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Thursday, 21 August 2014

Fixing Malaysia: In Fact and Fiction

Random Reviews 11 & 12

Fixing Malaysia:

In Fact and Fiction

Can We Save Malaysia, Please! - Kee Thuan Chye 

(Marshall Cavendish, 2014 ISBN: 9789814561235)


Green is the Colour - Lloyd Fernando 

(Epigram, 2012 ISBN: 9789810726850)

Although I had originally planned to write two separate reviews, I started to read Green is the Colour immediately after Kee Thuan Chye's book and couldn't help notice how struck I was by the interconnection that I saw between the two. Both books are written by polemicists, one a playwright and journalist and the other an academic and novelist. Both lament the state of life in Malaysia, one in the aftermath of the 1969 riots and the other today. Both authors would like to see a different Malaysia, one a politically different Malaysia, the other a culturally different country.

However, there are of course differences too. Primarily Kee's book is a collection of journalism while Fernando's novel has found its way into a growing body of English language Malaysian literature. Can We Save Malaysia, Please! may well be forgotten in ten years' time, while Green is the Colour is more likely to endure. 

Kee is a witty and trenchant journalist and his contributions could well be a useful record of early 21st century Malaysian history. However when the reader is given nearly three hundred pages covering just nine months' output, there is certain to be repetition. Like any good journalist, Kee writes each article to catch his audience's attention on a first reading. Similarly when he writes another article on the same subject, he fills in a bit of background for the reader. While the style works well on a blog or in a newspaper, it is almost sure to bore the reader when the same article appears in a collection. I checked a sample article in the book against the original on the internet and was unable to find that the original had been edited for the book. So after the first fifty pages, I skim read most of the rest of the book.

Green is the Colour is a racier read. The introduction to the characters at a dewan in the aftermath of the 1969 riots is a little choppy. However the book soon settles down into a pace that makes it difficult to put down. The sketchy introductions to the main characters soon take on more form as we follow Panglima, the 'Malay' purist, his idealistic anti racist counterpart, Dahlan, and Omar and Yun Ming who represent softer versions of the respective extremes. The women, Sara and Gita, are not so strongly drawn and usually play the roles of linking the men rather than driving the plot.

As one would expect, Fernando, the novelist, is more nuanced than the campaigning journalist, Kee. However they do share a common characteristic in that neither is able to paint a picture of  their 'demon' that is convincing. Panglima, the villain of the novel, has few, if any redeeming characteristics, while the Government, Kee's constant target, receives little, if any, praise. There is a danger in adopting a black and white approach in that the writer ends up preaching to the converted. Fernando was, at least, aware of the danger when he wrote of the idealist Dahlan '...Are not Dahlan's opponents committed, too? Is not Dahlan wrong just to bring an idea without asking how it should be brought in for people of different cultures?'

Fernando does not fall into the trap of presenting the characters with whom he has most sympathy as being flawless. Sara is naive in her dealings with Dahlan, while Yun Ming, a capable Government servant, is reckless in pursuing his love of Sara and Omar is a brute in the bedroom. By contrast I did not find any of Kee's articles taking the Opposition to task in the same way as he does the Government.


On the other hand Kee Thuan Chye's books clearly do sell otherwise his publishers would not continue to bring out new collections of his journalism. He must have a strong following: a Reader's Digest poll found him to be the 34th most trusted individual in Malaysia. You can see why. When he sticks to the unvarnished facts, as he does in his article 'Mayday for MH370 and Malaysia', he is spot on and hits his target hard. I hope one day a wider readership will better appreciate his journalism in an edited compendium of his quality pieces.

Lloyd Fernando's message is more timeless. His narrative is interwoven with quotes and reflections that can be more easily absorbed by the general reader. Green is the Colour also has a transnational message for any country struggling with national, racial and religious identities. The book does not provide a solution. Each of the characters has her or his own take on that. However Fernando does provide plenty for debate.

Its should be remembered that, despite the time lapse between publication of the two books, both authors were conscious of living in a society where speaking one's mind on 'national' issues was and is difficult. As Fernando puts it ",If a third person was present, speak for that person's benefit. If he was Malay, you speak one way, Chinese another way, Indian another. ...In the end the spun tissue, like an unsightly scab, became your vision of what happened: the wound beneath continued to run pus."

Neither author falls into this trap: both are forthright with a purpose. The purpose is to encourage readers to dare to reveal their own truths more often so as to be an authentic spur to change. Fernando's novel illustrates the pains of change, while Kee's articles emphasise the obstacles. Nevertheless, the prospects for change, however blurry and frightening, are brighter because Fernando and Kee, at least, did not keep silent.




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