Our Newsletter Essays (May to June 2020)

Posted by William Tham 17/06/2020 0 Comment(s)

No. 1: Wanderlust


In lieu of roadblock-free travel, three Malaysian narratives take you away on enchanting journeys across West Malaysia. In Mahen Bala's extraordinary collection of essays, interviews and histories, he charts the journey along the vanishing southern railway between Gemas and Tanjong Pagar, reflecting on the lives of people connected with the towns and cities along the way. Postcards from the South becomes more than a travelogue -- it is a people's history of the south, told through locomotives and old-fashioned travel. In a similar spirit, Penangite Wan Phing Lim recounts her journey on the Ekspres Rakyat in her essay, "Slowly, Slowly into the Night" (published in Straits Eclectic). She travels up north along the same railway, on board the old diesel train to Butterworth, reflecting on her own misconceptions while taking in a new look on the peninsula. Both these journeys are part of a vanished world -- with the new electric trains cutting across the landscape and the southern link from Gemas to JB under way, elements of these journeys will remain only in memory.


See also Beth Yahp's memoir, Eat First, Talk Later, in which she convinces her aging parents to recreate their honeymoon journey across the country, but this turns into a reflection on history and heritage as she navigates the political landscape of Malaysia Lama, as a physical journey morphs into one that asks questions of belonging.


No. 2: Some Malay Texts Revisited


Reading literature often leads to a problem of interpretation, and deliberate choices by an author can lead to different conclusions for different readers. For that reason, perhaps it is best to start with the discussion of perhaps the best-known classical work of Malay literature, the Sejarah Melayu. Properly called the Sulalat u’s-Salatin yakni pituturan segala raja-raja, it functions as a genealogy-cum-memorial of kings, and was not meant to serve as a historical record, in the strictest sense. Originally remembered in oral form, it was only written down after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese, which led to dozens of variants and recensions (by Shellabear, Leyden, Munshi Abdullah and others), each of which had their own strengths and flaws. In Ahmat Adam's The Sejarah Melayu Revisited, he argues, after journeys to archives in Saint Petersburg and careful interpretation of various manuscripts, that many readings of the text have been inaccurate, and thus interpretations have been altered to suit different purposes (such as dating the founding of Melaka to the 13th century). It "cannot be regarded as a genuine history text, or equated in the same category as a true work of historiography". 

On the subject of Melaka, given that it has become a national landmark and effectively serves as the starting point of contemporary Malaysia, it is useful to look at Faisal Tehrani's 1515. Constructed as an alternative history, and populated with actual historical characters (and some invented ones), the novel can be read in different ways, depending on how one views its unreliable narrator. What the author pulls off is a suspension of disbelief, that perhaps it was possible that there are some hidden histories quashed under a mainstream historical narrative. But putative conspiracy theorists may miss the main point altogether: the novel functions as a critique of colonialism, feudalism and sexism in its various forms and guises, but it is possible to arrive at a completely different reading for the sake of national and historical glory.

And how about that other famous novel, Putera Gunung Tahan? Pak Sako's most famous satirical work, wittily translated by Harry Aveling, can easily be read as a call to purity. To drop the trappings of the British colonial era and to return to a pure, feudal society under a benign ruler. But more subtly, the book refrains from simply attacking the colonial project. It has a deeper critique of society, and the underlying weaknesses of the kingdoms and societies that led to collapse. So rather than to read it purely through a nationalistic,  anti-colonial lens, perhaps it is safer to avoid drawing fixed conclusions and to accept that there are a multiplicity of readings.


No. 3: On Writing History


In A People's History of Malaysia, Syed Husin Ali has written that there are three types of history. The Official History, which we are all meant to accept; Alternative History, which gives voices to others; and a People's History, which eschews the classical Great Men style and focuses on individuals or groups from outside the elite. In other words, ordinary people are the focus.

In his book, he touches briefly on the rebellion of Tok Janggut, a resistance figure who found a second lease of life as a folk hero after his killing and the ghastly public display of his body in Kelantan. In Cheah Boon Kheng's To' Janggut, he explores the life of this figure in more detail, and weaves together all three modes of historical writing to present a more complicated narrative of the figure. Depending on who you ask, he was a pawn in a political game, a short-tempered mercenary, a jihadist, or even a rebel against the feudal elite. Cheah trawls archives and secret documents to put together, from a fragmented record, the (many) true stories of the controversial "rising" in 1915.

Perhaps it is best to conclude that history must, by necessity, lack a tidy conclusion, and that scholars are often limited by what they can access. While there are often good contemporary books told from a classical perspective, such as Andrew Marr's A History of the World, it is often too easy to draw tidy conclusions. Antony Beevor, in his account of the Spanish Civil War, writes in The Battle for Spain that the war could not be reduced to a fight between the left and the right, but rather it was a shifting net of alliances and rivalries in a group of royalists, anarchists, fascists, communists and militarists, all backed by propagandists, idealogues, religious authorities and international business. So in many ways, there can never be just a Story.


No. 4: Benarkah pekerja asing mengambil rezeki rakyat? (Oleh Nadine Faisal)


Seperti kita sedia tahu, sejak sebulan dua bulan ini pekerja asing telah menjadi topik perbincangan hangat dalam kalangan rakyat Malaysia. 

Salah satu faktor pekerja asing menjadi buah mulut ialah penularan virus COVID-19 yang disyaki berlangsung di kawasan Pasar Borong Selayang. Pada bulan April, pihak berkuasa mengambil keputusan untuk meletakkan pasar tersebut serta kawasan-kawasan sekitarnya bawah PKPD. 

Pekerja asing = penjajah? Kita jaga siapa?

PKPD ini telah membawa tumpuan media ke atas kawasan tersebut, lalu rakyat Malaysia difahamkan bahawa sebahagian besar perniagaan di pasar tersebut dijalankan oleh pekerja asing, yang disyaki juga beroperasi tanpa lesen atau pendokumentasian yang sewajarnya.

Pekerja asing memonopoli Pasar Borong Selayang. Pekerja asing mengambil peluang pekerjaan rakyat. Itu naratif yang dicanangkan, membawa idea bahawa, secara langsung atau tidak langsung, pekerja asing menyumbang kepada masalah pengangguran dan kemiskinan di negara kita. 

Sememangnya kami tidak menyokong pelanggaran undang-undang, tetapi idea ini berbaur sikap anti-”pendatang” tidak kira mereka pekerja yang sah atau tidak sah. Ia juga meletakkan kesalahan secara keseluruhannya pada golongan pekerja asing,  tanpa memikirkan pihak lain (yang meraih untung daripada golongan tersebut) dan tanpa mempersoalkan faktor-faktor yang menyebabkan ketandusan pekerja tempatan dalam sektor ini. Oleh sebab itu, kita harus bertanya, sejauh manakah kebenaran naratif ini?

Menurut kajian Khazanah Research Insitute (KRI) (sebahagian daripada Khazanah Nasional Berhad, iaitu “dana kekayaan berdaulat Malaysia yang diamanahkan untuk meningkatkan kekayaan jangka panjang negara), “antara tahun 2010-2017, “bilangan pekerja asing telah meningkat daripada 1.7 juta ke 2.2 juta orang, merangkumi 15.5% daripada jumlah pekerja di Malaysia. Kebanyakan pekerja asing bekerja dalam jawatan berkemahiran rendah dan berkemahiran menengah dalam sektor pertanian, pembinaan dan perkilangan. Dalam tempoh masa ini, negara kita paling banyak menghasilkan pekerja berpengajian tinggi berbanding dengan semua tahap pendidikan yang lain. Namun, kebanyakan jawatan kerja yang dihasilkan dalam tempoh tersebut merupakan jawatan berkemahiran menengah (semi-skilled) sahaja. Ini menunjukkan adanya sebuah percanggahan atau ketidakcocokan antara permintaan (demand) dan penawaran (supply) tenaga kerja rakyat tempatan. Pekerja asing tidak mengambil ruang pekerjaan yang sama dengan pekerja tempatan.” (Terjemahan sendiri daripada BI.)

Hasil kajian KRI tidak lari daripada kesimpulan yang dicapai dalam kajian-kajian empirikal yang lain, iaitu bahawa pekerja asing tidak membawa apa-apa kesan yang ketara terhadap pasaran buruh tempatan (i.e. peluang pekerjaan dan kadar pengangguran dalam kalangan rakyat). 

Pengkaji di KRI berpandangan bahawa realiti ini berpunca daripada tiga faktor, iaitu:

Kadar penggantian yang rendah antara pekerja asing dengan pekerja tempatan. Bermaksud, dua kategori pekerja ini tidak bersaing dalam pasaran buruh.

Imigrasi sebenarnya menyebabkan sebuah peningkatan dalam aktiviti ekonomik negara, lantaran itu meningkatkan jumlah peluang pekerjaan secara umum.

Pengkhususan tugas. Sementara pekerja asing memenuhi jawatan di bahagian bawah hierarki pasaran buruh, pekerja tempatan memenuhi jawatan yang lebih tinggi (jawatan pengurusan), yang biasanya juga mempunyai tahap gaji yang lebih tinggi.

Pekerja asing mencuri pekerjaan mencuri rezeki rakyat tempatan? Realiti tampaknya bukan begitu…

Esei ini telah disunting dan disebarkan di profil Twitter kami.


No. 5: The Other Side of the Singapore Story


The conventional Singapore story is straightforward.
Lee Kuan Yew and his People’s Action Party (PAP) united the multiracial people of Singapore into a united block, following which the tiny city-state grew into a regional, and later a global, centre of trade and finance. 
The true Singapore story is not quite so simple.

Following the Second World War, Southeast Asia was erupting with revolutionary fervour. Despite the colonial hold on power, the trade unions, schools and universities refused to be obedient. One particularly loud voice was the radical University Socialist Club at the University of Malaya, then in Singapore. The students were not alone in agitating for meaningful change. All around the city were sympathetic organisations determined to change things for a new society. During this time, one of Lee’s main allies was Lim Chin Siong: a charismatic, committed leftist with whom he would eventually fall out. What the Cambridge-educated Harry Lee lacked was support from the Chinese-speaking workers, traders and students, cut off from the British-leaning elites by language and attitudes. The fiery Lim would prove vital for the PAP’s public support as discussions about the upcoming merger and independence began in earnest.

As the merger with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak approached, the leftists eventually grew to oppose Lee Kuan Yew’s compromises and concessions. Lim and his supporters went on to form the breakaway Barisan Sosialis, but the PAP’s fears about leftist control resulted in the notorious Operation Cold Store. Lim and his allies were detained in one of the most comprehensive crackdowns in the region’s history. With the country’s left wing purged, Lee Kuan Yew and the party would go on to mould Singapore virtually unopposed. Meanwhile his old rival languished in prison, broken after six years of brutal imprisonment. When Lim was eventually released, he and his family would leave politics behind. At one time Lim would even live in the United Kingdom, making a meagre living working an assortment of jobs, before returning home. His days as a fiery activist were over. By this time Singapore was seemingly governed by one man alone.
Lim Chin Siong died in 1996, still tainted by his arrest and alleged Communist links. Despite this injustice, the PAP maintained its miraculous transformation. Instead of being viewed as a corrupt and despotic party, it was feted as a model of excellence and tolerance.

This edition of Comet in Our Sky: Lim Chin Siong in History is available from us. Get your copy today.


No. 6: The Anti-British War | Perang Anti-British


The Anti-British War is a more apt description for the so-called “Emergency” declared by the British colonial authorities in June, 1948, first in Perak and Johor on the 16th, then the entire country on the 18th – an undeclared war ostensibly meant to break down resistance led by the Communist Party of Malaya. In reality, the authorities would silence the entire spectrum of the political left, including Malay nationalists and the urban intelligentsia, leading to a culture of silence that persists until today. This was coupled with draconian measures such as forced resettlements, “New Villages” placed under armed guard and the “Emergency Regulations” which allowed authorities to search, arrest, detain and in certain cases execute anyone on grounds of suspicion. Between 1948 and 1960, over 11,000 people were killed, 6,000 more injured and almost 34,000 people imprisoned without trial. The legacy of this war continued in the implementation of the Internal Security Act, which would not be repealed for decades. 

On the 72nd anniversary of the commencement of the Anti-British War, we invite you to revisit the “facts” and reconsider history through the eyes of the people we have so far always been taught to regard as the “enemy”.


No. 7: The Subversive Finale of an Indonesian Masterpiece


If there was ever a finale that could perfectly subvert yet strengthen its predecessors, perhaps Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s novel, House of Glass, should have that honour. The final book of the Buru Quartet takes an unusual step by switching narrators. After three books told from the perspective of Raden Mas Minke from a naive student to a pioneer of Javanese journalism and independence, we meet Pramoedya’s new narrator, the police commissioner Jacques Pangemanann.
Wracked by shame over his subservience to the Dutch colonial administration, Pangemanann nevertheless takes bitter pride in his job as a high-ranking native policeman. As a native from the Outer Islands, far from the heart of the Indies empire centred on Batavia, Pangemanann is an outsider and a Catholic to boot. Despite his loyalty to the Indies order, he suffers fits of conscience when he finds himself ordered to take actions that he finds reprehensible. He is called upon to arrest Minke himself in order to halt the potential destabilisation of the Dutch empire. But the more he gives in to the colonial project, the greater his rewards. All of this comes to a head when he is placed in a position to effectively oversee the entirety of the Indies, every act of defiance placed under observation of his private house of glass...
Looking back, it would have been much simple, expected even, for Pramoedya to go with a traditional redemptive final chapter in his series, for Minke to emerge as the ultimate hero, shrugging off the chains of his exile in Ambon to inspire the leaders eventual revolution. But Pramoedya knew too much about the world than to expect an easy happy ending.
In House of Glass, reality and fiction intertwine and metafictional elements are seamlessly weaved into the narrative. We see Pangemanann with Minke’s semi-autobiographical manuscripts, trying to discern fact from fiction, real names from the invented ones. We begin to wonder where the truth ends and the narratives begin. As the narratives progressed, Minke and his real life inspiration, the pioneering Javanese journalist Tirto Adhi Surjo, grew practically indistinguishable, their similarities magnified by the sheer metafictional quality of House of Glass. But despite Tirto’s relentless bravery, he was eventually exiled and lost everything, dying in a hotel that he once owned. Not a single newspaper reported his death. No, Minke could not have a heroic life. In the Indies, in Indonesia, there were no easy answers. Despite everything, Pramoedya’s characters would suffer so much, but they refused to bow even in the face of impossible choices.
In one of the most remarkable scenes in the novel, Pangemanann, torn up with guilt and shame, turns over the manuscripts and his confessions to arguably the most important character in the Quartet. The story has seemingly come full circle, but the real-life struggles of the struggles of the Javanese and the other islanders, were only just beginning. In real life, Pramoedya would become part of this evolving struggle. Disillusioned by the Japanese, jailed by the Dutch, imprisoned under Soeharto, Pramoedya was eventually sent to the brutal prison island of Buru under Suharto’s despotic New Order. Forced to compose his works orally, he told the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners, adapting the life and struggles of Tirto to craft the larger-than-life Minke. Even after his release, he remained under the surveillance of the state. His translator, Max Lane of the Australian embassy, was ordered to leave the country while Pramoedya’s books were banned and his house arrest continued.
In the introduction to the Penguin edition of the novel, Lane effectively summed up the entire ethos of Pramoedya’s world. In a somewhat cryptic line, he declared that the true protagonist was neither Minke nor Pangemanann. Rather, it appeared in different guises, but “the highest form...is history, the inexorable march of history itself.”

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