I don’t like KL. It’s filthy, chaotic, and littered with shady characters acting as if they own the place. After sundown, it gets worse. The high-pitched sounds of traffic are replaced by dark desires that rumble in low decibels. The emancipated man at the bus-stop becomes a drug addict in need of fast cash; the shifty-eyed man sweeping floors becomes a sex-starved maniac whose wife is a continent and a half away. You don’t need much imagination to commit a crime.
Yet, here is the heart—and soul—of the nation. More pertinently to me at least, here is its arts scene, buzzing and beating harder since The Annexe opened its doors to the public. Twice this month, I’ve ended up here alone, at night, praying on the LRT that I don’t get mugged or raped or assaulted or battered or harassed or decapitated (maybe you do need some imagination after all) while walking the 200 metres or so from Pasar Seni station to The Annexe and back. It’s not the wisest thing to do, but somehow the friends I ask to come along always can’t make it. Grrr.
Fortunately then, for both my solitary nighttime adventures, my mind came back piqued by a new idea, a new concept, a new insight. In other words, the hassle was worth it.
And so I decided to risk my life tonight because a historical documentary called Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka by virginal filmmaker Fahmi Reza was being screened. For free. I tend to avoid historical stuff because it has such a powerful effect on me, leaving me snoring and unconsciously sniffing at the next person’s shirt, which I can’t decide in my sleep is a durian or not, but tonight’s doco won The Most Outstanding Human Rights Film award at this year’s Freedom Film Fest organised by Komas, while excerpts from reviews, plonked into the promo postcard, all praised it. I am a sucker for ratings and good reviews, so I was sold.
Basically (which means I don’t remember the details), the documentary covers the period from 1945-1948 in Malaya, and brings to life a historical nugget missing from our Sejarah textbooks—of how left-wing political parties formed a multi-racial coalition that demanded independence from the British, and came up with a referendum dubbed the People’s Constitution. This version of history is gleaned from archived text, historical commentaries and interviews with former leaders and members of these parties. The snappy editing and music choice helped heaps in sustaining interest, and a particularly humorous section comparing this alternative referendum against UMNO/Britain’s referendum hit the nail on the head. Oh, and I love the fonts.
But the highlight of this doco is an event that has been blanked out by the authors of our history books. In 1947, after the British refused to cater to the wishlist of the multiracial coalition of Putera-AMCJA, a Brit-educated Baba called Tan Cheng Lock suggested a hartal as a way of getting their attention. Having spent time in India, his inspiration came from Gandhi and Nehru, who were also fighting for independence from the Brits and had used this strategy successfully many times. The idea was tested out in several states, and, having been found successful, thousands of flyers announcing a nationwide hartal for 20th October 1947 were printed by the printing presses belonging to the Chinese merchants (an ally) and distributed. Finally, the day dawned. During this hartal, the rakyat showed their support for independence by closing all shops and staying in. Business came to a standstill, costing the fuming Brits 4 million pounds—a huge sum in that day. It was the biggest single public demonstration our nation has seen, yet most Malaysians don’t know anything about it. (Unfortunately, as history has proven, the British Government still did not acknowledge the voice of the rakyat demanding freedom, and only granted us independence 10 years later.)
Even if you’re not a history buff, rest assured that this documentary is as accessible as any mamak in Malaysia. And we were lucky to have Fahmi in attendance for a discussion session after the screening. It helped in understanding more about how the Government (the hand that weaves those historical words) either claims a piece of history as theirs, or plays other events down, championing instead their political agendas. Meanwhile, the left-wing leaders who also struggled for independence either ended up in jail or in silence, their sacrifices all but wiped out.
The event left me with several questions and impressions. Would a hartal of sorts work in today’s Malaysia, in the event that the ruling Government acted way out of line? Who would organise it? Or even if some left-wing group tried to organise say, a total boycott of government-linked companies like Petronas, would the man on the street be afraid of being openly accused as a Government detractor? What would the effect be of screening this film ahead of the elections to the younger generation, especially Malays, who seek a different Malay role model other than the keris-waving drama queen? The documentary showed progressive-minded Malay leaders of yesteryear, who did not talk all day about racial issues so as to divide and remind us of our differences, but instead focused on gaining independence through unity.
Fahmi also brought up the point of how our textbooks keep emphasising racial divisions, but fail to mention segregation by class, which has had more impact on our nation’s state and laws than you and I would probably like to know. It’s certainly stuff to think about, and an interesting alternative to those who find it hard to entrust an entire nation’s future to UMNO’s present leaders, or their ability to write truthful textbooks.