning of freedom first associated with the popular hopes of a new nation in 1957. Another one of the busiest areas of social protest, Jalan TAR, was named after the first Prime Minister who read the declaration of independence in Dataran Merdeka the same year. In the 1980s, towards the end of the Tunku’s life when Mahathir’s government was fraught with business scandals, the Tunku was snubbed by Mahathir, who did not extend the customary invitation to him to attend the UMNO General Assembly. One cannot help but make the comparison between the two leaders and their different styles of leadership. Mahathir’s swift, authoritarian and harsh actions have been perceived as ‘un-Malay’ by the ordinary Malay on the street. According to an elderly Malay lady lining up to enter the courtroom where Anwar was to be tried: ‘We Malays don’t usually treat people like this. Maruah (dignity) is very important to us. Even the guilty deserve dignity. It’s in our ancient annals, the Sejarah Melayu. But our leaders don’t seem to understand this. This is not the Malay way. That is why so many of us are angry’. The phrase ‘we Malays’ by implication seem to exclude Mahathir for ‘treat[ing] people like this’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 39).In Sabri’s accounts, the mosques, both the Indian mosque (Masjid Jamek) and the National Mosque, appeared not only as geographical place names on a flattened map, stabilised into symbols of solely religious sites. They were also political sites from which Anwar and Muslims inclined to the idea of social justice inherent in Islam organised dissent against a corrupt regime. The High Court, Parliament Buildings, the Royal Palace were all specific sites targeted by the demonstrators as potential institutions that might curb the powers of the corrupt regime headed by Mahathir or as institutions that were already co-opted. It is interesting to note that unlike the anti-corporate globalization rallies since the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle 1999 where shopping centres and corporate brand name shops were targeted by protesters as signs of corporate capitalism, the Reformasi demonstrators did not target shopping malls for political reasons. This is because both Anwar and Mahathir have never been anti-capitalist. Rather, the demonstrations took place where most people gathered and these happened to be at shopping centres. There is no getting away from the ubiquitous mall in KL.
Sabri’s book is important because it captures a euphoric moment in Malaysian history of an empowered urban community manifesting ‘transversal power’, a term Reynolds and Fitzpatrick use to describe Certeau’s strategy. According to them, ‘transversal power’ is something that makes possible ‘the transgression of the boundaries of subjective territory’ as people cut across the conceptual boundaries of their prescribed subjective addresses (Reynolds and Fitzpatrick 1999, 74). The cover photograph of Sabri’s book, the map of downtown KL inside its covers, as well as the written narrative—the ‘spatial stories’—all work in conjunction to give, so to speak, the full picture of the ‘unlimited diversity of the enunciatory operations’ as well as their ‘graphic trail’ (Certeau 1984, 99). The map guides and aids the curious reader in reconstructing and remembering ‘a way of being in the world’ that was hopeful and positive (Certeau 1984, 100). Read by a politicised reader excited by the accounts of urban popular democracy, the book evokes ‘the remembering of forgotten practices and the subsequent reconstructing or imbuing them with new meanings’ (Reynolds and Fitzpatrick 1999, 75).On the KL streets, Sabri Zain mentions the sense of commonality and bonding he felt with other fellow protesters, having shared their experience of tear-gas, water-cannons and police brutality while exercising ‘transversal power’. There is a sense of shared purpose and solidarity as he bonds with a passing car driver honking in support (Sabri Zain 2000, 14). He provides numerous examples of individuals coming together, strangers helping each other on the streets during the police crackdown, united under a common desire for justice. His cast of characters at the demonstrations come from the middle-classes, including non-Malays: taxi-drivers, bus-drivers, clerks, security guards, fast-food restaurant supervisors, elderly pensioners, children, men and women, university students, veiled Muslim girls, middle-aged housewives, couples, and rockers in leather jackets (Sabri Zain 2000, 13, 70).
During this time, the government also tried to scare the Chinese community by drawing parallels between the Malaysian Reformasi demonstrations and the anti-Chinese riots in Indonesia of May 1998. But Sabri remarks that no Chinese-owned shops or Chinese demonstrators were killed or raped at the Malaysian Reformasi street gatherings. ‘I myself saw dozens of “Free Guan Eng” banners and posters next to the “Free Anwar” posters at these demonstrations. This did not seem anti-Chinese to me’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 65).  In fact, Reformasi in Malaysia, whether it took place in the streets or on the Internet, had the capability of creating and fostering community (or an imagined community as its political leaders would like to think) across ethnic communal lines. As Sabri insists, ‘[Reformasi] is about whether the Malaysian people are ready for democracy or not—whether we have grown out of the “divide-and-rule” of racial politics’ (Sabri Zain 2000, 66).The tumultuous events recorded by Sabri Zain signified that the new Malay middle classes who participated in the street demonstrations and the internet discussion lists were quite different from the class Kahn described in his essay a few years earlier. Keadilan, the opposition party led by Wan Azizah (Anwar’s wife), did not win as many seats in the 1999 general election as anticipated. Nevertheless, the extreme circumstances and the ability to galvanize a sense of community in instantaneous response did demonstrate that feelings of community and justice can be cultivated, and preserved outside of the homogeneous kampung. There are many obstacles to the future of a peaceful multiethnic imagined community in Malaysia. The mainly Chinese-based Democratic Alliance Party (DAP) left the Barisan Alternatif in 2001 after the failure to resolve the issue of PAS’ stance on turning Malaysia into an Islamic state. Still, it is important to note that cross-ethnic rather than cross-ideological alliances continue to function and occur at the grassroots community and NGO levels. The ephemeral quality and postmodern gestures in Certeau, I think, aptly reflect the constantly fluctuating conditions of ethnic politics, ethnic relations and identities in Malaysia. This is because while Certeau values the speech act and process, they are only transversally powerful in the very duration of their enactment. Thus, all the more greater the need to keep ‘shopping’ and acting transversally towards the creation of a less estranging, real community.
ConclusionFinally, I would like to try to draw together the threads of the two preceding sections of my discussion. My intention was to use cultural products in order to show the kampung less as the nostalgic place of convivial harmony, and more as a place of strict social regulation; further, I have highlighted the existence in these recent examples of film and literature of new forms of community in the ‘big bad city’. These textual representations are a response to the way different forms of community are being forged in Malaysian social practice in the mid to late 1990s. These include the bonding forged between various ethnic middle and working class individuals in the protest zones or street demonstrations during the Malaysian Reformasi movement in 1998, internet websites where criticism and debate can be launched freely against the Malaysian government, and forms of intimacy such as we find among the Malay transexual sex workers living and plying their trade at Chow Kit Road, Kuala Lumpur.
Just as culture and identity are constantly in flux, these alternative communities are formed by exigency. They are neither stable nor permanent. In fact, their raison d’être is contingent on the breakdown of the nation-state’s ability to provide a sense of community. Should the nation-state successfully fulfil its Enlightenment promise of emancipation and democracy for those of its subjects who are strangers within, then these alternative communities might dissolve as easily as they have been formed.
Gaik Cheng Khoo will take up a postdoctoral fellowship at the Asian Research Institute in Singapore in July 2003. She is a creative writer who until recently taught at the University of Victoria, BC Canada. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org