Bread. August 2007
Race, religion and Negarakuku
The controversy about a rap music video now engulfing Malaysia offers
Singaporeans an opportunity to think about issues related to free speech
and concepts of loyalty. This is especially as unhappiness about the
racial and religious politics of Malaysia was the primary motive for Wee
Meng Chee (a.k.a. Namewee) to produce his Youtube video.
Singaporeans, on the other hand, appear to have become petrified of dealing with race and religion since the prosecutions of 3 bloggers in 2005 under the Sedition Act. Many have internalised the fear that speaking about these subjects will mean being hauled up to court and, like 2 of the 3 bloggers that year, spending time in jail. Thus, one more aspect of a national dialogue is killed off; one more part of our collective intellect is lobotomised.
To be stricken mute cannot be good for us in the long run. While some may say there aren't in Singapore anything like the faultlines one sees in Malaysia and that is why few feel the need to speak about race and religion, I think that is at best an opinion that itself deserves examination.
As a gay person, I feel every day the discrimination visited upon me, much of which stems from hate-filled ideas propagated by the fundamentalist Christian mafia that has penetrated deep into the civil service and the political class. You will not convince me or most gay Singaporeans that religiously-motivated persecution isn't happening in Singapore.
Malays, Indians and other ethnic minorities will probably have a view about race policies here that might puncture any complacent belief that there are few race issues in Singapore worth talking about.
Even if it is true that there are no pressing issues of race and religion to rouse Singaporeans, it is still unwise for a society to cut off its own tongue. Today, the government may behave equitably. Tomorrow, it may not. How will we hold a government to account when we gag at the words we will want to voice?
The courage to speak up is a very valuable thing. The relative silence of Singaporeans whether through state censorship or self-censorship -- and you are unlikely ever to be able to separate the two -- must be seen for what it is: a disaster just waiting to happen.
But baby steps first. Since Singaporeans are too scared to talk about race and religion in Singapore, we can begin by talking about race and religion in Malaysia. And that's why Negarakuku is an important opportunity.
* * * * *
I believe Wee Meng Chee has taken down his video. He had been pressed by
his family, who's still in Malaysia, to apologise. His own father issued an
apology too. As Malaysian blogger KTemoc Konsiders said,
Nonetheless, many others have replicated the video on Youtube. Here is one:
For the benefit of readers who don't understand Chinese, I found a translation of his rap lyrics on a number of Malaysian blogs. It is reproduced on the right.
Or you can click on this version, which another Malaysian has overlaid with his (different from my sidebar) English translation:
What Wee Meng Chee did was to superimpose a rap over the Malaysian national anthem, Negara-ku (meaning 'my country'). At the same time, he re-titled it Negarakuku. 'Kuku' can suggest the penis or that something is crazy.
In response to an outcry from the Malay majority, the Malaysian government has been huffing and puffing about stripping him of citizenship or charging him in court. It is still not clear what exactly he can be charged with. The Sedition Act, which like Singapore's treats inciting racial animosity as an offence, is one possibility, but apparently, there is also another law that makes desecration of state emblems a crime. Yet, Wee is not in Malaysia, and was not when he made the video. The 24-year-old, originally from Muar town, is a university student in Taiwan. Can these Malaysian laws be applied extra-territorially?
It is not necessary to explain to Singaporeans how fraught race issues are in Malaysia. In any case, even if you didn't know, you can gather as much from the lyrics. Wee refers, often sarcastically, to the muezzins' calls to prayer starting from 5 o'clock in the morning, to how "the government only takes cares of the natives" and the lack of education opportunities for Chinese Malaysians. There is also much mention of police corruption and the indolence of the civil service, both branches being predominantly Malay.
As anyone familiar with Malaysia would know, these are common complaints from among the country's non-Malay minorities. Wee was only saying what everyone around him had been grumbling about for years. It is voiced in homes, restaurants and mamak stalls (the Malaysian term for what Singaporeans call 'coffee shops').
But private speech is one thing, public speech has wider ramifications, some might argue. Which is why the state has to step in.
Hold on...Why? And here there are two aspects to consider. Firstly, where does one draw the line between public and private speech? Must everything said on the internet meet the same cringing standards of the government-controlled press?
Secondly, even if internet speech is public, or at least "more public" than face to face conversation, why should robust racial and religious criticism be considered out of bounds? Are Wee's complaints not genuine? If they are genuine, why shouldn't there be space for them in the public sphere?
The Malaysian government bases many of its policies on race considerations. It should hardly be a surprise that any resulting unhappiness is also predicated on race (and religion, since the two are closely related). To say that the government can act racially/religiously, but those affected by such actions cannot speak up racially/religiously is an unfair and unreasonable position.
(There is something similar in Singapore. The government discriminates along the lines of sexual orientation and permits the negative portrayal of gay people, but every time one tries to counter that message, one is either accused of "promoting homosexuality" or being a "threat to public order" and banned. For example, the British film Cut Sleeve Boys has just been banned. Surely too, I don't have to recount the numerous incidents during Indignation.)
The other aspect of this case springs from calls to strip Wee of his citizenship or to prosecute him for vandalising the national anthem. It's something familiar to Americans, I'm sure, recalling debates about whether flag-burning is protected by the First Amendment.
If I'm not wrong, the US Supreme Court has consistently ruled that it is.
The crux of the issue lies in the way we conceptualise the state. I hold that the state is there to serve the people, not the other way around. If the state no longer serves the interests of the people, get rid of it. In this, I am acutely aware (and not a little tickled) that I am being Confucianist: the people can justifiably rebel when the Emperor no longer does his part. Should Wee owe Malaysia loyalty when Malaysia does not give him justice?
Law, as an instrument of the state, should be there to serve the people, not as a tool for coercing people to serve or worship the state.
Too often we conceive of the state in feudal terms, as something to which the serfs owe loyalty by accident of birth. Or worse, we confuse the state with religion, demanding that its symbols and key credos never be questioned, failing which, excommunication ("strip him of his citizenship!") follows.
It's time Singaporeans think about these issues. If Negarakuku helps us get started, we too should thank Wee Meng Chee.
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