The recent controversy over the introduction of separate categories for Best Picture awards between Bahasa Malaysia (sic) and non Bahasa Malaysia (sic) films in this year’s Malaysia Film Festival (FFM), highlights the dilemma that Malaysians are facing: the flawed national assimilation that ran for so long, over half a century, and still is running high.
To be sure, the controversy over the awards was only the tip of the iceberg, for something larger, even bigger and much more horrifying actually lies underneath. Malaysians are so utterly torn and divided, some perhaps even absolutely clueless, as to the very definition of what it means to be a united Malaysian: that while we embrace and celebrate our multi-cultural and multi-religious diversity, it is in the end, in the one language that we should all look up to — regardless of our race or religion — to be the common unifying force, which we had all accepted Bahasa Melayu as our National language, as per the Federal Constitution.
Forget about the dream to truly become a “bangsa Malaysia”, when even such a move to award films using the national language (while not neglecting non bahasa local films as well, albeit in a separate category) is frowned upon by those who odiously alleged that it is “racially-divisive”. That was what the film-maker Afdlin Shauki cited when he decided to announce his boycott against this year’s FFM, conveniently leaving out the part that such categorisations are distinguished not based on race, but on language. Afdlin was then followed by a herd of others who jumped onto the bandwagon, including Nazir Razak who congratulated Afdlin and questioned “why the segregation?”; Tony Fernandes who supported Nazir; Jagat director, Shanjhey Kumar, who said such a move was a “disgrace”; and the cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim inferring that it was racism, to name a few.
But is that really so?
Isn’t it too far a stretch to say that a national film award for films using the national language (while also catering to films in other tongues, in a different category) is “racist” or “racially divisive”? In fact, such a suggestion reeks of hypocrisy on so many levels. The first is the implied contempt against the national language, i.e. that the national language is not meant for all Malaysians, but only for a certain race — the Malays? — and thus the allegation that awarding films using the national language as a “racist move”, repulsive against the non-Malays, and “racially divisive”, because you see, non-Malays don’t use the national language, and shouldn’t be expected to use it.
Flowing therefrom is the paradox: condemning segregation under the pretext of national unity, but in the same breath vehemently militating against the call to be united under the banner of the national language.
Then we come to the layer that is the selective call for the end to “segregation” in films, while fighting tooth and nail to defend the right to “segregation” on every other aspect, or at the very least keeping deafeningly silent, especially and particularly when it comes to the inherent segregation that comes with the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools in the national education system. This was recently summed up by a friend, Yazid Othman, in his Facebook post:
“Why when it comes to national awards [it] has to be raceless and language blind but not in our schools and society and employment?”
“Why,” he lamented further, “are there only Chinese and Indians national schools? What happen to Iban school, Kadazan school, Sikh schools, Jawa schools…,” before concluding that “racism and racialism runs deep in our society and it aint (sic) gonna be resolved with boycotting film awards.”
Indeed, Yazid struck a chord, and was directly on the point.
The problem confronting Malaysia today is so profound that it runs through almost every artery and vein of nation building, and if we are serious in arresting such a problem, it is imperative that we start with some seriously deep soul-searching as Malaysians, instead of taking such a superficial step as boycotting a film award that barely even scratch the surface of the problem, but instead adds salt to the injury.
In Indonesia, in 2005, there was a film directed by Riri Reza entitled Gie which won that year’s best film award in the Indonesian Film Festival. Depicting the real life and struggle of an Indonesian student activist in the 1960s, Soe Hok Gie, it starred Nicholas Saputra as the adult Gie and Jonathan Mulia as the young Gie, and was based on Gie’s life journal that was compiled and published as a book after his death entitled Catatan Seorang Demonstran.
What was beautiful about the film, apart from its stunning cinematography and great cast, was how the film depicted Gie, as Chinese Indonesian, embracing the heart and soul of the Indonesian nation in every aspect of his private life, as well as public life fighting rampant corruption and injustices. At a very early age he already read important works from towering Indonesian literary figures, such as Chairil Anwar and Pramoedya Ananta Toer. He wrote delicate poetry to his lover, and composed fiery essays against the successive dictatorships of Soekoarno and Soeharto, both in the Indonesian language. And of course, needless to say, the film itself was in the Indonesian language.
Some may argue that such a film was possible in Indonesia, since they all speak the Indonesian language, regardless of their race; but here in Malaysia, we don’t all speak the national language, and the language we speak is segregated by our race, as well as by our locality between rural and urban, therefore to depict it otherwise would be unrealistic.
But that is the very point.
And that is the very problem.
As the saying goes, the first step to overcoming a problem is not to be in denial of the problem we are facing; and then, upon having acknowledged the problem, to act upon it as to overcome it, and not to let it continue.
Just in February last year, the now defunct The Malaysian Insider published a news-article based on their survey on the lackadaisical attitude the Chinese Malaysian youths have towards the national language entitled “Local Chinese Youth Divided on Importance of Speaking in BM in Malaysia”. A year before that, Professor Dr. Sharon Carstens of the PSU Institute for Asian Studies presented her findings at the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) as to how the Chinese Malaysians have “negative feelings towards using” national language, despite acknowledging Article 152 of the Federal Constitution.
This is our problem, and it is a serious one that has been plaguing the whole nation for a very long time since its inception. So if we are serious in treating it, instead of condemning the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS) for promoting the national language (while not neglecting to give due recognition to films in other languages as well), we should all put our earnest support behind such a move, and start little by little, to embrace the national language with all our heart.
I’d like to end this with a dialogue from Gie. In one scene from the film, Gie was having a soiree with his group of student activists after having watched a Japanese war film, and they were discussing the philosophy, arts and culture behind what they just saw, when the topic of multi-culturalism was on the table. In his attempt to sum up what he felt, he said: “Jepang adalah tanahnya, dan barat adalah benihnya. Jadi walaupun yang tumbuh adalah pohon barat, tetapi pohon tadi telah memiliki sifat-sifat yang khas Jepang. (Japan is the soil, and the west is the seed. So even when the tree that grows is a western tree, it had already within it attributes peculiar to the Japanese).
*The current campaign-coordinator of the Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ), Aidil Khalid is also an author whose short story entitled Taaruf won the Malaysian Premier Literary Award (Hadiah Sastera Perdana Malaysia) for the year 2010/2011, while his other short story, entitled Res Judicata, is studied as a compulsory text for Form 4-5 students taking the Malay Literature subject across the nation, in an anthology entitled Kubentang Sehelai Peta.
***Accompanying photo, taken from mstar.com.my.