1. The Wrath of Mugatu
“The Malay had been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes…. Southern Asia, in general, is the seat of awful images and associations.”
—Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
In Orientalist literature, the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia—previously Malaya, the Federated Malay States, and the Malay Archipelago—was the land of Conrad’s noble savages and Maugham’s oblivious colonials. Today, its tourist-board image hinges on more mundane exotica: nice beaches, good food, a friendly multicultural population.
I was born and raised in Malaysia, but have not lived there for more than a dozen years, returning infrequently during that time. The longtime expatriate is susceptible to identity slippage, and one of its stranger forms arises from the gap between how he remembers his homeland and how others perceive it—or as the case may be, how others don’t.
Even among the well-read and well-traveled in cosmopolitan cities like London, where I lived in the early ’90s, and New York, where I have lived since the mid-’90s, Malaysia is routinely confused with one of its neighbors: Indonesia, which trumps it for unambiguous distinctions (world’s largest archipelago and most populous Muslim nation), or Singapore, which was once part of Malaysia and is more flamboyant in its nanny-state tyranny: the chewing-gum ban, the caning of the American kid, the totalizing corporate-park sterility that prompted William Gibson to dub it “Disneyland with the death penalty.” Absent such honorifics, mention of Malaysia, in my experience, prompts faint recognition at best, and that dim spark tends to be connected to one of four things, which collectively suggest that nearly two centuries after De Quincey’s laudanum freakout, Malaysia still exists in the Western consciousness as a shadow realm of “awful images and associations”:
✯ Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s prime minister from 1981 to 2003. One of a dying breed of Asian strongmen, a quasi-despot who outlasted China’s Deng Xiaoping, Indonesia’s Suharto, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, he was for years a reliable fount of anti-Western (and anti-Semitic) rhetoric. These inflammatory pronouncements were usually blurted, almost Tourette’s-like, in the vicinity of news microphones and other heads of state;
✯ The tallest buildings in the world, between April 1996 and October 2003. The eighty-eight-story Petronas Twin Towers, which protrude like silver corn-ears from the chaotic skyline of the capital Kuala Lumpur, are the work of architect Cesar Pelli (who also designed Manhattan’s World Financial Center) and featured prominently in the 1999 Sean Connery–Catherine Zeta-Jones heist caper Entrapment. The Malaysian government considered banning the movie because of sneaky editing that suggested the buildings were adjacent to “slums” (in reality they are surrounded by manicured gardens; the actual slums are many miles away);
✯ Terrorism. Two of the 9/11 hijackers attended what was thought to be a meeting of al Qaeda associates in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000. Malaysian members of Jemaah Islamiyah have been linked to terrorist attacks in Indonesia including the most recent Bali bombing in October 2005. Bush’s war on terror has actually improved relations between the U.S. and Malaysia, which Washington quickly identified as a modern, moderate Islamic state, and as such a useful strategic ally. Mahathir, while criticizing the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, was quick to target Islamic militancy, which conveniently also meant cracking down on his chief political threat: the Islamic opposition party;
✯ Zoolander (2001), Ben Stiller’s splendid absurdist farce, in which evil fashion designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) attempts to brainwash supermodel Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into assassinating the prime minister of Malaysia—duly mistaken at one point for Micronesia—so as to keep child sweatshops in operation. Zoolander was banned in Malaysia.
2. Amnesia Nation
“The imagination lingers here gratefully, for in the Federated Malay States the only past is within the memory for the most part of the fathers of living men.”
—W. Somerset Maugham, “Footprints in the Jungle” (1927)
It’s no wonder the outside world knows so little about Malaysia—Malaysians themselves are not predisposed to knowing very much about Malaysia. The country has been continuously governed by the same political party, in much the same repressive manner, since it gained independence from the British in 1957. Malaysia Tourism’s website proclaims it “the longest serving freely elected government in the world.”1 Opportunities for reform, few and far between, have been quickly squashed and remain largely forgotten. What Malaysian leaders like to think of as stability is more a case of self-perpetuating inertia and instilled amnesia. Malaysians abroad have an even easier time forgetting. Since leaving, I have not been the most avid consumer of news from home. In my line of work, editing and writing film reviews, Malaysia is not something that comes up. I was therefore a little startled to hear talk a few years ago of a Malaysian film movement. Would these movies seem foreign to me? Was I supposed to feel nationalist pride? Did they require a cultural perspective that I had (perhaps willingly) lost? I was even more startled when I finally saw one of these movies, The Big Durian, the first Malaysian feature ever to screen at Sundance, and realized that my reluctance to remember was precisely the subject of the film.
Some facts and statistics: Malaysia consists of West Malaysia, an equatorial peninsula south of Thailand, and—across the South China Sea—two states in northern Borneo that make up East Malaysia.2 The population of twenty-six million lives in an area that is, per the CIA’s World Factbook, “slightly larger than New Mexico.” Per capita income is the fifth-highest in Asia.
But the Freedom in the World index, which weighs political rights and civil liberties in all countries and rates them on a scale of 1 for most free to 7 for least, awarded Malaysia a 4.5 last year (worse than Indonesia and the same as Singapore). As of September 2005, 112 people were being held under Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for arbitrary detention without trial and prohibits the judicial review of these cases. A very small sampling of the very many cultural products and publications that have been banned at some point in Malaysia: Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ, an indigenous-dialect translation of the Bible, all newspapers from Singapore, various episodes of Friends.
We can trace Malaysia’s most maddening contradictions to the peculiar position that ethnicity occupies in this multiethnic society: race is both foundational principle and primal taboo, at once enshrined in government policy and not up for public discussion. According to 2004 estimates, the population is roughly 50 percent Malay, 25 percent Chinese, and 7 percent Indian; most of the rest are indigenous groups in sparsely populated East Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur (commonly called KL) and most of the cities are on the west coast of West Malaysia; many of them have Chinese majorities. The Malays are Muslim (Islam is the official religion) and speak Malay (also the official language); the Chinese are mainly Buddhist and Taoist and speak any of a half-dozen Chinese dialects (in KL, usually Cantonese); the Indians are mainly Hindu and speak Tamil. It’s common to hear Malaysians veering, within the space of a sentence, from national language to native dialect to English—or more precisely, a mutant form of English, stripped of grammatical niceties, richly seasoned with the saltier bits of local vernacular, and evocatively called Manglish.
Multiculturalism is a big part of the country’s official narrative, framed as the happy by-product of trade routes and colonial rule. The early Malay kingdoms, based in Java and Sumatra, were Hindu and Buddhist. Islam, brought by fourteenth-century Arab merchants, became the dominant religion in the Indo-Malay archipelago with the ascendancy of Malacca, a Muslim-ruled port a hundred miles south of what is now Kuala Lumpur. The colonial era began with the sixteenth-century Portuguese conquest of Malacca. The Dutch wrested power in the seventeenth century and ceded it in 1824 to the British, who wasted little time expanding into the rest of the Malay peninsula. The Chinese and Indians, a presence since the Malaccan trade heyday, arrived en masse during British rule to fill increased labor demands—the Chinese usually as tin miners and merchants, the Indians on rubber plantations.
What’s generally left out of textbooks and travel brochures is the fraught history of ethnopolitics. Malaysian industry, as the British conceived it, depended on an ethnic division of labor, which bred lasting stereotypes about the nature and economic function of each race, not to mention a pervasive mutual mistrust. The colonial game of divide and conquer was so effective at subjugating the natives that as the country transitioned to self-governance, the new Malaysian ruling class decided to adopt it too.
From the very inception of the Federation of Malaya on August 31, 1957 (Malaysia was formed six years later with the addition of Singapore and East Malaysia), the national myth of multiculturalism has coexisted with official endorsements of racial disparity. The constitution safeguards the “special position” of the majority Malays, in vague terms that government policies have since taken to mean preferential treatment in virtually all aspects of educational and economic life. It further loads the issue by linking race and religion, defining all Malays as Muslim.
Malaysian race relations, as played out in the halls of government, have long been plagued by entrenched hierarchies and a dubious logic of score-settling. UMNO (United Malays National Organization) is the biggest party in the Barisan Nasional (National Front) ruling coalition, followed by the Chinese and Indian parties. It has always been understood that the political dominance of the Malays exists in part to redress the disproportionate economic might of the Chinese. Frictions were present from the start, and in 1965, Chinese-majority Singapore opted to go it alone. On May 13, 1969, three days after a general election that saw the ruling coalition lose ground to the opposition parties, riots broke out when a Chinese victory march passed through the predominantly Malay KL neighborhood of Kampung Baru. Hundreds died; a state of emergency was called; the government suspended the press for a few days and parliament for nearly two years.3 As a Malaysian Chinese born in 1973, I absorbed the sense of “May 13” as a forbidden topic at an early age. I grasped what it signified before I learned what had transpired: it was the great repressed, forever threatening to return.
In 1987, it nearly did. Ethnic tensions were on the rise, though this time it was less clear why. There were power tussles within UMNO, disputes over Chinese-language schools, a shooting in a KL Chinese neighborhood, and on October 27, the arrest under the ISA of more than a hundred dissidents allegedly harmful to national stability—most of them activists, writers, and opposition leaders. All the average Malaysian could do in the pre-internet age was connect the dots with the occasional help of a largely progovernment press that reported the news with almost no context and analysis. Several papers, not sufficiently slavish in their coverage of the detentions, had their publishing licenses revoked. Despite having obviously bruised the national psyche, the events of 1987 and 1969 remain curiously murky—it doesn’t help that a colonial relic called the Sedition Act is still brandished from time to time as a reminder that some things are not to be talked about. The crazy notion that such fresh national traumas can be so easily occluded is key to understanding not just how Malaysia is run but how its population has been conditioned to think.
Which brings us back to The Big Durian, a brash wake-up call for a society that keeps hitting the snooze button. This personal essay-cum–semi-scripted documentary braids the quizzical ruminations of its Malay Muslim director, thirty-two-year-old Amir Muhammad, with testimonials, real and acted, on the free-floating anxiety of ’87 and the obscured horrors of ’69. The film exposes prejudices, punctures taboos, savors urban legends, cracks ethnic jokes, ventures conspiracy theories; it’s a scathing, well-argued attack on racial politics and a wry, impertinent love letter to the Malaysian people that won’t excuse them their apathy.
Uninitiated viewers could not ask for a crisper snapshot of the national temperament. For Malaysians of a certain generation, the effect is tantamount to unearthing a real alternate history—one that we lived through but never could corroborate. I’m about the same age as Amir, and The Big Durian, named for the most intensely pungent of local fruits, triggered powerful sense memories: it took me back to a moment that I now recognize as a bleary political awakening—an uneasy realization that where I was from was not necessarily where I belonged. But it also had another, somewhat unexpected effect: it made me homesick.
3. Running Amok
“I’ve tried bribes, I’ve tried gifts. I even sent him some pet oxen. I mean, they love that crap in Malaysia.”
—Mugatu in Zoolander (2001)
The durian, a creamy-fleshed delicacy native to Southeast Asia, is notorious for its overpowering aroma and thick husk, which is both hazardously thorny and very tough to crack. The “Big Durian” is also a sobriquet for KL, and the hybrid confusion and polyglot cacophony of Amir’s film are endearingly true to life in the Malaysian capital. Kuala Lumpur literally means “muddy estuary”; Jean Cocteau supposedly once called the city Kuala L’impure.
The Big Durian spirals outward from the October 1987 rampage of a Malay soldier named Adam, who ran amok with an M16 in Chow Kit, a Chinese section of KL, killing two people. The film’s structure is both dense and digressive, inserting asides within asides. Amok, the narrator-director points out, is one of two Malay words used in the English language (the other being orangutan). A young interviewee who remembers nothing of 1987 instead shares his memories of a childhood electrocution. The viewer is asked to ponder the baffling popularity in ’80s Malaysia of teen-pop pinup Tommy Page and Eurodisco duo Modern Talking.
Fittingly for a filmmaker whose favorite Orson Welles movie is F for Fake, some of the subjects are really being interviewed, while others are actors improvising or working off a script. The mockumentary elements, apart from their usual deconstructive purpose, have a larger in-joke resonance: not knowing what to believe is a big part of being Malaysian. That doesn’t stop most people from having an opinion, though. As one subject puts it, “Anything happens in Malaysia and you speculate, because the truth never comes out.” Churning up a paranoid storm of conjecture, The Big Durian demonstrates that, in a culture of secrecy and disinformation, rumor is the same as memory is the same as history.
Even as he amusingly evokes the Malaysian government’s Ministry of Truth evasiveness, Amir, a sometime newspaper columnist with a law degree from the University of East Anglia, mounts a damning case against its heedless hypocrisy. The Mahathir regime in particular did not hesitate to stir up racial tensions for political gain and was equally quick to silence any challenges in the name of racial harmony. Needless to say, this is how any autocratically inclined administration—not least the current American one—deploys whatever instrument of fear is at its disposal.
In Malaysia, it works every time. The 1987 detentions and media clampdown, codenamed Operasi Lalang (Weeding Operation), had the desired result of stifling dissent. In 1998, at odds over responses to the Asian financial crisis, Mahathir fired his deputy and ex-protégé, Anwar Ibrahim, and had him arrested on charges of corruption and—for extra tabloid value—sodomy. The blatant outrageousness of this particular maneuver sparked reformasi, a multiethnic movement inspired by the Indonesian revolution that brought down Suharto. Facing massive demonstrations for the first time, the authorities cracked down, citing the ISA and an unlawful-assembly law that prohibits gatherings of more than three people without a police license. The new opposition alliance, the closest thing to a meaningful political alternative in the country’s history, eventually crumbled due to differences between the two main parties—one Islamic and Malay, the other secular and mainly Chinese. Yet again, the threats to the status quo were successfully weeded out.
The Big Durian, which recaps this recent history, is angriest and most poignant as a study of political inaction—that is, when it’s wondering what makes a society so averse to risk, so afraid of change. Is indifference culturally conditioned? Can it be legislated into existence?4 Amir, to his credit, finds this all deeply exasperating and—when he steps back for a contextual irony or zooms in on a ridiculous detail—quite funny. His sense of outrage, impassioned but never self-righteous, is equaled by a taste for the absurd. This instinctive poise is perhaps best captured in his fifteen-minute short, Kamunting, which records a road trip to the titular ISA detention center where a friend is being held. Its quiet indignation peaks with the placid recitation of a series of detainee testimonies. What makes the film uniquely Amir’s are the deadpan jabs at prison administration and the doomed comic attempt to smuggle a camera into the facility.
Kamunting is part of a cycle of six films made in 2002 and 2003, collectively titled 6horts. Almost all are intimate first-person meditations on the pricklier aspects of identity (whether national, racial, religious, or sexual). Checkpoint recounts experiences of post–9/11 racial profiling at the Malaysia-Singapore border. Lost is an existential reverie prompted by a stolen identity card and the ensuing bureaucratic nightmare.5 Friday is a not entirely reverent rumination on being a modern Muslim, gently riffing on compulsory prayer attendance and footwear theft at mosques.
Boldest of all, Pangyau, a dreamy confessional set to a smeared video tour of KL’s mainly Chinese Petaling Street night market, is a three-in-one taboo-buster, filtering racial, religious, and sexual difference through the fond memory of a teenage more-than-friendship. Exquisite and even erotic in its threading of the delicate and the vulgar, Pangyau (friend in Cantonese) reflects on otherness, forbidden fruit, and the knotty Malay-Chinese relationship, drawing provocative connections with breathtaking aplomb. Just before the Malay narrator recalls the loss of his virginity to a high-school friend—a same-sex, interracial encounter, on a Muslim holy day no less—he remembers his first illicit mouthful of pork, and the voice-over dizzyingly echoes an earlier description of a porno blow job: “I took it in slowly. I thought
I might gag.”
4. Division of Leisure
“The Malaysian film industry was founded on Chinese money, Indian imagination, and Malay labor.”
—Malaysian film historian Hamzah Hussin
Marginal at home, Malaysian film is barely a blip on the world-cinema map. As the local press likes to remind its readers, there are well-known Malaysian-born movie personalities: Hong Kong star Michelle Yeoh; Tsai Ming-liang, the master of psychosexual Taiwanese minimalism; James Wan, the Australian-based director of the torture-chamber thriller Saw. But Malaysian productions are not generally considered exportable, and until a year or two ago, they almost never popped up at international film festivals.6
William van der Heide’s historical survey Malaysian Cinema, Asian Film (Amsterdam University Press, 2002), which predates the indie boom by a matter of months, now reads even more like an excavation of a lost culture—in the sense that the best new Malaysian films have little or nothing to do with their supposed forerunners. The first Malaysian movie, 1933’s Laila Majnun (directed by B. S. Rajhans, a recent arrival from India), was a song-and-dance romance based on an ancient Persian-Arabic legend about doomed lovers. Shaw Brothers, the Chinese powerhouse studio, swooped in soon after, setting up shop in Singapore. Many early productions were slapdash remakes of Indian or Chinese hits; the main genres were melodrama and folklore. For Malaysians of any race, the idea of old local movies conjures only one name: P. Ramlee, a beloved Malay actor-director-singer, often called the Malaysian Chaplin (though Bob Hope may be a more apt comparison), who starred in dozens of musical melodramas and the comic Bujang Lapok (“old bachelor”) series in the ’50s and ’60s.
The push-pull between racial exclusion and inclusion is acutely reflected in the national cinema. The moviegoing market remains largely segregated (the Chinese favoring HK imports and the Indians sticking with Bollywood, though Hollywood blockbusters cut across racial lines), so it’s no surprise that Malaysian films, for economic and political reasons, have always been overwhelmingly Malay, in both theme and language.
Singapore was home to the Shaw and Cathay studios, and its departure from the federation hastened the decline of the industry. Despite the 1981 creation of FINAS, the National Film Development Corporation, to boost production and ensure Malay involvement, the official Malaysian film industry never fully recovered. The current uptick in activity, like Chinese film’s impressive post-Tiananmen groundswell, is squarely rooted outside the official system. Festival programmers, well aware of neighboring Thailand’s recently elevated art-house profile, are eager to herald a Malaysian new wave.7
These up-and-comers—spearheaded by Amir, James Lee (The Beautiful Washing Machine), and Ho Yuhang (Sanctuary)—are a close-knit, multiracial, KL-based group, most in their late twenties and early thirties, who work quickly and prolifically, helping out on each other’s films in various capacities. Digital technology was a key factor in their emergence, and so were the bootleggers who have made available an abundance of foreign movies since the ’80s.8 The new generation adds diversity to a local cinema scene that has been a Malay stronghold for decades, even as their individual films suggest wider diasporic connections. Lee’s and Ho’s ironic, oblique, unfailingly patient portraits of estrangement extend the bloodlines of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang and Hou Hsiao-hsien; Deepak Kumaran Menon, director of The Gravel Road, a Tamil-language film set on a rubber plantation, acknowledges the influence of Indian master Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.
Predictably, the new non-Malay Malaysian films make the cultural gatekeepers slightly uneasy. When Sanctuary was offered prestigious competition slots at the Pusan and Rotterdam festivals, Ho, a minor celebrity at home for his comic turns in TV commercials, went to FINAS for help with the cost of conversion from digital to film, but he was denied on the grounds that his movie, about a Chinese brother and sister, wasn’t sufficiently multicultural. (Ironically, the titular protagonist of his previous feature, Min, was a young Chinese woman adopted by Malay parents.) The Gravel Road, meanwhile, was deemed ineligible for a tax rebate because it was not made in the national language.
But as some filmmakers are finding out, international acclaim is the first step to national exposure: Sanctuary won jury citations at Pusan and Rotterdam, prompting the Culture Minister to publicly question FINAS’s decision. Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine won the Southeast Asian competition at the Bangkok Film Festival in January.9 Three months later, Washing Machine finally opened domestically.
Most Malaysian indies are still confined to movie-club screenings and VCD sales; some—Amir’s insolently tossed grenades, most notably—could never hope to get past the censorship board that infamously deemed Schindler’s List overly sympathetic to Jews, and is even more scissor-happy with local and regional fare, which must conform to “Asian values,” an all-purpose catchphrase of the Mahathir era. Malaysian censorship often makes such outlandish demands that it practically constitutes a form of conceptual art, along the lines of Dogme 95’s “Vow of Chastity.” Supernatural themes, deemed un-Islamic, are often propped up with tortured quasi-scientific rationales. It was suggested that a KL production of The Vagina Monologues be revamped to avoid the word vagina. Recently, confronted with the sweetly utopian color blindness of Yasmin Ahmad’s interracial teen romance, Sepet, film censors complained that the Malay heroine had failed to ask her Chinese boyfriend to convert to Islam.
5. The Big Pomelo
Making art in Malaysia could drive you mad. But Amir Muhammad has the requisite resilience and adaptability: in his brief career he has already reinvented himself several times. Following his debut, Lips to Lips (2000), a raunchy, talky no-budget comedy often identified as ground zero of the Malaysian indie scene, he was inspired to try his hand at cine-essays after, of all things, reading about them, in Phillip Lopate’s “In Search of the Centaur: the Essay Film.” Which is not as random as it sounds: The salient quality of Amir’s work is its wide-open intellectual curiosity—an awareness that, especially in a culture as porous and polymorphous as Malaysia’s, ideas can come from anywhere and exist to be borrowed and bastardized. Steeped in Western references but unquestionably local in outlook, he’s something of a kindred spirit to Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose fiction films have the flavor of hallucinated documentary, and whose debut doc, Mysterious Object at Noon, adapted its methodology from Breton’s exquisite corpse.
Dense with text and narration, Amir’s film essays are a logical extension of his journalistic persona. In the late ’90s he wrote a lively literary column in an English-language daily: titled “Perforated Sheets,” after the first chapter of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it was canned in 1999 for espousing a few too many antiestablishment views. 6horts and The Big Durian suggested he’d found a niche in sardonic political commentary, but after Mahathir stepped down in 2003, replaced by his bland handpicked successor Abdullah Badawi, Amir headed to Japan and Indonesia. He returned with a pair of films that could not be more different from his early work. While on a Nippon Foundation grant, he discovered experimental filmmakers like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, and proved a quick study. From a single line of inspiration—Lebanese writer Jalal Toufic’s observation that “All love affairs take place in foreign cities”—he crafted an avant-garde tone poem, Tokyo Magic Hour, fusing processed digital imagery with traditional Malay verse. Shot against the backdrop of Indonesia’s first direct elections, on the Jakarta set of Riri Riza’s Gie, a biopic about the late Indonesian Chinese student activist Soe Hock Gie, The Year of Living Vicariously is an essay on rebellion and nationalism in the guise of a making-of doc. The implicit question, as suggested in the title: Why did their reform movement succeed and ours fail?
Back home in KL, Amir is balancing another pair of projects. He’s set to start shooting his first mainstream movie, Susuk, a horror flick titled for a black-magic implant procedure that grants eternal youth—a sort of witch-doctor Botox. He’s also editing a new quasinonfiction, The Last Communist, a musical-documentary-biopic on Chin Peng, the former secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya who now lives in exile in southern Thailand. I sent Amir an email recently asking for a status report. His excited reply suggests he’s back in Big Durian mode: mash-up mystification, local fruit as metaphor, and yet another slice of Malaysian history that his countrymen will never think about the same way again. Or perhaps think about for the first time:
It travels from place to place based on the chronology of Chin Peng’s life from birth to Independence. There is written text, like a potted bio, that is randomly interspersed with interviews with people who are somehow connected to some aspect of his story. (For example, a bicycle seller after we find out that CP’s family owned a bicycle shop.) Some of these connections are more tenuous than others. They talk about their jobs, their towns, their beliefs, in various languages. We then cut to cheesily choreographed music videos, with seven girls, on topics like How to Conduct Jungle Warfare. The longest sequence takes place in Betong, Thailand, home of many exiled members of the Malayan Communist Party. It ends in KL on the stroke of Independence, where we interview the people who maintain the bell that strikes at midnight. Actually if I were to sum it up in one word, the documentary is about landscape. If I were to sum it up in more than one word, it’s about counter-hegemonic discursive terrains. We think the poster will just have a big pile of pomelo fruit in the middle of a highway. We interviewed a hilarious pomelo seller.