Friday, February 18, 2005

Pop panic, revisited

by Amir Muhammad

Menjelang Reformasi
By Rustam A Sani (K Publishing, 2004)

(written 9 Feb, submitted, but unable to be published).

Seven years ago, we had a problem with pop. Actually, this form of pop-panic had existed years before that, but let's just start with the mania surrounding KRU.

The group's duet with P Ramlee got into trouble for the simple reason that the latter had been deceased for several decades when the song was recorded. Technology these days could resurrect the dead, true, but some religious authorities were of the opinion that this form of posthumous collaboration crossed the border into the sacrilegious.

Then KRU's nationwide concert saw tour-dates in some States being banned. You see, the title of the concert was KRUmania, and our leaders, ever sensitive to titular nuance, didn't want us turning into hedonistic maniacs. (This same logic later dictated the banning of the film Mighty Morphin Power Rangers – one of the words sounds like `morphine' - and got Hellboy changed to Super Sapiens).

Rustam A Sani, who then had a weekly column in Utusan Malaysia, wrote an article on this mania. It was called "Larangan mengelirukan buat KRU" (4 June 1997). It is only one of several articles in this book, which collects the last 18 months' worth of articles before his contributions were no longer welcome by that august paper. Why were his contributions no longer welcome from 1998 onwards? The title of the book, Menjelang Reformasi, might give you a clue. You can't be THAT forgetful, can you?

When Susan Sontag died a few months ago, much was made of the fact that she `elevated' pop culture into intellectual discourse. Truth was, she only did so in the 1960s, after which she retreated into a search for a self-proclaimed `seriousness.' And besides, intellectual discourse, even more than religious prohibition, is the one thing that would always look pale and pallid next to the sneaky, snappy transience of pop anyway.

Which isn't to say that pop doesn't matter. Of course pop matters. In a society like Malaysia, which exists at a foggy intersection of all kinds of vested interests, a seemingly casual article such as Rustam's, on a seemingly small controversy, takes on the significance of a beacon. He can dissect the arguments and point out the contradictions inherent in such a `controversy' in a way that goes beyond a mere pro-choice, pro-market stance,

First off, KRU itself doesn't come across as heroic. The group's failure to articulate its own defense, by instead deferring the final decision to the religious authority, says something – and something not very nice – about the ability of our young entertainers/ entrepreneurs to stand their ground.

The conservative argument against pop concerts is that it encourages rowdy and uncouth behaviour in the crowd. Rustam says, quite sensibly but also startlingly, that he has witnessed worse conduct among soccer supporters, so why not just ban the Malaysia Cup?

Tied into all this is how we as a nation had been bending over backwards to permit the entry of capitalism and its excesses, but then some segments of society choose to cry foul, too little too late, at only a few of its inevitable symptoms rather than provide a reasoned and sustained critique of its whole basis. So what we get isn't a systematic way of dealing with this brave new world but rather ad-hoc responses by people who are themselves embarrassingly unqualified.

This is always politics by other means. The increasingly bloated Malaysian religious bureaucracy started in the late 1970s and for two decades showed little sign of abating, as the ruling party was, pardon the term, hell-bent on seeming more Islamic than the main opposition party. Rustam's insistence on seeing the root political (and not just social) cause for all fuss to do with `social ills', not to mention our attitudes to education, corruption and so on, even before he was a member of any political party (he since joined his late father Ahmad Boestamam's Parti Rakyat Malaysia, which then merged with Keadilan), probably had something to do with his termination by that paper.

Faso-forward to the present and we have another outrage centred around pop. This latest was perpetrated by the religious authorities of the Federal Territory (JAWI), which raided a licensed nightclub and apparently humiliated the female Muslim patrons before detaining them for a few hours. Mingguan Malaysia carried an interview with one of these unfortunate women, Jeslina Hashim, who happens also to be an entertainer, under the evocative heading "Saya dilayan macam pelacur" (I was treated like a prostitute).

Jeslina's remarks are quite telling. She points out that the women were treated worse than the Muslim men. Linking back to Rustam's comments on the Malaysia Cup (which attracts proportionally more men), an ingrained sexism is quite obvious when it comes to selective religious persecution.

Jeslina quite sensibly says, "Even if I had sinned, it was against God and not against JAWI," a statement of personal autonomy that is all too rare and must be applauded. But I wonder if even she is aware of some troubling statements in the interview.

Firstly, she says that she and her friends went to meet with Puteri UMNO with their lawyers to air their grouses. The fact that a junior wing of a political party has to be invoked and indeed run to in such a situation is a tacit acknowledgement that party politics matter more than any of our civil institutions. Is there nothing left for the rest of us? So the main party gets to have it both ways: To condone these abuses (by being responsible for rhetorically inflating the religious discourse over the decades) and also be seen as `the good guys.'

Secondly, she says that some of her friends who were similarly abused are children of prominent people ("Mereka bukan anak orang biasa. Mereka berpangkat juga"), who will not let the matter go lightly. Suddenly a gulf opens up, and we wonder: Isn't it possible that there have been other, worse raids that never attracted the same publicity simply because the afflicted people were not well-connected?

Rather than a clash between right and wrong, we see here a clash between two of the main tenets of administration: the need for ostensible religiosity, and the need to protect the interests of the moneyed elite. Not such a big coincidence, then, that when KRU decided to market a girl equivalent of themselves, the name they came up with was indeed Elite. Awas (beware)!


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