Utter neglect has plagued this blog yet again. To my detriment I’m sure. I’ve missed opportunities to properly self-promote my work on this blog, the very place that launched my life in writing. To remedy that, here are some rather belated updates.
1. Back in February 2018, my friends Adil Johan, Nazry Bahrawi and me formed a panel and roundtable on cosmopolitan intimacies in Malay popular culture at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University. The fruit of our collaboration was a special section guest edited by Adil for Journal of Intercultural Studies (Volume 40, Issue 4) which featured our articles. The following is the abstract of my article, ‘The New Malay Woman’s jiwa as a postcolonial structure of feeling’:
Women from newly liberated postcolonial societies have produced fiction and non-fiction work with a critical view on women’s inferior status and discriminatory cultural practices that powerfully resonate with contemporary feminist opinions. However, their views are parallel insofar as an understanding of ‘women’ remains unproblematised. In this article, ‘women’ and ‘feminism’ are unpacked from a domestic cosmopolitan lens, particularly from the perspective of the postcolonial woman’s spirit of openness to the other. The postcolonial subject in question is the New Malay Woman, a cultural construction in the early years of Malaysia’s independence, a female figure formed through her critique of modernity and encounters with transnationalism. But it is through the New Malay Woman’s soul or jiwa, explicated in the essays and semi-autobiographical fiction of Malay women writers in the 1960s, that we find ‘structures of feeling’ overcoming facile parallels and temporal distances between the early postcolonial woman and contemporary feminist wherever she might be. It is hoped that from explicating the ‘structures of feeling’ that the meaning of ‘women’ and ‘emancipation’ as articulated by early postcolonial women writers is better understood.
The article builds on my earlier work on Anis Sabirin and Salmi Manja but brings into discussion ways of recuperating forgotten works by women in the Global South that situate Malay women writers of the 1960s both in their postcolonial context but also within a contemporary feminist histories of the present.
2. The article I’ve been slowly crafting on women’s laughter in Malaysian horror (that a male academic once said was “whimsical”, a backhanded way of saying it’s silly and probably pointless. Ha!), ‘The laugh of the pontianak: darkness and feminism in Malay folk horror’, is now published in Feminist Media Studies:
The laughing woman represents a special kind of excess and cautionary reminder of social and moral decay. With her head cast back, the open laugh of a woman is disparaged as a sign of provocation, disorder, and immorality. In many instances a woman’s open and hearty laugh is “grotesque” regardless of the multiple genres of laughter. This essay has two main aims. First, to interpret the meaning of the laughter of the pontianak, the female vampire, in Malay-language horror film and folk culture. And second, to rehabilitate the grotesque femininity of the pontianak by foregrounding the significance of women’s laughter as feminist resistance. With reference to scenes from Malay-language horror cinema from three different eras, an argument is advanced that the darker shade of laughter can mobilize resistance. “Dark” laughter is not only gendered but also linguistic and behaves in a range of specific speech acts. Moreover, the dark laughter in popular representations of the pontianak is part of a repertoire of her sonic subjectivity that stages the collapse of desire and patriarchal order, opening up potentialities for feminist affective knowledge.
My fascination with women’s laughter can be traced to multiple sources: my own enjoyment of laughter, of laughing loudly, and how and why it is, particularly in Malay media representations, the prerogative of female antagonists. The ultimate arch female villain of Malay folklore, the pontianak, as it turns out, has been laughing for decades since the inception of Malaya.
Plenty of research are re-discovering cosmopolitan female subjects and the ‘modern girl’ in the late colonial and early postcolonial eras. In my own work, I’ve added to the list the ‘New Malay Woman’ who was more than a consumer and image, but a literary voice and agent of change:
[She is ] independent, highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in ﬁction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s. She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is conﬁdent about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the ﬁction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female voice onto the page and into the public sphere.
The following is an excerpt from an early version of my book chapter on modernity and the ‘new woman’ in 60s Malay literature. It’ll be discussed at my public talk this Saturday in Silverfish Books, Kuala Lumpur:
Extant literature in both Malay and English makes it rather clear that there appears to be a divide in the literary preoccupation of male and female fiction writers with regards to the depiction of women. Under the penmanship of Malay male writers, female characters are depicted as the playthings and subordinates of men. Women writers of modern Malay fiction writing, on the other hand, were confined to the vague notion of “women’s issues” (Maimunah, 1986). For Rosnah (2003: 35), there has been a gradual shift in the focus of women’s novels between the 1930s to 1970s from the instrumental importance of education for women to the life experiences and the soul (kejiwaan) of women. This is a rather extensive span of time that elides the many transformative historical moments for women, such as women’s participation in nationalist struggle, rise in women’s employment and increased recognition of women’s contributions in the public sphere. In her rather reductive assessment of the portrayal of women by Malay fiction writers, Ungku Maimunah states that female characters can be neatly divided into “positive” and “negative” representations. While the “positive” or “negative” portrayals of women are not explicitly defined, one is led to assume that they comprise of binary oppositions of faithful and self-abnegating women on one hand and on the other hand, openly sexual and morally ambiguous women in the context of a modernising new nation.
Sequestered within the “positive” and “negative”, I would argue, are elements of the modern female subject; highly-educated, urban and urbane, modern, aspirational, outspoken and worldly. The new woman in modern Malay literature is not passive and docile as the archetypal tragic woman in fiction by female novelists in the 1940s and 1950s (Rosnah. 2003: 37). She has experienced Western culture and lifestyles directly or remotely and is confident about the moral compatibility of Western and indigenous values. The modern female subject appropriates the possibilities of modernity for her own ends in a world that is shrinking and increasingly interconnected. Innovative narrative techniques found in the fiction of Malay women writers of the period, such as the literary autobiography and stream of consciousness foreground the female literary voice onto the page and public sphere.
The meaning of the ‘modern’ woman is problematised here to bring to bear the Eurocentric baggage of the word ‘modernity.’ Modernity has been associated with the linear narrative of progress that mirrors the development of ideas and industrialisation in Western Europe. It follows a culturally specific historical and intellectual trajectory with origins in the Enlightenment. At the same time, modernity is embodied (Appadurai, 1996) and a sensorial experience (Berman 1983), albeit an uneven one. In studies on British and American culture between 1890s and 1910s, the “new woman” demonstrates a number of bare similarities with the new woman identified in modern Malay fiction of the 1960s:
Defined by her commitment to various types of independence, the stereotypical American New Woman was college educated and believed in women’s right to work in professions traditionally reserved for men; she often sought a public role in occupations that would putatively improve society (Rich 2009: 1)
That the new woman would only emerge in the 1960’s Malaya is not an indication of a delayed modernity in which the Eurocentric historicism of “first in the West, and then elsewhere” is reproduced (Chakrabarty 2009: 6). Instead, the new woman of Malaya is a social phenomenon and literary construct of non-Western modernities. The notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is adopted here to examine the ways in which modernising societies undergo “structural differentiation” in which arenas such as family life, modern education, and mass communication for example are defined and organised differently (Eisenstadt 2000: 1-2). The new Malay woman’s embodiment of modernity is a critique of Eurocentric historicism which constructs passive ex-colonial subjects whose modernity is a pale fabrication of the West.
In the fiction by Malay women writers, there is an embrace of certain institutions of modernity – mass education, urbanisation and female participation in the public sphere for instance. However, there is also a moral suspicion about the dangers of ‘Westernisation’ that underpin many aspects of modernity. The revival of Malay nationalism in the 1960s found expression in the literary arena, primarily through institutional efforts to elevate the status of the Malay language and culture. Several novels of this period would become the ‘canon’ of modern Malay literature and develop a discursive space for the reflection of the meaning of progress for a new nation. However, women writers were excluded, formally and otherwise, from the ‘canon’ by their male peers, literary scholars and historians despite their significant contributions. Women members of Angkatan Sasterawan or ASAS 50 (Generation of Writers, a national association for Malayan writers), Kamariah Saadon and Jahlelawati, have been forgotten by scholars of modern Malay literature. The contributions of another group, Angkatan Sastrawanis, are also buried as a footnote in the history of Malay literature (Campbell 2004: 82). Thus, to argue that that women in Malaya were de facto emancipated during this period would be an overstatement..
Tensions that oscillate between postcolonial optimism and anxiety vis-à-vis modernity were deeply felt in the booming literary scene in 1960s Malaya. Having gained political independence in 1957, Malaysia entered a rich cultural decade of the 1960s defined by the consumption of Western popular culture and the adoption of Western aesthetics in local literature, filmmaking, popular music, and fashion. However, the moral landscape of postcolonial cosmopolitanism is typically refracted through a sexualised representation of women’s bodies in modern Malay literature during this period. Anis Sabirin’s critique of modern Malay novels by male writers in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita links the anxiety of Western-style “individualism” and “materialism” with the degradation of women. The scene of sexualised modernity is set in Jenis Perwatakan Wanita in the night clubs, massage parlours and B.B. Park, a shopping arcade in Kuala Lumpur (1969: 130). Sabirin comments on the rise of the erotic novel in the Malay fiction scene, comprising of both high and lower brow books by male novelists such as Shahnon Ahmad, A. Samad Said, Alias Ali, and Malungun, to name a few.
Women in the writings of these men, Anis argues, both destroy and are destructive to themselves and others (Perempuan sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan (1969: 132)). Her focus on these “destructive” women falls witheringly on the popular character of the urban prostitute found in high and lowbrow literature. Anis is just as critical of the “good” village girl idealised in modern Malay literature. For Anis, the symbolic innocence of the village girl belies an ignorance “untested” by experience and worldliness (1969: 133-134). In her essay “Peranan Wanita Baru” (“The Role of the New Woman”), Anis argues that women are caught in contradictory roles in modern society. No longer expected to be stay-at-home wives and mothers, women are expected to be just as educated and career-oriented as men. The new woman, however, embraces the dilemmas of modern life. Intelligent and employable in male-dominated professions, she is also desirable on her own terms and has sexual agency. She will not be tolerated being treated as a second-class citizen and demands that she is given the same opportunities as men (1969: 7-8).
While prominent, mainly male, writers were producing didactic fiction in the service of national development and elevating the status of the Malay language in the 1960s, female writers seized the new opportunities opened up to women to explore the limits of femininity and complex psychological and social narratives. But it is misguided to suggest that the narrative direction taken by women writers of the period qua women is an inward and exclusively domestic one in contrast to the outward projection of narratives concerning the nation by male writers. The 1960 novel Hari Mana Bulan Mana (Which Day Which Month) is a groundbreaking example of the expansion of a woman’s personal world and its relationship with other women in the public sphere. Sal, the lead character of Hari Mana Bulan Mana, is a newspaper reporter in Singapore prior to its separation from Malaya and the epitome of the “new” woman (Campbell 2004: 109, 112) who uses her role as a working woman in journalism to bring public attention to the plight of female victims of abuse and their abject poverty. Although not explicitly feminist, Sal’s consciousness about the status of women in modern Malaya also opens her eyes to the oppression suffered by her feminist activist friend, Zamilah.
The texts discussed in this chapter are a reflection of a rapidly changing society. Class-based and communal conflict in 1964 and 1969 indicate the cracks of a new nation. Despair and dissatisfaction arising from the yawning economic gap between the majority of poor Malays in the village and the minority of wealthier Malays in the urban centres are visible in modern Malay fiction of the period. Moral distinctions are also made between the “Westernised” Malay and the hapless rural Malay. Affluent, Westernised Malays are portrayed as out of touch with the vast majority of the nation’s people (rakyat). Remote from modernity, rural Malays who work the land suffer from community conflict and the cruel hand of nature’s onslaughts (Hooker 2000).
Appadurai, Arjun. 1996. Modernity at large: cultural dimensions of globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minneasota Press.
Berman, Marshall. 1983. All that is solid melts into air: the experience of modernity. London: Verso.
Campbell, Christine. 2004. Contrary visions: Women and work in Malay novels written by women. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka: Kuala Lumpur.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2009. Provincialising Europe: postcolonial thought and historical difference. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
I will be giving a public talk this coming Saturday, 30th April 2016 (5-7 pm), in Silverfish Books in Kuala Lumpur based on a forthcoming book chapter entitled ‘The New Malay Woman: The rise of modern female subject and transnational encounters in postcolonial Malay literature.’
Synopsis of my talk:
The new Malay woman in modern Malay literature emerged during a period of unflattering and sexualised representations of female characters in the Malay literary canon and low brow fiction by male writers of the 1960s. By contrast, the emancipated new Malay woman, a creation of women writers, is a departure from her literary predecessors and contemporaries of passive, self-sacrificing domestic women. She is a product of early postcolonial modernisation and other institutional policies to elevate the Malay community in Malaya. The new Malay woman in Malay literature was created by women at a specific time in Malaysian history and was instrumental in promoting the advancement of Malay society in the 1960s.
“Alat-alat tukang kepunyaan penindas tidak akan meruntuhkankan rumah penindas. Alat-alat itu boleh menewaskan penindas hanya buat seketika, namun ia tidak akan menjamin perubahan yang murni. Perkauman dan homofobia adalah perkara yang kian dialami oleh kita semua. Saya menyeru kepada semua untuk menyelam ke dalam minda masing-masing dan ‘menyentuh’ unsur-unsur yang menimbulkan ketakutan dan kejelekan yang wujud di sana. Lihat wajahnya. Waktu itulah isu-isu peribadi yang berbaur politik mulai memberi pencerahan kepada pilihan hidup kita”.
– Audre Lorde, The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, 1979
Alat-alat tukang penindas merujuk kepada bahasa, teori dan struktur wacana feminis Barat yang menepikan suara wanita lesbian, berkulit hitam dan yang berasal daripada masyarakat membangun (dunia ketiga). Di sini Audre Lorde menyampaikan satu amaran; di mana satu bahaya dalam bentuk keganasan epistemik (epistemic violence) akan ditimpa wanita yang bukan berkulit putih dan tertindas selagi kategori ‘wanita’ tidak memartabatkan perbezaan antara wanita dari segi bangsa, bahasa, agama, identiti seksualiti, dan latarbelakang kelas.
Keganasan epistemik adalah satu bentuk keganasan yang halus tetapi mempunyai kesan yang memudaratkan wanita biasa, khususnya yang bukan dari golongan elit. Keganasan ini disebarluas melalui penjanaan ilmu, maklumat yang digunakan untuk mengetahui dan membantu. Bahasa tidak bersifat neutral, malah ia bersangkut-paut dengan budaya dan politik untuk melindung kepentingan kumpulan-kumpulan tertentu.
Audre Lorde menyaran kepada wanita yang memperjuangkan feminisme untuk meneliti dan membongkar struktur bahasa dan rangka wacana feminis yang digunakan; dari manakah ia datang? siapakah yang dijadikan tokoh dan idola? Bahasa dan ilmu mampu digunakan untuk menggerakkan fahaman seksis terhadap wanita. Namun bahasa dan ilmu juga boleh menjadi benih dan substrat kepada kesedaran wanita dan perubahan. Audre Lorde mengungkapkan kuasa bahasa dan ilmu dengan kata-kata Simone de Beauvoir: “Daripada pengetahuan yang jujur mengenai keadaan kehidupan ini akan kita menimba kekuatan dan sebab-sebab untuk bertindak” (2003, Lorde: 28)
Audre Lorde. 2003. ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, disunting oleh Reina Lewis dan Sara Mills. London dan New York: Routledge. pp. 25-28.
I cannot remember what I was doing in the British Library one fine afternoon in 2014, but I had found a who’s who of Malay literature published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka. In it was a short biography of Anis Sabirin, a name I was faintly familiar with for being the singular critical voice against the sexism of Malay male writers in the 1960s. Soon after, I requested an inter-library loan from Leiden via the SOAS Library to read her collection of essays, Peranan Wanita Baru (The Role of the New Woman, 1969). This book is largely forgotten now, but her critique is still fresh. There is no other book like it since; a collection of essays on Malaysian women in development, economics, Malay culture, and contemporary Malay literature. An intention to write a full length essay stewed in the backburner for many months until an opportunity came to write a column for the Malay Mail commemorating International Women’s Day of 2015. The column is intentionally in Malay as a kind of homage to a Malaysian feminist writer:
Anis Sabirin. Satu nama yang jarang sekali menjelma dalam wacana feminis di Malaysia. Suatu ketika di penghujung dekad 1960-an, beliau terkenal sebagai suara yang lantang mengkritis penggambaran wanita yang seksis dalam sastera Melayu moden. Beliau bagaikan perintis feminis moden yang berpencapaian tinggi, lain daripada tokoh-tokoh feminis-nasionalis terkemuka seperti Shamsiah Fakeh dan Sybil Kathigasu yang datang sebelumnya.
Malaysia pada zaman 1960-an sebuah negara yang baru mengenali pembangunan moden dan hidupan kosmopolitan yang banyak memanfaatkan golongan wanita di bandar. Dapat dilihat di zaman ini ramai wanita yang bekerja dan berkerjaya berikutan bilangan mahasiswi di universiti yang meningkat.
Lahir pada tahun 1936 di Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin adalah antara wanita generasi moden 1960-an yang menyambut peluang melanjutkan pelajaran hingga ke tahap PhD dalam bidang ekonomi di Amerika Syarikat. Beliau pernah menetap di San Francisco dan Los Angeles selama 20 tahun dan giat menulis fiksyen dan puisi dalam bahasa Melayu dan Inggeris. Esei-eseinya tentang isu wanita dalam Peranan Wanita Baru dan majalah Dewan Sastera menempatkan Anis Sabirin antara penulis wanita bersifat feminis yang terawal di Malaysia.
Pada tahun 1963, beliau pernah menyampaikan kritikan yang menyengat di Majlis PENA yang berlangsung di Universiti Malaya. Dalam ucapannya, penulis lelaki popular seperti Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, dan Kala Dewata sering mengisi novel mereka dengan watak pelacur dan mangsa rogol sebagai ‘perencah’ cerita. Menurut Anis Sabirin, watak wanita yang menggiurkan menjadi ‘barang dagangan’ bagi menyara kehidupan seorang sasterawan lelaki.
Dari sudut pandang sekarang, Malaysia pada dekad 1960-an adalah seperti negara yang asing. Mungkin sukar untuk kita bayangkan bahawa pasaran novel picisan di zaman dahulu penuh dengan seks dari muka depan hingga ke belakang. Seperti majalah lucah, kulit buku Temasya Cinta oleh A. Samad Ismail dan Patah Dayong oleh Yahya Samah dihiasi imej wanita yang telanjang. Mengikut Anis Sabirin, perempuan dalam novel-novel seperti ini ‘sudah menjadi barang yang rosak dan merosakkan.’
Sangat mengejutkan jika kita membaca esei-esei yang dihimpun dalam Peranan Wanita Baru terbitan Utusan Melayu pada tahun 1969. Tajuknya – Peranan Wanita Baru – mengacu kepada wanita 1960-an yang sedang melangkah ke zaman paska-kolonial yang penuh perubahan sosial dan budaya. Seiringan dengan itu, gerakan feminisme gelombang kedua di Amerika Syarikat baru sahaja berputik di pertengahan 1960-an.
Anis Sabirin begitu peka kepada kehendak wanita moden yang dibelenggu pemahaman adat dan agama yang kuno. Menurutnya, sudah ramai wanita 1960-an yang berpendidikan tinggi dan mempunyai daya saing di tempat kerja tetapi ditekan oleh beban rumahtangga. Beliau menggaris dengan terang-terang bahawa kemajuan wanita terletak di luar rumah:
Nanti bila pergaulan bangsa kita menjadi bertambah bebas, kenyataan ini boleh-lah di-buktikan, bahawa wanita yang bekerja itu hidup-nya menarek daripada sa-orang wanita yang dudok di-rumah, dan sebab itu dia tidak payah berlumba-lumba memikat orang lelaki untok memboktikan daya penarek-nya.
Peranan Wanita Baru merupakan satu-satunya buku yang menyasarkan bara terhadap patriarki yang tertanam degil di akar umbi budaya Melayu. Boleh dikatakan bahawa belum pernah adanya buku yang sepertinya malah ia lenyap dari wacana feminis Malaysia. Soalnya mengapa?
Suara lantang Anis Sabirin dalam Peranan Wanita Baru mungkin tidak mendapat sambutan yang meluas di kalangan wanita dan lelaki Malaysia. Penulis wanita yang berani mencabar lelaki akan disisih secara terang dan halus. Meskipun sumbangan wanita dalam dunia sastera Malaysia dianugerahkan bermacam pingat dan piala, mereka tidak diagungkan seperti lelaki sejawatnya. Tidak ada sasterawati Melayu yang dikenali umum seperti Shahnon Ahmad dan A. Samad Said.
Setelah 46 tahun sejak terbitan Peranan Wanita Baru, bagaimana pula pembaca novel popular sekarang yang dihidangkan dengan keasyikan kahwin kontrak dan ombak rindu? Di mana pergi peredaran zaman yang memberi peluang kepada wanita seluas-luasnya pada tahun 1960-an itu?
Pendirian tegas Anis Sabirin tentang isu wanita jauh berbeza daripada wanita Malaysia yang menulis dalam bahasa kebangsaan di waktu kini. Namun penulisannya masih segar dan relevan. Sebagai seorang wanita yang giat menulis tentang isu wanita, saya mengambil iktibar darinya dan mengkagumi esei-eseinya yang bersifat feminis dan ‘global’ yang muncul sebelum kemudahan internet dan arus globalisasi.
Hujah feminis yang dikemukakan dalam Peranan Wanita Baru adalah bukti bahawa masa depan wanita di Malaysia tidak menentu. Kekangan dahulu sama seperti kekangan sekarang. Suasana zaman atau zeitgeist yang kini diungkapkan oleh wacana ‘demokrasi’ dan ‘hak asasi’ tidak menjamin kemajuan dan pencerahan. Namun, perjuangan feminis di Malaysia yang kini semakin memuncak akan meninggalkan kesan yang lebih bermakna dan sejarah yang lebih diperingati oleh generasi yang akan datang.
Anis Sabirin. A name we rarely hear in Malaysian feminist discourse today. She was known in the 1960s as a strident critic of the sexist portrayal of women in modern Malay literature. As a highly accomplished woman in modern Malaya, she was different from the kind of nationalist women of the likes of Shamsiah Fakeh and Sybil Kathigasu who are reimagined today as feminist heroines.
Malaysia in the 1960s was new to modernity and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that benefited women living and working in urban centres. Women of the period were pursuing careers outside the home and quickly filling the university where they were receiving gaining higher education.
Born in 1936 in Johor Bharu, Anis Sabirin belonged to a new generation of Malaysian women who embraced the opportunities in education that led to her pursuing a PhD in economics in the US. She went on to continue to living in San Francisco and Los Angeles for more than 20 years where she was active in writing fiction and poetry in both Malay and English. Her essays on women’s issues in Peranan Wanita Baru and in the literary magazine Dewan Sastera places her as among the earliest feminist voices in Malaysia.
In 1963, she delivered a stinging, if very memorable, critique at the assembly of Association for National Writers of Malaysia, PENA, in University of Malaya. In her speech, popular writers like Yahya Samah, Alias Ali, Keris Mas, and Kala Dewata regularly write into their stories prostitutes whose only function is to spice things up. According to her, sexualised imagery of women were ‘commoditised’ to line the pockets of male fiction writers.
From today’s perspective, Malaysia in the 1960’s might seem like a foreign country. It might strike as a surprise that many novels and penny dreadfuls of the time were filled with sexually explicitly and tawdry content. Like pornographic magazines, naked women grace the book covers of Temasya Cinta by A. Samad Ismail and Patah Dayong by Yahya Samad (see blog post for example). The women in these novels are depicted as ‘damaged and damaging objects’.
It will come across as a surprise to read the essays in Peranan Wanita Baru published in 1969 by Utusan Melayu. The title of the collection – The Role of New Women – is an address to Malaysian women who were experiencing new social and political realities of the postcolonial era. It was also a period that coincided with the rise of Second Wave feminism.
Anis Sabirin was sensitive to the constraints of custom and conservative interpretations of religion. She felt that women could compete for the best jobs in the work place but were held back by domestic responsibilities. It was clear to her that women’s progress lie outside the home:
When there are fewer restrictions on mixing between the sexes, we will find that working women’s lives are more interesting than the woman stays at home, and that is because the working woman is not as desperate to show her desirability to men
Peranan Wanita Baru is perhaps the only book in Malay by a woman that articulates directly at the deeply embedded patriarchal hegemony of Malay society. There has never been a book quite like it and it is somehow completely forgotten. Why?
The author’s strident voice may not have been well-received in Malaysia at the time and the decades that followed. Malay women writers who were bold and critical of men were marginalised in explicit and subtle ways. Although many women writers have been garlanded with awards for their literary achievements, they are not the nation’s Great Writers like Shahnon Ahmad and A. Samad Said.
Since its first publication 46 years ago, what do contemporary readers make of ‘contract marriage’ romances and rape myths in Ombak Rindu so popular in Malaysian fiction today? Where have the heady days of modernity and cosmopolitanism enjoyed in the 1960s that Anis Sabirin wrote about gone?
Anis Sabirin’s clear and vociferous voice is but a faint echo in the discourse on women’s rights in the Malay language today. But her’s is still fresh and relevant as ever. As a woman who writes on ‘women’s issues’ in Malaysia, I turn to Anis Sabirin for inspiration as a ‘global’ trailblazing writer far ahead of her time before the age of the internet and globalisation.
If the feminist issues raised in Peranan Wanita Baru are an indicator for anything, they are an unhappy reminder that the future for women in Malaysia is deeply uncertain. Malaysian women faced the same kinds of obstacles then as they do now. The human rights discourse and democracy that imbibe the spirit of the age cannot guarantee progress and enlightenment. However, it will seem like the current feminist wave will be more than a historical footnote in the annals of Malaysian women’s history.
It’s nice to see the dust settling after a week of nationalistic confabulation. In its wake, the political appropriation of the life and achievements of Tunku Abdul Rahman last week left a distinct kind of aftertaste. It is the sickly sweet obsession with national belonging and the notion of anak bangsa.
Anak bangsa has an ideological connotation different from warganegara or rakyat. All three terms mean “citizen” but anak bangsa implies a special kind of belonging, one that is familial and comes with filial responsibilities.
When I lived in South Jakarta, my initial access to the internet was in the nearby warnet, a portmanteau word composed of ‘warung’ (cafe or stall) and internet. The warnet was tiny and had no chairs. Planks of wood were used as benches for a dozen or so computer monitors and their respective processing units. In my daily visits, the warnet would be at its busiest before dusk, when all of its users were working-class boys playing online video games like self-entertaining monads. The oldest of the boys, no older than 18, runs the warnet by collecting hourly fees and stops customers from wearing their shoes inside the establishment.
I often wonder about the lifeworlds of those at the margins of society who are hyperconnected, plugged into Warcraft, Facebook, Twitter, and a seemingly limitless plethora of information online. They, like us who pontificate about the effects of ‘always-on’ culture and the merits of tech detoxing, are similarly bombarded by a world of media excess. We live in an era fast advancing beyond symbolic excess, which was the postmodern. This era, according to Marc Augé, is the supermodern.
In the supermodern, non-places trespass urban spaces with alarming rapidity. Non-places are spaces that have no history, a transitional geographical medium. They are the motorways, the concrete arteries through which swaths of urban humanity spend an inordinate amount of time. Supermarkets and airports are also non-places that house “realities of transit,” where people move in and out at interchanges (where nobody crosses each other’s path) rather than crossroads (where people meet). In non-places, people are passengers rather than travellers, customers rather than consumers.
Augé also recognises that spaces which subalterns occupy—refugee camps and urban slum dwellings—are also non-places. Refugee camps and urban slums are spaces that are denied the markings of history, and belonging to traditional notions of place. Individuals who occupy refugee camps are in transit; they want to be elsewhere. Some slum dwellers choose to stay, but they are forced into transit by developers and the city council. They are often subject to perpetual threats of evictions, condemned to be on the move.
In the current geoeconomic logic of supermodernity, a section of the subalterns—the urban poor and migrant workers eking out a living on a transitional basis—are cyborgs too. The cyborg is a product of the current era: hybrids, a cybernetic organism, a relationship between human and machine. Cyborgs are not a Robocop-like amalgam of human and machine, but rather the lived expression of how machines have become indispensable to the way many humans now live. Humans rely on technology to do things that were once humanly impossible; to move faster, to communicate at lightning speed at greater distances and to more people than ever before.
Media communication technologies have become the protheses that humans both need and want. Such a reliance on media technologies has huge implications on the way media users perceive reality; an example of the imbrication of the ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is found in the constructed perception of time. In a media-saturated society, individuals get bored more quickly. With more things to consume in so little time, our attention span is shortened and we become more impatient. Our sense of time and history appear to be sped up. Time itself appears to be constructed by our relation to the acceleration of consumption and excess of media stimulation.
Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory suggests that Foucault’s biopolitics are no longer extant. Power is no longer only exercised directly on bodies, on ‘naked’ life. In lieu of biopolitics, power in the present age is techno-scientific and exercised via technology, making bodies the subject of technopolitics. For Haraway, the cyborg has the potentiality to be an emancipatory subject. But the avenues for the cyborg’s emancipation lie in the subversive manipulation of technology’s original function and the breathing of new political meaning into it.
With or without emancipation, subaltern cyborgs benefit from the fast turnover of media technology. This means cheaper phones, second-hand and brand new older models. But few choose to be cyborg, emancipated or not. The development and manufacturing of everyday technology is linked with weapons and exploitative labour practices respectively. Media communication technologies do not develop out of a vacuum free from the macro structures of global commerce. Often, power relations of fleshspace creep into the online ether, replicating there.
With access to possible emancipatory channels of social media, can the very poor still be subaltern? There have been speculations about whether or not the subaltern can tweet, raising questions about “online self-determination” whereby technical and financial ability can be harnessed to “represent and edit oneself and one’s culture(s) online, and to decide how they will achieve online relevance/visibility/ranking without being overshadowed by more dominant national languages and/or economies.”
In the supermodern city of Jakarta, self-entertaining monads are plugged into videogames that mimic military strategies and fighting. As posthumans, they rely on media technology to fill an attenuated sense of time. Indonesians make up a significant number of the world’s Twitter users. But they are more than just consumer cyborgs. Many Indonesians are also workers in electronic manufacturing factories where they produce protheses central to cyborg subjectivity.
What is the fate of the consuming-manufacturing subaltern cyborg in the supermodern? Will post-human narratives forget her? The case of the warnet boys offers a glimpse of posthumanism in the developing world where technology surpasses the material conditions of the present.
Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani was something of a charismatic maverick and crusader of anti-colonial ideas in late nineteenth century Egypt. His informal engagement with the public evokes a scene not dissimilar to a small forum led by Socrates. Surrounded by earnest disciples in cafes, Al-Afghani would hold court on ancient Islamic science and Western philosophy, appealing to the dispossessed lower and working class who would feel out of place in the hallowed halls of Al-Azhar University.
The ultimate goal of Al-Afghani’s thought was to avenge the degradation that European imperialism had brought to the Islamic world. But he did not reject all things Western or European in toto. By shrewdly adopting Western tools of modernity such as the printing press, Al-Afghani wrote articles and published pamphlets to disseminate his exhortations against the West. So influential was Al-Afghani that he was attributed as the architect of the politicisation of Egypt’s public sphere in the 1870s. Within a few years of his arrival in Egypt, nearly all of Egypt’s newspapers were run by his devotees. His most notable disciples would later become leaders of postcolonial Egypt and later, Iran, his homeland.
More than a 100 years later, something similar is afoot in urban peninsula Malaysia. Groups of Malay men meet at 24-hour restaurants rattling off names of white men both dead and living: Spinoza, Kant, Mill, Hayek, Habermas. To make applicable and complimentary to the local context, iconoclastic Muslim thinkers such as Ali Shariati are invoked. Is this some kind of intellectual renaissance unseen since, well, who knows? Perhaps. But what is certain is that it is what Clarissa Lee calls the birth of our salon culture.
This loose collective of individuals organise book discussions, lectures, and produce books translated into Malay, the language of its audience targeted for intellectual and Islamic reform. IKD has recently published Immanuel Kant’s foundational text What is the Enlightenment? in Malay, signalling an attempt to herald a Malay kind of Enlightenment. Now is as good a time as any to investigate the rise of this community.
These names and ideas bandied about during the Enlightenment have a talismanic quality. They appeal to idealists. The Kantian man stands apart from the rest of society thanks to his superior faculty to reason and freedom from the shackles of fear and dogma. He and his ilk form the public sphere, a potent site for contesting against the state. With the right conditions, Islamic reform and Islamic secularism may be imminent. These grandiose ideals may be the seeds of an intellectual framework for a new Malaysia.
There are, however, detractors who are cynical of this fledgling intellectual trend and quick to denounce earnest verbiage as “pseudo-intellectualism.” Such criticisms should be disabused from the short-sighted ignorance of the power that ideas have in the bigger picture of history. Ideas alone, often slow in its path towards eventual action, have resulted in social transformations and political revolutions. Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet on imperialism and capitalism inspired revolts against colonial subjugators in Asia and the Middle East.
There is a naivety like the rush of first love in this intellectual movement. Their often uncritical adoration of Western philosophy is attributed to a lack of awareness of the vast corpus that challenges its androcentric Eurocentrism. But like Al-Afghani, we should not throw Western theory out with the bath water. After all, Malaysia as a country was founded on Western ideas; the nation-state was a created as a European political project, the rule of law, Parliament, and our education system are all imported without us resisting against its foreignness. And yet, other concepts — female emancipation, freedom of speech, civil liberty, gay rights — are attacked as being alien to our “culture.”
What is more interesting to observe is how pockets of this intellectual community are inspired by Indonesian civil society made up of key contemporary feminist, literary and socio-political figures. Women make a significant presence in Indonesian intellectual circles. But the urban Malaysian salon culture, which is keen on attracting the working class Malay, remains stubbornly Malay male-dominated. This gendered intellectual exclusion can also be witnessed in Singapore where an emerging intellectual book culture is dominated by young Singaporean Malay men.
There are certainly parallels between our local burgeoning intellectual community with that it aspires to mirror. Women were excluded from participating in world-changing philosophical debates in 18th century France. Their views were thought to lack weight and while their very presence amongst male thinkers (wannabe or otherwise) were inhibiting the freedom of intellectual homosociality these men enjoyed. Women opt out from late night discussions in 24-hour restaurants because being female in public at night is risky in Malaysia. Who knows what other reasons that account for their absence?
What are the other dynamics of exclusion at work in this emerging intellectual culture? Why do the chattering classes unproblematically choose to meet at 24-hour restaurants? Should they question the political and economic conditions that allowed them to discuss “liberty” and “rights” on cheap teh tarik while migrant labourers do the 3D jobs (dangerous, dirty, and difficult) that Malaysians won’t do? Liberty and rights for whom exactly? In the society where 9-to-5 jobs are privileged as the ideal, who is there to challenge the ethics of 24-hour sit-down restaurants if not the enlightened ones?
Perhaps one shouldn’t expect too much from an emerging intellectual class that is still learning the lessons of what a truly democratic society means. What took Europe several hundred years, two world wars and numerous fatal lessons from feeling superior to the rest of the world, Malaysia is only beginning to jump off the coat tails of empire since only the last century. Globalisation and super fast media may speed up the intellectual awakening of the elites in developing societies while the rest of humanity waits patiently for their turn.
Here’s some food for thought: Why did colonialism occur on our land for several hundred years? Why didn’t proto-Malaysians fight back the moment invasion was upon them? And here’s a tougher nougat for thought; despite everything, was colonialism a good thing for Malaysia?
Before answering those big questions without empirical certainty, perhaps we should ask how colonialism is framed and discussed in the Malaysian popular imagination. Thinking about colonialism at the time of national day celebrations can serve a variety of useful purposes. For the patriotic, it’s about commemorating the day we showed the penjajah (colonial/imperialist powers) the door and declared our political independence; for historians, it’s a reminder of how little we’ve decolonised ourselves. But for the ordinary Malaysian who are neither the chest-beating patriotic type nor learned historian*, colonialism is in the past and has no bearing on the present or future.
How do most Malaysians remember our colonial past? Or rather, how are we expected to remember our colonial past? What does colonialism mean in our popular imagination? The pages of our diluted, heavily edited and biased history textbooks do not burn with distaste and anger toward our European (particularly British) colonial masters. Instead, we remember them as relatively benevolent men who found economic potential in proto-Malaysia. They struck a deal with the sultans to settle and develop industries, our industries. They fought to keep the perils of communism and Japanese imperialism at bay. They helped us on our way to independence.
Their presence was therefore seen in many ways a boon to our imminent independence; our colonial masters helped build roads and other very useful public infrastructure, introduced an organised education system, and made us speak English among other things. With the history of indentured labour a mere footnote in Malaysian history books, we remembered our colonialism as less severe; we did not suffer colonial slavery of the scale that tore swaths of people and cultures apart in the Caribbean, the Americas, and Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The cradle of our independence was not washed in blood like India and Pakistan. In comparison, the liberation of the federated Malay states and straits states (excluding Sabah and Sarawak) in 1957 was like a gift on a silver platter handed from one group of British colonial elites to a coterie of a mainly Malay elite. For our British colonial masters, the London-educated, steak-loving anglophile Tunku Abdul Rahman ticked the boxes of the ideal leader for the newly-born postcolonial states, not the anti-colonial Malay and Chinese communists who fought bitterly in vain to drive the British out. For Lim Kean Chye, merdeka has little to no meaning, as Malaysia is still a colonial state, furnished with a racist superiority complex that imbues our national psyche and legal system, a complex not far removed from the racist colonial one with the added manic flag-waving pretensions of a liberated and democratic nation.
There are several hypotheses for why the popular imagination of our relationship with colonialism is filtered through rosy pink lenses. First, the control of Malay and strait states was smoothly managed in that the states were relatively compact and geographically accessible, not needing extensive and punishing slave labour to build railroads across vast stretches of land to facilitate the colonial plundering of resources (such as in Canada and United States for example). Because of the presence of Islam and by implication a recognised element of ‘civilisation’, the everyday customs and religions of the common people were allowed to self-manage and not need the brutalising ‘civilising’ processes like in India and in the African countries through widespread missionary work and the denigration of local cultures.
Because African peoples were viewed as lacking a religion in the eyes of the colonial puritanical zealots, their dehumanisation and process to ‘civilisation’ were particularly brutal. Racist colonial scholarship that sought to redeem the savagery of non-white peoples, through the construction of racial hierarchy that posits a group of savages as less savage than others, was eclipsed by its inadvertent results; new forms of marginalisation, ethnic divide, and genocide. In Malaysia, the road to independence was punctuated by luck and circumstance with the ethnic divide smoothed-over by fragile diplomatic arrangements, and not defined by struggle and agency.
Colonialism in proto-Malaysia was seen as simply a benign project because the racism of our European invaders did not register in our Eurocentric collective memory. That is perhaps one of the many complex and inter-locking reasons why colonialism occurred for so long in proto-Malaysia. The spectacular retreat of the French that ended colonialism in Haiti in 1804 taught the post-colonial world, among other things, that independence can be won without the paternalistic hand-me-down of a used and abused nation and that colonialism was not an inevitable event in history to be taken for granted. In contrast, the story of Malaysian independence in history textbooks and popular imagination would have us believe that proto-Malaysians slept all throughout European expansion only to be awaken by the gentle nudge of the distant crumbling of Empire.
* Granted, the categories are not necessarily exclusive.