The Arts, Defiance, and the State

OF late, flags have been getting more than their fair share of column inches. It is of course attributable to the months of August and September, when Malaysians are wont to dress up our sleeves, house gates, car hoods, and more with some permutation of our beloved flag in time for Merdeka and Malaysia Day celebrations.

Yet many are equally wont to forget - especially those of us living and breathing this Peninsular air - that in the scheme of things, we should as Malaysians prioritize the 16th of September as the primary date of nationhood. In fact, numerous radio stations perpetuate the erroneous myth that 31st August is the date whereupon Malaysia was birthed. That's as erroneous as saying only one or two political parties "won" independence for Malaya!

Anyway, I recently learned that another type of flag had reappeared on the radar: Ng Sek San's multicolored "Malaysian Spring" flags that at one time adorned the Lucky Garden roundabout, and subsequently attracted the attention - and ire - of the State especially when it was copied in other parts of the country, has now resurfaced, this time at Publika in Solaris Dutamas.

The curators of the M50 art show (showing now until the day after Malaysia Day) have pulled out Sek San's work, presumably due to the work's ideological incompatibility with certain Federal art agencies. Even so, they managed to relocate his now floating flags to a space but a stone's throw away, with several other "mischievous" artists no less.

Yet what is it about such a work that causes such perspiration amongst our batik-bedecked bureaucrats? Flags are political rallying points. They are used to make concrete ephemeral ideas and identities. And in this month that celebrates a third of our nation's independence, and our nation's founding, flags also perpetuate the myths of origin. Of where we "came from". Our history. Our collective memory.

But the State rarely allows dissonance and defiance. Only one "national narrative" is to be "celebrated"; one seemingly hegemonic, monolithic, sanctioned genesis of the Malaysian imagined community. And this narrative is perpetuated by propaganda films and songs, by march- and fly-pasts, by the proscription of subaltern histories. 

And in this sense, Sek San's flags could perhaps be read as a rallying point to celebrate "the Other" that has for so long been edged out of the myth of Malaysia's genesis: unrecognized freedom fighters; forgotten tunes like Mamula Moon and Terang Bulan; the fact that we should really be prioritizing 50 over 56. 

In other words, I propose that these "Malaysian Spring" flags rally us around the idea that the State's "national" narrative is constructed, that it can and should be deconstructed and contested, and that the defiant act of deconstruction and contestation in the face of unbridled power is, in fact, patriotic.

Let us partake of this rallying spirit and remember all the other on-going contestations, including the fight for the memory of Merdeka Park, the fight for the truth behind the death of the Mongolian woman, and the fight for clean and fair elections.

Let us keep fighting, peacefully, for a better future for us all.

Selamat Hari Merdeka. Selamatlah Malaysia.
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Fahmi Fadzil , On The Way , merdeka , flags


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