"Who is Afraid of the Last Communist?"
Who is Afraid of the Last Communist?
By Farish A. Noor
The news that the film Lelaki Komunis Terakhir (The Last Communist) by Malaysian director and producer Amir Muhammad has been banned by the Ministry of Home Affairs - despite the fact that it had been passed by the Malaysian Censor Board - has struck some by surprise.
After the initial hullaballoo brought about by some individuals and groups, including UMNO Youth, who argued that the Malaysian movie industry ought to have focused more on national heroes who fought against the Malayan Communist Party instead, the Malaysian public has been left none the wiser. The Home Ministry has defended its decision to keep the film out of our cinemas on the grounds that 'the Malaysian public' has demanded it. For a government that has not proven as effective when it comes to probing into the internal affairs of the police and the alleged misconduct of some of its members, the Home Ministry now seems to have returned to form and is acting speedily to serve the interests of the public!
Here the first of many questions arises: Who, pray tell, makes up this nebulous 'Malaysian public' that is ever so sensitive to the depiction of Malaysia's leftist leaders, activists and intellectuals? If the mass 'protests' against the film are to be taken into account, then surely one would have to also take into consideration the actors and agents who were behind these protests themselves - in this case none other than the leaders and members of the Conservative Barisan Nasional coalition themselves whose ideological differences with the secular left are well known and documented.
Secondly we are then forced to ask what service this ban is meant to do for us, the Malaysian public, in whose interests the ban was imposed in the first place. Underlying the argument of the Home Ministry seems to be a paternalistic logic of pastoral and custodial care that seeks to domesticate society by safeguarding it from 'insiduous' and 'subversive' elements (catchwords of the Cold War one would recall). One can only wonder if this is the same sort of parental control logic that prevails when the state-appointed authorities act against Malaysian couples who hold hands in public and are accused of 'indecent behaviour'...
The Malaysian state remains stuck in its maximalist model of policing and control, like some overbearing parent that cannot come to terms with the fact that his children have grown up and can now think for themselves. Are we, the Malaysian public, wise and mature enough to vote for the government yet immature enough not to be able to assess the merits of director Amir Muhammad's movie on our own? Or would we need to be given printed guidelines to help us interpret every sentence, every scene, every character, in any film deemed 'unfit' for Malaysian consumtion? If that be the case, the Ministry could have provided us with printed illustrated guidelines that spell out how to interpret the movie and whose side we should take while watching it. A photo of Chin Peng could have been printed with the warning: 'Orang Jahat- Jangan ikut lagaknya. Bahaya- Macam Darth Vader'.
The bottom line is that Amir Muhammad's film was an attempt - albeit in his own artistic mode - to interpret the character and personality of an individual who was instrumental in the formation of post-colonial Malaysia.
Whatever Chin Peng's ideological convictions may have been, he stands among the most important political figures of Malaysia in the 20th century. The fact that he is of Chinese background is also important for the simple reason that it reminds us of the contribution of the non-Malay communities to the development first of colonial, and later post-colonial, Malaysia. It is sad enough that the number of non-Malays who appear in our history books are few and far between. Now it would appear that those who were in the opposition camp are doubly damned for being both non-Malay and in the opposition as well. Will our present day non-Malay opposition leaders like Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh suffer the same fate in the future, one wonders?
The writing of Malaysia's complex history can and will be a difficult venture indeed. The enterprise is fraught with difficulties that extend well beyond the ideological and political. Any nation as plural and articifical as Malaysia will have to grapple with its contigencies and radical accidental moments of hazard and chance. Malaysia - the country that was initially thought to be a potential Balkans in the 1950s - has turned out to be one of the few so-called economic miracles of East Asia instead. But this development has not followed a linear path, nor was it predetermined by fate or necessity. Many characters and events were thrown into the bargain, and each of them - both positively and negatively - did, in their own way, steer the ship of the Malaysian state to where it is today.
Chin Peng and the Malayan Communist Party were among those crucial actors whose role was pivotal in the formative years of Malayan nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, when the decolonisation movement was gaining momentum and the nascent idea of a Malayan (later Malaysian) nation came into being.
If anything, Chin Peng and the MCP should be remembered for what they were: partners in the collective attempt to free Malaya and Malayans from the yoke of British colonialism and Western imperialism. The British understood very well why the Malayan Communist Party was a threat to their own imperial and colonial interests, for the Communists were hardly allies who could be counted upon to defend the rights and privileges of the colonisers. Instead the British chose to support the liberal Malayan conservatives like Onn Jaafar who later created the Independence for Malaya Party (IMP) that was little more than a soft bulwark against the tide of growing anti-colonial sentiment spreading through the country and the region by extension.
During its heyday, the Malayan Communist Party was part of a greater international coalition that struggled against both colonialism and imperialism and which regarded Fascism as its greatest enemy. While the liberals and conservatives among our forefathers lay dormant, the Malayan Communists were the ones who stood up against both Japanese militarism, and following the Second World War, the attempt by the former colonial powers to reimpose their imperial rule in Asia. Were these 'sins' that they, and us, should be ashamed of?
To return to the original question posed at the beginning: If Amir Muhammad's film on Chin Peng is deemed as unfit or even dangerous for the Malaysian public, we need to ask ourselves whose interests are being served here? The Malaysian public that still has to learn the true extent of the commitment and sacrifice of all Malaysians from all races and all walks of life in the anti-colonial struggle? Or the interests of the conservatives among us who insist that theirs and theirs alone is the official account of Malaysian history that deserves to be told? One can understand how and why the British colonisers were adamant that the Malayan Communist Party should be destroyed and all traces of it wiped out. But why should the same skewered beliefs be held by the Malaysian political elite of today?
* Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist, based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin. The above article was written for Eye Asia.