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.

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