Where have all the Commies Gone?

After watching Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir l remembered I had a copy of In Search of the Revolution: A Brief Biography of Chin Peng, by historian CC Chin. I rescued this from a pile of dusty paper in my room several days later. It begins with a flourish:

“There is no simple explanation for someone who, during times of tempestuous ideological struggle, steered swiftly enough to remain at the helm for decade after decade. The old question — of whether it was the times that produced the heroes, or the heroes that created the history — cannot help us to comprehend the success or failure of such a historical figure.”

A cursory examination of the text reveals Chin as a fan; in providing an account of the Baling Talks, Chin Peng is described hyperbolically as having the “graceful bearing of a refined and scholarly gentleman”. One doesn’t expect refinement and scholarship likely traits of a guerrilla leader fresh from the jungle, but expectations aside, Chin doesn’t qualify his impressions. The text is average propaganda.

It’s also better at history than any text currently used to teach school-going persons about the period. The most in-depth information about the Emergency I received was in Fifth Form, the last year of secondary school, where students aren’t really receiving facts as memorising them to pass Sejarah. My powers of recollection are feeble, so I did feebly for the subject. I remember the Baling Talks, New Villages, and communist demons.

I am twenty. My generation has the singular privilege of receiving Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, his biography via Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, even if we don’t actually know anything concrete about the Empire’s Public Enemy No. 1 — besides the fact that he was the Devil incarnate: a gangster-boss-type character plotting the fall of Malaya from a smoky and red-lit board-room in Thailand. This last image is courtesy of a television miniseries I was forced to watch during National Service. It featured a badly-animated train being explosively derailed by villainous Chinese men.

Avoiding violence

Amir appears to have developed a love for talking heads: in The Year of Living Vicariously (2005), a serious adventure in Jakarta during election time that featured a split screen and static interviews, this infatuation was a cause of deathly monotony. His third feature-length documentary, in contrast, is interrupted several times by humorous and cheesily-arranged songs, written by Jerome Kugan and performed by the excellent Zalila Lee and her swaying, muhibbah-clad chorus, about malaria, Identity Card, and Malaysia’s lush natural resources — a thinly-veiled (but immensely adorable) device designed to break the stream of endless interviews.

The stories themselves are rewarding; a broad portrait of lives lived: a Methodist church-goer belting a hymn; a young woman standing out in a line of other young women selling pamelos telling the camera about her hopes of business expansion; a charcoal factory owner stately spreading his arms, saying: “These big igloos are kilns where the wood becomes the charcoal … The Japanese all come to Malaysia to buy our high-quality charcoal … I hope you enjoyed this tour of my charcoal factory.”

This last sequence comes after the Japanese invasion of Malaya; Lelaki Komunis Terakhir travels through the towns through which Chin Peng passed in chronological order. The subject matter is treated almost incidentally; the stories that surface about the war and subsequent  Emergency are poignant without a specific Chin Peng connection: a baker making lotus-flower-shaped buns explaining how these confections began as gifts from a mother to her imprisoned son; a sexagenarian laughing at the memory of being visited, as a boy, by a seductive communist agent (“Oo, Lawa!”) who persuades him to become a conspirator; a woman in the Peace Villages of Southern Thailand  (final resting place of the Malayan Communist Party), rocking a baby in a sarong and saying: “I have no regrets”.

Parliamentarian reactions to Lelaki Komunis Terakhir included a simple “It was boring”; this is an obvious reference to the film’s lack of burning trains. Amir goes out of his way to avoid violence: the most visually bizarre seconds of the film take place with the caption: ‘Kuala Lumpur’: we are told how Chin Peng catches up with party triple-traitor Lai Te and executes him; the camera averts its eyes, searching furtively through a bed of lallang.

To brand the film “Amateurish,” because of its lack of pyrotechnics, as our Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage ostensibly does, is immature: it misses the point completely. What should matter in depictions of history is not the voyeuristic fetish of gore; what mattered during then, as it does now, almost 50 years into nationhood, is that there were people — Malaysians — involved. Lelaki Komunis Terakhir tells us this; films like Adman Salleh’s Paloh (2003) and Aziz M Othman’s Leftenan Adnan (2000), with their dramatic and comparatively lavish depictions of warfare, don’t.

The lessons of history

Not that I should know anything about history. CC Chin is correct when he remarks that: “There is no simple explanation,” for Chin Peng, de facto leader of the Malayan Communist Party, but a more accurate statement, I think, would be that there is no explanation — at least: none easily available and readily consumable by those who, like me, have no recollection before the 1980s. I have not read Alias: Chin Peng, and rare is the 20-plus-year-old who has, cover to cover. We have little to fall on but the ominous proclamations our schoolteachers fed us.

Malaysian history textbooks begin with the disclaimer that everything besides statistics and dates are interpretation, and that even these are not infallible. I’m sorry I can’t quote verbatim. I cannot find my copy of Sejarah Tingkatan 5. The nature of history texts to be resold second-hand, cycled out of the syllabus, then lost is perhaps a wistful metaphor for the malleability of the past; but it is also a sinister reminder of the social engineering to which young Malaysians are subject.

In these texts, Chin Peng is invariably portrayed in the negative: a godless Enemy of the State. Not much else. The 1969 race riots are simply referred to as the May 13, 1969 Incident — there is no elaboration. This kind of crafted ignorance of the collective Malaysian consciousness — of racial dynamics, religion and other (to borrow an Amirism) ‘thorny’ issues — may already be irreparable.

The Lelaki Komunis Terakhir ban is internal. A post on the film’s blog, dated June 27, informs us that the official VCD and DVD has been released: “In that bastion of democracy and artistic expression, Singapore,” Amir says. “Alas! Possession of this VCD and DVD in Malaysia is a criminal offence… you can be fined up to RM50 000 or jailed up to five years. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

The fact that the film is The Last Communist more than Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, the fact that it opened at the Berlin Film Festival and is touring the world, are the results of an act of deliberate and selective censorship, meant to keep a selected slice of humanity (Malaysians) in the dark about a selected part of history (Malaysian History). If I remember, there is a classical aphorism about learning the lessons of history. I don’t suppose we’ve quite learnt them yet.

In a separate village, nearby

Lelaki Komunis Terakhir‘s most telling moment is when the narrative stops at the Sultan Idris Teachers’ College in Tanjung Malim, and Amir quizzes a student about communism. “Communism is bad, really,” she answers. It is a profile shot, and she appears to be reading a dissertation behind her eyes.

There is a later interview, in the Peace Village, towards the end of the film’s 90 minutes. An old communist soldier is talking about how the community is organised: “Our Muslim comrades are in a separate village, nearby,” he says. “They are our comrades; just that we are of different religions, and this is a sensitive issue, so we do this so that there are no conflicts.”

I chewed on the implications this fact presented — the Malayan Communist Party was far from being callous about religion, for one — for some time. It was an edifying experience. I also realised that the Tanjung Malim teacher would probably never receive this revelation. “Communists are godless, cruel, and want chaos,” she continues, her textbook statements lost, perhaps never to be seen here: “Communism is based on social injustice, unlike democracies, like Malaysia.”


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.”

Zedeck Siew played a communist in a workshop play presented by Five Arts Centre last year.

First Published: 20.07.2006 on Kakiseni

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