Monday, July 27, 2009

Yasmin Ahmad, A Truer Malaysian Patriot...

Saturday 25 July 2009, 11.25pm. Yasmin Ahmad has died. Massive stroke. Brain haemorrhage. Abrupt. Mal apropos. Lethal.

Like many Malaysians, I am shocked and I mourn the untimely loss of filmmaker and creative director, Yasmin Ahmad.

Simply put, I mindfully ask why we are yet again losing so many great people, so young, so needlessly, so unforeseen—illustrious souls claimed too prematurely by the grim reaper, the proverbial 'thief in the night'.

I have never met Yasmin Ahmad. Yet, I feel a kindred spirit with this fellow Johorean, perhaps the quintessential Malaysian filmmaker within my generation.

Like many wishful and wistful Malaysians nowadays, we all continue to yearn for a lost time and era, where our ethnic diversity was our amalgamated strength and our unique sense of pride.

Yasmin, I believe, is a truer Malaysian than most of us dare to profess. She was more daring than most, to flesh out a more creative version of what it means to be a citizen of this blessed land, which we call Malaysia.

She dared to explore the darker expressions of racial bigotry within our society, which of late has been sundering our communities, in staggered if with unchecked certainty. Interracial relations have always been touchy nearly taboo subjects, which many Malaysians are at pains to sweep under the carpet of self-censored political correctness.

Publicly, we are at pains to project in most instances a tightly controlled sensitivity, and tongue-biting reservedness, which borders on impenetrable aloofness, but loudly declared if perfunctory camaraderie. However, over time, these less than robust facades get sandpapered away to expose the superficiality and the unburnished colder emotions—of barely submerged antagonism and crude stereotypic dehumanising racial slurs.

During political rhetoric and partisan outbursts, the uglier face of racism surfaces, latterly more often than not. Unleashed anger, hurt-pride, mob-instinct, explode more readily with utterances of irrational bigotry—which create vortices of vicious cycles of indignant recriminations, of plangent hurtful sectarian bombast...

Yet, in subtle contradistinction to these stereotypes, in many Petronas-funded commercials, Yasmin was able to inject a heady stream of poignancy and comic relief which showcase our unique connectedness, our inexplicable destiny, rather than spotlight our skin-deep dissimilarities. In other short films, she was able to finesse uncommonly discussed issues, considered by many to be too raw or too crude to be aired—“The Funeral” was one case in point.

Yet she was able to evoke bittersweet emotions which knew no racial or religious bounds, but which continues to showcase our human foibles and our oft-forgotten sensibilities, in a comically tender fashion, which warms the heart.

She married a Chinese (Tan Yew Leong), to wit, as if to announce to the world that she believed her destiny was meant to be—a Malaysian who was bold enough to live and practice without the oppressive constricts of social religious mores, racial taboos or unspoken frowns of politically-incorrect dissuasions...

Better than that she dared project those hypersensitive touchstones which help us all to question our irrational if misguided
'monkeys off our backs' which tether our better gentler spirit to our uglier crasser emotionalism. For many of us, this emotional stunting remains that deeply entrenched molten lava of illogical ethnocentric superciliousness, our ingrained if misguided belief in our own ethnic supremacy. "Aren't all of us racist in our own hearts?"

Yet, many of us are schizophrenic when it comes to being labelled Malaysians. While we may all look quite different, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Dusun-Kadazans, Ibans, etc., we have whenever we are in any international forum or discourse, declared our proud Malaysian origins. We sense ourselves as different, yet similar and unique in an inexplicable way, in spoken Manglish, "-lah"-accentuated speech patterns, so ingrained in our acculturated mindset that only a Malaysian can understand.

Like so well illustrated by another iconic Malaysian artist, Lat, our Malaysianness must stand us apart, if only because only we can fully appreciate the colourful nuances, the comical stereotypes which enhances rather than demeans our differences. Our uncouthness, our jagged crudities, our slapstick teeth-sucking, nose-sniffing mannerisms, our oddly juxtaposed spoken words are but cultural pearls which only our Malaysianness can decipher and find chuckling meaning and furtive humour...

Indeed, while we had been colonized serially for centuries, Malaysia had been blessed by her fecund land: first from our sequential abundance of natural resources—from tin and rubber, then palm oil, then crude oil and latterly expanding into small medium industries, led particularly by our insightful foray into the then explosive electronics industry.

But perhaps most importantly of all, I strongly believe that Malaysia benefited singularly from her peoples: our unique blend of multi-ethnicity, so jingoistically announced to the world as "Malaysia, truly Asia."
It was this sensitive portrayal of the eclectic Malaysian and his/her interracial tensions that marked the genius in Yasmin Ahmad.

She had variously been branded an ethnic traitor and frequently labelled as controversial, when all she ever did was to dare to expose the fallacies and the down-to-earth idiocies of racial/religious stereotyping and bigotry.

It appears that the Malay heartland was less impressed with Yasmin's talent and derring-do than other non-Malays, who have always embraced her more readily, sensing her passionate understanding and connectedness. Perhaps not wearing her religion on her sleeves, and having married a non-Malay spouse, might have helped shaped her sense of greater ethnic openness and tolerance.

But there was more than met the creative eye of Yasmin Ahmad. I believe Yasmin was a truer patriot, more in deeds and soul-searching honesty than most. She had that extra touch of creativity and sensitivity which transcended ethnic considerations and concentrated on what truly matters, the human spirit and experience, that singular penetrating understanding of interpersonal relationships, in the unique inescapable setting of multiracial Malaysia...

“Sepet” was perhaps Yasmin's best-known work, which won her acclaim and controversial notoriety. A thinly disguised critique of interracial love and emotional relationships heavily tinged with exploits of ethnic bigotry, touched many tender raw spots which were previously considered taboo in Malaysia.

"Sepet" released in 2004, won Malaysian Film Festival Best Film Award (2005), including too several international awards, viz. the Asian Film Award at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2005, the Grand Prix Award at the 2005 Creteil International Women’s Film Festival.

Since her first movie, “Rabun” in 2003, other films followed: “Sepet” (2004), “Gubra” (2006), “Mukhsin” (2006), “Muallaf” (2008) and Talentime (2009).

Such were her magic touches that almost every film made by Yasmin had won some prize or other in the international film scene, marking her as an extraordinary filmmaker whose eye for social analyses had come of age, in an era where serious quality was often trumped for trendiness and kitsch.

In fact her style and talent so captivated Singapore's Prime Minister, that he'd invited Yasmin Ahmad to direct a film for launch at the Youth Olympics in 2010 in Singapore. Alas, this project is now in limbo...

We'd probably lost forever, the opportunity to see yet another work of a genius, of a truly international class film master...

Sleep well, Yasmin. Your films, your influence, your touch, your Malaysianness will yet outlive your short sojourn on earth. May your unswerving efforts and boldness to deconstruct ethnic taboos, religious boundaries and racial bigotry help realise a better, more united Malaysia.

Rest in Peace.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Shocked, Outraged, Saddened (SOS): Royal Commission of Inquiry Now!!!...

It appears that Malaysians are perennially bombarded by shocks and shock waves, since the epic March 8, 2008 general elections.

One after torrential one, political shenanigans and Machiavellian trickery appear to jolt our sense of justice, equanimity and sense of belonging, of our shaky if aspired to patriotism.

It shatters the already nebulous myth of the jingoistic "1 Malaysia" which continues to belie the unvarnished disarray that consumes our politically-fractured citizens. Sadly, most if not all of these inane happenstances are self-inflicted by unthinking members of an administrative branch run amok, which appear increasingly aloof and out of touch with reality and changing times.

On many occasions too, politicians on either side have been trading body blows of razor-edge brinkmanship, which totters on mutual self-destruction. In its wake, these cheap point-scoring exercises continue to drag some of us, the more rabble-roused citizens deeper into the morasses of futility and despair! No, it's not our fault per se, but it most certainly underscores the pathetic state of justice and sense of fair play in the country.

Political aide, Teoh Beng Hock's untimely and truly unnecessary death has put yet another damper on the institution of justice and law enforcement in the country. This time the hurriedly cobbled together MACC must bear the brunt of this senseless and tragic exercise of unfettered power play and what appears increasingly as blatant one-sided prosecution, perhaps even shameless persecution!

Sadly, the officers in charge appear nonchalantly oblivious that what they have been doing, is anything but impartial or even neutral. Their blinkered attempts to push what must be undisguised probes into so-called complaints of misallocation of funds only of oppositionist lawmakers, surely must be from partisan directives! For fair-minded citizens, there appears not to be any modicum of decency to do the 'right' thing, even if only for show!

Instead, in one fell swoop, officers of the much maligned MACC have destroyed every thinking Malaysian's dream of civility, personal human rights, justice and modern democracy. Their arrogating of power to enforce their duties without regard to natural justice and proper rules of engagement, debases most thinking citizens.

It continues to disabuse us of our fanciful notions that perhaps some semblance of innovation and justice may indeed be the better modus operandi of the new leadership under Prime Minster Najib Razak. If for nothing else, this blatant misuse of the machinery of power, reinforces the need for a more enlightened, a more responsible and accountable system of justice and law. I continue to believe and hope that this new administration can do better and rise above such unnecessary if arrant negative publicity.

It is sad that in the process of trying to enforce the 'law', a young man with so much potential has been so ruthlessly cut down, his life truncated so prematurely, that he had now left behind a bride and his orphan child to be!

This cynical loss of life, so senseless and so unnecessary, points to perhaps another growing culture of arrogance when another's life was dehumanised and cheaply disposed of... Power of authority was all that mattered. This is indeed not something isolated, indeed it is now appearing to be a pattern of ingrained autocracy, unchallenged power among enforcement agencies such as the police and now the MACC, with no foreseeable oversight in place...

Custodial 'torture', unregulated investigation methods, custodial injuries and deaths, now appear to be commonplace, and are occurring with a regularity that showcase our enforcement agencies' callous disregard for human lives and their imperious unconcern for human rights.

When will our helpless, disempowered citizens get justice? When will our Kugan Ananthan, Letchumanan Kathan, Ravindran Alagiry, S Henry, A. Gnanapragasam, and now Teoh Beng Hock, get their justice? When will their true stories be told? When will their loved ones find closure and meaning in such senseless premature loss?

What about the other 1535 custodial deaths that had occurred between 2003 and 2007? Surely these numbers are shockingly high by any standards; they are shameful and unacceptable, and point to a systemic failure of our custodial service, our law enforcement agencies.

Can there be any doubt that these should never have happened, nor must they be allowed to continue? How many more nameless and unnumbered detainees beyond 2007 were there, who have suffered, been injured and who might or might not have perished?

In the 2005 Royal Commission Report for Police Reform, 3 major concerns from the public were identified:

* High incidence of crime and widespread public concern regarding personal safety.
* Public perception of widespread corruption within the police force.
* Extensive and consistent abuse of human rights and non-compliance with prescribed laws.

The report acknowledges that because of the above challenges, there is a growing breakdown of public trust and confidence in the police force. Increasingly the police force is “generally viewed as inefficient, uncaring, unable to prevent or check crime.” Worse, the police is seen to condone widespread “infringements of human rights... and the PDRM is not seen as being transparent or accountable to the public.”

In the light of these weaknesses, a resounding recommendation was made that an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) be set up urgently. This is the proposed external oversight body to be established through an Act of Parliament, and which must be vested with powers to receive and investigate complaints regarding alleged police misconduct and to impose sanctions against any found guilty of such misconduct.

That appears to be the crux of the matter. As of right now, the police force and now the MACC appears to be 'above the law', answerable only to the Home Minister, if that was at all, evident.

There appears to be no oversight body to determine if there have been abuse or misuse of their powers and worse, if they had engaged in criminal activities including custodial abuses of detainees, unlawful taking of lives, any life without justification! There have been instances where, the police had acted as judge, jury and executioners as well, e.g. shooting deaths of groups of so-called armed criminals.

Has there ever been any review of such extrajudicial shootings by any independent police or watchdog Internal Affairs Department, as exist elsewhere? From 2001 to 2003, there were just 6 coroner's inquests, out of 80 reported custoidal deaths—were the other 72 deserving of their untimely deaths?

SUHAKAM (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia) has on several occasions, been promoting the continuing education of human rights to the public—its purpported "work to nurture, develop and advance a human rights culture within Malaysia".

My belief is that the public does need some reminder of their human rights, every now and again. We often take this too much for granted. Sadly, most of us are now fully aware, when tragedies such as Teoh's shocking death, happen. It reminds us that perhaps, these can happen to us too, without rhyme or reason—too chancy, too unbelievably unjust, too unpredictably senseless and too iffy!

Of greater concern is to remind and educate the enforcement agencies such as the police, the military and now the MACC, to be not only mindful of their duties, but to demand their strict adherence to human rights dictates in each of their engagement with the public.

Detainees, witnesses, suspects, prisoners, whoever they are, must be accorded due respect and fairness, until all their legal rights have been exhausted. There should be greater move toward painstaking gathering of evidence, rather than resorting to coercing and extracting confessions, which have been identified as a faulty barbaric mandate preferred by some of our law enforcement officers.

A recent NST editorial "Death of a Witness" makes a logical if grudging apologia for some form of closure to this debacle:
"In the face of a sceptical public which is over-receptive to any and all allegations of bias and subterfuge, and unwilling to give the MACC the benefit of the doubt, while it must be bold and resolute in investigating and prosecuting cases without fear or favour, it must also not abandon due process.

"This makes respect for human rights as critical as the selection process for investigations and the impeccable credentials it must establish for itself if the MACC is to enjoy the wholehearted confidence and close cooperation of the public."
A Royal Commission Inquiry is now mandatory to appease the ghosts of all these custodial deaths, which must now include the MACC. In the interim, the MACC must suspend all its activities pending this full inquiry. Its due processes and rules of engagement must be reviewed and spelt out clearly, with no ambiguity as to which investigative techniques are illegal, and these should be fully subject to oversight sanction.

Legal representation, and continuous videotaping of all suspects and witnesses should be mandatory without exemption. Selection of officers must be entrenched with human rights education and inculcation, and those with wrongful attitudes or aptitudes must be removed or redeployed to other areas which do not interact with the public, lest they resort to actionable if delinquent activities. In other words, it must undergo a total revamp and complete overhaul, if it should ever wish to regain any semblance of credibility, at all...

Teoh's untimely demise must not be in vain! Our shock, our outrage and our sadness must be translated into a meaningful revamp of our enforcement agencies, and hopefully reignite some new belief and help reclaim some confidence in our badly bruised civic institutions...