Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Being Malaysian

Diving back into blogging is nothing like riding a bicycle.

I haven't posted here since 2009 and that is a very, very long time ago.

I didn't realize Google bought over Blogger so I forgot my password, forgot which email I used to set up my blog way back in 2003, forgot how the interface worked to publish new posts. It is a good thing Google is a tech juggernaut and basically controls most of the web now so thanks to Google search, Google tech support, and Big Brother Google, now I am sufficiently resuscitated online to be able to publish again.

 Never thought I'd do it for class but oh well! I did give all my students this assignment so, to be fair, I should at least subject myself to some of the same mental torture of thinking through the questions I posed.

 ~~~ Am I a Malaysian?

 It's obvious from my IC, my passport, and all other legal forms of identification generated by my government that I am. So yes, I was born here, grew up here, went to primary and secondary school here (and a good bit of college too), worked at my first job here, and the list goes on.

And I like food ~ like that is some kind of badge of Malaysian identification. But it is more than that.

I could not have been anything other than a Malaysian because I would not have been born if I wasn't.

My mom is second-generation Chinese with roots in Perak. My dad is part-Chinese and part-Malaccan Portuguese. My paternal grandmother has ancestors from as far back as the early Portuguese settlers to Malaya, centuries ago; during the Japanese Occupation, she survived because she was adopted by a Japanese lady who became my dad's surrogate grandmother.

There is more to my family history but suffice to say, the confluence of forces that brought my dad and mom into this world and that enabled them to meet and fall in love and to have me, their first born, would not have been possible in any other country or historical moment.

 So am I a Malaysian? Absolutely. Certainly. Most definitely yes.

~~~ Does it matter?

It matters only if I care about things like national identity, nationalism, patriotism ~ words that convey ideas too abstract and conceptual to be grasped on a day to day basis. It matters if I want to be associated with the millions of others who inhabit the same space as I do, breathe the same polluted air as I do, eat the same delicious meals and rant about the same shit that people living anywhere rant about: family, society, news, politics, etc.

So it matters. Because I care.

Because I am human and if I didn't care, I would cease to be human.

And I like being human far too much to not.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Etnik, Agama dan Raja ... Apa kata Orang Muda?

by Carmen Nge

21st century Malaysian youth on the whole do not court controversy. Apart from attending the occasional konsert haram in droves or uploading scandalous clips on YouTube, our young people are relatively docile when compared to the youth citizens of Indonesia, Philippines and Europe. Malaysian youth are encouraged to shop, study and socialize but rarely are they given the space to dissect issues of national import and the freedom to dissent from popular opinion.

This may explain why the Forum Orang Muda or Young People’s Forum held in Kuala Lumpur recently was so well-attended: it provided a space for the young to come together to listen and to voice their opinions. The topic of the forum was as controversial as they come: “Ethnicity, Religion and the Monarchy: their impact on democracy in Malaysia.” Youth in their 20s made up about 70% of the 100-strong crowd, which was multiracial and predominantly male. [In fact, all the speakers were male too—a fact not lost on the organizer, who promised an all-female panel the next time].

The panel of five kicked off with celebrated independent documentarian Fahmi Reza, who mounted a slick slide show chronicling the etymology of the Malay term for government: Kerajaan. He explained that the term was derived from the word “raja” which partly explains why our form of government is a constitutional monarchy. Our Rukunegara requires us to pledge loyalty to the monarch and no-one questions this because the feudal mentality has been so deeply entrenched. A grassroots democracy cannot exist within such a framework because monarchs reign supreme and only look out for their own interests, Fahmi opined. Second speaker Lee Khai Loon, the Information Chief of PKR Youth, agreed with Fahmi, citing the Perak crisis as an instance where the monarchy’s power became a hindrance to democracy in the state.

In many ways, the substance of Fahmi’s talk is nothing new. Historians and public figures such as Farish Noor, M. Bakri Musa, Khoo Kay Peng and especially Tun Mahathir have clamoured for Malaysians to free themselves from their feudal shackles. To speak about a feudal mentality ultimately puts the blame on the shoulders of the rakyat but it does not address the economic system that sustains the monarchs. For example, no-one (not even Fahmi) dared to discuss the amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on the upkeep of our monarchs and their royal families.

Lee Khai Loon and fourth speaker Mohd Hariszuan Jaharudin both steered clear of this topic but the President of the University Malaya Islamic Students Association, Shazni Munir Mohd Ithnin was unceremoniously bold. In his rapid fire, oratorical style, Shazni stressed that Malaysia may be a constitutional monarchy but our monarchs hardly abide by the constitution. In fact, there has been more than one case of Sultans being above the law. Shazni would have no beef with constitutional monarchy if the monarchs themselves were beholden to the constitution!

Shazni reduced the audience to uproarious laughter when he proclaimed that even monarchs should have KPIs and their role should be as a check and balance for political parties and the ruling government. Ultimately, monarchs need to understand the needs of the people and rule within the context of the 21st century. Using Raja Nazrin Shah, the Crown Prince of Perak as an example, Shazni deemed it necessary for kings (and future kings) to be intelligent and knowledgeable of Islamic principles. As the Head of Islam, the monarch must have substantial Islamic knowledge in order to be seen as a credible Islamic leader.

Regarding the special position of the Malays, Shazni commented that as far as Islam is concerned, it is not proper to defend and take care of only one ethnic group. He believed that Malaysians who think this is right, have a view of Islam that is distorted and off-base. The poor, needy and disenfranchised—no matter what ethnic group or religion—must be helped because Islam is a religion that does not discriminate. True Muslims would never allow themselves to fall into the racial trap set by politicians and the ruling parties.

University student Hariszuan echoed Shazni when he expounded on the ‘boxes’ that limit, confine and define us. The ‘boxes’ he spoke of were metaphors for what is commonly known as stereotypes or labels. His evocation of boxes enabled him to speak of the physical segregation of people according to their class status, race and age groups. He said the problem of racism was not just at the level of political parties but pervaded all layers of society. He also criticized vernacular schools and ethnic-based trade associations for being racist and distilled the central problem as being that of identity.

“We Malays have a problem with our identity. We don’t have an identity! This is why we need to feel tied to Islam. After all, what is Bangsa Malaysia? 1Malaysia? It’s just rhetoric. The elite uses tools such as race and religion to maintain their power. We will be easily influenced if we were to follow loyally and blindly. If we do not ask ourselves what needs to be changed and how to change it and merely follow unthinkingly, then we are on our way to becoming a fascist state,” Hariszuan argued. He urged Malaysian youth to speak up and to reclaim what is rightfully theirs: the politics of dissent, of questioning and of change. This is the politics of young Malaysians and of young people.

The lone ‘oldie’ at the forum (who was also exceedingly, unfashionably late) was none other than Hishamuddin Rais, the forever-young-at-heart writer/blogger of fame. He was profoundly funny that afternoon and cracked joke after joke that were filled with pointed barbs at the government, monarchy, religion and ethnicity. This was Hisham at his element—brash, impudent and well-loved for it.

It was not hard to see why fans of Hisham in the audience proudly professed their devotion. The audience was smitten by his insouciant air and his courage to speak the publicly unspeakable. The younger speakers were unable to match his venerable wit, his acerbic tongue and his thoroughly jaunty Malaysian anecdotes. Hisham used humour to advance his views in a manner that the younger speakers were unable to do. Ironically, the gravity and seriousness of Fahmi, Khai Loon, Shazni and Harisz rendered them so much older than their years.

Hisham went on to lament the fact that the forum was held in a public hall rather than within the university arena, where truly democratic spaces for freedom of expression were sorely lacking. “This discussion SHOULD be in a university,” he cried. Furiously nodding heads reaffirmed what he already knew: Malaysian youth had a thirst for discussion, discovery and dissent that the halls of academia could not (and would not) fill.

But the growing numbers of young people squeezed into the hall that Saturday afternoon fueled hope for a future that not only invests in the youth but also unconditionally involves them in the process of its making. Hisham ended his speech by gesturing to the teeming crowd and quoting Mao Tse Tung: “Finally, the world belongs to the young!”

The applause at the end was a deafening rejoinder to this truth.

This article was originally published in Off The Edge, Jan 2010 issue.

Ethnicity, Religion and the Monarchy: their impact on democracy in Malaysia . . . what say the youth? was a forum organized by GB Gerakbudaya and took place at the Chinese Assembly Hall on 24 October 2009.
For more information on future forums and events, please visit

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Malaysia’s Own Guantanamo

By Carmen Nge

On the eve of Christmas last year, the Special Branch officers milling around the Bar Council were treated to a rare sight: makciks with their tudung labuh and grandkids in tow; gangs of punk kids in their black garb and combat boots; lawyers and youth of all hues and stripes; yuppies and the office-going crowd looking a little weary after a long day’s work; Malays, Chinese, Indians, Mat and Minah Sallehs, and Malaysians of indistinguishable ethnic origins; wizened aunties and uncles of various generations; families from as far away as Negeri Sembilan; social activists, political agitators, politicians, bloggers, netizens, Mat and Minah Rempits, the famous, the infamous and the not-so famous were slowly trickling into the auditorium on the 1st floor. To watch a play.

Theatre aficionados who flock to KLPac and various other urban, middle-class enclaves would have been surprised if they had shown up that night. There were no playbills, no glossy posters, no theatre café, no parking. Neither were there a proscenium stage, fancy lighting and well-designed restrooms. Tickets by donation were priced at a modest RM10 and all proceeds went to the families of current ISA detainees. This was indeed theatre for the masses and updated agitprop theatre at its best, the likes of which have not been seen in the KL arts scene for a long time.

Despite its no frills venue and staging, Teater Bilik Sulit proved to be a powerful, emotionally wrought and highly visceral performance by a group of young actors who were brought together to enact scenes derived from the real life experiences of former ISA detainees. The play was directed by the extremely talented young actor, Mislina Mustaffa and an aging hippie who had seen the world after university only to return home to see the insides of an ISA detention camp—he of tukartiub.blogspot fame, Hishamuddin Rais.

Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism, “Life imitates art” could not have been farther from the truth that night. Teater Bilik Sulit was the epitome of art imitating life and its successful attempt at performatively rendering a crucial slice of Malaysia’s sordid past and present history. It challenged Malaysian critics of the United States’ treatment of detainees in Guantanamo Bay detention camp to turn their eyes to their own shores, where ISA detainees are given similar treatment.

Abdullah, the protagonist and ISA detainee in the play, was decked out in a bright orange outfit, eerily similar to the ones worn by detainees in Guantanamo. Physically and psychologically abused by the Special Branch (SB) officers who interrogated him for hours on end, Abdullah remained mute and blindfolded for much of the performance. His cowering and trembling persona was well complemented by the brash bravado of the SB interrogators, so superbly acted that many in the audience remarked on their authentic portrayals.

The good cop-bad cop routine so familiar to us from TV crime dramas became larger than life on stage. Two clean-cut SB officers of very different proportions were Laurel and Hardy, SB-style —the more kinetic and physically assertive of the two was small-sized and wiry, full of a repressed fury that could not be controlled; his partner was tall and burly, managing to physically intimidate with his booming voice and, despite his potbelly, to assault Abdullah repeatedly. The lone good cop was predictably mustachioed but uncharacteristically good-looking, playing up his affability, coated with a veneer of condescension. Their language was crude, coarse, contemptible, and their conversation displayed unabashed vacuousness and seamy, sexualized banter.

These were not the TV cops with high levels of acuity. The SB officers portrayed in Teater Bilik Sulit were base and barbaric, corrupt and inhumane; they were rats in the sewers of Malaysian politics, where Datuks called the shots.

But arresting and disturbing scenes of humiliation and torture could not upstage the most powerful performance of the night, which was undoubtedly that of Abdullah’s wife. For the better part of the play, she was just a disembodied voice floating across the stage, asking questions of those who came to take away her husband in the night, demanding answers from police officers and lawyers, and reassuring her children with songs and jokes. We heard her but did not see her, we knew she was there but we did not see her plight. Under Hishamuddin’s direction, the female figure was relegated to the margins, hiding behind the scenes of the ISA machine.

As is the case with real life, the wives of ISA detainees are marginal figures in the media landscape, occupying a space hidden from public view and under the guise of privacy protection. In truth, these women are activists in their own right; some of them have continued to champion the cause in the absence of their husbands, many have fought hard for the release of their loved ones despite the futility of the task, and all of them have had to work tirelessly to feed their families as single parents. But few of us are aware of this.

For the final performance, however, (when Hishamuddin Rais was out of the country) the young actors decided to take matters into their own hands and to enable the physical emergence of Abdullah’s wife onstage. This spontaneous act of theatrical rebellion was the pièce de résistance of the night and dramatically heightened and explained Abdullah’s eventual retaliation at the dénouement of the play.

When Abdullah addressed the audience at the very end of Teater Bilik Sulit, his was a rousing call for continued struggle to fight for the abolishment of ISA and recognition that people no longer accepted such a draconian law. In many ways, these final lines of the script were predictable but the resounding applause of the hundreds of Malaysians who came to watch, night after night, proved to be emphatic endorsement of the play’s message.


This review was originally published in Off The Edge magazine, Feb 2009 issue.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Emergency Festival : Preview
by Carmen Nge

From rumblings of party hopping and government takeovers to mud-slinging and racist remarks uttered by our so-called political representatives, a casual observer of the Malaysian socio-political scene may be tempted to classify our post-March 8 period as chaotic, a time of great instability and disorder. Historians would remind us that six decades ago, Malaysia (or Malaya, at that time) was going through a crisis of similar proportions involving more nefarious stakeholders in the creation of a new nation: the British colonial government, UMNO and the MCP (Malayan Communist Party).

The Emergency period, as taught in textbooks, was riddled with violence and state repression; the period also presumably signaled our national hatred for communists and eventually provided the conditions for our independence. Victor and villain, oppressor and oppressed, were carefully constructed and embedded into a static textual past, newly imbibed and inculcated each year into the young minds entering the Malaysian education system.

Fortunately, not every young mind is so wont to feed on the ‘truth’ advanced and propagated by the state. Off The Edge had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Teh, one of the young minds responsible for engaging with this tumultuous time in our nation’s history to culminate in a multi-arts event: The Emergency Festival, scheduled for mid-October at the Central Market Annexe.

OTE: Why the Emergency Project and why now? In what way has this period in Malaysian history captured your imagination as an arts practitioner?

Mark Teh: Because, contrary to popular belief, Malaysian history is damn exciting and sexy!

I suppose I have always been interested in the issues of authorship and ownership of history. Many Malaysians do not feel ownership of our history – it is dismissed as boring and irrelevant, or history is presented as irrefutable 'facts' cast in stone. Broadly speaking, I see our informal collective’s work as concerned with re-presenting and reorganizing, not just recording, local history. I am interested in exhausting the facts of history and using these as a starting point for dialogue because very often, the 'facts of history' are used to limit or end discussion.

The Emergency Festival! follows on from a series of projects that have attempted to examine and re-present marginalized Malayan-Malaysian histories. These have included creating installations for the Home Fronts (SENI Singapore 2004) and Crossovers & Rewrites: BORDERS over ASIA (World Social Forum 2005, Porto Alegre) exhibitions; the Directors’ Workshop 5 – CPM in 2005 (out of which the dramatic performance piece, Baling (membaling) evolved into a university and college touring production); Dua, Tiga Dalang Berlari and documentary film, 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Conveniently, this year also marks the 60th anniversary of the start of the Malayan Emergency in 1948, and provides a good opportunity to reflect on this fraught period.

The Emergency is often presented officially as a period of great instability and disorder, but it was also a time of multiple possibilities and trajectories of identity, imagination and independence. So many things that still define our lives were forged between 1948 and 1960. Amidst the acts of ‘terror’ and propaganda perpetrated by the British colonial government and the Communists, instruments such as the Identity Card, the Internal Security Act, the New Villages resettlement plan, forced repatriations to China and other policies were introduced. These years also saw one of the biggest political negotiations and media events in our history – the Baling talks of 1955, between future Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng, the most wanted man in the British Empire. And of course, Merdeka in ’57.

Over the past few years, marginal and under-researched narratives of the Emergency years have begun surfacing, through declassified documents, new analyses by historians and social scientists, as well as the publication of many memoirs by early leftist leaders. Many of these publications have begun looking at the social and cultural dimensions of the Emergency, which were neglected by earlier historians. This has certainly inspired us to look anew and ask questions of the past, and consequently, the future of the country.

OTE: Do you think the Emergency period is still relevant today? How might it be relevant, particularly to young people like you?

MT: I think after March 8, as Malaysians come to grips with these changes and try to re-imagine the country with new strategies and vocabularies, the Emergency provides significant insights into the manifold contradictions, compromises, concerns and communities that are involved in such a process. The past holds many clues, lessons, patterns and scars but many of us don’t know this. The education system has been very successful in this regard, in implementing a politics of forgetting. Certainly one of the clear parallels with both periods is the political role played by young people in attempting to move beyond a racialist framework for defining Malaysia.

OTE: Why did you and your team decide to embark on an Emergency Festival and not just have a screening of Fahmi Reza's film about the period? What possible outcomes do you hope for?

MT: Because we don’t want to feed Fahmi’s megalomania, heh!

I think this is actually the logical step in our collaborations over the past few years. Our process as a group has evolved from the youth- and community-based art projects where we worked as facilitators, to the more recent documentary/history projects where we have worked directly on making installations; visual artist/filmmakers/designers performing, etc.

For me at least, engaging with different media allows for more diverse ways of seeing, thinking and experiencing the issues we deal with. We have pursued a collaborative mode of working, particularly with regards to content. And our content tends to look at and blur the lines between fact, fiction, fantasy and memory. We are not particularly concerned with arriving at an agreed perspective of the Emergency anyway; certainly, personally I am comfortable with presenting and negotiating a multiplicity of perspectives and narratives that can contradict or provide commentary on each other.

The other idea I think is to engage with different creative people who have done significant research into this area, even if they don’t perceive what they do as research (particularly in Re:Search Re:Source). There are many forward-thinking people who have built up impressive personal collections of Malaysian books, music, film, paraphernalia, etc – I think partly in reaction to the poor job that our institutions do. So, it is important to tap into resources beyond ourselves. And of course, to draw on their audiences!

I hope that the festival engages and connects Malaysians with their history – that they see it as exciting and sexy too. And that history can be highly creative and participatory – once again, issues of authorship and ownership really.

The Emergency Festival! will take place at the Annexe@Central Market from 16 – 26 October 2008. This mini festival of performances, art exhibitions and installations, film screenings, talks and workshops will investigate and re-present narratives and images from the first Malayan Emergency, from 1948 to 1960.

Parallel to this, the festival will also look at the emergence of the early local film industry, which overlaps the same period. Film afficionados and historians will get to view rare films, propaganda and documentation made by the Communist guerillas during and after the Emergency as well as anti-Communist propaganda clips from the Emergency era.

One of the centerpieces of the festival will be the much-anticipated premiere of Revolusi 48, Fahmi Reza’s follow-up to the hugely successful, award-winning documentary film, Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka.

In addition to the film screenings, there will also be performances led by Hari Azizan, Fahmi Fadzil and Mark Teh, which deal with themes, issues and events such as the setting up of the New Villages and the impact of resettlement on individuals and communities, and the Baling talks of 1955 between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Chin Peng.

For more information, please go to:

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Independence Project : Review

by Carmen Nge

In our post-post-colonial world of global capitalism, multinational-ism and online interconnectivity, the idea of independence must be rethought. In the visual art world, contrary to what people may think, artists increasingly create in collaboration with diverse others. Collaborative efforts do not necessarily erode each individual artist’s sense of autonomy but they do challenge artists to negotiate with people who may or may not share similar artistic trajectories and visions. Collaboration entails risk and few artists are willing to heed its calling.

An initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Independence Project is a collaborative exhibition between Galeri Petronas, KL and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne that celebrates two seemingly contradictory ideas: independence and collaboration. The exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of Malaysia-Australia diplomatic relations, which certainly have deep roots in the arts world.

A work that simultaneously epitomizes collaboration and independence is Wong Hoy Cheong’s Aman Sulukule, Canim Sulukule (Oh Sulukule, Darling Sulukule), a 14 minute video created by the artist and the kids of Sulukule, a district in Istanbul where the Roma community has resided since the 11th century. Although the Roma settlement is slated for demolition, the video manages to capture a vibrant and kinetic world peopled with children who continue to hope, play and dream like any other. The aesthetic influence of Michel Gondry permeates the video, which poignantly captures a transient society refusing to be demoralized by its impending eviction. The whimsy and carefree air of the children and their stories belie the numerous difficulties faced by the artist and his team when creating the film with the community of Sulukule. Within the gallery space, a cosy TV room is constructed which enable viewers to imagine Sulukule. Such an ambience help to situate and contextualize the work, thereby heightening the experience of viewing an unfamiliar community.

The rest of the works by Malaysian and Australian artists exhibit a wide range of predilections and tendencies. Paintings by Richard Bell and David Griggs, and Tim Silver’s photographic narrative explore independence as seen through the lived reality of specific marginalized communities: the aboriginal artist, urban youth of colour, and dark-skinned islanders, respectively. While Bell’s painting is glib, conceptual and tries too hard to embrace postmodern high theory, Griggs’ gargantuan triptych of garish colour is refreshingly unpretentious. A throwback to Basquiat’s pop/street art style but with a twist of social realism in the tradition of Filipino and Mexican muralists, the work is unusual for its daring; unvarnished and unframed, The Bleeding Hearts Club is raw, vivid colour. Like Grigg’s work, Silver’s photographs are the anti-thesis of beautiful, though well-executed. His desire to juxtapose island life with gore films, however, perplexes.

Helen Johnson and Mark Hilton appear to approach the theme of independence in a far more indirect manner. Johnson’s sketches of mundane human activities and familiar objects seem out of place in the gallery but their very ‘unbelonging’ is perhaps indicative of a wish to assert the artist’s identity, independent of the gallery space. Hilton’s double-sided lightboxes, on the contrary, are far from mundane. Luminescent and arresting, their suspension from the ceiling enables both sides to be viewed; the images resemble Persian miniature paintings and like most miniatures, deserve a closer look. Hilton is well-known for using lightboxes to explore tragic and criminal events in his native country such as gang rapes and murders that have claimed the front pages of Australian newspapers.

Of all the works by the Australians, Zehra Ahmed’s Permission to Narrate stands out. Tucked away in one of a few dark recesses at the gallery, this sound installation with video projection is visually and aurally hypnotic. Borrowing ideas from the late Edward Said, Ahmed weaves intricate layers of popular culture (hip hop, breakdancing, fashion) with identity politics, Islam and the Arabic language. The almost pitch black space lends the dark-skinned dancing figure—decked out in an all white outfit—an angelic aura. It is impossible not to remain riveted to the moving body as it goes through a series of fluid moves; the superimposition of Arabic script onto this embodiment of urban street culture calls into question the usual Western-centric distinctions of “cool” and “religious”. For a change, both terms co-exist, projected onto one body and for a few hypnotic minutes, they become independent of the socio-political contexts that confine their meaning to mere stereotypes.

Seeing as independent art spaces are as important as the work they inspire, a section of Galeri Petronas is devoted to presenting a library of information and material culled from such spaces in both Malaysia and Australia. Although not part of the exhibition proper, this resource enables artists and gallery visitors alike to appreciate the range and diversity of independent initiatives as well as their trials and tribulations. The documentation of independent spaces is further explored by Malaysian artist Yap Sau Bin, whose work could not have happened without Google Earth. He maps all known art spaces in Kuala Lumpur and viewers are invited to point and click these locations with a mouse. The work exploits our fascination with technology but its rather clinical method of spatial mapping reduces the lived reality of independent spaces into pixelated dots. For those already familiar with Google Earth, this work is but a pointless gimmick.

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s slide show and Kungyu Liew’s photographic sculpture choose to deal with independence in its more literal Malaysian sense. Using old photos from the 1950s, around the time of our country’s independence, Fuad plays with the idea of Merdeka, tourism and identity. What would a young person do if he could travel back in time to meet with political luminaries and to join in momentous events from a hallowed era? The results are at times scathingly hilarious and at others, predictably droll but the idea of being able to explore independence through the willful doctoring of historical photos and facts is cheeky, clever and a sign that Fuad is finally beginning to lighten up. Liew’s sculpture is intricate and kitsch beauty at its best but not a huge leap from what he has done before. This is characteristically Kungyu Boleh and undeniably Malaysian.

Vincent Leong’s Shut up! You’re Not Real video installation is work that would have benefited from less cute and more bite. Blatantly poaching from Tony Oursler, Leong’s soft toys with projected human lips solicited more giggles and squeals of delight from viewers than any other work. Although seemingly benign, these talking toys lip sync to random media news reports; Leong previous attempts to fuse the conceptual with the cute has garnered unusually nuanced results but this work lacks complexity.

Roslisham Ismail or Ise’s DEB, on the other hand, is potently political without being unduly overt. But Malaysian viewers would have no trouble figuring out the artist’s sly and sophisticated critique of the New Economic Policy. Using hundreds of business cards advertising loan, credit and money lending services, Ise fashions a collage shaped in larger-than-life size letters: D E B. Chinese, English and Malay name cards proclaim to be able to help rid clients of debt, dependency and destitution but at what cost? How successful is the NEP and who stands to benefit the most from such government policies? Ise is true to his pop art-collage roots in this work but ups the ante with its political sting.

Sharon Chin and Sooshie Sulaiman are two artists whose work would have benefited from a more concerted attempt at integrating interactivity into their display. Chin’s video gives viewers an inkling of what heart-to-heart communication could look like but the absence of a human being in the installation was sorely felt. Two stethoscopes were left on chairs, with a note explaining how to listen to the ‘true’ voice of conversation but no viewers took up the offer. Similarly, Sooshie’s art book would be better enjoyed outside their transparent casing. Wall text alone did little to illuminate the interactive nature of the work and keeping the book opened to one page and only frustrated this writer.

Taken as a whole, the Independence Project is a mixed bag of well-conceived new works, some of which directly touch on the theme in question while others only tangentially so. Nevertheless, the range of media, materials and artistic approaches is a positive reflection of just how essential it is for artists to be given the space to create as freely as they choose.

This review first appeared in Off The Edge, Feb 2008 issue.