A.SAMAD Said, or Pak Samad as he is known, is a distinguished poet and novelist. He received the Sasterawan Negara award in 1986, and his novel Salina is a canonical work of Malaysian literature. He has recently become more know as one of the key figures of the Bersih movement, a coalition of NGOs advocating for free and fair elections, however.
At an event commemorating Malaysia's 56th Merdeka, Pak Samad read a poem, during which a number of activists raised the Sang Saka, a pre-Merdeka flag. Flags are material symbols of nationhood imbued with deep symbolic meaning. Thus, to fly an alternative to the Jalur Gemilang at the Merdeka celebration is to register one's dissatisfaction with the nation as it is currently constructed. Similar strategies of protest have been used by Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander communities, for example.
There are of course different groups with competing visions of nationhood, and not surprisingly, police reports were lodged against the activists. They were duly detained and are being investigated for sedition.
A few days later, the police went to Pak Samad's house past midnight and took him to a police station. There he was questioned before being released in the wee hours of the morning. The police announced that he too was being investigated for sedition.
It is worth mentioning that Pak Samad is 81 and looks like the quintessential artist: fragile frame, pensive bespectacled face, snow-white long hair and cascading beard. The optics of this was not good for the authorities. Social media was ablaze with outrage at the perceived high-handedness of the authorities.
The controversy echoes another seminal moment in our history when the artist and the body politic collided. In response to the Riots of 1969, the late Ibrahim Hussein, then Resident Artists at University Malaya created an artwork entitled May 13. It consisted of a Malaysian flag painted over in black. University Malaya accused him of defacing the flag and refused to show the work. Ibrahim appealed to the Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, who agreed to view the work. It was sent, under police escort, to his office. Tun Abdul Razak heard the artist out, after which he allowed May 13 exhibited publically.
Pak Samad's involvement in the Bersih movement has placed him at the centre of the political and social struggles that have engulfed our country over the past 15 years. Yet he remains an artist.
He has, obviously, read his poetry at demonstrations and in online clips to promote freedom and fellowship. His statements in response to the Sang Saka incident have however, displayed the full extent of his skillful use of language and symbolism to inspire, challenge, and expose.
The war of words following his detention has included calls by Perkasa for him to return his Sasterawan Negara award. Perkasa is a small NGO that has kept itself in the news through its strident ethno-chauvinism. While activists, opposition politicians, and even UMNO Ministers such as Datuk Nazri Aziz and Datuk Khairy Jamaluddin have argued or challenged Perkasa over the years, Pak Samad's response was simple.
The brevity belies the performative quality of his speech act. His words have what linguists identify as an illocutionary force, the ability for an utterance, given the right circumstances, to carry the force of actual action. His speech act performed the task of de-legitimising the organization by questioning their position to speak.
His challenge to the state to revoke his citizenship is another example of how an utterance can have the force of performing an act. Although Pak Samad has been severely criticized by some Ministers and NGOs, no-one has called for him to be stripped of his citizenship. Consequently, his pointed declarative statement calls attention to the absence of the question or threat to begin with.
The demands to revoke the citizenship of those who challenge the state has been hurled as a number of non-Malay activists, most prominent of whom is Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, Pak Samad's Bersih co-chair. The subtext being that citizenship, which is constitutionally protected, is not an unassailable right for some Malaysians.
In this context, Pak Samad's choice of words resonate in a complex way that exposes the hypocrisy and racism that energize this threat against non-Malay Malaysians. There is a self-reflexivity in Pak Samad's utterance, an acknowledgement that by virtue of his ethnicity and the ethno-nationalism of organizations like Perkasa, he is spared such threats. His offer to submit himself to the same threats as his fellow non-Malay Malaysians becomes a moving act of solidarity.
For speech acts to have power, the speaker must have some standing in society. Pak Samad has accrued a considerable amount of symbolic capital through his distinguished career as a writer, his role in the Bersih movement and his principled stance on issues of democracy and freedom. The Sang Saka incident may have earned him the ire of the state, but it has, arguably, raised his moral standing amongst a wider swathe of Malaysians, and perhaps even internationally.
At about the same time that Pak Samad was making the news, Datin Shuhaimi Baba, a well-respected director was embroiled in a controversy over her film Tanda Putera. The film entered the public consciousness a year ago with the release of its trailer. Some accused the film of presenting a biased portrayal of the 1969 racial riots. It's certainly not fair to judge an entire movie based on a few clips.
However, public misgivings were compounded when a photo of DAP's Lim Kit Siang being arrested was uploaded on Tanda Putera's Facebook page. The caption implied that he had urinated against a flag-pole at the Chief Minister of Selangor’s home in ’69. The flagpole incident, one that has remained unproven, sparked further outrage.
Unfortunately, Shuhaimi scored an own goal when she injudiciously claimed that the film was based on fact and had been well researched. Shuhaimi, who had won a string of awards both locally and internationally, was accused of being a government propagandist and a sower of racial discord. There were an equally vocal sector of society which supported her and the film, most notably, Perkasa.
While Pak Samad appears to be fully in control of his words, Shuhaimi has found herself back-pedalling on several fronts. When Tanda Putera opened last month, Shuhaimi rescinded her earlier claim that it was based on fact. She emphasised that her film was about the friendship between two titans of Malaysian history, Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, set against the backdrop of the May 1969 Riots. Her appeals to the public to give her film a chance fell on deaf ears.
Some people were unforgiving. The director received death threats and was, shamefully, subjected to a considerable level of vitriolic online. Unscrupulous netizenss used unedited film stills from the Tanda Putera's Facebook page to suggest the film was sloppily made. Like the caption of the Lim Kit Siang photo posted on the same Facebook page a year earlier, these were untrue. Yes, karma is a bitch but two wrongs do not make a right.
More troubling was the Chief Minister of Penang’s attempt to proscribe the screening of Tanda Putera in his state. One wonders about Lim Guan Eng’s commitment to democracy and artistic freedom if his response to a film he disagrees with is to shut it down.
Most scholars view the riots not as racial in nature but politically constructed. However, for almost 40 years, the Riots have functioned as a bogeyman, used by Barisan National to keep itself in power as the sole political coalition capable of holding us together. The received wisdom amongst ordinary Malaysians is that the Riots of 1969 were a rupture in the delicate racial balance in our society; one that can reoccur at any moment.
Tanda Putera's depiction of the cause of the riots may be unpalatable because it elides the political and social nuances of the period in favour of a simplistic racialised blame game. It nonetheless presents one of several competing versions of the Riots circulating.
I would argue that Shuhaimi Baba was not acting merely as a government propagandist in making this film. Rather her film reflects her own perspective of the Riots, albeit a perspective that is highly mediated by the state. That’s hegemony at work for you. It is admittedly, a fine distinction to make. But it is an important one because as a society, we must allow our artists some measure of freedom to create diverse manifestations of the nation, even those that we disagree with deeply.
Furthermore, the whole Tanda Putera debacle has been productive in some ways.
Despite the oft-repeated warnings of racial sensitivity, the free-flow of ideas, opinions and counter-opinions it sparked proved that Malaysians can engage in the public sphere in a manner that is robust, challenging and provocative, without resorting to violence. Indeed, in the case of Tanda Putera, empty seats spoke louder than words.
These two incidents represent two different engagements between the artist and the social, political and historical forces of the national. At the start of the respective controversies, both were well respected senior artists who had proven themselves in their chosen fields. Both enjoyed considerable prestige and symbolic capital, and had received accolades from the state.
Tanda Putera's ideological symmetry with the state offered Shuhaimi some measure of privilege and protection as the controversy played out. Her film was not banned, unlike Amir Muhamad's Lelaki Komunis Terakhir for example. However, it earned her the derision of a significant section of the public. One hopes that the director will continue to make films, but perhaps with more attention to the way ideological constructs can overshadow art.
In contrast, Pak Samad came under pressure from the state and its supporters. His dignity, his art and his moral courage in response increased public sympathy for him and enhanced his standing within the country. He is perhaps on his way to becoming a symbolic hero in the vein of Vaclav Havel and Pramoedya Anatha Toer. Mostly though, he gives us hope that artists will continue to challenge and change our country for the better.
Kathy Rowland was born and bred in Petaling Jaya. Her articles on the politics of culture have appeared in publications in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea.
The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.