Thursday, August 11, 2005

Malin Kundang, says Ayu

Title: Patah Balek: Catatan Terpenting Reformasi
(literally, Revisiting Malaysia's Reformasi: Some important notes)
Author: Fathi Aris Omar
Pages: 263 + xxii (with an index)
Publisher: SIRD Petaling Jaya, Malaysia
Printed: 2005 (February)

Main themes: political reform, creative and cultural freedom, the role of public intellectuals, academic freedom, language and literature, democratic culture and rights, public sphere and civil society, freedom of the press and violation, student politics and youth movements, political Islam, Malay politics, human rights

AYU Utami, a well-known Indonesian novelist, describes the author as 'Si Malin Kundang' – an ungrateful son who was cursed and turned into a 'stone' (or, a piece of reef) in the popular Minangkabau and Malay folklore. The son, in the Malay version, is 'Si Tenggang'. It is said that a piece of stone on a beach near the town of Padang now (West Sumatra) resembles a man and his wrecked jong ('junk', or ship, as originated in Malay)

The author of the novels Saman and Larung however, is sympathetic with the author Fathi Aris Omar's quandary. "We know that a piece of reef (or stone) is also an icon of strength," she says in her 'foreword' to Patah Balek: Catatan Terpenting Reformasi.

Fathi Aris is, in Ayu's eyes, a critic of the groups he belongs to, although he has been actively and deeply involved in Gerakan Reformasi (reform movement) and is close to Opposition parties and Islamic groups.

Yet, he acts like a curious bystander – a delicate position indeed, "standing between his own village and the sea (like the stone of Malin Kundang in West Sumatra)," concludes Ayu, who is also a member of the editorial team of Kalam, a cultural journal.

The articles in Patah Balek were written as 'answers' to some issues since Malaysia's political crisis in 1998 – after the sacking and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim – because of his personal curiosity in and attachment to the nation's democratic reform.

Fathi Aris tries hard to convince the readers that the undemocratic political culture has seeped through most spheres of Malaysian (or rather, the Malays') political life. He also quotes the Iranian president Khatami's analysis: "We are all individually dictator-like in our own ways, and this unfortunate condition is evident in all strata and spheres of our society."

Fathi Aris passionately promotes the 'independent' stance of public intellectuals in national politics. He has no sympathy with intellectuals who are drowned in 'political quietism' or who side with political parties, whether that of the Government or the Opposition.

To the author, intellectuals have to participate actively in the public sphere because it is his opinion that current Malay political discourses are biased and propagandist.

It is unfortunate for him that he voices out his concern during one of the most critical political crises. The author's position is seen as undesirable. How could a self-confessed advocate for the freedom of expression criticise a group of people, who were already deprived of their democratic rights and were his comrades in those chaotic years?

However, he is our 'Malin Kundang' – perhaps the only Malay writer prepared to accept the curse that turns him to stone. The 'stone' will blow the whistle on current shortfalls and future shortcomings.

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