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The Freedom to Worry

  • August 24, 2006
  • 16 Views

By Zedeck Siew

I have been worried that my teeth are falling out. It has been six months since my last visit to a dentist. Being immigrants to the city, my family never really acquired a new orthodontist, so dental examinations require a one-and­-a-half hour drive back to Port Dickson: a Dr. Lim handles all major work on both my parents’ dentures.

Emerging from the clinic’s toilet, I eyed a valved contraption, some sort of injector, which periodically clicked and hummed. When this happened, the folding table on which it was set quivered. Somewhere in this machine was a plaster mould with the imprint of my father’s upper jaw.

Dr. Lim, after a cursory look at my crowns, asked, “How long ago was your last check-up?”

“Five years,” I answered.

“Make an appointment for next week, and come back for scaling,” he said. I thought I saw a look of exasperation in his eyes, the look of a stylist faced with an exceptionally bad haircut. Then, as befitted a family friend, Dr. Lim looked me up and down and said: “Wow, your hair is very long, yah?”

My bad teeth and bad hair didn’t return. A one-and-a-half hour journey, I decided, was a bit much.

I do not fear the dentist’s chair, mind you. I rather enjoy its relaxing rise and recline into a comfortable position, the taste of disinfectant around the saliva vacuum nozzle, and the pricking pain of the scaling needle. It is a soporific experience: the dazzle of white light, and the voice of someone whose mouth you cannot see.

In fact, I find the prospect of any medical examination — where a professional may touch my body, tell me what is wrong with me and recommend an easy remedy, thereby soothing all my physical anxieties — very appealing.

So five months later I agreed to make another appointment, and I was eager. I was taking swigs from a half-filled bottle of gin then, so from time to time I couldn’t taste my mouth. I imagined it killing germs and soothing wounds in my cavities; and the pain this caused assuaged me with its regenerative properties — I was misinformed, of course.

That morning I had managed to scratch off another flake from the back of my lower left quadrant’s central incisor. I was anxious at the possibility of putting on dentures before my quarter-life crisis, yet this incident filled me with the glee that is characteristic of any child with a scabby wound: I held the splinter in my palm, crushed it with a fingernail, and felt the grit with my fingertips.

There was no pain in this dental travail: just a fascinatingly slow rot, which I felt privileged to witness, and disinclined to stop. Instead, I wiped my hands and took another mouthful of alcohol.

The Freedom to Write Under the Influence

By now you may guess the direction in which I am travelling: tooth decay as a diversion from other troubles. Or perhaps a metaphor for the same. You know: Dirty elections, “18?” graffiti, the rhetoric of Najib Tun Razak. The Sun and the New Straits Time being singled out for criticism by Zainuddin Maidin. The censure of Article 11.

No Molotov cocktails, just calls from the certain quarters for secession from the federal constitution, and leaflets urging death for Lina Joy’s lawyer, Malik Imtiaz, little dissolutions of the fabric of society. The arrest of a dozen teenagers because they were wearing clothes that made them appear to be Black Metal fans.

Half my wardrobe is black, and I feel like a drink a lot, nowadays.

The first warning of tooth decay I received was during my 19th birthday. I rarely celebrate, but that particular year the 25th of February fell on a Friday, and a number of friends had decided to meet at Zouk, for general hell-raising. When we arrived there was a large crowd loitering about the entrance, and my incisor chipped. I spat it out.

Now, in the weeks previous to this night, a campaign of nightspot raids had been carried out by religious officers. The victims of this offensive were invariably those who fell within the definition of Malay-Muslim — the consumption of alcohol, or the lack of it, notwithstanding. Guilt had been presupposed. My entourage included three individuals with ‘Muslim’ on their identity cards. The crowd had aroused our suspicions, and we spent half-an-hour deliberating.

I was not happy. It was my birthday, and Twilight Action Girl played good alternative rock music that night. My hair was long and it was warm out. Finally, I snapped: “Can we please make a decision?” We headed in.

The Loft at Zouk on Friday nights was one of my more unholy pleasures: the music was pounding and I couldn’t see anyone but shapes wiggling in the dark. I joined these bodies, engaged as there were in a sort of corporate ecstasy, and voluntarily wiggled in their midst, feeding on collective joy borne out of their lack of self-reflection — or rather, borne of a communion, a conscious decision to reflect about oneself, in others and in Franz Ferdinand (“I say don’t you know, you say you don’t know, I say take me out!”).

TAG’s lifeblood was a bunch of young Malay punks, who would carry on dancing through Franz Ferdinand and New Kids on the Block and P Ramlee. This was perhaps their last refuge, punk gigs having become prone to police presence. But tonight they were conspicuously missing. That evening wasn’t a ruin just for me. After two songs I sat down.

Then one of my would-be celebrants leaned over his Coca-cola, apologised that he didn’t have the liberty to dance with me, and further shouted: “I’m sorry. That the state has the ability to cause this fear, that I’m afraid about where I go, even when it’s your birthday, and how this separates me and you more than anything: my fear of being here, and your lack of it.”

As we left, half-an-hour later, a fleet of motorcycles roared by, their riders jeering “Cina! Cina!” at the predominantly Chinese crowd, flaunting sleek cars and expensive shirts. I realised then that the statement my friend had made — that state policy enforces divisions that fragment our society — may be extrapolated to include all divisions: race, class, education, mode of transportation; and further to the conclusion, that both the racist rempits outside and the equally racist partygoers inside, were products of stunted, inane discourse, shaped by the distance placed between them.

My head began to hurt. It was late, and I was already depressed. At the mamak, I asked for tea with extra condensed milk, it was the sweetest thing I ever drank, and then I thought about my teeth.

The Freedom to Dream About the ISA

Last Sunday morning, I woke up with a painful headache.

I had gin-and-pineapple the night before. I collapsed into bed and promptly woke up again. I checked my cell-phone — someone had sent a message. It came from an unidentifiable number, and it said, simply: YOU ARE DETAINED UNDER THE ISA. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO LEAVE YOUR HOME. I AM REALLY SORRY. BY ORDER FROM ABOVE.

I replied: Who are you?

It was morning, and there was no reply. I dialled this prankster’s number, but was promptly informed that unless I registered my prepaid account, I could not make or receive calls, though it didn’t explain how I could send SMS-es.

Another message arrived. It said: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO INVITE MUSLIMS TO EVENTS WHERE IT MIGHT BE POSSIBLE FOR THEM TO CONSUME ALCOHOL. THIS ACTION TOUCHES ON SENSITIVE ISSUES AND IS INFLAMATORY, AND IS GROUNDS FOR IMMEDIATE DETENTION WITHOUT TRIAL.

Goaded to action, I looked for my keys to the front door, but could not find them. In fact, the padlock had been changed. To calm my anxiety, I went to the bathroom to urinate. Then I found my father’s cell-phone, because he often forgets it. It was not charged, and I could not turn it on.

Another message arrived, saying: YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO THINK ABOUT YOUR BAD TEETH SO CLOSE TO MERDEKA DAY. BY ORDER FROM ABOVE.

Please let me out, I texted. Then I searched the house for either of the battery chargers we had, but they were gone.

SORRY, the reply read, THE LAW IS THE LAW. YOU ARE A MALAYSIAN CITIZEN.

At a loss, I slid open the balcony door, gingerly crossed the railing, lost balance, and fell off. It was five floors to the ground. I broke a leg and knocked out some teeth when I hit it. I remember wondering whether a doctor would be able to give me antibiotics for those injuries, and — given how interesting my situation was — whether some human rights organisation would award me a Prisoner of Conscience certificate.

Then I woke up on Sunday morning, with a headache, and wrote it all down. I brushed my teeth thoroughly, taking care to draw blood that I could taste and spit out. I told my mother about the dream, later.

“It’s because you write about all those, you know, controversial things in the paper,” My mother said, “That’s why you are dreaming about them. You know, Ta Chieh said that she did a search for you on the Internet, and found that your name was in an Islamic organisation’s blacklist. But then she told me: ‘Ma, don’t worry, even Sisters In Islam is on that list, so he isn’t alone.'”

The Freedom to Spend Saturdays at a Hobby Games Shop, Immersed in Universes Other Than Our Own

The day before, Shanon Shah, who actively works with Sisters In Islam, was browsing through the hobby shops of Amcorp Mall when he spotted me, looking over a table of green felt where someone’s pewter-alloy miniature army was fighting someone else’s pewter-alloy miniature army. It was a close fight, there were open wounds and flames and cardboard counters marking the dead.

“Hello,” he said, “What are you doing here?”

“Uh, just watching them play,” I said, trying to make it sound more productive than it was. “I actually paint the miniatures.”

Shanon makes me point them out: a dozen Oriental-themed goblins, teapots, millimetre-long chopsticks and sardine cans attached to their backpacks, cowering in the display case. “They’re tiny!” he said. “Don’t you go blind?”

This same reservation is also shared by my mother, and every one of my friends to whom I have revealed this hobby. “I sometimes feel like staying home and painting these things than going out on a Friday night,” I told him.

My friend pithily observed that this pastime was inherently escapist in nature. “You’ve retreated into miniscule still­life,” he said.

“It’s like alcohol and religion,” I replied.

Miniature painting is strenuous work — but, under the lamplight, with my eyes and fingers so concentrated on my 00 point brush, it is easy to tune out. My back aches, the room is quiet, and I am free from worry, except for a stray brushstroke or two. Picking out the best colour combination for someone’s checked cloak or the right spot for a white highlight on a steel sword are nearly automatisms, and this is a useful diversion: the product is a fine piece of craft, an angry little soldier whose frozen violence is entirely under my control.

“I really should be writing my article,” I tell Shanon. “But my topic is The Freedom to Be. How am I supposed to write about something as vague as that?”

“Well,” said Shanon, “You can write about the most obvious thing: that you feel so dis-empowered, that the spaces are shrinking so much you want to retreat into places like this, where things are still not so depressing.”

The hobby shop’s Cthulhu plush toy hangs from the ceiling, the miniature tanks, infantry, and 2nd edition rules for the WW2 period war-game are really cool, and that Saturday I’d rather argue comparative morality between two fantasy worlds than that of the here-and-now.

“I don’t know,” I told Shanon. “That is a little too obvious. I was thinking even about writing about how I feel afraid about writing about how I feel so dis-empowered, or something, but even that’s so — I don’t know.”

Because I had started to think about how, if my worries about dental hygiene were equitable to worrying about the Malaysian Problem — and I realised the need to indenture as many metaphors for this article, as possible — Malaysians aren’t even allowed the freedom to consider that our collective smile is rotting. We’ve had 49 years, and we’ve been lead to believe that we’ve had relatively painless multiracialism. There is a sort of morbid pleasure present in much of the population, the ones who worry about the rot and impending doom, but mesmerised by catastrophe-in-the-making as I am with my teeth, are disinclined to deal with it.

“Maybe I’ll just write about how I’m worried about my teeth,” I said.

“Well,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll think of something.” I was self-conscious about smiling. That morning, plaque on the front of my lower right quadrant’s central incisor had begun to appear.

~~~

Zedeck Siew is going to visit a dentist, soon. Hopefully.

First Published: 24.08.2006 on Kakiseni