- A Malaysian Inquisition?
- Malaysians Seen Curbing Spending as Living Costs Surge: Economy
- Google pays tribute to film-maker Yasmin Ahmad with doodle
Posted: 06 Jan 2014 08:48 PM PST
The latest PETRONAS festive advertisement predictably continues their expected mushiness. This time elderly men in an old folks' home are adopted by an employee for a Deepavali day out, complete with climbing up Batu Caves, beautiful vistas of Malaysian mountains, a durian pit stop and a festive family meal. As always, viewers have reacted positively, touched to tears by the sweet relationships on show.
But there is something different about this advertisement. The elephant in the room has not gone unnoticed. The group celebrating Deepavali consists of a young Indian woman, 2 elderly Indian men and their Chinese friend. Malays are conspicuously absent from the celebrations.
The only Malay we see is a young lady behind the counter at a gas station. She is friendly and tolerantly amused by the old men's antics, but she is not included. She is not their friend and she is working on a religious holiday not her own. In fact, there are no Malay residents at the old folks' home either (because, of course, no Malay would abandon their parents, right?).
The reason for this is all too obvious for those of us who have lived through the changes in Malaysian society since the 1980s. Despite all the talk and pride in being a multi-religious, multi-ethnic nation, Malays have increasingly been segregated and even self-segregated themselves from taking part in the lives of other races, especially anything remotely religious.
Perhaps the producers of this Deepavali advertisement were being intentionally subversive. More likely, they have, instead, internalised the inter-religious rules hardening in our society today, rules that would never countenance a Malay in a temple, much less being blessed with pottu on the forehead by an Indian priest.
The media is very sensitive to these written and unwritten rules that they judiciously self-censor. A Malaysian director told of a Censorship Board staff, unofficially informing him that had he made his movie about non-Malays, he would have had no trouble getting certified. But with Malay characters, the officials were uncomfortable even when nothing in the broadcast guidelines would rule out the fairly innocuous plot.
And so Malay movies are now reduced to gangsters, hantu (ghost) and virginalustazahs who fall in love with their rapists. We still deify those wonderful P. Ramlee movies with their social commentaries running through the slapstick comedies and the overwrought dramas, but we are no longer allowed to make them.
Like many Malaysians, I grew up with unthinking acceptance of open houses with all races eating together, celebrating each other's festivals. In fact I grew up in Penang, dancing behind the Thaipusam parade, going to churches for weddings, crying loudly at Chinese funerals (admittedly for money) and lepaking (loafing) at the Thai temple grounds because their gardens are lovely and the Buddhist priests were friendly.
But now all these things have become problematic – a minefield of nervous non-Muslims worried that invitations to meals would be rebuffed as their cutlery would be deemed 'unclean' and nervous Muslims afraid of raids, arrests, social opprobrium and legal harangues simply for entering a church or temple, working for non-Muslims, allowing another faith to worship in a surau or caring for dogs.
Analogues to the Inquisition?
It reminds me of a 'funny' period in European history. To my mind, Malaysia is now showing all the signs of becoming medieval Spain. Perhaps there's a thing or two we can learn from a brief comparison.
Under Muslim rule and early post-Muslim Christian rule, Andalusian kingdoms were often models of tolerance where cultures were shared and different religions could live side-by-side in relative peace and harmony.
And they were not completely separated communities; despite maintaining their own identities and rituals, they interacted richly, creating a flowering of culture, arts and science. Most famously, Greek science and philosophy flowed into Europe through this channel, an effort that involved Muslims, Christians and Jews.
There were hybrid foods, art forms, institutions and culture. Christians under Muslim rule read scripture and chanted liturgy in Arabic, not Latin. Muslims still read the Bible and Torah side-by-side with the Quran. Jewish synagogues had Quranic verses on its walls.
Consider this example: A legendary Christian king died a saint and his tomb was inscribed with 4 languages representing his multi-religious subjects. 5 generations later, his great-great-grandson, another Christian king would employ the best Muslim artisans in the land to upgrade the palace in Seville, replete with inscriptions referring to the "Sultan" and invoking Allah, including over the front entrance. And everyone from every religious group, in every language, competed to write the best poetry!
So much of Western culture (including pop music which owes much to the invention of the Spanish guitar), science and philosophy has roots in this lively, vibrant, multicultural Spain.
But the tide turned. By the time Ferdinand and Isabel conquered Granada, the Spanish Inquisition was already underway. The Reconquista, as the slow takeover of Spain by Christian kings was branded, involved sporadic forced conversions of Jews and Muslims as well as threats of exile should these communities not convert. Unsurprisingly, these forced conversions created great anxiety as to the nature of the faith held by the new Christians.
This, in turn, powered the Spanish Inquisition. With jurisdiction only over Christians, the activities of the Inquisition disproportionately concentrated on the Conversos andMoriscos as Christian Jews and ex-Muslims were respectively called.
Of course, this reaction is understandable in the framework of what was happening: If you are forced to convert (by threat of death or expulsion), it would only be reasonable for anyone to suspect that your newfound faith was less than sincere.
And there is a related anxiety – if Christians are not allowed to convert to any other religion (i.e. your faith is forced upon you), then in some ways, even the religion of the majority is suspect.
So a society is created of Christians who cannot change faith surrounded by possibly 'fake Christians' who have been forced to convert. And all these Christians are under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, an authority that tortures and even kills Christians for not being true Christians.
So any association with non-Christians or even new Christians becomes problematic, carrying with it the always present possibility of straying. Since the religious sincerity of everyone is in doubt, then any activity, no matter how innocent, can be deemed a real threat.
Neighbours started accusing neighbours over the smallest things. Any slight deviation from the norm or even previously accepted practices became suspect. One man was dragged before the Inquisitors for greeting a long time Jewish friend who was walking in an annual Jewish religious procession, something he had done unmolested all his life. But now, this simple act of friendship, became the basis for him to be denounced to the Inquisition. His Jewish friend, the so-called source of "corruption", however, cannot be prosecuted because the Inquisition can only go after Christians.
The psychology of inquisition
There are lessons to be learned from my brief example. Malaysia too has a religious majority that is not allowed to convert. They are governed by special religious institutions with non-democratic authority over all aspects of the private lives with the authority to fine, imprison and even beat them. Sound familiar yet?
We can see how a similar psychological implications from the Inquisition would follow. If Muslims are not allowed to convert (i.e. your faith is forced upon you), then their faith must be fragile, suspect even, ready to fall at the slightest whisper.
And thus you see the anxiety in Muslim communities. Any contact with non-Muslims would, of course, be dangerous to this delicate faith. Reading the papers, you would think the danger of murtad (apostasy) is ever present. You cannot allow Muslims to do anything for fear of murtad!
So you have a lady who cares for dogs being interrogated for fear that she is insulting Islam. You have a Muslim woman working for a bookstore owned by non-Muslims arrested for selling a not-yet banned book because the authorities have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims. And you have the Government-sanctioned witch hunt on Shias as a deviant and devious cult.
The Kalimah Allah case is particularly telling. You have another religion, Christianity, wanting to use the term "Allah" to refer to God in its Bible in a country where "Allah" is synonymous with the Islamic religion. Logically, it would be the Christians who might be confused, and thus "accidentally" be attracted to Islam or some such.
But instead you have the successful legal argument that it will confuse the Muslims instead, and thus menggegar iman (shake/challenge the faith) or, in other words, could lead to murtad.
Why is the Muslim faith deemed the more fragile, more in need of protection? Aren't we told all the time how superior this faith is, this faith of the majority and political elites? If it is so superior, why is it that our confusion is considered so inevitable compared to people of other faiths? Are you saying there is actually something wrong with our faith, something so close to the surface that the mere use of an Arabic word that means God by Christians will reveal all and thus turn us away from Islam in droves?
And just like in Medieval Spain, it is the superior religion of the majority that is deemed ever so close to corruption at all times, especially from other religions.
So inevitable is this deviation, that a special body was set up for centuries whose sole jurisdiction was prosecuting religious unorthodoxy, and whose very existence actually ended up creating unorthodoxy out of thin air. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested.
It was extremely difficult to escape some form of torture, humiliation and stripping of wealth, regardless of whether you were found guilty or not, especially as torture was a form of interrogation, not legal sanction.
The price of purity
So many familiar tropes from the Spanish Inquisition are being played out in Malaysia now. Increasing hurdles for those who want to convert, to "prove" their sincerity. The demonization of the other in terms of being untrustworthy, betrayers and using money to grease their way to domination.
A relentless burial of any historical references, cultural rituals or identities that speak of traditional hybridity or syncretism. The banning of books, films, dances etc. The battles over language and liturgy.
The obsession with purity and so-called Bumiputera rights to define the nation. The increasing rigidity of identity and its shallow accoutrements (what you eat, what you wear, where you hang out, who you talk to, where you go to school etc.). And the silencing of anyone who dares to step out of line.
Just like the Spanish Inquisition, what we have in Malaysia is actually a process of forced nationalisation. A rigid monolithic monoculture nationalism. And religion is one of its most powerful weapons.
Spain became a battlefield to redefine who was allowed to be a Spaniard. Who counts? And the answer was racist, intolerant, harsh, violent and extremely rigid. Those who did not fit, those who clung to previous traditions – even in the tiniest of ways – were hounded, tortured, expelled and killed.
The many hybrid cultures, the fluid identities and multifaceted rituals had to make way for only one way of seeing the world. Yet this worldview is non-traditional and (en)forced. Thus it is always insecure, in danger of dissimulation at every turn. So eventually in Spain, when someone is described as an expert curer of pork, it is actually a euphemism for secret Jew.
Lessons for Malaysia
Don Quixote, the world's first modern novel, beautifully illustrates this act of collective forgetting, the erasing of history and culture, of meaning itself.
The forced creation of a rigid Spanish identity was shown at every turn to be a stubborn illusion. The book is a satire on the myths that sustain a national identity. Dangerous myths that are no more than tilting at windmills and serve to destroy culture and history. And all based on a lie, a dream of a pure past.
Everywhere in the book are reminders of how this forgetting, this rewriting, happens – the burning of books, over-demonstrations of identity (Dulcinea, our mythologised Spanish heroine is "an expert salter of pork"), the loss of languages, and how easily myths can be constructed to become the basis for history.
In fact, the very idea of chivalry was probably derived from Arab influence. So even that most traditional Spanish trait – that Don Quixote devotes his life to – is not "pure".
As Maria Rosa Menocal writes of the book,
The "first-rate place" she refers to is Spain before the Inquisition. A time when cultures, languages and faiths mixed among the people as easily as they mixed with each other.
Of course, it was not a utopia. There were conflicts, constantly negotiated differences. But it allowed for those differences to not only exist but shape society. A tolerance that was taken for granted. It was unimaginable in those days that Spain would ever be a place of only one people, one language and one rigidly defined version of only one religion.
I truly hope I do not live to see the day when Malaysia's Don Quixote is written. It would probably be banned anyway.
Posted: 06 Jan 2014 08:32 PM PST
Millions of middle-class Malaysians are grappling with the biggest increase in state controlled electricity and gasoline costs since 2008, threatening consumer spending growth and reasserting the country's reliance onexports this year.
Since winning a May election, Prime Minister Najib Razak has unleashed a series of price increases to cut subsidies and improve state finances, crimping scope for companies to boost wages while spurring inflation. The moves, from a 14 percent jump in sugar costs in October to an 11 percent increase for gasoline in September and an average 15 percent to 16.9 percent climb for electricity this month, could slow private consumption growth by 0.9 percentage point in 2014, according to Alliance Financial Group Bhd. and Malaysian Rating Corp.
"Definitely it's difficult," Ng Wei Keong, a project engineer with two children aged 5 and 3, said in an interview at a December protest against another strain on his living cost — an increase in the annual property assessment rate in Kuala Lumpur. "My kids will be without toys, no more vacation, no new cars and we must be very wise on spending money."
Malaysia's middle class, forged during the economic boom of the early 1990s, is bearing the brunt of the fiscal trimming as they grapple with a cocktail of record-high property prices, elevated household borrowings, and slower pay increases than lower-income earners. Rebounding exports are set to counter the spending squeeze, giving Najib scope to put consumers through the immediate pain of surging living costs as he shifts the economy toward market-based prices for commodities and energy.
"There will be some pain in moving towards market-based pricing of the currently subsidized-costs of essential food items, fuel and energy," said Suhaimi Ilias, chief economist at Maybank Investment Bank, part of the country's largest lender. "Over the long term the economy will gain from a generally more efficient economy."
Underscoring the threat to the domestic demand that held up growth in the past two years as exports faltered, consumer confidencein the third quarter fell to the weakest since 2009, according to a Malaysian Institute of Economic Research measure. An index ofconsumer stocks barely rose in the second half of 2013, gaining 0.02 percent compared with the benchmark's 5.2 percent climb.
The "headwinds to domestic demand in the near term" would make Malaysia's economic growth increasingly dependent on an export recovery, Citigroup Inc. said in a November report. The banking group predicts a 5 percent expansion in 2014, at the lower end of the government's forecast range, as it anticipates more fuel price increases that will cut discretionary incomes by a net 2 billion ringgit ($608 million), or 0.2 percentage point of nominal gross domestic product.
Those in the middle-income group, who make as little as 3,000 ringgit a month, don't benefit as much as other segments from planned government handouts or income tax cuts, said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Kuala Lumpur-based think tank.
Malaysian families who earn 3,000 ringgit to 4,999 ringgit a month made up 27.8 percent ofhouseholds in the population of about 30 million, according to government data for 2012, up from 4 percent in 1989. About 39 percent of households fall below that bracket, while the remainder of the middle class and the highest income groups — those earning 5,000 ringgit and above – - account for 33.6 percent.
"The bottom 40 percent is helped by the various welfare programs, while the top 5 percent will benefit from the trend to reduce income tax and they are generally better off in a liberalizing economy," Wan Saiful said in an interview. "For the middle income group, nothing has been done to help them but there are so many things that they can't afford anymore."
Inflation in Southeast Asia's No. 3 economy may accelerate to 2.9 percent this year and a seven-year high of 3.3 percent in 2015, when Najib plans to introduce a new consumption tax, according to Bloomberg surveys. In contrast, the Malaysian Employers Federation estimates lower salary increases and bonuses in 2014 in the private sector as business costs rise.
"The faster inflation rate amid slower income rise erodes purchasing power, which will impact the consumer spending part of GDP," said Maybank's Suhaimi. He predicts the central bank will keepinterest rates unchanged even as inflation reaches 3.5 percent in 2014, to avoid further deflating consumer sentiment. "The risk to growth is pretty much coming from consumers."
Executives will get a 5.63 percent average increase in salaries, down from 6.31 percent in 2013, and non-executives will get a 5.65 percent raise from 6.7 last year, according to an MEF survey of 257 companies. Lower-paid workers will fare better — in addition to benefiting from a minimum wage, non-executives will get a bigger bonus this year while executives will get a smaller payout.
Government data show that the most well educated people in the workforce got the smallest wage increase in the two years through 2012.
"What we earn cannot cope with the rising cost of living," said Selena Tay, a freelance writer in her 40s who lives with and supports her elderly parents. She plans to cut out purchases of clothes, shoes, bags to save money for food. "The government is strangling us. We are now scared to read the daily newspaper because every day, the price of something is going up."
Najib is making a political gamble as he starts to dismantle decades of subsidies to address fiscal risks identified by Fitch Ratings, which cut Malaysia's credit outlook in July. Within months of the May election that returned his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to power without winning the popular vote for the first time, he scrapped the sugar subsidy and unveiled plans for a goods and services tax at the risk of further alienating the urban voters who turned against him.
The next election is due by about mid-2018. Najib's predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who introduced even bigger increases in electricity and fuel prices after the 2008 general election, stepped down to make way for Najib mid-term in early 2009.
Forty-nine percent of respondents in a survey released in December say the country is heading in the wrong direction, with rising living costs and unfavorable economic conditions cited as the main reasons, according to the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.
Some Malaysians have already taken to public protests against the price increases. In December, hundreds gathered in front of the city council office in Kuala Lumpur to rally against an increase in property taxes. On New Year's Eve, about 4,000 people joined an illegal protest in the capital to demand lower living costs, disrupting a countdown concert, Bernama reported.
"My biggest worry is, financial difficulty will lead to ethnic tension," said Wan Saiful. "You go to a Malay area in Kuala Lumpur, Kampung Baru or Sentul, you already get the sentiment that they are accusing the Chinese of taking away all their economic wealth. If you go to poorer Chinese area in Cheras, Balakong, the sentiment you'll get is the ethnic Chinese will say of course they are poor, because the ethnic Malays are the ones being helped by the government."
Posted: 06 Jan 2014 08:28 PM PST
Search engine Google today paid tribute to renowned Malaysian film director, writer and scriptwriter, the late Yasmin Ahmad, with a doodle on its homepage logo to commemorate her birthday and achievements.
In a statement, public relations officer Rene Leow said Google had chosen today to commemorate Yasmin, who had sought to bring together Malaysians of every gender, ethnicity and persuasion through her work.
Google doodles have been produced to celebrate international holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of noted artists and scientists.
A special team of doodlers at Google design the doodles based on the suggestions of Googlers and its users. It is visible to users who visit the www.google.com website.
Leow expressed Google’s thanks to Yasmin's family for their permission and approval for the doodle.
Yasmin, who died in 2009, had produced numerous commercials and films in Malaysia, which were well known for their humour, heartwarming message and love which cut across cultural barriers.
Her commercials for national oil giant Petronas for the festive seasons, especially, were much awaited and talked about and won multiple awards both locally and internationally.
In 2008, Yasmin was inducted into the Malaysian Advertising Hall of Fame by the Association of Accredited Advertising Agents Malaysia.
She also directed award-winning movies such as Sepet, Gubra, Mukhsin, Muallaf and Talentime.
Yasmin got in a tight spot several times when directing her movies as they depicted events and relationships which were considered a taboo subject by conservative Islamists in Malaysia.
Although it has been four-and-a-half years since her death, Yasmin’s work is still fondly remembered by fans and those in the industry and served as a benchmark for many.
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