Yawning 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, 

the poor parents of Wee would be the ones facing the potential (and no ‘wee’) threat of some idiots who may choose to be ‘wee’ imitations of Hang Tuah.

Look, Wee had to apologise for no other reason than to take the no ‘wee’ heat off his family. In apologising, he did the right thing by his family, considering those goons could and had even attack an international meet like the Apcet II conference 10 years ago...

 

 

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?

 
Freedom of speech - race and religion

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.)

 
Why should state emblems be sacrosanct?

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.

Why?

It's time Singaporeans think about these issues. If Negarakuku helps us get started, we too should thank Wee Meng Chee.

© Yawning Bread 


 

Footnotes

  1. Interestingly, other Malaysians have pointed out that since Negara-ku is adapted from the Hawaiian song Mamula Moon (here and here) which later became the Indonesian song, Terang Bulan, does it mean it's an offence in Malaysia too to sing these two songs? A desecration of the national anthem? 1960s Pop singer Rudy van Dalm's version of Terang Bulan can be heard here. Anneke Gronloh's more crooning version can be found here - third of 3 songs in this video.

  2. I have since received quite a few emails and sms messages pointing out that "kiam kan" is not Cantonese, but Hokkien. It means "get fucked", or, in this context, "get scolded".
    Return to where you left off.

  3. Guan Liang and Pin Guan are 2 singers, so the translation should really have said "they" rather than "he".
    Return to where you left off

Addenda

None

 

 

Translation from docfiles:
(Slightly edited by Yawning Bread)

Intro credits:
2007 Visit Malaysia Year Theme Song
I Love My Country
Negaraku

(Repeat) Check it out, yo, yo, yo.

(Repeat) Negaraku, Negarakuku.

I love my country, only when you have a country you have a home
Only with a home then there will be me, standing here with you
Loudly singing, don’t be afraid
Even though I curse all the time
My song, is just like the durian
Tough and spiky, only
To see if you dare to open it, to look at the truth inside
It can be very stinky, it can be very fragrant
It only depends on what kind of nostrils you have.

Our police is called Mata
Because they have very bright eyes
Once it’s New Year, they will be very hard working
Holding pens but they will rarely write you a receipt
Because they are thirsty, they need to drink tea
Also kopi-O (black coffee), want to add sugar?
If they add sugar, their mouths will sweetly smile at you
When you are leaving, they will even go “Tata.”

Negaraku
Tanah tumpahnya darahku
Rakyat hidup bersatu dan maju.

This phenomenon, doesn’t need any improvements
Neither does it need strengthening, the police and the people work together
A cup of coffee keeps our relationship temperate
I so very suka (I like it very much)
At least I won’t go home and receive a summons
My dad would sure be pissed
I would also kiong kan (swear word in Cantonese for “get raped” [2]), with no car to drive
What to do, this time so very kao lat (an expression, something like aiyo)
With no car, how do I go out and play?
With no car, how do I wage “wild war”? (I don’t know what it means but I assume it has something to do with a girl)
With no car, how do I go and watch ah kua? (transvestites)
This country, I like it very much.

5 in the morning
There’s even a morning call to wake me up
Sometimes a few of them will sing together
When you listen to it, it’s like a love duet
The voice ululates like an R&B song
Even though sometimes they sing until it’s out of tune
Even though sometimes they even sing until their voices break
Some sound like cockerels, but they wake up earlier than them
This way we can know the time to get ready for class and for work
Don’t blame, the government only takes cares of the natives
Don’t blame, we don’t receive equal care
Only this way we can prove that we Chinese are not afraid of hard work
Only this way we can train ourselves to find a solution during hard times
Don’t feel weird about their standards
Because this only shows that we are smart (or capable)
Children who are not spoilt will not be dependant
Because you see some children are still not weaned off breast-feeding.

Rahmat bahagia
Tuhan kurniakan
Raja kita
Selamat bertakhta.

People who hide in government departments are even better (even more capable)
They can do everything so slowly
Even when people are queuing, are cursing stinky lelai (what’s that?)
They’re chill and unfazed
Sometimes they even bring out their kuih
They eat their nyonya kuih
More people will continue queuing up
Even when you curse stinky lelai it doesn’t matter
Because the guard at the side is dreaming
And he won’t scold you one lah.

They wrap up their heads; walk slowly and cross the road slowly
When you pass in the car you even have to let them pass first
The most important thing is to live happily; the most important thing is to live comfortably
Don’t be like the Chinese
Busy the whole day, very tough
We really cannot NOT admire this spirit”
Because this is their attitude in life.

(Attitude, attitude)

I’ve been saying good things in this song
I believe those of you who are pissed at me will like this now
The world is peaceful, and full of hope
No one is hurt, there aren’t any riots
You’re so classy, you’re so elegant
Your shit is fragrant, and you don’t curse
You guys are the most high class, every day it’s just romancing

Listening to Guang Liang Pin Guan (this local Chinese artiste)
But he already ran to Taiwan [3]
Private school students graduate
It’s so very tough to get admitted into local universities
Actually we don’t have to get pissed about this issue
Actually this is the a very noble plan by the government
They want us to explore the world, to find new opportunities for ourselves
To learn things and come back and repay the country
This is plan is so great, I can’t quibble about it
All over the world you can see Malaysia’s children
They’re like refugees, so very shiok (expression for orgasm or high)

2007, Malaysia’s having Visit Malaysia Year
The Chinese culture is brought out and paraded
The government doesn’t even care about private school students
The certificate is thrown into the longkang (ditch), just like me

Graduated and went to Taiwan
Learned about things, and got ready to come back to repay my country
I stood on the streets of Taipei with my guitar
But my mouth still sings.

Rahmat Bahagia
Tuhan kurniakan
Raja kita Selamat bertakhta.