Are we too sen­si­tive?

Are we los­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to have a di­verse range of views on sen­si­tive sub­jects like race be­cause of self-cen­sor­ship?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Opinion - star2@thes­ Dzof Azmi

THE TV series Game Of Thrones is a global hit, but showrun­ners David Be­nioff and David Weiss have con­firmed they will be turn­ing their back on drag­ons and dwarves and start­ing on a new project next year. The hope, of course, is that his­tory will re­peat it­self with an­other megahit for the duo. But in­stead of fans froth­ing with ex­cite­ment over their new show, they are tak­ing to Twit­ter foam­ing with anger.

This is be­cause Be­nioff and Weiss are two white guys who are go­ing to write a fan­tasy show about slav­ery.

OK, I’m be­ing sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic. The press re­lease talks about their new show Con­fed­er­ate ex­plor­ing an al­ter­nate time­line in the United States “in which slav­ery re­mains le­gal and has evolved into a mod­ern in­sti­tu­tion”.

Racism is such a sen­si­tive topic in the United States that it was bound to spark a re­ac­tion. As Mal­colm Spell­man, one of the other showrun­ners said, “You’re deal­ing with weapons-grade ma­te­rial here” (­fed­er­ate).

In com­par­i­son, work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about the for­ma­tion of Malaysia seems fairly low-key, in­deed. But part of the rea­son why I was in­ter­ested in tak­ing part is be­cause so much of our con­ver­sa­tion in present Malaysian pol­i­tics seems to be tinged with race.

Take for ex­am­ple the so­cial con­tract. If you don’t know what it is, it is the ar­range­ment be­tween those in the Al­liance (com­pris­ing Umno, MCA and MIC be­fore Barisan Na­sional) that al­legedly re­sulted in at least two clauses in the Fed­eral Con­sti­tu­tion: One grant­ing cit­i­zen­ship to for­eign im­mi­grants and their off­spring, an­other grant­ing the Agong the re­spon­si­bil­ity of safe­guard­ing the spe­cial po­si­tion of the Malays and lo­cal na­tives.

On the sur­face, the two clauses have noth­ing to do with each other. But mod­ern-day politi­cians would re­mind you oth­er­wise.

“Why are there still those who do not re­spect this agree­ment? If the Malays can ac­cept it by not rais­ing the mat­ter of cit­i­zen­ship and ac­knowl­edg­ing that we can­not shut down ver­nac­u­lar schools, why are there those among non-Malays who refuse to honour what they have pre­vi­ously agreed upon?”. That was what Khairy Ja­malud­din said to the Umno gen­eral as­sem­bly a few years ago (

Is this what the his­tory of Malaysia hinges on? War­ring races that found a mid­dle road of ap­pease­ment?

Since so much of cur­rent po­lit­i­cal de­bate seems en­trenched in race, for the doc­u­men­tary I de­cided I would try to tell the story of Malaysian his­tory that would find its ex­pla­na­tions in other ar­eas.

I imag­ined a story that talked about wan­ing Bri­tish im­pe­ri­al­ism that could no longer sup­port its out­ly­ing ter­ri­to­ries. Of how in their search for a suit­able suc­ces­sor they found a Malay prince equally com­fort­able ad­dress­ing a sul­tan in a royal palace and hob­nob­bing with gov­er­nor-gen­er­als at the res­i­dence, Car­cosa. And how his anoint­ment as a suc­ces­sor paved the way for a smooth with­drawal of Bri­tish rule. There would be no, or min­i­mal, ref­er­ence to race.

I failed mis­er­ably.

If you watched the doc­u­men­tary Road To Na­tion­hood last year, you would in­stead have seen the story pre­sented this way: Datuk Onn Jaa­far suc­cess­fully led the Malays to a seat at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble with the Bri­tish. But when he sug­gested that Umno should rep­re­sent more than just the Malays, he was re­jected by his own party. And in the elec­tions, his mul­tira­cial In­de­pen­dence for Malaya Party lost out to the loose al­liance of racially-aligned po­lit­i­cal par­ties of Umno, MCA, and MIC.

In a democ­racy you get the gov­ern­ment you de­serve. And the politi­cians we have right now seem to be the only ones talk­ing about race is­sues in Malaysia.

Should this be the case? Isn’t it the point that a di­ver­sity of views is bet­ter than a sin­gle monochro­matic voice? Yes, the Game Of Thrones showrun­ners may have a point of view about racism that doesn’t line up with what black Amer­ica thinks. But if they present it re­spon­si­bly, by re­search­ing the is­sues thor­oughly and then com­ing to their own con­clu­sions – wouldn’t that be bet­ter than say­ing only the black view is the right view?

It is hard to dis­cuss is­sues of race in the me­dia right now. The key word is “sen­si­tiv­ity” when it comes to por­tray­ing in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships in dra­mas. If you have a non-Malay as the lead in a Malay drama, you can be sure there will be dis­cus­sion about whether he should be Mus­lim or not.

But as a re­sult of this self-cen­sor­ship, we are los­ing an op­por­tu­nity to have a di­verse range of views on the sub­ject.

It’s im­por­tant to note that the third and fourth pro­duc­ers of Con­fed­er­ate, Mal­colm Spell­man and his wife Nichelle, are black. Nichelle said the show is an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore “how we could draw par­al­lels be­tween what has been de­scribed as Amer­ica’s orig­i­nal sin to a present-day con­ver­sa­tion”.

The next doc­u­men­tary I’m in­volved in will be about the for­ma­tion of Malaysia. How Sabah and Sarawak got on board and how Sin­ga­pore got out. And if while watch­ing that you think some of what is said or done seems pre­scient, then re­mem­ber the phrase: “His­tory re­peats it­self”.

Logic is the an­tithe­sis of emo­tion but math­e­ma­ti­cian-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s the­ory is that peo­ple need both to make sense of life’s va­garies and con­tra­dic­tions.

Isn’t it the point that a di­ver­sity of views is bet­ter than a sin­gle monochro­matic voice?

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