By Sharaad Kuttan
It is near impossible to write about Lelaki Komunis Terakhir without dealing with the immediate politics of the affair; the circus of the UMNO-directed banning (including the Arts Minister’s intervention) as well as a divided media, caught between anti-communist hysteria and liberal breast-beating. So perhaps the only thing to do in order to get beyond the political is to deal, and dispense, with that first. Some might want to grab Amir Muhammad by the shoulders, and in a futile attempt to shake sense into him, ask rhetorically, “what were you thinking when you embarked on this documentary slash musical!” “Were you courting controversy?” After all, news of the production and the working title a year ago or so, was enough to get UMNO Youth’s knickers in a twist. They had then decided to take up the cudgels, vowing to stop the production: it was perhaps a slow news day for the brains trust of UMNO (or at least its spleen), for nothing much came of its protests. A chance confrontation (“What’s your party up to?” I asked) with a card carrying member of the Wing at the Cammies drew an astonished silence; to me, it was a sign that nothing more would come of this. A measured, but infinitely more insidious, response came in the form of a column in a local newspaper, advising Amir of the myriad Malay personalities (and a sprinkling of others) he might better mythologise. The issue was apparently ethnic as well as ideological. A year later, UMNO has had its way (overriding the approval of the film by other relevant government institutions) and the bitter after taste of a deeper ideological conflict has claimed yet another victim: not Amir (for he gallantly refuses victim-hood), but the opportunity to grow as ‘a people’ in understanding that which makes this nation possible and desirable (if that’s not too mawkish and nationalist a sentiment).
What I do hope to explore in this essay is how Amir attempted to reveal and subtly interrogate a facet of our historical imagination. Some of the questions he might have asked himself when embarking on the project could be formulated in this series of questions: How does one restore a sense of proportion to a period in history so bloated with the gaseous remains of the ideological struggles of the Cold War? How does one dismantle the mythological structuring of personality, place and time that are painstakingly maintained — as nothing else in this country is — on an ‘everyday’ basis, across the undulating Malaysian landscape? How can the cultural skirmishes of contemporary Malaysia (separate from our class struggles) be distinguished from those of other historical periods? Who does one address in this endeavour and who would, in return, care to listen or watch? How would one persuade this putative audience to care, to reflect?
I can equally imagine our enfant terrible’s glib comeback line, the now all too expected intellectual dodge, followed by his equally famous cackle. The answers, fortunately, are all evident in the form and feel of the now banned documentary. The strategies are as simple as they are ingenious: make Chin Peng the heart of the story, humanise him, weave him into a contemporary landscape (bring him home as it were) and begin a process of reconciliation between different voices and positions by making them exist in the same ‘space’.
The documentary (its inclusion in this genre might shock those weaned on National Geographies and Discovery Channel) begins with the birthplace of Chin Peng, nom de guerre of the last secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party. The documentary declares in text (I have selected only a few to illustrate my various points):
“Setiawan, Perak 1924-1938 … Setiawan is a very Chinese town”
And so begins an extended interview with a young street vendor on the history of the town, once known as “Gajah Mati”. South Indian in a bow tie whose talk about his own life and that of his parents contains at least one little fragment of the colonial past (“… in the past White men used to cause us a lot of trouble”). The documentary views the past through these vignettes of contemporary life.
“Chin Peng’s family used to live in this shop house.”
The documentary builds a foundation of normalcy and ordinariness about Chin Peng’s childhood.
“He later joined the Church Choir … Chin Peng joined several student clubs where the ideology of communism was spread … He and his friends preferred playing around the local mosque.”
Enter an anonymous denizen of Setiawan singing a song about love, the tune of which at moments sounds like “The Internationale,” echoing the spirit of the times. Chin Peng’s ‘normal childhood’ in colonial Malaya, was in fact set in a world in utter turmoil and strife.
The narrative and visuals play off each other at times.
“Lumut, Perak July-August 1938”
“But he spent the months reading books about Marxism … It was then that he decided to be a communist.”
A contemporary audience would be shocked not only by his interest in what they might understand to be a failed ideology, but in the fact that this was a 14 year old who enjoyed reading during his vacation. ·
Personal history intertwines with national history in the world of this precocious child. We are not told, but for those who know some history, it would be a mere 7 years before Chin Peng would have become the leader of an extraordinary resistance to the Japanese Imperial army’s occupation of Malaya and a hero honoured by the British colonial government with an Order of the British Empire (he declined the award).
Patriotic songs for the family
The first song, the music in this documentary billed as a “semi-musical”, debuts with “Komunisme”. The birth of Communism is celebrated with a parody of the state-sponsored patriotic song, with women in ‘ethnic’ costumes haunted lovingly by a red Klan-like robed figure. It is quintessential Amir: De-mystification through gentle mockery. Makes you want to go out and buy a compilation vcd of patriotic songs for the whole family to gather, and bond through karaoke and kitsch.
The strategy is now clear. A simplified narrative of Chin Peng’s life provides the spine from which branch the innocuous lives of contemporary Malaysians, some with specific connections to that history of conflict, others merely emblematic of current realities and some as bearers of local truths and pathologies. This is interspersed with ‘songs’ of varying entertainment value. My favourite would be “Malaria” — a foot tapping ditty with great potential as a sing-along number.
We have excursus on love (by Thajuddin Mohd Mustaffa, twenty something, southern Indian looking, Hokkien-speaking), on Pomelos and soil conditions around Ipoh (with cameo by singer and screen actress Adibah Noor) on the entrepreneurial spirit (by Bahari Bahgunung, a handsome thirty something, Orang-Asli), and my favourite, on race and petai by the self-proclaimed “Petai Boys”, Sunil Singh and Suleiman Raja Ali. According to these southern Indian looking young men, there are three types of petai, “the Chinese like to eat rice petai, Malays like to eat wood petai, and Indians like to eat nut petai.” Typically of Malaysian explanations of ‘race’, the reasons for these preferences are not fully articulated, though this lack is accompanied with an apparent self satisfaction in knowing nothing more than the neat boxes into which the three ‘Malayan races’ fit.
The documentary builds bit by bit, with no attempt to give a totalising view of this history. The strategy works to the extent that Chin Peng is no longer forced to enter history merely as the antagonist to a narrative of heroic nationalists (and their imperial backers). He has his own history: A new ‘story’ which converges with the hegemonic nationalist narrative but as its counter-point.
Chin Peng’s nationalist credentials are, up to the end of World War Two, undisputed. He was then at the extraordinarily young age of twenty-one. By his 24th birthday he would find himself on the other side of the barricades in a civil war, which would cynically re-construct his image with demonic overtones. If the anti-Communist propaganda is to be believed, the “brutalities” of the Communist out-weigh that of the British colonialism and the Japanese military occupation.
In a rather bewilderingly long excursus on the making of charcoal, we learn that (what we all know and take for granted) that relations with the Japanese has long been normalised, in part through trading and commercial relations. Why the Communist are exempt from this process of normalisation is crucial to understand. And it depends in part with the segment that is signalled with the following dates:
“Malaya, August 1945 – September 1946”
The Interregnum is the period when a power vacuum existed, between the surrendering Japanese, the Colonial government yet to re-assert itself, and an ascendant, if hesitant, Communist Party. The visuals of a confectionary making machine provide the visual backdrop for a difficult part of the tale.
Here, Amir’ strategy, I believe, flounders. Telling a complex tale simply, does not work.
“Fatal fights broke out between some Chinese and other locals suspected to be Japanese collaborators … Many of these killings were blamed on the CPM … But many of the Bandits acted on their own … [Secretary General of CPM] Lai Te was not making firm decisions … He was a triple agent … The British needed to contain the situation … Chin Peng and other CPM leaders were given medals for their war bravery.”
The terms shift between “some Chinese” and “CPM” and “bandits”; more volatile binaries are avoided so we have “some Chinese and other locals”; Amir himself needs to “contain” this history and uses “the British” to affect this closure. I sense Amir’s unease. Recently, RTM produced a documentary, ‘the history’ of this period entitled, “Luka Masih Merah” — the wound is still bloody. Along with offerings of this nature, there has been a tremendous political and psychic investment by the state ideological apparatus and its auxiliaries in political and civil society in refusing closure. To reiterate, a closure denied exclusively to the Communist.
But would acknowledgement of the mutual brutalities, and accompanying remorse, be enough to affect reconciliation now?
Perhaps it serves certain interests, perhaps some ‘hurt’ is deeply felt. Perhaps ‘resistance’ and ‘collaboration’, ‘accuser’ and ‘accused’ are written into the fabric of every ‘occupation’ whether colonial or otherwise, not as binaries but as complex intermingling of personal and political actions.
These questions need to be addressed. However neither the few truncated lines of text of this period, nor the briefly outlined context of this violence, seem to me, adequate to deal with them. Here simplicity is, perhaps, not enough and the problems that arise from these strategies are as real as they are irresolvable within the framework that Amir chooses.
The inadequacy of this moment of the documentary is in no way fatal to the entire enterprise, which remains informative and charming in a way that Amir has made his hallmark. It is subversive of the hegemonic narrative, though not of our nation. It stands, together with other literary and scholarly work that attempts to grasp the nettle of those formative years.
There are many moments in the documentary crying out for critical attention, not least the rather poignant interviews with historian Lee Eng Kew (on the story of the “Ipoh Lotus bun”) and those like Wong Ah Lek, Sao Fung and Chan Yong at the Malayan Communist Party’s settlement camps in southern Thailand who give a voice to those, who fought on the side of the Communist and so have been hidden from view. There are many more contemporary voices like that of Samilah Md Noor, a young, pretty, rather feisty tudung-ed child of the NEP through whom the state speaks clearly but not entirely.
Through Lelaki Komunis Terakhir Amir has given us a deep and slightly darkened mirror through which we might all address the urgent tasks of contemporary cultural conflict in this country. Register your protest at the banning of LKT with your elected Member of Parliament.
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir is available on VCD and DVD in Singapore. Amir says: “Possession of this VCD or DVD in Malaysia is a criminal offence since it is banned. If you are caught with it, you can be fined up to RM50,000 or jailed up to five years. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Sharaad Kuttan is preparing to spend one year in Thailand and the Philippines under the Nippon Foundations’ Asian Public Intellectual programme. He will be researching the relationship between academia and the public sphere.
First Published: 20.07.2006 on Kakiseni