By Sharaad Kuttan
I must admit that I am rather partial to academic conference even when held on home grounds (which eliminates the “junket” dimension). In my limited experience the academic conference is a site pregnant with possibility – both intellectual and social – limited in large part by the disposition of the participant-observer. This recent international conference, “Worlds in Discourse – Representations of Realities” (21 – 23 Nov 2005, organised by the School of language Studies and Linguistics, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, University Kebangsaan Malaysia), held in the Klang Valley’s bosom of suburban (Sheraton Subang Hotel), was no different in this respect. With a note book, a hunter-orange Lamy fountain pen and a flaneur’s gait, I strolled through the three days mostly sampling, sometimes devouring, and occasionally turning-up my nose at, the intellectual fare on offer. But I left with a resounding belch of approval, after all my plate was piled with morsels of my choosing.
The proceedings however began on a damp note with the bureaucratic ritual singing of the national anthem Negaraku followed by the whirling and popping of UKM’s anthemn and then “a very very long prayer” (as I jotted in my note book). A rich inner life and an eye for talent are important weapons in the battle against this insistence on formality. The curious addition of a large, heavily ornate chair at the head seats signalled the presence of royalty – a presence which was to prove surprisingly fresh.
The first Plenary, in which all participants are gathered, had already been prefaced by at least one speech that refered to the “de-colonialisation of representation”, “cosmopolitanism” and the notion of “the Other” among others. The speaker, AB Shamsul, director of both the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (ATMA) and the Dr. Mahathir-inspired Institute of Occidental Studies (IKON), then launched into his paper which wound loosely, albeit at break-neck speed, around the idea he called “re-primitivising the East”. His journalistically orientated romp through the problem of the demonisation of Islam in the ‘West’ ended in the assertion – no less journalistic for it references to Rousseau, Comte, Esposito et al – that we need to recognise that “99% of Muslims” are beyond “political Islam” in what might be termed “popular Islam”. It was the kind of paper that set the tone for the political positioning of some members of the conference – post-colonial, Third-Worldist, nativist, nationalist (each term requiring an essay on its own).
The second plenary struck a very different note with Gauri Viswanathan, Director of the Southern Asian Institute, Columbia University, and Hideyuki Shitaka, professor at The Prefectural University of Hiroshima. Viswanathan’s mesmerising readings of Yeats and occultism as well Hideyuki’s elucidation of the evolving complexity of Milton’s concept of freedom, signalled the possibility of a nuanced and intellectually informed political positioning beyond the easy (and often times clumsy) post-colonial angst.
We then moved into the section of the conference which leaves some participants pulling their hair out due to the sheer plenitude of papers. It was truly the embarrassment of riches at this conference with more parallel session than one could count with one’s toes. Instinctively I rushed to a Malaysian panel on the movie Sepet by Eugene Chua Kee Hong (“Sepet: Yasmin Ahmad’s Dialogic Vision of Malaysian Society”) and Too Wei Keong (”Young Adults’ Perception of Interracial Relationship in Sepet”). Having picked up one paper I was struck at how parochial my choice had been and proceeded to move to the room holding the young and fashionably scruffy Samuel Veissiere, the titles of whose paper brought tears of “pomo” joy to my nostalgic eyes: “Imagined Whites and Eroticised Zombies: Misplaced Logocentricism and the Production of Tropical(ist) Identities in Postcolonial Brazil”. It was, in truth, an interesting paper. Unfortunately, as with most conferences, little time is given to actual debate and this was no exception. One was lucky if a panellist was absent, thereby releasing unscheduled time to more than the voice of the presenter.
The sumptuous lunch was still sloshing about in my belly when I chose Ahmad Murad Merican’s “Keling as the Other in Malay Consciousness ‘by One of Them’: Images of the Indians, Indian Muslim and the Jawi Pekans in Socio-historical and Journalistic Narratives” session. Apart from the parochial nature of my response (being one of “them” myself), I had known Murad Merican to be an interesting intellectual based at the Centre for Intellectual History and Malay Thought at the Institute of Knowledge Advancement at Universiti Teknologi Mara. Despite the triple acronymed institutional arrangement (Centis-lnKA-UTM) his work is refreshing and unaided (that is unencumbered) by the “power-point presentation” style that seems de rigour for Malaysian academics of the ISO9000 variety.
Next I attended Romesh Gunesekara’s session on “Creative Writing” but was sorely disappointed as he turned it into a “lets all participate and I’ll scribble down your words on mahjong paper” workshop. It was a room full of enthusiastic and nice people and the mahjong paper was imprinted with the inane generalisations only the benignly non-descript can produce. Sweet, almost demure, with an enviable head of hair, Gunesekara workshop as well as his speech at the plenary session lack intellectual and creative viscera.
It might be of interest to note the range of non-canonical Malaysian writers and writings that are objects of study. Among others are: Huzir Sulaiman’s Those Four Sisters Fernandez, Karim Raslan’s Heroes and Other Stories, Dina Zaman’s Night and Day, Leow Puay Tin’s Family. Also to be found at this conference as objects of analysis were texts as disparate as McDonald’s Annual Reports, the “Worlds of Star Trek Voyager” and the Malaysian Prime Minister’s 2005 Budget Speech. Issues of sexuality emerged in Washima Che Dan’s “Between Religiosity and Sexuality: The ‘religious Malay’ in The Malay Text World” as well as Teh Chee Seng’s “Negotiating Between Two Diverse Worlds – Being Gay and Malay in Karim Raslan’s ‘Neighbours”‘.
Apart from the rather terrifying notion expressed in the title of one of the papers – “Enchancing the Soft Skills of Our Malaysian Graduates” – the panel entitled “Comprehending the Western Mind: A panel on Malaysia – Occident Constructs of Knowledge and Ideology” seemed a choice candidate for the “revenge of the native” award for dubious intellectual worth. To affirm my prejudice I attended the panel to find a rather more mixed bag. However I managed to embroil myself in a spot of intellectual fisty-cuffs with one academic – haranguing her as she pounded the hotel corridors towards the next plenary. Curiously, she responded by asking me if I was interested to participate in the initiatives of her institute. This generosity of spirit is quite rare.
The conference featured five Malaysian Arts Panels – seen by the organisers (and participants) as an enhancement of the run-of-the-mill academic conference (this does not include the wonderful lunch-time lucky draws). It began rather ominously though, with a thoughtful, if prosaic, gesture of respect to the late theatre doyen Krishen Jit via power-point. I was undeterred and stayed for two panels (on theatre and film) and strayed in late into the panel on music to find the entire hall singing along to Reshmonu, that infectiously charming man. Representing “theatre and the performing Arts” were Kee Thuan Chye, Joseph Gonzales and Faridah Merican; for poetry it was Wong Phui Nam and Cecil Rajendra; for Film – Yasmin Ahmad, Hishammuddin Rais and Amir Muhammad; for prose – K.S. Maniam, Che Husna Azhari and Rehman Rashid; and for music – Zainal Abidin, Reshmonu.
The structure of the panel had a fatal flaw resulting in – at least for the panel on theatre and film – a lack of criticality. There were no intellectual counter-points to the views of the practitioners, some of whom were, admittedly articulate and entertaining. Others seemed to do nothing more than complain about censors and the like; which I find somewhat embarrassing to do in the presence of people who come from situations far harsher and forbidding than ours. I think an informed and critical observer would have opened a space for a more thorough going debate. And I can think of far better ways to approach the question of performance in Malaysia than to issue a litany of complaints about bureaucrats. It was a moment ripe for an intellectual debate of Krishen Jit’s aesthetics – his struggles with our multi-cultural legacy. But the moment was lost because the panellists, I fear, did not understand the context in which they were speaking. A site of intellectual debate – one that would, for instance, requires us to be reflexive, to clarify the terms of our aesthetic inquiry and to seek to deepen our understanding through comparative and historically informed discussions.
During the question and answer session of the film panel on the second day, the first query came from a large hair-do on the ornate chair (shrunk significantly from the previous day). “Is your film available Mr. Hishamuddin?” asked the princess. “Not only is my film available, your royal Highness, so am I,” said the post-daper Hishamuddin Rais. This was the hoi polloi’s introduction to the curious figure of a royal personage at an academic function. That night, at lavish dinner, HRH Raja Zarith Sofiah binti Almahrum Sultan Idris Shah of the state of Johor was ushered in amidst the fanfare worthy of Puteri Gunung Ledang. However, the Bunga-mangga entrance and happy-bucolic-dance extravaganza was overshadowed by a much more interestingly ‘Malaysian’ performance; the thoughtful, British-educated (Chinese Studies) princess holding forth on global inequality, mediatised realities and Asian dictators. She stilled my republican heart and I listened to a rather poignant voice princess, mother and Internet surfer – dressed in a resplendent bejewelled Aquamarine number. She ended her speech with a poem by Tagore recalling that of the 14th century Indian poet, Kabir.
Many pages of my notebook are dedicated to the conference and scarred with references I might or might not follow-up, but that is in the nature of this beast we call an academic conference. Finally, I must note my appreciation to the organisers who allowed me to bring my class of 12 teens to imbibe the atmosphere of the conference on the first day, for free. Understanding, as Ganakumaran Subramaniam, chair of the conference said, our common desire as teachers to help our students.
First Published: 01.03.2006 on Kakiseni