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.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

War and Peace: Four Films

by Carmen Nge

December 15, 2004 marked the first night of film discussion at AEI, after a packed house for Samira Makhmalbaf’s latest cinematic endeavour, At Five in the Afternoon. The group that gathered in a circle was of a modest size and the dialogue that ensued was at times halting, at times steadfast and only occasionally heated; war and peace are clearly subjects that do not invite easy digestion.

From the grainy black and white palette of Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark film, Battle of Algiers, and the spartan icy white landscape of Marooned in Iraq to the tongue-in-cheek black humour of Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land and the somber, haunting quiet of At Five in the Afternoon, this month’s screenings at AEI gave us more than enough occasion for reflection.

The Battle of Algiers, which kicked off December’s War and Peace series of films, reminded us—with a great deal of cinematic restraint—that the torture of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib is a silent salute to European colonialism’s brutalizing military power. The fact that Pontecorvo’s 1965 film easily calls to mind our war-inscribed present is both eerie and disheartening.

Charting the rise and fall (and rise again) of the Algerian resistance movement in colonial Algeria under French rule, the film is a highly affective portrayal of anti-imperial struggles waged by ordinary native Algerians against their white settlers. The resistance, led by the FLN (Front de la Libération Nationale OR the National Liberation Front), is revolutionary for it includes men and women, adults and children, and in so doing, results in the kind of grassroots anti-colonial struggle that penetrates all sectors of society.

Frantz Fanon, perhaps the most famous non-Algerian writing about the resistance movement in his adopted homeland, wrote in The Wretched of the Earth that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” Pontecorvo’s grippingly honest film is testimony to the truth of Fanon’s assertions. We do not only see the fist of colonial might pounding into the stone facades of the Arab quarters, killing countless innocent civilians, we also witness the tactical moves of a disenfranchised people with nothing to lose.

With disarming precision, The Battle of Algiers re-enacts the bombing of French civilian targets in public places, such as coffee shops and banks. Such guerrilla strategies are reminiscent of the Palestinian resistance in the occupied territories, as well as more recent attacks in Iraq by civilian Iraqis against American soldiers.

It would seem that colonialism and its military apparatus is still alive and well in numerous corners of the world. At the same time, however, organized resistance struggles have not dwindled. Despite his harsh and gritty portrayal of Algeria under French colonialism, Pontecorvo gives us a rare glimpse of hope en masse towards the end. The death of key players in the FLN does not equal the death of the struggle against repression and foreign occupation. The desire for self-determination needs no leader.

No Man’s Land is a lesson in contrast. If Pontecorvo tries to show us the truth of colonialism then Tanovic tries to show us the farce of war. The civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina at its height in 1993 is theatre of the absurd at its best. Two soldiers—one Bosnian, the other Serb—are awaiting their proverbial Godot: the United Nations.

Caught in the crossfire of Bosnian and Serbian frontlines, the two men are accompanied by a third: a Bosnian soldier, wounded and lying on a special kind of dirty bomb—one that bounces up when detonated, killing everyone within a few hundred feet. As the 2 soldiers bicker, point fingers and even shoot at each other, they await a UN bomb specialist from Germany to save them from their fate.

The UN becomes the object of Tanovic’s derisive black humour. Ordered not to intervene, UN peacekeeping forces come and go without any sense of purpose, bowing down to the whims of ineffectual UN high command, who are more interested in appeasing the media than they are in handling the curious dilemma before them.

The film exposes the not-so secret affair between the media and the United Nations, and mocks at how both routinely dupe the other, unaware of their own internal failings and hypocrisy. Caught in the middle are the soldiers who fight a battle that knows no solution. Locked in a paradigm of accusation and hate, the Bosnian soldier eventually kills the Serb and, ironically enough, is himself killed by a member of the UN peacekeeping force.

The final image of No Man’s Land is a stroke of cinematic genius. The remaining Bosnian soldier, lying on a bomb that will explode as soon as he moves, is left alone in the trenches—the media thinks he has been saved, the UN abandons him without remorse, and his partners in war are dead.

The absurdity of war knows no solution. Its victims are the thousands who are caught in the crossfire between peace and politics, between hope and senselessness. The future is a time bomb waiting to go off because war promises nothing but more death in store.


Both Pontecorvo and Tanovic take us into the heart of war, into the thick of insurgency, counter-insurgency, brutality and senseless violence. Alternatively, Samira Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi takes us to the hinterlands of war’s bleak after-effects.

In Marooned in Iraq, Ghobadi leads us on a road trip that delivers Kurdish music and mayhem with a generous dose of comedy. A famous musician, Mirza, manages to convince his two sons, Barat and Audeh, to follow him on a mission to find his lady love, Hanareh—who is blessed with a beautiful voice and an even more elusive presence.

In an interview, Ghobadi confesses that Hanareh is not the focal point because the goal of the film is to take us on a tour of Iraqi Kurdistan and to expose the consequences of Saddam inflicted cruelty onto the Kurdish community. We witness the effects of bombings, thievery, smuggling and chemical warfare by Iraqis against the Kurds. Orphaned children with impish toothy smiles share screen time with round-bellied and thickly-mustachioed Kurdish musicians. And the Kurdish women—old and young—are simultaneously vocal and opinionated, cantankerous and difficult.

The face of Ghobadi’s Kurdish community demands our laughter as well as our empathy because they are irrepressibly human and undeniably humane. In the face of suppression, state-sponsored purges and great poverty, these homeless people continue to laugh in the face of their perpetrators and to joke about their own plight.

The music in the film is reminiscent of Emir Kusturica’s carnivalesque Underground (1995), to which Ghobadi acknowledges cinematic debt. Kurdish music, according to the director, is one of the liveliest in the world and in his film, he uses it to give his characters soul—it awakens and energizes them, even in the face of death.

But like all good road movies, Marooned in Iraq never leads us to a clear destination. Hanareh is never found, father and sons take divergent paths away from one another, and the future of Kurdistan is unknown.

The enigmatic future of war-torn nations seems to be a central preoccupation of the last 3 movies in the War and Peace series. Apart from The Battle of Algiers, the rest of AEI’s December offerings ask us to not only ponder a possible future for these countries—the former Yugoslavia, Kurdistan and Aghanistan—but also to question the notion of possibility itself. What does it even mean to imagine a future? Is another world possible?

Samira Makhmalbaf attempts to answer this question through the vehicle of a burqa clad and white high-heeled Afghanistan woman, Norgeh, who dreams of becoming her country’s next President.

Her 3rd film, At Five in the Afternoon is Makhmalbaf’s decidedly feminist take on contemporary post-Taliban Afghanistan. In her film, women attend school, they are free to move about beyond the confines of their homes and they can show their faces if they please. Talib men, like Nogreh’s father, must look away and beg forgiveness for their sins if they were to accidentally cast their eyes on an unveiled woman. Women are no longer responsible to cover themselves in the company of men; instead men are the ones who have to take responsibility for their gaze.

With a cast of non-actors, Makhmalbaf manages to give us penetrating insight into the psyche of a young woman and the community within which she lives. Nogreh is a woman who desires the impossible—to be the first woman President of Aghanistan—and who dares to articulate her desires in a schoolroom of peers as well as to a male poet, who is enamoured by her ambition and steadfastness.

But she spares her father the pain of knowing the truth about herself; she continues to maintain a charade of Muslim female piety and decorum because she does not want to anger him and she also realizes that he is too old and has suffered too much to be able to deal with this additional trauma.

With memorable images of graceful burqas billowing in the wind, against a desolate, arid landscape, Makhmalbaf paints us a picture of Afghanistan that is both feminine and masculine. A recurring motif in the film is the image of Nogreh, a solitary female figure emerging from dark, interior confines into lighted exteriors—symbolically representing Afghan women’s transition from the orthodox Dark Ages into post-Taliban enlightenment.

Full of symbolic significance, Makhmalbaf’s film invites us to imagine a new future that does not promise men at its helm. The final sequence of At Five in the Afternoon is a revealing one: the Taliban regime, represented by the two old men, is tired and despondent—one of them has even declared the “God is dead”; the future of patriarchy, represented by Nogreh’s nephew, is dead.

What remains are the two women—one aspiring to be President and the other, her sister, mourning her dead child and husband—who walk together in search of water, with which to sustain them for the onward journey. They head towards the promise of water but the film ends without showing us if they indeed found it. Nonetheless, their courage keeps them going, keeps them from giving up like their elders. Armed with each other and a once-unimaginable aspiration, these two women literally walk into the final frame with nothing but hope and resilience.

Perhaps, these will be enough.

This review appears in the December 2004 issue of the Asia-Europe Institute newsletter.

Friday, December 10, 2004

The Muralists - Anting Anting & Matahati

Muralists with a Conscience

by Carmen Nge
Pictures by Ju Lynn Ong

“Artists have a social responsibility. I come from a poor family so I attribute most things to social problems and cultural dilemmas. Something has to be done. We belong to a generation that has inherited the problems of the generations before us so I am always thinking in terms of problem solving. But there’s still a long way to go.”

These are not words we often hear from our Malaysian artists, who typically shy away from defining a clear role for themselves and their contemporaries. This is perhaps why the current Malaysian art scene is characterized by a tepid engagement with its socio-political context. Artists who do not see a role for themselves often languish in the throes of their own affectation and internal angst.

This is not the case for Filipino artist Alfredo Esquillo Jr., whose quote above is as honest and as thoughtful as his work. A recipient of the Philip Morris Asian Arts Award Grand Prize in 2000, Alfredo is most famous for his richly textured social realist paintings, which touch on a wide range of issues from globalization and economic inequity to religion and politics. A recent work, Modus Operandi—inspired by a quote from a 2002 report summary entitled “Alternatives to Economic Globalization” by The International Forum on Globalization—is proof that socially conscious art is very much alive and well in the Philippines.

Alfredo, together with five Filipino artists from the artist collective Anting Anting, is in Malaysia as part of a residency exchange programme with a local artist collective, Matahati—a group comprising 5 artists—that has been active in the Kuala Lumpur art scene for more than a decade. The residency is funded by Arts Network Asia, a regional grant-giving body that emphasizes collaboration among arts practitioners in Asia.

The exchange residency, the brainchild of Matahati, is unique in that both artist collectives will spend 3 weeks to a month in each other’s home country, during which time they will collaborate in creating art work(s). In short, it is a two-way, dual-venue residency exchange rather than the typical one-location residency.

What this exchange engenders is a kind of collaborative process that equalizes the power relations between the two hosts. If in Kuala Lumpur Anting Anting has to conform to the cultural norms of their hosts, then in Manila Matahati will do the same. The fruit of their collaboration for the Malaysian leg of their residency exchange is a public mural, currently on display in front of the National Art Gallery.

When this writer spoke to Anting Anting, they had just completed about 8 hours of mural painting the day before and were embarking on the labours of day two. They were on a tight schedule—a 33 metre by 6 metre mural by 11 artists in 4 days.

Lawrence Borsoto, a member of Anting Anting, admitted that 4 days is too short. “We are just worried if we can finish the mural on time.”

Wilfredo Alicdan, a founding member of Anting Anting, acknowledges that it is more of a challenge working with Matahati members, who do not have any experience working on murals. “We don’t really feel the collaborative process because we are each doing our own section of the mural. Perhaps later we will come together, towards the end,” Wilfredo adds, hopefully.

There is no denying the project is ambitious. Not only is the mural extremely large but the artists come from very different backgrounds, each used to very different styles and aesthetic visions. Matahati as a group has been around half a decade longer than Anting Anting—which was conceived in 1997 and based in the province of Cavite, about 30km outside of metro Manila—but its members tend to create individual works and the extent of their collaboration is in the form of group exhibitions.

As an arts collective, Anting Anting is not bound by a singular aesthetic form; some of its members, like Joseph Lofranco and Jose Austria, are abstract artists whilst others, like Emmanuel Garibay, Alfredo Esquillo Jr., Wilfredo Alicdan and Lawrence Borsoto are more closely rooted to the figurative tradition. Nonetheless, they are united by a coherent sense of purpose. All the artists are deeply engaged with their locality, with the problems and lived reality of their common context.

Jose Austria, commenting on Anting Anting’s artwork, explains, “We share a lot of subjects in common, from social life and social commentary to human behaviour.” Joseph Lofranco concurs: “We share issues as a group. Every time we do a mural, we like to showcase those issues.”

One of the objectives of the group is to “foster and safeguard the democratic participation and representation of Philippine visual arts” and even with 12 members, they successfully manage to negotiate the delicate balance between friendship and work. The secret to their cohesiveness is their disavowal of domineering leadership.

Emmanuel Garibay, 42, one of the senior founding member of the collective, elaborates on Anting Anting’s work process: “We stress on the process of consultation. There is not just one individual leading the group but the entire group goes through the exchange of ideas and consultation. It is unavoidable that one or two people may dominate during discussions before the project but during the actual work that’s when the silent guys put in their share.”

Even though Anting Anting members also work on their individual art pieces, they are well known for their murals. They are particularly invested in creating art within Cavite and have created murals commissioned by their local town mayor as well a local university, De La Salle University.

Joseph Lofranco, who was born in Cavite, speaks highly of their mayor, who is extremely supportive of their work. For him and for Anting Anting, public art is paramount: “We envision art in Cavite, working with the local government, especially the Mayor of Dasmarinas. It’s mostly a working class community with people being very mobile, commuting to Manila for work. We are pushing to bring art to and to create art in Cavite.”

Anting Anting’s commitment to their local art scene is laudable because it resists the usual impulse of artists to create work primarily for personal and commercial gain. Jose, 25, the youngest member in the group, is clear about the economics of creativity: “I don’t think about money because doing art is not about making money. It’s a passion, it’s my life. As artists we are different from other people, we visualize things that others never see. We should develop our skills completely before we think about money. That should come later.”

Emmanuel, or Manny as he is affectionately called, finds it surprising that so many young artists today are so concerned about their careers and future. “It’s a global phenomena,” he believes. “I come from the tail-end of the hippie movement, a movement that had a disregard for material things and the establishment. It’s a culture that is still imbibed in me. I am more intent on the search for meaning than the search for status and comfort.”

Anting Anting’s murals are testimony to the interplay between aesthetic commitment, community service and financial survival. The group may have had their murals commissioned but they have also spontaneously created on-site murals for political rallies and demonstrations. Manny calls them “protest murals” and they are largely “guerrilla operations” made on the fly, in feverish excitement and in aid of political causes.

Alfredo fondly remembers a mobile mural from the year 2001, which they created during a rally calling for the ousting of then President Estrada. “Public art should contribute to building awareness to solve current crises and problems rooted in an ignorance of history. We should contribute something even in the smallest possible way,” he adds.

Murals excite Manny: “It challenges you to not just display your craft but to come up with images that interact and hopefully stimulate people into some kind of critical engagement—facing and confronting their own situation. I haven’t been around here long enough to grasp the Malaysian condition and situation but we start from where we come from; the issues we raise are just as valid in the Philippines as here: the environment, politics, religion, ethnicity, particular issues pertaining to greed and big business and the victimization of the poor. But these issues may be of a lesser magnitude here.”

For Jose “the situation in Malaysia is much more ordered” when compared to his home country. “It’s a harder life in the Philippines. So, the more angst comes to you, the more artwork you can produce.” Lawrence observes that Malaysian artists in general do not really engage with political issues. Wilfredo thinks that Malaysian artists “play it safe” unlike Filipino artists, who are more likely to be cynical and critical of the establishment and the authorities.

The impulse to ‘play it safe’ is plainly evident from public statements made by Bayu Utomo Radjikin of the Matahati group. “Artists should practice self-censorship,” he proclaimed very calmly during a public art talk-sharing session with Anting Anting held at the National Art Gallery earlier this month.

But how does one instill the compulsion to self-censor among a group of Filipino artists who do not work within such a constricting creative paradigm? Who has the power to enforce the cultural upper hand in this collaborative process? Perhaps most important of all, do the tides of influence move only one way or will the “anarchic tendency” (as Manny puts it) among the Filipino artists somehow infuse and inflect the form and content of the mural in the end?

To find out, you can visit the National Art Gallery, where the Anting Anting-Matahati mural is on display on the exterior of the building until May 2005.

Mural - large view

Mural Painting as Democratic Process

by Carmen Nge
Pictures by Ju Lynn Ong

There are multiple ways to conceive and execute a mural painting. According to Wilfredo, in their home base, murals usually begin with one person choosing a concept or idea worthy of visual public expression. The same person would then go about finding other Anting Anting members to help him create his vision. It is not uncommon to have small groups of about 5 artists working on one mural.

Mural painting is inherently different from other kinds of artwork because, as Wilfredo maintains, “this process makes us think differently because we have to share ideas. When we do our individual work, we don’t have to share.” Lawrence considers murals to be a challenge because “most artists are very individualistic and need to have chemistry with others. The important thing is to figure out how to fit as a group first.”

In the early stages of planning their murals, Anting Anting members spend a considerable amount of time brainstorming and coming up with suggestions for content and theme. With Matahati, they replicated this process but omitted one of its components. Alfredo confesses, “In Anting Anting we are more aggressive about what we want in terms of mural content but here we are not as aggressive. There is a lot of adjustment and a need to take on different perspectives when working with Matahati.”

Ahmad Fuad Osman, one of the members of Matahati, chuckles when he reflects on their working process for the first day. “It was chaos,” he reveals with a smile. “Everyone doing their own thing can be quite chaotic because you have figurative and abstract artists working together on the same canvas.”

For their murals in the Philippines, Anting Anting usually break themselves up into 2 groups: the abstract artists and the figurative artists. After working on a mural for a while, one member from each group will cross-over and the abstract and figurative gets integrated at a later stage of the artistic process. For their Kuala Lumpur mural project, abstract and figurative artists had to work side by side, creating the mural simultaneously.

To limit the kinds of visual confusion and incoherence that could occur from this method of working, the two groups had the abstract artists paint in framed or boxed sections of the mural. This writer finds it interesting that the artists found a need to contain the abstract elements in the mural; it is as if without frames and limitations abstract art would threaten to disrupt the rest of the visual narrative.

Fuad sees it differently: “If you look at it another way, then you could also say that the abstract work is highlighted—our eyes are drawn to them because they are visibly positioned and framed.”

“In many ways this is highly intuitive work,” Fuad continues. “The process itself is constantly changing. We have to adapt what we do according to the images that are being created. Each artist has to think about supporting the image before him.”

A great deal of problem-solving becomes organically built into the process of collaboration as well. Members of both groups have daily debriefing sessions after 6-8 hours of mural painting where they discuss what they have accomplished and brainstorm how to proceed the following day.

One of the early successes of this brainstorming session had to do with the problem of time: with less than a week at their disposal, the artists were understandably worried about being able to complete their mammoth task.

The time constraint was partially solved by having the artists generate a pool of images that they then collaged together digitally according to scale. Thus the mural, which is not painted directly onto a wall surface, first began as digital art; by having the background digitally reproduced on canvas, this significantly reduced the amount of time spent in the first stage of the mural process.

When the chaos from day one ensued, artists revisited the original digital collage and focused on the specific images they generated during the brainstorming session. Rather than subsume their individual styles and personal visual touches under a homogenous group aesthetic, Anting Anting was encouraged to exploit them. In an interesting divergence from the traditional working method of mural painting, this collaboration emphasizes individuality.

This sense of individuality is reflected in how each artist understands the central message of the mural. Wilfredo, Fuad and Alfredo see the boat in the mural as emblematic of a journey undertaken by the Malays and the Filipinos.

For Alfredo this journey harkens back to a period in history before the arrival of the Spaniards to the Philippines. According to him, they have studied about how Malay traders came to the Philippines on boats called balangay and this word has since morphed into the term barangay, which in Tagalog means ‘community’. Fuad said he was surprised to find out that Malay and Tagalog languages share a lot of words in common: mata, saksi, aku, kami, etc.

Bayu sees the boat as having more personal significance: “Our programme [with Anting Anting] is like a boat, handled by many people, not just one. Within the boat is a group of people going from one place to another, doing various projects with each other.”

Manny considers the mural to be a “futuristic vision of what we hope to see. It is a post-cataclysmic event where the survivors are victims of the onslaught of globalization. They are on a boat, like Noah’s Ark. Under the water are the structures that have victimized the people. Outwardly they are like images of a fragmented scene. Form-wise this keeps to current aesthetics, with the experience of fragmentation and alienation.”

What remains to be seen is how well the various fragmented parts fit to form a whole. Can the individual mark of each artist ultimately transcend their aesthetic specificity and contribute towards visual and thematic coherence?

Ultimately, what is most fascinating to this writer is not the end result of an intense collaborative endeavour but the process of give and take necessitated by the mural painting tradition. It is a tradition that demands that artists veer from the path of egoism and self-interest to immerse themselves in a new kind of artistic labour, one that clearly engages the public beyond the domain of art for art’s sake.

Working together

Painting into the twilight

Manny at work

Manny contemplating

Friday, December 03, 2004

The Future of Arts and Culture in Malaysia

by Carmen Nge

Fathi Aris Omar, one of the recipients of the Asian Public Intellectual (API) grant this year, is a scholar who carries the weight of our intellectual capacity on his slim shoulders. It is an extremely light burden, which is precisely why Fathi’s brow is often furrowed and his gaze intense.

“The quality of our intellectual debate is shameful. Even university students from Indonesia can do better!”—these were Fathi’s words that resonated and hung in the air for the entire duration of a recent public seminar entitled “The future of arts and culture in Malaysia,” organized by the Institute for Policy Research (IKD). Conducted almost entirely in Bahasa Malaysia, the 2-day seminar (25-26 September) marks the first in a series of intellectual discussions that will eventually culminate in a Cultural Congress at the end of 2005.

The scope and duration of the congress will remain to be seen but 34 years after our first National Cultural Congress in 1971, IKD’s efforts to convene a similar congress is more than timely. Unlike the first NCC, which was government-initiated, the 2005 event appears to be a grassroots endeavour.

Amir Sari, one of the organizers, told this writer in an interview that the purpose of the first seminar is to bring together different arts groups—from the mainstream as well as the fringes—including non-governmental organizations, other cultural workers, the public and politicians. He commented that such groups have become fragmented, rarely meet and almost never dialogue.

The goal of these dialogues is simple: to contemplate the future of the arts in 2 stages. The first stage would be to figure out what are some of the problems facing creators and audiences in the arts scene; the second stage would be to continue this dialogue towards the 2005 Cultural Congress.

Inevitably, the 2005 Congress will involve re-examining policies from the first NCC, especially the issue of Malaysian identity and Malay culture. Is this issue still relevant in the wake of others, namely globalization and postmodernism? What might be a new platform for rethinking and reconceptualizing arts and culture in Malaysia? Unlike the NCC of 1971, which was galvanized by the events of May 13, 1969, the Congress in 2005 operates without such an urgent mandate for national unity. If so, what then is its agenda?

Fathi kicked off this first seminar with a theoretically rigorous working paper about the relationship between culture and power, based on his observations of the Indonesian scene. According to Fathi, all arts practitioners need to be aware of their embeddedness within their socio-historical contexts and cultural milieu. Aesthetic appetites are not simply culled from idiosyncratic posturing and inner desires but are largely the products of our socialization and acculturation processes. Thus, the cliché that no man is an island is not without its layers of truth.

Drawing from semiotics, linguistics and cultural studies, Fathi’s observations are not new; intellectual giants such as Jurgen Habermas, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu, among many others, have written and debated similar issues with greater philosophical complexity and theoretical insight. What is certainly unique about Fathi’s paper is, however, his ability to access ideas that are crucial to our cultural compass and to examine them with unusual critical rigour.

Without fear and with remarkable candour, he challenged the rapid depoliticization of Malaysian civil society—art practitioners included—and the ease with which we have been co-opted into the present economic, religious, linguistic and social systems that limit our creativity. Fathi also admonished our intellectual stagnation: “We are 20 years behind the intellects of the world!” he raised his voice to a disbelieving audience.

It has often been touted that part of this mental malnutrition can be attributed to the dearth of newly released, influential texts translated into Bahasa Malaysia—contrast this with the proliferation of books from all spheres of thought translated into Bahasa Indonesia. This dearth can be further attributed to non-existent independent publishing houses, few independent bookstores and a stifling Printing and Publications Act.

Hasmi Hashim, a panel discussant, chastised arts practitioners’ over-reliance on the government and the crisis of ideas facing the creative community. Due to a lack of ideas being generated from within the artistic community, Hasmi claims that we then look to politicians and those with power for ideas instead. In Indonesia, leaders take their cue from the people and they steal ideas from artistes; in Malaysia, the reverse is true.

Hasmi elaborated that what Malaysian artistes lack is not only the public space within which to create and express but the freedom to think. Deprived of decades of freedom to think, we become incapable of thought; our capacity as creative people is an imagination of fear—we spend more time imagining our greatest fears than working to dispel it.

A point that was raised more than once was the artistic community’s tendency to genuflect at the altar of religion. Due to Malay-Islamic hegemony, the ideology of moralism has become static and incontestable. Fearful of social backlash and buckling under the pressures of conformity, artists yield to moral dictates, regardless of their untenability.

As Fathi notes in a later interview, “The tendency to conform is dangerous because artists are historically individualistic. They contest the dominant paradigm.” In his view, because “ideas are not considered the dynamo for our cultural make-up,” we live in a culture that is uniformly and politically shaped. “Our culture has become monolithic, not diverse,” he concludes.

Dinsman, the foremost Malay absurdist playwright-director of the 70s, was not a presenter at the seminar but was present in the audience, listening intently to the proceedings. At some point during the question and answer session, he eloquently proclaimed that “artists have power as well. The power lies within us to create. We are powerful if we know how to birth the power within us. The question lies with us; our limits are only dictated by our creativity and our knowledge.”

Dinsman’s bold statement was met with a round of applause. Audience members were clearly more encouraged by his mention of the artists’ agency than they were with the previous presenters’ criticisms of structural and intellectual problems within the Malaysian cultural landscape.

This first seminar, though modest in scope and attendance (about 100 participants registered for the event), managed to bring together a variety of arts practitioners from various fields and sectors of the arts world—ranging from Malaysian Idol’s slickly-suave Roslan Aziz and more understated film director, Adman Salleh (of Paloh fame) to Malaysia’s laureate, Professor Dato Muhamad Haji Salleh and the seminar’s sole woman and non-Malay presenter, Kathy Rowland, director of the arts website,

Surprisingly, the panel discussion that garnered the largest crowd—the one with industry types such as Roslan Aziz and Adman Salleh—was the most lacklustre and superficial of the lot. Panelists circulated around the issue of financing, the economics of arts and its commodification but no-one really critiqued the pervasive and insidious infiltration of American hegemony and global capitalism into the creative industry.

Roslan Aziz advanced a few maxims that went completely uncontested: “mimicry is good, necessary and inevitable” and “commercialism is an impetus for creativity”. Kathy Rowland’s probing question: “what kind of arts diet do young people have?” died quietly on the floor.

When faced with bigwigs from the media industry, it is as if Malaysian audiences lose their ability to speak, to think, to be critical and to debate. This writer also found it difficult to discern if the nodding heads were nodding in avid agreement or merely nodding off from an almost 3-hour panel that was high on star power but short on intellectual might.

What was most encouraging to this writer, however, was a significant contingent of about 30-40 young people at each forum. A majority of them were university students, some of them were writers and there were a few visual artists as well. What was most discouraging was the gender and racial disparity—hardly more than 10-15 women showed up each day and only about a handful of non-Malays.

If the 2005 Cultural Congress has any hope of transcending the narrow racial and cultural confines of the 1971 NCC, organizers will have to be more concerted in their attempts to initiate and nurture inter-racial, inter-generational and inter-gender discourse not only leading up to the main event for 2005 but most certainly, beyond it as well.

This piece was published in the final (December 2004) issue of Options2, The Edge.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Post-American Elections 2004 Reflections

by Carmen Nge

About 2 years ago, when I was still residing in the U.S., one of my students—an outspoken, intellectually astute and serious political science major from Japan—told me about an incident I have never forgotten.

She was in the midst of a professor-led discussion on American foreign policy and World War Two, in a senior year course on American history and government. Rena was the only Asian and the only Japanese student in the room. The discussion eventually led to a debate about Pearl Harbour and the eventual detonation of the world’s first atomic bomb in Japan. After a heated exchange among the members of the class, one of the students—a white American male—finally burst out: “Well, better their grandparents than mine.”

Rena’s story, told to me in anger a few hours later that same day two year ago, reverberated in my mind earlier this month, after George W. Bush smirked and prayed his way to another four more years in the White House.

The brutal and uninhibited honesty of the white American male student is symptomatic of an “us and them” mentality that has swept throughout the globe. This mentality has become sanctioned political rhetoric for George W. Bush, whose election campaign was marshalled not only on the battlefields of Fallujah and Baghdad but ushered along the aisles of anti-abortion, anti-gay civil unions and pro-Christian evangelicalism.

The “us versus them” rhetoric, however, cannot simply be reduced to West vs. East, Christian vs. Muslim, and America vs. rest of the world binaries. Even within America itself, the nation is divided: roughly 56 million out of a total of about 115 million voters cast their ballot in favour of John Kerry. These voters are overwhelmingly from urban centers of the Northeast, West Coast, and Great Lakes states—what Mary, a very good friend of mine from Massachusetts, calls the “safe havens” of America.

Those who voted Bush are more rural-based, residing in Middle America and the South, areas traditionally seen as Republican strongholds. According to CNN exit polls, Bush supporters can be characterized as follows: white evangelical (mostly male), above 30, who attend church at least once a week and earn more than US$50,000 a year.

In a country where Muslim fundamentalism is routinely denounced and Islam is misunderstood and vilified, the American public is still not openly critical about the mounting strength of the Christian evangelical movement, which considers their President responsible for laying the groundwork for the Second Coming of Christ. As preposterous as this may seem, Bush himself makes no bones about his faith and its ability to guide him in his daily political decisions. It is deeply troubling to think that one of the most avowedly secular nations of the Western world has become a quagmire of religious realpolitik.

The problem, however, is not just religious talk but religious action. As a female friend of mine from Cambridge, Massachusetts (who declined to be named) puts it: “The thing is, I could care less about these [Christian evangelicals]. What is terrifying is that [they] are trying to impose their thoughts onto the honest, intelligent people in this country.”

With the current Republican majority control over every branch of the federal government—from both houses of Congress to the U.S. Supreme Court and Presidency (and even filtering down to most state legislatures and governors’ offices)—fears about the dissolution of the right to privacy and sexual preference, women’s right to have control over their own bodies, and the law separating church and state are not unfounded.

For those of us here, however, these issues were never central to our pre-occupation with the outcome of the recent American elections. After all, our Internal Security Act is but an older version of the U.S. Patriot Act; the violation of a right to privacy and sexual preference is a non-issue for us because such a right does not exist to begin with; abortions (for the most part) are illegal in this country; and the mosque and state is intimately intertwined. Like most of the world, we are more concerned about the situation in Iraq and the Middle East, we wonder about the coming of the Third World War and in our own selfish way, we pray there won’t be another oil price hike.

There is, however, a salient feature of the American elections that should be a cause for worry; if exit polls and voting demographics are accurate, then the second coming of Bush to the corridors of Capitol Hill and the halls of world power signals a new “us and them” mutation: Christian evangelicals versus secular folk. Perhaps the atheists, agnostics and non-religious among us will soon be the new infidels of the world.

In a bizarre twist of history, the nation that was forged from beneath the yoke of religious oppression in England has now come full circle. When social pressure at the White House equals bible study, when faith-based initiatives take the place of government-funded welfare benefits, when the poor and disenfranchised are told to seek material and emotional comfort from a church, and when gays and lesbians’ desire to get hitched becomes a national issue and sets-off crises in state legislatures—it is evident that the constitutional separation of church and state in America is no longer sacrosanct.

The problem with religion (whether leaders, education or dogma) occupying such a central position in the halls of government is twofold: one, it invests the state with a moral authority that becomes indivisible from religious ideology; and two, this means that to a large extent, the governing elite is indirectly beholden to the hermeneutical knowledge of religious leaders.

Whether state leaders and politicians choose to oppose or conform to religious pressures is besides the point. The fact of the matter is that a religious paradigm becomes the context within which laws are created, vetoed or passed, and issues are raised, contested or disregarded. Using our own country as example, we should question why moral debates have revolved around reality TV shows and rock concerts instead of focusing, for example, on the government’s proposal to levy a sales tax on the public (which can definitely be viewed as an immoral act against the poor).

The Sunday Times of London’s coverage of the recent American takeover of a Fallujah mosque provides us with a startling quote from U.S. Marine battalion commander Gary Brandl, who has 800 officers under his command: “The Marines that I have had wounded over the past five months have been attacked by a faceless enemy. But the enemy has got a face. He's called Satan. He's in Fallujah, and we're going to destroy him.”

This is the kind of trickle-down religious rhetoric that the American Christian right can be proud of for it infuses the potent mixture of religious revolt and divine destiny with a clear military agenda. Ironically, this three-prong tactic bears an uncanny resemblance to Osama bin Laden’s anti-American missions.

Ultimately, the dilemma raised by this year’s American elections is not what to do with the Christian right (or for that matter, any form of religious orthodoxy) but rather, how to reconfigure our socio-political landscape such that our moral universe is not configured within and constructed by/against a religious paradigm that is more pervasive, more insidious and certainly far less benign than we give it credit.

This piece was published in the final (December 2004) issue of Options2, The Edge.