Thursday, November 25, 2010

Nam Ron

This article won me the Samad Idris Trophy this year. The annual award was presented by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (Finas). (To know please log theSun wins Finas award)
The article has the actor cum director Namron, talks about his latest film Gaduh, his fears on growing racial tension and his stand against the death penalty and ISA. The article appears in theSun newspaper on May 7, 2009 . Here is the full article

Headline: The power of open minds and healthy discussions

The creative work of actor cum director Shahili Abdan has been described as radical, bold and ground-breaking. The 40-year-old, who is better known as Namron, talks to Bissme S. about his latest film Gaduh, his fears on growing racial tension and his stand against the death penalty and ISA.

What inspired you to start RAT?

Very often, fresh graduates from art colleges are clueless about where to go to improve their talent. Soon enough, some of them will get frustrated and disappear, and not be heard again. They need encouragement. When I graduated, I had a lot of encouragement from Faridah Merican (The Actors Studio), Krishen Jit and Marion D’Cruz (Five Arts Centre) to continue my passion as an artist.
I want to do the same for the younger generation. So I created a platform where the younger generation can express themselves and have a chance to showcase their talent.

What is your latest project?

I just co-directed a film titled Gaduh with Brenda Danker. It highlights the racial tension between Malay and Chinese students in a school. It happened to me when I was in school. I hope Gaduh will spark a healthy discussion on racial tension.

Why do you like to highlight sensitive themes?

I believe we must be able discuss any issue with an open mind and only then will we be able to find some solutions.
Not discussing certain issues is like sweeping rubbish under the carpet. The place may look clean but we should ask: Is the place really clean? How long can we sweep it under the carpet? Sooner or later the rubbish will slip out.
We are always saying that we do not have racial tensions and we get along very well. But is that a true picture?

Some people say Malaysian audiences are not matured enough to discuss sensitive issues with an open mind.

If you say that, then I have failed as an artist and you have failed as a journalist. We should train audiences to come to that level. It is our responsibility. If artists like me and journalists like you are brave enough to discuss these so-called sensitive issues with an open mind, the audience will follow our example. Society is what we expose them to.
You find urban folk are more exposed compared to rural folk. Why is that? It is because there are underground films, theatres and music in urban areas compared to rural areas.
As a result, the urban folk are not subject to one point of view. They can see different opinions floating around.

Some people say you love to highlight sensitive themes for the sake of being controversial and cheap publicity. 

(He laughs). If I want to be controversial and get cheap publicity, all I have to do is include a kissing scene in my work. I would be famous. My face would be splashed in the newspapers. But I have not done that.
If artists always talk about safe topics, then we will never progress, we will never push boundaries and we will never find solutions to our problems.

Your works paint a picture you hate the country. Is that true?

The mentality here is if we criticise someone that means you hate someone. Criticising and hating are two different things.
If I make a political play and criticise the political system it doesn’t mean I hate my country. It is because I want the situation to improve. I want to stay in this country for a long time and I want my children to stay here for a long time, too. Therefore, I want my country to be a better place.
I don’t have an agenda. As an artist I always mingle with the crowd and I listen to their opinions. I sit in the coffee shop and listen to their conversations. What I am presenting on stage and screen is what people are thinking and talking.

Why do you like creating work that carries political themes?

The relationship between our politics and our society is very close. They influence each other very much. I like to make one thing clear: I am not a supporter of any political party. If the opposition takes over the government … Are we saying corruption will disappear? Are we saying abuse of power will stop? The opposition are not perfect. We have to keep our eyes on them as well.
In a democratic country like ours, it is the people who should have the power, not the government and not any political party. It is the people who should have the last say. It is the people who should benefit the most.
But I am glad to say the last election result showed things are changing and people are realising they have the power to make a change.
I am also glad to see we now have a two-party system. In this way any government or political party has to be on its toes, keep its record clean and aim to keep the people happy.
If the people are not happy, they can always change you in the next general election. It goes to show the government has to hear what the people want and fulfil their needs.
One good example, when Najib was appointed as the prime minister, he immediately released 13 ISA detainees. I was happy about that.
Some people will say it was not done with genuine intention, that it was more of a political move for his party to win people’s hearts. They could be right but in the end, it is the people who benefit the most.
The (detainees’) families are happy to get back their loved ones who were behind bars. It builds hope among us that there is more freedom.

What is the one single change you like to see?

Frankly, we have to re-look our racial policies. I find over the years we have become very suspicious. We do not trust each other.
Whenever I am with my own race, I sometimes hear them making unkind remarks about others. If my own race is talking like this, I guess others are doing the same.
I keep thinking why this mentality exists. We are living under one roof. We should be acting as one family. We should be able to think of ourselves as Malaysians. We should trust each other.
But we are not.Such a negative attitude is not healthy in the long run. It could be likened to a small fire in the forest. If it is not controlled, the whole forest could burn down.

You are against the Internal Security Act. You even produced a play about it. But some people say ISA is necessary for stability.

Is the ISA being used for the stability of the country or is it being used to maintain the stability of certain individuals. That is the question we should ask?
If you hear that someone is going to blow up KLCC and you detain him, that is understandable. I would say you are putting your country’s interest first. You are preventing innocent people from getting hurt.
If you are going to detain someone for writing a blog then you are making a mockery of the ISA. The ISA has been abused. Confining someone without trial can be inhumane. I am also against the death penalty. If a murderer sincerely repents then we should forgive him.

Have you gotten into trouble with the law for your work?

I have not been called up to the police station and I have not been put behind bars. I thank my lucky stars.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cecil Rajendra

The lawyer cum poet shares his view about the world and literature scene in Malaysia. He ended this article with a poem. The article appeared in the Sun on Nov 12 2005.

Headline Poetic Reason, acidic rhyme

LAW and literature. Cecil Rajendra dabbles in both, the former he does full-time and poetry whole-heartedly. Using these talents to full measure, he tackles society's ills such as environmental destruction, poverty, oppression, corruption, racism and injustice with persistence and dedication. The poetic output continues with his latest collection Trail n Terror, and he was nominated for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature. To date, he has published 17 books of poems. His works have been published and broadcast in many countries and translated into several languages, including Japanese, Urdu, Tamil, Chinese, German, Tagalog, Danish and Spanish. Besides being president of the National Human Rights Society Of Malaysia, he is also the founding father of free legal aid in the country. BISSME S. finds out what makes this activist tick.

You earned a nomination for this year's Nobel Literature prize. How did you react?
The nomination and the support came from abroad while, sad to say, in my own country there was not even a single write-up on the book, with the exception of theSun newspaper last year.

Were you disappointed not winning?
Not really. The nomination itself was a great thrill and honour. Besides, I have been receiving reactions to the book from all over, including a personal note from the prime minister of France. It would have been nice to have won but my philosophy has always been to expect nothing. That way, you will never be disappointed and everything you receive comes as a bonus. And believe me, the Nobel nomination was a wonderful bonus. Anyway, I have always been a great fan of Harold Pinter (this year's winner).

The local reviewers often condemn your work. Do you think they are biased?
If you look at the reviews here, you will find they are in reality vicious personal attacks masquerading as high-sounding literary critiques.
Basically, they cannot stand someone who writes all the time, enjoy writing, refuses to take himself seriously, yet nevertheless has no trouble having his work published and accepted internationally. If you scratch, you will find a deep green streak running through these guys, which of course they will be the last to admit.

We understand you once entered a literary competition run by your critics but submitted your work using a pseudonym and won a prize. Was this personally to prove a point?
Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a certain mafia-controlled lite- rary column of a certain broadsheet.
Week in, week out, they would write glowingly of each other's works while taking cheap potshots at yours truly.
They got so hoisted on their egos that they decided to run a national poetry and a national drama competition, with their eminences as judges of course.
Now I abhor literary competitions but decided to teach the jokers a lesson by entering not the poetry but the drama competition; simply because the money was better.
I could not enter the play in my own name as it would have been chucked out in the first round. So I used a pseudonym and sent it in and surprise, surprise, my play titled The Political Trial Of Jesus won a prize. As I could not collect the prize money personally, I sent a young law student to collect it on my behalf of this fictitious dramatist. We cashed the cheque and drank to the collective idiocy of that literary mafia.

Some critics believe that by using poetry to highlight social issues, you are merely seeking attention.
If the poem gets people thinking about AIDS and torture or child abuse, what's wrong with that? There are worse things that a poem can do than highlight a social problem, for example eulogising a politician or the erection of a condominium.
Any critic who believes one can gain attention simply by writing a poem about a topical issue is clearly out of his mind, given the minuscule number of people who actually read poetry.
If you really want attention, a far quicker, more effective and less painful route would be to strip in the main street!

Some say you are being melodramatic in using poetry to highlight social issues?
I make no apologies for the social content of my poems. As for melodramatic, I don't know what they mean ... How can one write about tsnunami or Guantanamo or Darfur and avoid the label of being dramatic?
I write about everything and anything but when I touch on social issues, I am accused of being sensational or propagandist. One local academic even went so far as to say I was squandering my talent on social and humanitarian issues.
In the local literary circles, it appears perfectly respectable to write about the pain of an ingrown toenail or the death of your grandmother but not about torture or thousands dying of starvation in Darfur.
I think such criticism reflects more on the critics than the author. It shows how small-minded and mealy-mouthed these timorous clowns are.

Was there a defining moment when you became active in social issues ... during your childhood perhaps?
There was no sudden epiphany ... it was a gradual awakening during my student days in London - the Vietnam war, the anti-apartheid movement, the wars of liberation then being fought in Africa, the Black Power movement ... all served to heighten my social consciousness. Also the writings of the writers like Pablo Neruda, Frants Fanon and Aime Cesaire.
"Speak in the name of those who cannot write. If the poet did not make himself a spokesman of the human condition, what else is there for him to do," exhorted Neruda.
I began to believe that writing could make a difference and that every true artist has a duty to bear witness and speak out, no matter what the cost.
I started writing about racism in Britain and suddenly I found myself no longer the darling of the poetry set. For most part, the Brits were in denial about the racial discrimination and I was accused of exaggerating the situation.

Is it true that only three bookshops in this country carry your books?
Absolutely! Silverfish, Skoob and Kinokuniya. I believe the reason goes way back to 1980, when my Singapore publisher was hauled up by the Malaysian Home Ministry and ticked off for publishing Refugees & Other Despairs. It was during the time of the Vietnamese boat people and "refugee" was a proscribed word. One could refer to the boat people as illegal immigrants. The book was never banned but my publisher was so terrified, he withdrew all the books from circulation and went into hiding. The pusillanimity of publishers here is unbelievable.

It is said you only write about human rights and social issues. Why not other themes?
That's not true. I write everything and anything. I have written about football, love, sex, marriage, children, old age and death. I have four collections of poems based purely on love.

What do you think of the local literary scene?
Frankly, not much. I find the literary scene here much too incestuous and inward looking. And with the exception of theatre, it lacks what I call "testicular fortitude". As for poetry, even at the best of times, only a handful of people ever read the stuff.

Is true that you are writing a book on the late (strip-tease legend) Rose Chan? How close were both of you?
Yes. I have already started on her story tentatively entitled The Last Days of Rose Chan. I came to know her in her last years when she was dying of cancer.
We met through a mutual friend and there was instant rapport between us. She was a truly independent spirit who didn't give a damn about public opinion.
She was also immensely creative and I am not referring just to her striptease act but to her culinary and entrepreneurial skills as well.
She was the most remarkable woman our country has produced ... there has been no other woman who could galvanise the rapt attention of kings and schoolboys, and be the envy of the housewife.
We spent many delightful afternoons at her establishment, drinking and listening to her stories. Once, after a particular boisterous rendition underneath the coconut tree, she cuffed me on the shoulder and chided, "Your mother born you too late. If only you born 15 years early, you and Rose have goody-good time."

Is it true you also plan to write a book on tantric sex?
It is almost completed and it is called The Secret Journal Of A Tantric. It is not just about tantric sex but encapsulates the whole practice and philosophy of Tantra. I have been studying and practising tantra for over three decades so the book is in a sense semi-autobiographical. It's an explicit, no punches pulled journal, so it won't be published here.

Why not?
How can it be published in a country that is so sexually uptight that it views homosexuality as a threat to the nation. Incidentally, I have never quite figured out how a gay minister is a greater threat to the nation than a corrupt minister.

Free legal aid is one of your passions. You are credited with starting this service here. How did it happen?
When I returned from London, I found that law was very much a rich man's game. It is meaningless to say all men are equal before the law if all men do not have equal access to the courts or justice.
So with the assistance of two farmers (who are still with free legal aid) and a social worker (now a practising lawyer), we started free legal aid in a pondok on the outskirts of the Bayan Lepas Free Trade Zone, offering advice and assistance to farmers, fishermen and factory workers. This was in 1980.
Then, in 1983, the Malaysian Bar, recognising the nationwide need for legal aid, passed a resolution levying a RM100 legal aid subscription on every lawyer and officially launched its programme.
This, incidentally is the single most noble achievement of the Malaysian Bar in its long history; for lawyers not only gave their services free but fund the legal aid centres as well.
We now have centres in every state, including a mobile legal aid clinic and handle thousands of cases pro bono. I still serve at the centres but have to confess that I am a little more impatient and grumpy with clients and younger lawyers these days. I am proud to say we have just celebrated our 25th year.

What do you think is the biggest achievement of legal aid?
Fighting for orang asli rights. Under a law passed in 1954, the orang asli cannot own land. It was easy to take their land for development such as hotels and golf courses. The worst thing is the orang asli were not paid proper compensation and they would be moved to reservations where the conditions were really horrendous. After years of going to court, finally this year, the court has given them the right to own land. Just imagine that, they have been in this land for many years, yet they can't own land.

What is the biggest resistance you faced in starting legal aid?
Our biggest resistance came from the legal profession. The lawyers felt that by giving free legal aid, we were throwing sand in the rice bowl of lawyers and the lawyers would not have any work. It took us a long time to explain to these lawyers that the people to whom we were giving legal aid could not afford lawyers at all. I remember a lot of judges referred to us as five and 10 sen lawyers. One judge even said that if people cannot afford lawyers, they should not come to court. Things are better now for legal aid. Still, less than 5% of 12,000 practising lawyers actually do legal aid.

Was law your choice, or your parents'?
Law was never my choice. If you were the eldest son in an Indian family and born somewhere in the middle of the last century, you had only three options - doctor, lawyer or the civil service.
When I was 12 or 13, I had made up my mind to be a writer. So I packed up this gurkha duffel bag with romantic notions of hitch-hiking to Rome to make my name as a writer in some garret. When my parents discovered my bag, I was given a sound thrashing.

You lived in London for 13 years even after you gradua- ted. Why, and what did you do there?
Well, I was probably the most reluctant law student in London ... hardly attended any lectures or tutorials, preferring to spend my mornings in second hand bookshops, my afternoons in classic cinemas and my evening in theatre. Theatres and classic cinemas had special rates for students.
I was also writing for courses, and besides poetry I did scripts for a BBC radio programme on overseas students.
After finishing law, this laidback lifestyle could not continue as I had to earn my keep. I took whatever job I could - as cook, postman, factory hand, etc - and when I had a bit of money saved up, tramped around Europe writing, reading, visiting galleries, etc. Basically I was like a sponge with eyeballs hanging out, soaking everything.

In London, you started a Third World cultural forum called Black Voices. What was Black Voices?
Black Voices was an open platform where artistes and activists from Asia, Africa and South America were invited to bear witness to the situation in their country through music, poetry, talks, etc.
During its seven-year existence, a galaxy of writers, poets and activists were showcased. This included Pulitzer prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, historian Dr Walter Rodney, Edwin Thumboo, Obi Egbuna, Ismail Choonara.
One of the fruits was an anthology of poems called Other Voices/ Other Places. The other was Third World Troubadours, a travelling band of poets and musicians that used the medium of poetry and music to highlight the socio-cultural problems in Third World countries.

If you are so passionate about social issues and the environment, why haven't you entered politics and push for change through the political process?
Because I have yet to meet an honest politician. I am not saying this rare species doesn't exist, just that I have not met one yet.
Let us be honest, the majo- rity of politicians nowdays are nothing more than self-serving opportunists. In my more cynical moments, I think that to be a really successful politician in the 21st century, you need to be completely corrupt and more than a little retarded.
Anyway, there is no question of my ever joining a political party in this country as all the major parties are drawn not on ideological but on racial lines and I am totally opposed to racism of any sort.

What changes would you like to see taking place in the country?
For starters, we could do with a lot more transparency and tolerance and a lot less materialism. The two recent AP issues are indicative of our warped sense of priorities. The first one about approved permits has convulsed the nation for months now - newspaper headlines, questions tabled in Parliament, ministers summoned, etc. But the whole issue is nothing but about cars, prices, profits, who benefited, who was left out, etc
For heaven's sake, we are taking about silly permits to import cars, incidentally a major source of environmental pollution. The second AP issue - consigned to the back pages and almost buried now is the Ayah Pin affair.
Now here is a guy - basically a delusional kook trying to promote interfaith dialogue and harmony, albeit through giant teapots and umbrellas - who though he harmed no one and is a threat to nobody, is nevertheless branded as deviant, hounded out of the country and has his commune and his property destroyed. The real culprits go scot free while the peace-loving members of the commune are arrested and detained.
For anyone with any sense of political perspectives, this AP (Ayah Pin) affair is far important - as it forebodes ill for the future of civil rights and the constitution of this country - than the other AP issue.

You have a reputation of being anti-establishment.
Only because the middle class in this country have backbencher sokong mentality. They accept without question anything the higher-ups, authorities or the government of the day proposes or does, no matter how preposterous or impractical.
Let me give you one example. A few years ago, there was a government sponsored Zero-Inflation campaign in which millions of ringgit were spent.
I went on record as saying it would be easier for Malaysia to put a man on Mars than achieve zero inflation. And for this I was branded anti-national, anti-government, anti-whatever. With today's spiralling prices and hindsight, who will say I was not right.
Now we have this anti-smoking Tak Nak campaign which is equally futile ... smokers will smoke whatever the price.
Anway, I feel it is the height of hypocrisy for a tobacco producing country which derives considerable revenue from the sale of cigarettes to embark on a no-smoking drive. Almost as ludicrous as petrol producing nations banning the combustion engine.
Again in the 80's and early 90's, I wrote and spoke out against the global destruction of rainforests. Immediately, I was branded anti-development, a threat to the timber industry and had my passport impounded.
Yet today, it has become fashionable to talk about conservation and reforestation and I was even asked to put together a collection of my environmental poems. And of course, I am anti those laws such as the ISA (Internal Security Act) that others think are necessary for good governance but which I feel are antithetical to human dignity and freedom.

As you age, do you find yourself toning down?
I sincerely hope not. Many years ago, I answered this question in a poem:

As I grow older
I grow wilder
not wiser
I respect nothing
do not talk to me
of the temperance
of middle-aged men
I have consigned
Caution to the wind.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Rahmat Haron

The world need dreamers. Rahmat Haron is indeed a dreamer. This is an interview where you will see what Malaysia can become. . It was joy to interview him.This interview appears in the sun on Nov 27 2008

Headline :Dream free, dream true

Rahmat Haron wears many hats – poet, painter, activist and rebel. His works are cutting-edge, controversial and provocative. In his home cum studio, the portrait of a past leader stands out. It has tiny fangs and the word "Kula" attached to the leader’s name. "I think my works say what is wrong with me more than what is wrong with this country," he says with a touch of humour. The 31-year-old artist talks to BISSME S on issues ranging from the Internal Security Act to the destruction of the environment.

theSun: You are perceived as a rebel, activist, poet and painter. How do you see yourself?
I am a professional drifter, a super poseur, a fake quasi wanderer and a wannabe of too many things. I am still studying in universe, majoring on life.

Why such a low opinion of yourself?
I am not putting myself down. We often parody others and the situation around us. Sometimes, we must learn to parody ourselves.

Most artists have messages that they want to impart in their work. What is yours?
My message is simple. It is to open up imagination. The poet Sylvia Plath said the scariest thing in life is the death of imagination and I think this country is suffering from lack of imagination.

But your critics say your works are critical of the country and government. They say you hate your country. Is it true?
There are so many things about this country I love. But some greedy businessmen and some people in power are screwing up this country. Bakun Dam is one good example. People who got the contract did not have any background in building dams but were timber businessmen. In the end the project didn’t become a reality but the forest is gone. The forests have existed since the time of dinosaurs and look at what we have done to these forests? We should be leaving the forests to the next generation.
I cannot understand it when people say that it is people like me who hate this country. But I am not the one who caused this destruction. People also say that I hate this country because I do not support ISA (the Internal Security Act). But how can I support detaining people without a fair trial. Having said this, I must admit that I am also a contributor in destroying my country in a small way.

So how are you destroying your country?
For example, I smoke so I am polluting the air. I produce rubbish so I am polluting the environment. Of course my destruction is nowhere compared to some of the destruction that has been happening (Both of us laugh).

Do you think artists should change the country and the world they live in?
It is not only the artists who should change the country and the world that they live in. It is everybody’s responsibility. The first step is to open up imagination. The political system created by the political elites that have ruled Malaysia for 51 years has affected every domain of our lives. So we must get out from their influences and create our own imagination. But how many of us have really come out from the vicious circles?

Recently you led a demonstration to Putrajaya just to give a pillow to our prime minister. Is that true?
Yes, this took place just before the election. But it wasn’t a demonstration and I was not leading it. It was the collaborative effort of a few young people who wanted to meet our prime minister and hand him a pillow.

Why a pillow?
When Pak Lah took over the prime minister’s post, he made a lot of promises and gave us a lot of hope. So far he has not fulfilled them. So the pillow is a message to him – he can finally wake up and fulfil his promises.

What do you think of Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak as the next prime minister and Umno in general?
When he was defence minister, Najib seemed to have an obsession for weapons. He loved buying them. Umno has become too arrogant for its own good. The slogan Dulu, kini dan selamanya(Yesterday, today and forever) is a good example of its arrogance. As Muslims, we cannot predict what is going to happen and the future is in God’s hands. It appears Umno can predict the future. They see themselves ruling Malaysia forever. So they are playing God, aren’t they? If that is not arrogant then what is?

So you prefer Anwar Ibrahim to be the prime minister and the Opposition to take over the government?
I am not a big fan of Anwar. I am choosing Anwar, out of desperation. We do not have many choices. All these years … the Opposition has been saying that it does not have the power to make the necessary changes. So let us give it the power. I would like to see if it can really keep its promise. I would like to see how it deals with power. I would like to test its credibility. But honestly, it is not about giving power to the Opposition or to any politician. It is about giving the power back to the people.
Every citizen should have the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly. Every citizen should have political and civil rights.

Do you think what you talk of is possible in this country? Don’t you think you are being too idealistic?
Why not? It is not a big thing. For the sake of hope, I believe this dream can be a reality. It is better to have dreams. It is better to have hopes. This is my dream. This is my hope. At least, I have an imagination.
Having freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly is very important in a society. We have to ask ourselves why do some people become suicide bombers. Because they do not have avenues to voice their grievances.

You paint a picture that Malaysia is a terrible country to live in. Is it really?
I would not deny that we are in a better situation if you compare Malaysia to a few Third World countries. But we must always strive to be better. We should not settle for less. We can become a better nation if people in power do their duty and the wealthy just share one per cent of their wealth.

Some people say the New Economic Policy is not fair to every race and should be abolished. What is your view?
The New Economic Policy doesn’t benefit all the Malays. Any policy should help the marginalised regardless of race, religion and sex. Of course the poorest should get more help. But in this country the rich seem to get more help. Look at how the RM5 billion from the EPF is used to save the share market. But who benefits from the share market ... the rich.
Since we are not an overpopulated country, I believe everyone should be given land. Instead, we are giving hundreds of thousands of acres to one particular individual.
I do not have problems with people who want to be rich. But I have problems with their method of becoming rich. Are they becoming rich through corruption? Are they becoming rich through the misery of others?

What is the biggest single change you like to see in the country?
Everyone should be entitled to free education at any time and at any age from kindergarten to university.

Is it possible to give free education to everyone?
Why not? If the government can spend millions on weapons, then the government can certainly invest in education and give it free to everyone. This can be done if there is a will. This can be done if there is honesty. In this country, people treat education as a privilege. That should not be the case. We do not have a very good education system but every Malaysian should get it for free.

Why do you say our education system is not good?
I am not the only one saying so. Not so long so ago, Royal Professor Ungku Aziz said that our universities have become like factories that produce graduates. That is enough to say something is wrong with our education system.

What is wrong with our education system?
Our education system doesn’t make us human. If we were human enough, we would have abolished the ISA a long time ago.

People say the ISA is necessary to maintain stability.
It is because people like you buy whatever the government tells you. It is propaganda. We should ask for whom is the ISA providing stability? Do you notice whenever there is a crisis in Umno, there is a rise in the use of ISA?

Some may say that your suggestion to give land to everyone and provide free education is ridiculous. What is your comment?
We always talk about a caring society. But caring in what sense? Do we really care? Are we just interested to make profit? Obviously, we are not so poor compared to some poor countries. We can do this. Like I said earlier, if the people in power do their duty and the rich share one per cent of their wealth, our country can become a better nation.

Speaking of education, you never completed your bachelor’s degree in economics. You left on your last semester. Why?
I think it is an ego thing. I felt I was much better than the lecturers (laughs). I have a big problem with our education system. There was a Reformasi movement going on and some of the economic theories were outdated. The quest of knowledge was static. You are not encouraged to have a discussion. The lecturers want you to read and follow. To an extent you were becoming the voice of the government. University should be a place where you have discussions about everything. But that was not happening. At that time, my extracurricular activities were more interesting. I was involved in UBU (University Bangsar Utama). It is not a real university. We had forums, discussions and demonstrations. We even conducted free education classes for poor urban children. We did theatre. I also read many books. One book that changed my life was Syed Husin Ali’s Dua Wajah, tahanan tanpa bicara. It talked about ISA, student movements and changes. So one day, I just stopped going for my classes.

Looking back, seven years later, do you have any regrets not getting your degree?
For the first two years, the university kept sending me letters, asking me to continue my last semester and get my bachelor’s degree. But I didn’t take up the offer. I could not stand my life there. I was becoming disillusioned. I felt I was becoming an alien. I was young. It should have been an interesting period in my life but the university didn’t offer me that. Without me going through this kind of process, I would not have become what I am today. If I had followed the "common road", I would have become a boring person. I have no regrets.

There are many people who do not get a chance to enter university. But you wasted your opportunity. What is your comment?
I got into the university on merit. I didn’t get any supporting letter from people in power. So it is my choice if I wanted to stop my studies.

What did your family say?
Obviously they did not like it. They wanted me to have the same dream the majority have – you study hard, you get a good education, you get a good job with a good salary, and you get a wife and start a family. When you live a comfortable life, your life will be contented and you live happily ever after. But I do not think that is how things work in life.

Some people feel you are not Muslim enough because you have tattoos and draw portraits.
Then we should not follow the modern economy that the non-Muslims have created. Then we should not have cars and buildings too. Religion should be a personal relationship between you and your maker. Do not let politics creep into religion.

Who is the one great influence in your life?
My mother. She was a single mother who had raised ten children. She was an industrialist – she was one of the earliest factory workers (laughs). She was tough and independent. My parents divorced a long time ago, and then my father died. I didn’t know much about him.

When you left the university, your mother must have been disappointed. Did you feel bad, breaking her heart?
Yes, I contributed to her sadness and disappointment. Me stopping my studies was not the worst thing to happen in her life. She had faced far worst sadness.

Tell me something about your early years?
I was naughty in school. Nearing the SPM examinations, I was expelled from school. I went to work in a market, helping a butcher. I thought that would be my world.
Later a friend convinced me to resume my studies. Surprisingly, I passed my exams. I even went on to Form Six and passed my STPM with distinction. Then I applied to Universiti Malaya and did Economics. I thought I would be working in a bank. I was ready to change from a naughty teen to a working class urban male. But that didn’t take place

Did you ever get into trouble over your art?
May be the authorities didn’t know what was going on in the art world. But if they wanted to give me trouble, they could have. The worst trouble I ever got was when a Malay tabloid carried a front-page story attacking a Malay artist with tattoos and who was free in his thinking. Of course the paper did not mention my name. I am lucky in the sense that I have not really got into any trouble with the authorities.

You like to call yourself anak semua bangsa di bumi manusia. Why?
My favourite author is Pramoedya Ananta Toer (the famous Indonesian novelist). Among his many books are Anak Semua Bangsa and Bumi Manusia. I combined both titles.
A big problem in this country is people define themselves by looking at another person’s race. One will define himself as Malay by looking at the Chinese, one will define himself as Chinese by looking at the Malay, one will define himself as Indian by looking at other races and the list goes on. But that should not be the way how we define our existence. We all are anak semua bangsa.

What is the biggest obstacle you face as an artist?
Artists should not be restricted by obstacles. Pramoedya wrote some of his best novels in prison. Fyodor Dostoevsky (a Russian novelist) spent four years in a prison camp in Siberia doing hard labour and yet he produced some of the best works in the literature world.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Amri Rohayat

Here is another article that gives you a glimpes of what is taking place in our literature scene. The article appeared in the sun on Feb 19 2009 .

Headline: Writing to tell a story

Storyteller and publisher Amri Rohayat is interested in adding new colour to the Malay literary scene. He wants to bring in contemporary voices and vibrant ideas. The 40-year-old talks to BISSME S. about the local literary scene, the usage of Bahasa Malaysia and racism.

What is the philosophy behind your imprint, Stormkitchen?
A stormkitchen is this cheap cooker you use on camping trips. It is simple and utilitarian. That is the underlying philosophy: to make writing fun. Even frivolous.
My belief and experience is that young Malays are repressed. Our society behaves like it does not welcome young ideas … That these youngsters have no value. Fair enough. But we still need to give the young an outlet to express themselves safely before it gets too late. Otherwise it will be like a pressure cooker without a safety valve. But there are not many places where they can be creative and expressive. I wanted to give them one such platform. If they go to mainstream publications, they are unlikely to get published.

Why do you think the mainstream publications wouldn’t publish their fiction?
Maybe it is simply the job of the mainstream anywhere to not tolerate alternative viewpoints. Or maybe it is simply because often there are no messages in these "karya picisan" (unimportant works). When I first started out I was often asked: "What is the message of the story? What is the moral?" But heck, not every story needs to have a moral purpose.

Some people believe writers should change the world by having moral messages in their works. Don’t you agree with that?
Yes. A writer needs to be aware that whatever he writes will have an influence on at least someone. If words have no weight then people would not have burnt books or prosecuted writers throughout history. But honestly, a writer of fiction should write for no reason other than to tell a story. It is not for the writer to guide society. In the realm of fiction, the story should operate on its own moral terms. That is what separates it from reality.
I do believe that writers have a responsibility, but that responsibility is simply that they should be true to themselves. Anyone who writes deliberately with a subtext in mind is being manipulative, if not naive. Today you cannot dictate what the subtext is going to be anymore.

Is it true that the National Library refused to launch one of your books, Aweks KL?
Yes. They said the book was not suitable for their target audience. I have no problems with that. If you go to somebody’s house, it is his rules. So when somebody comes to my house, I expect the same: they will have to follow my rules. But that is not what is happening today. People come to my house and keep wanting to impose their rules on me. (We laugh)

Is it true that a writer refused to let his work be featured in Aweks KL?
Yes. I liked his poems and wanted to feature them. At first he was okay with it. But then he saw the cover. He said it was repulsive and demeaning to women. He asked me to consider changing the cover. I said I would think about it. So I thought about it and I stuck with the cover. He decided to pull out, which was a surprise. He saw an image of debauchery. I saw a reflection of something happening among us. A seedy secret that no one wants to discuss or acknowledge, about how women are viewed and treated.

What is the biggest challenge you faced in running your publishing house?
First of all, this is not a proper publishing house. Stormkitchen is not even a registered company. It is not a business. I don’t intend to make money out of it. It is just a hobby, something I do when I have the cash to spare.
Elarti is supposed to be a quarterly magazine. But I have to make it an annual for a couple of reasons. The first is financial: the money comes out of my pocket. The second is practical: we just don’t get enough quality contributions. And my bar is not set very high, so that ought to give you something to think about. Or maybe I am just not reaching the right kind of crowd. Most contributors are still sticking to convention. It goes back to how we have been raised. I think it is also a cultural thing. Traditionally, the Malays are not outspoken. Even when we criticise, we are very polite. We do not say things directly to your face. For example, if you asked us to do something, we always say "Insya Allah" even when we already know we are not going to do it. It is one of the things I admire about this culture, but these days it is not always the right solution.

Some people say the works you publish are not high literature?
Some have also said Histeria (his first movie script) is trashy, shallow and has no meaning. They are right. I was told to write a B-grade movie and that is exactly what I did … the kind of Sunday matinee I used to enjoy watching when I was 10 or 1. You get engrossed for an hour or two and then it is over and you simply get back to your life.
People really should have better things to do than to centre their lives on movies, celebrities and literature. Right now I am interested in digging up new voices and pushing them into the public consciousness. So that people can see what others are thinking about. I would rather have literature manifest by accident.
You fire up an active cauldron where a lot of things are simmering, and then, some day, maybe, the best works rise up to the top. Forget about creating anything or leaving a mark to soothe your insecure feelings of mortality. You should do what you feel needs to be done and let everything else take care of itself. Good works will eventually get noticed on their own merit. Or not. But if you just do what you believe in, then it does not really matter.

Speaking of Histeria, you added a touch of lesbianism in the movie and it attracted a certain amount of controversy. Did you put the scene just to be controversial?
No. It was supposed to be a reflection of the culture in a girls boarding school. That’s it. Some people have said the film is generally illogical. If you left out lesbianism in a story about an all-girls boarding school, now that to me would be illogical. I was not making a judgment call either. I did not put it in there to either praise or condemn the behaviour. It is what it is. I just wanted to document things as I found them. Plus, I thought shooting that scene would be hot. It almost did not get made. And I was not there when it was shot, sadly.

If you are not making money from Stormkitchen, why are you doing this?
It is corporate social responsibility on a personal level. I freelance by doing copywriting, graphic design and corporate videos. All very commercial. So this is my way to atone for my sins of making money through shallow means (We laugh). Seriously though, there should be more to life than just making a living. I know a lot of people say that, but it’s not reflected in how they live and behave. When you talk about nation-building these days, a lot of the focus is on the economics. The government should also stress the intangibles: culture, civilisation and giving space for people to be creative.

What is your view on culture?
Culture has become stagnant and stereotypical here. For a culture to survive, you need to keep changing. You need to keep adapting. But for some reason it all stopped evolving in the 80’s. We keep repeating the same old themes. We keep writing the same old way. It has also become insular and inward-looking. This is not how it used to be. I can still remember when art and literature were still an integral part of society. I would go to a relative’s house in Ulu Atok or wherever, and they’d have paintings done by a member of the family on display. There would be tattered and yellowing books of poetry lying around. If you look at it from a bigger perspective, Malay culture has been adapting and evolving throughout its life.
When we were Buddhist and Hindu, you saw a lot of Buddhist and Hindu elements in our culture. When we became Muslims, you saw a lot of Islamic influences. But now it has stopped, as if someone had said, "Okay, the culture is already perfect now so let’s put it in a tin." Worse, wholesale parts of the culture are being either Americanised or Arabified.

So you believe a culture should not stop evolving?
Of course! If you want to be a great culture, you have to borrow. Otherwise it becomes incestuous. Eventually the culture will become genetically defective. Again, I do not like it either, but it is something you can’t run away from. The Greeks borrowed heavily from the Egyptians and Persians, the Persians from the Indians and so on. There has always been cross-pollination. There should be no shame in it; it is how great civilisations are born.
But now they say, we should not borrow from the West. But culture tends to follow the predominant civilisation. And the West is this epoch’s predominant civilisation. So how do you resist the osmosis? Yet, we have to be smart about it. What we need to do is borrow, not ape. The Japanese absorb a lot of Western culture and they turn these influences into something very Japanese. Same thing happens in Indonesia. But the problem here is, we merely like to ape. We do not take an idea, internalise it and come out with our own take.
For example, some people are saying US has a black president, then we must have one too. But who understands what the blacks in America had to go through to get where they are? Every country should have its own natural evolution.

You said you don’t get stories out of the box. Why do you think this happens?
Limited reach, mainly. I have not been promoting the publications as much as I should. But on a wider scale I think it has something do with the government’s clamp down on student activism in universities since the 1970’s. It has a downstream effect. Once you clamp down activism in campus, people become docile. You get followers who cannot think. Eventually everything slows down or stops.

You think the government made a mistake by not allowing politics among university students?
They thought it was necessary and I agree with their reasoning. I do not think the government is deliberately evil, despite what some people say. They just did what they thought had to be done. I have no idea why, but it seems to me that with most Malay boys, they will find any excuse not to study. If you allowed them to indulge in politicking, then that is all they are going to do.
Some Malay students in the 1970’s were squandering the opportunities being handed to them on a golden platter. They had the hopes of an entire people on their shoulders, and all they used it for was their own selfish gains, masked in a cloak of "berjuang untuk rakyat" (fighting for the people).
If you want to dedicate your sole focus into fighting for that ideal, fine, but don’t whine when the government tries to take away your scholarships and insist that it is "your right".

What other government policies do you feel have failed?
I do not think the government planned for failure. Not at first, at any rate. The problem as I see it is that they like to implement a policy in reaction to a problem. Once they think they have plugged that leak, they think that’s it, job done, and they move on to other leaks. They forget to keep monitoring the previous policy, so that it may be amended or adapted as the situation changes. So in time the policy gets calcified, and it becomes the way things are done.
This constant monitoring mechanism must be consciously written into the original plan. Surely you have to realise that all policies have side effects. But when you fail to monitor, you won’t know what the side effects are. So when those side effects come up, you think it is a new problem, which you can solve with another, unrelated policy.
For instance, Britain took 200 years to go from an agrarian society to an industrialised one. We did it in 20 years! The government’s plan for rapid industrialisation may have achieved the target to create a sizable urban Malay population. But I also believe that the disastrous fallout from this accelerated process has not been addressed even now.
What happened was you got a new generation of Malays who became rootless. They no longer had a strong sense of identity. It gets worse over the generations. And now you have all these weird social ills, which everyone thinks is just a new phenomena.

What is the biggest change you would like to see taking place in the literary scene?
I would like to see more non-Malays reading and writing Malay proficiently. Making it their own. It is about building a common national identity. I hear people talk about Malaysian Malaysia all the time. And then they won’t even wear a songkok, as if it is somehow beneath them.
Recently, I read a piece where the columnist suggested that since some politicians can’t speak Malay properly in Parliament, why don’t they make MPs speak in English. "After all, this is Malaysia," he says. If this is Malaysia, then people should be speaking Bahasa Malaysia. I swear, smart people are sometimes so smart that they become stupid.

What do you think about racism in Malaysia?
To hear people talk today, it is as if only one side has that bias. My ex-boss, who was a white American, lamented once that in the US, a white man cannot even use the "N" word without expecting some kind of backlash, but the blacks can create entire comedy performances based on ridiculing white people. These days, in some crowds, I know exactly how he feels. A racist does not just make derogatory remarks. At heart he would be someone who not only wants his own race to win all the time, but also actively stops another race from succeeding or wants to keep them subjugated. You can find those people in any race.

Do you think the Malays still need the NEP?
Yes. As a businessman, I say it is still a useful counterbalance. All this talk about competing on price and merit is fine if we had a level playing field. I remain to be convinced that we do. When you can guarantee that a Malay, a Chinese or an Indian who goes to the same supplier will get the same prices or deals, only then should the NEP be abolished.
In terms of education, I think a review should already be made in the urban areas, where there are large populations of affluent Malays. Especially when those parents had already benefited from the NEP themselves, even though I know some have not even bothered to pay back their study loans. I have met some of these loan defaulters who are anti-NEP. Go figure. It goes back to the entitlement mentality again.

Do you think the NEP has any weaknesses?
Any system has a weakness. It was there to provide us with a leg up but it has become a life-long crutch. I had one middle-aged guy say to me: "I am not going to be a beggar in my own land." The irony was he did not see that he was already begging, with his dependence on the subsidies being given to him for his farms. I think the NEP needs to be modified. You give assistance to a certain point. You don’t keep supporting them if they keep failing. You need to keep weeding out the hopeless cases. When you know that every time you fail there will be something for you to fall back on, it creates a weak society.

As a writer do you believe in total freedom of speech?
I don’t. I think people who advocate it don’t really know what they are asking. I have a feeling that at the end of the day, they won’t like what they’ll get. If you examine it, I think you will quickly find that actually they don’t support freedom of speech, either. They would just like to be the ones to control what gets to be said and what does not, that’s all.
I also think that somehow they do not see freedom of speech as being inseparably intertwined with action. They seem to think that they can get away with saying anything they like. They don’t see words as a form of action itself. I find this odd.
The American serial killer Charles Manson uses this defence frequently. He says all he did was talk. His young disciples had gone on their murder spree of their own accord. He never held a gun to their heads. All of which is true, of course. So if you believe in the freedom for someone to say whatever they wish, then you must campaign for Charles Manson to be set free.

What is the biggest misconception that people have about you?
They think I am a liberal. I am not a liberal. Not a conservative either. I am as liberal as the Quran permits me, and as conservative as it requires me to be. I err and transgress from time to time. But I try to stay on that path. I try to stick to the principles.
So when I see racism on the other side I have to call it for what it is, not make up excuses like "They are still young" or whatever. So I get in trouble with both sides every now and then. I used to critique the conservatives more, but now that the liberals are winning the battle, I find myself commenting on them more often these days, because I find them to be just as corrupt.

Who are the people who influenced you?
The five women who raised me. My mother, grandmother, my aunt (my mother’s elder sister), my mum’s cousin, and one maid who stayed with us for a while. I saw the world through their eyes. The men in my life were largely absent. So I grew up empathising more with the female agenda.

You like to go against the current. Why don’t you go with the flow?
I don’t intentionally want to be rebellious. I think God, for some reason, made it so that there will be people who are always fighting the current. I did try to be mainstream; follow the script, toe the line. But I didn’t get satisfaction or peace of mind. Every two years I would "awaken" and need to find something new to do.