Notes from Underground

In Dramalab’s restaging of Huzir Sulaiman’s The Smell of Language and Notes on Life and Love and Painting, Zahim Albakri embodied two obnoxious characters in a way that really appealed to my tastebuds – never quite deciding whether I liked the pompous duo but never quite detesting them either. In painting life and death, the two plays carve you bits and bobs of the Malaysian social and political life, giving you something to chew on while you chuckle. Done with chuckling, here are further chewings on things still stuck in my teeth.

Notes takes us a little past September 1998 – when the whole Anwar-sacking-sodomy-charges-reformasi episode began to unfurl. There was a palpable growth in what the lawyer-turned-artist protagonist refers to as “the enlightened breed,” i.e. Malaysians who became spurred on enough to at least have an opinion about state politics and sometimes act on their politicisation. Hot on the heels of this bunch of people was the growth of another breed, the chin-strokers with their diatribes against the “enlightened” lot.

The lawyer-turned-artist channels his politicisation through art, namely, his coffee shop series comprising mamak shop-style menu signboards that have bumiputra prices and non-bumi prices – I guess if we have bumi­-non-bumi prices for bumi-non-bumi housing lots, why not indeed for your “teh O ais limau”? A local gallery refuses to carry his work – apparently too “sensitive.” Oh, and the Federal Constitution says “nothing can be said about the special rights of the Malays.” Ah, yes… the ultimate silencer. Declare something is sensitive, then ping those who dare comment.

Then there’s the defining of “the Malay” and its inextricable link to “professing the religion of Islam” – a whole other discussion in itself. But evidently, we are not to be trusted with either discussion (bumi rights and religious freedom), because there are highly sensitive Malaysians who will get so upset by the discussions. I mean, oh my, there’ll actually be discourse and debate and a whole lotta thinking going on. People get ready there’s a train a’coming bound for Bedlam!

The Sensitive List

I get testy when issues are classified “sensitive” and “non-discussable.” Why are these considered “sensitive” and who is classifying them? It creeps me out that someone gets to draw lines around and cross out what I can and cannot discuss. From special privileges, vaginas, religion, the judiciary, sexual diversity, through to the ISA, condoms, use of English for Science and Maths, and sex. And through some amazing process of collective osmosis, this idea of “sensitive issues” has percolated so deeply into our psyche that even before our brains get to analyse what it is that is sensitive about a particular topic, we are already seized by the fear of talking about it.

Our Artist previously known as Lawyer has an edge of pomposity as he masticates on the state of his world. But this is tempered by moments of tender reflection when we are let into his journey of discovering love and life – a journey that got unleashed at a retreat somewhere in Northern Californ-I-A where he catches sight of a woman peeing in the woods (you had to be there…). He gets yet another jab in the arm on life, loving and kindness when he has to confront his latent prejudices against a young Indian man who approaches him at a bicycle shop. So, when do we get to de-register Race, Religion or any other factor for that matter from the “sensitive” list –so that we can try and figure out how our prejudices got constructed in the first place?

The Artist has a marked love affair with life and it is evident in the way he caresses, fondles and engages with the canvas, rarely leaving its side, wanting to be in the moment, on the canvas, in the love he is painting. Those of you who have seen Notes before, will remember Zahim doing a spot of painting. This time, the canvas stays blank throughout, but not really blank either. You really have to hand it to Mac Chan for the excellent work on lighting design; it not only paints the stage with effects to match and create mood but also pours colour onto the canvas to create brilliant art pieces.

The Purgatory

Bangsar Shopping Centre has always seemed purgatorial to me. The Smell of Language confirmed this as we meet the ghost of an “eminent 78-year-old interpreter, essayist and novelist” lingering in this corner of the shopping centre. He is bent on finding out who killed him; and we get to see how expression and speech get killed as well. Smell uses worlds-within-worlds to provide political commentary without actually having to say IT – not only highly entertaining but a clever device in a system where political lassos are just waiting to be drawn.

Anyway, the hantu, by whispering into the ears of his living nephew, gets him to investigate his murder. The nephew is to stumble upon some notes – an outline for a short story – which the dead guy made before he got knocked off.

In the notes, our 78-year-old writer writes about a fictional 78-year old writer, who – get ready for the mind bender – wants to reflect on events in his own reality and so writes a short story – called The Smell of Language it is a story about a young author who also writes a short story – no prizes for guessing the title – about a governor-general who “had sex with” (read: raped) a 14 year-old boy but does not get prosecuted.

The governor-general in the short story escapes the dock, and the boy gets locked-up instead. A politician then questions the governor-general’s impunity (exemption from punishment) and the boy’s imprisonment.  Bad move he should have used the word “detained” instead of “imprisoned.” For that, he too is thrown in the dog-house.

Smell may well be alluding to the alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl by one of our Chief Ministers back in 1995, when the girl was then “put away” and the alleged crime never investigated. Next thing you know, the then­-Member of Parliament, Lim Guan Eng, gets thrown in jail in 1997 because he used the word “imprisoned” when accusing the court instead of “detained.” He was found guilty of “maliciously publishing false news” under the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). It would be funny if it weren’t real. But there you have it. He is also charged under the Sedition Act, the siamese twin to the PPPA, for causing “disaffection with the administration of justice in Malaysia because he questioned the impunity.”

The DisAffection

Such an odd word, “disaffection”. Like, how do you measure that? And who will measure it and then arbitrate on it? How do we know that the ones measuring and arbitrating aren’t playing favourites? Vague clauses in the law are open to wide interpretation and make for selective prosecution depending on who is calling the shots. When was the last time a pro-establishment individual got taken to court for sedition? It is a pitiable and immature democracy when a Government claims to be protecting “public order” when really it is protecting itself against criticism and scrutiny.

The Sedition Act 1948 is derived from the English Common Law system – which reminds me of a line from  Notes where the Artist opines, “If my work is derivative it is because Malaysia is a derivative country.” The thing is: though sedition laws in the UK still exist, they have not been used for a long time. It is, in fact, in the process of being repealed. Sedition laws in many countries have either been repealed, in the process of being repealed or are no longer used, simply because governments are increasingly aware that such laws rob society of its right to freedom of expression. We, on the other hand, seem unable to recognise and realise this freedom, in spite of being a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Anyway, our dead interpreter-essayist-novelist indeed prophesises his own death and the death of his nephew, when the young author in the short story’s short story is killed off. The 78-year old fictional character also gets killed because in his own reality, he also gets found out (which reminds me, has anyone seen Huzir lately…?)

The difference in mood between Smell and Notes was distinct (kudos to the direction by Krishen Jit), a reminder of the political context each of them was written in. Smell’s macabre and clandestine undertone is reminiscent of the pre-September 1998 political gloom, when political dissenters would get hauled up by the state and most Malaysians would just file it away as the price that “feral, anti-Government, NGO-types’ pay for not knowing when to put a cork in it.

It is then tempting to just not say anything – we see others pay the price and we decide that silence is perhaps golden after all. Meanwhile, more is lost, more injustice perpetrated as we stand by and watch – the space gets smaller, our voices get softer, our opinions made less valid, and we give up our rights to those who had no right to take them away in the first place. To me, that is an even greater cost, one I am not prepared to give up without a fight. There are numerous groups and individuals working to push the envelope of free speech that much further every day because the freedom to speak and express is far too valuable. When the smell of the dominant language stinks, you have to say so. Speak now, mon ami, or forever have someone hang on to the tip of your tongue.


Toni Kasim is a free-lance trainer, consultant and activist (not that activism is a job, really) focusing on gender, sexuality, gender and Islam, and the training of trainers.

First Published: 03.12.2004 on Kakiseni

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