Dis­courses on civil lib­er­ties

The tu­mul­tuous 1980s spurred the emer­gence of nov­els ad­dress­ing na­tional is­sues like civil lib­er­ties in the 1990s.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By CHUAH GUAT ENG star2@thes­tar.com.my

SO­CIAL prob­lems such as poverty and racial or gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion played a sig­nif­i­cant role in much of post-1965 Malaysian English­language nov­els. But the is­sue of civil lib­er­ties was never a sub­ject for lit­er­ary ex­plo­ration un­til the pub­li­ca­tion in 1993 of Lloyd Fer­nando’s Green Is The Colour and K.S. Ma­niam’s In A Far Coun­try, and, in 1994, my novel, Echoes Of Si­lence.

These nov­els can be read on many lev­els, of course, but read as dis­courses on civil lib­er­ties, their main con­cerns are fairly clear. The main con­cern in Green is a pathol­ogy of the lust for power. Far Coun­try ex­am­ines the pros and cons of im­pos­ing one’s culture and val­ues on oth­ers. Echoes ex­am­ines the rea­sons for our so­ci­ety’s tol­er­ance for in­jus­tice. Here, I shall dis­cuss only the first two nov­els be­cause they both deal with is­sues of op­pres­sive con­trol.

Green is set in an imag­i­nary Malaysia that is al­most a po­lice state. Peo­ple are still haunted by the mem­ory of the May 1969 racial ri­ots, the racial har­mony en­vi­sioned by the muhib­bah pro­gramme of the 1970s is but a fond mem­ory, clashes caused by racial and re­li­gious big­otry are rife, and cur­fews and mil­i­tary checks are ev­ery­day oc­cur­rences.

As a re­sult, the coun­try is di­vided into three zones, each con­trolled by an ide­o­log­i­cal fac­tion. The dom­i­nant fac­tion wants a na­tion of peo­ple with a sin­gle cul­tural and re­li­gious iden­tity; the mas­ter­mind be­hind the fac­tion is Pan­glima. Op­pos­ing him is the “lib­eral” fac­tion want­ing a cul­tur­ally plu­ral na­tion, and its most vo­cal ad­vo­cate is Dahlan, a lawyer with nei­ther po­si­tion nor power. The third fac­tion is rep­re­sented by Le­bai Hanafiah, who teaches the Is­lam of tol­er­ance tra­di­tion­ally prac­tised by lo­cal Malays be­fore the ad­vent of ex­trem­ists.

As a fic­tional char­ac­ter, Pan­glima is prob­a­bly the most vi­cious and de­vi­ous vil­lain ever con­ceived in the his­tory of Malaysian nov­els in English; he is, in short, a psy­chopath. Of du­bi­ous ori­gin, he grew up in Ran­goon in Burma (now Yangon and Myan­mar) and then worked his bru­tal and crim­i­nal way through Thai­land, from Chiang Mai to the south, where he be­came a Mus­lim and mar­ried a lo­cal woman. From there he slipped into Malaysia and passed him­self off as Malay.

When the story be­gins, he is po­lit­i­cal sec­re­tary to the Min­is­ter of Home Af­fairs, a po­si­tion he uses to ac­quire clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion about in­di­vid­u­als com­piled by the min­istry so that he can con­trol them. His pri­mary method of staying in power is by in­cit­ing racial and re­li­gious clashes, cre­at­ing what we would now call “false flag” in­ci­dents, which pro­vide him with op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­mit or in­sti­gate acts that break nearly ev­ery rule in the book on civil lib­er­ties: covert surveil­lance, sud­den and un­rea­son­able searches of peo­ple’s homes, kan­ga­roo courts, tor­ture, and rape.

As with most dystopian nar­ra­tives, Green is a cau­tion­ary tale. Pan­glima’s vic­tims are those who are too idealistic and/or naive to see through his sur­face charm. If the novel is read in the con­text of the so­cio-po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in the 1980s (the decade marked by the re­pres­sive Op­er­a­tion Lalang as well as Con­sti­tu­tional and ju­di­cial crises in­volv­ing the cur­tail­ing of royal pow­ers and the re­moval of the Chief Jus­tice) it is worth not­ing that the char­ac­ters most dam­aged or de­stroyed by Pan­glima are Malay. Sara, the young woman he rapes loses her mind; Le­bai Hanafiah, her fa­ther, suf­fers a stroke and even­tu­ally dies from it af­ter an unan­nounced visit by the re­li­gious po­lice ac­cus­ing him of de­viant teach­ings; and Dahlan is tor­tured to death.

Far Coun­try takes a to­tally dif­fer­ent ap­proach to the is­sue of op­pres­sive con­trol. The civil lib­er­ties dealt with are of a dif­fer­ent kind. They lie more in the area of the Uni­ver­sal Dec­la­ra­tion of Lin­guis­tic Rights (also known as the Barcelona Dec­la­ra­tion 1996), which sup­ports the right of in­di­vid­u­als, es­pe­cially if they be­long to mi­nori­ties, to en­joy their own culture, prac­tice their own re­li­gion, use their own lan­guage, and pre­serve their cul­tural his­tory or her­itage. Fur­ther, it is the nar­ra­tor, Ra­jan, who is the con­trol freak and who has to learn tol­er­ance and em­pa­thy.

The novel is writ­ten as if it is a col­lec­tion of Ra­jan’s jour­nal en­tries, made when he is an older man look­ing back on his life. The en­tries tell of his for­ma­tive years; how, as the English-ed­u­cated son of es­tate work­ers, he feels alien­ated from his par­ents’ way of life. How he grad­u­ally ab­sorbs and adopts, on the one hand, the sci­en­tific and ra­tio­nal­is­tic val­ues of his ed­u­ca­tion, and on the other, the na­tional im­per­a­tive to re­ject both his cul­tural and the coun­try’s colo­nial her­itage.

A ma­jor part of the nar­ra­tive tells of how he tries to im­pose these per­sonal val­ues on those around him – col­leagues, friends, his chil­dren, and his wife – and the con­se­quences; and what hap­pens when oth­ers try to im­pose their cul­tural be­liefs and val­ues on him.

Far Coun­try is about re­spect­ing other peo­ple’s civil lib­er­ties, and it re­quires care­ful and thought­ful read­ing be­cause it is nar­rated as a mix­ture of mem­o­ries and philo­soph­i­cal ob­ser­va­tions.

In the run-up to Merdeka Day on Aug 31, we cel­e­brate lo­cal lit­er­a­ture with a fort­nightly 10-part se­ries on how home­grown English lan­guage nov­els fit into the na­tion’s story; this is the eighth in­stal­ment.

Chuah Guat Eng is a Malaysian au­thor whose works in­clude two nov­els (Echoes Of Si­lence and Days Of Change) and three col­lec­tions of short sto­ries (Tales From The Baram River, The Old House And Other Sto­ries and Dream Stuff ). Cur­rently, she teaches fic­tion writ­ing at two uni­ver­si­ties in Malaysia.

Con­cerns about erod­ing civil lib­er­ties and cul­tural hege­mony be­gan to emerge in lo­cal fic­tion in the 1990s. — Filepic

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