“WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?” Veteran Malaysian art Journalist Ooi Kok Chuen presents an overview of Malaysian Indian artists in the Penang Monthly which opens by questioning the dearth of Indians in the national canon. He goes on to offer some possible answers that he notes have been ‘bandied about,’ “Economic status, parental / social disapprobation, opportunity, (lack of) role models, patronage, minority syndrome (proportionately smaller population, of only 6.2%), “estranged” Indian-ish themes, and discrimination,” Ooi rightly states no preference amongst these reasons. Nevertheless, while it is difficult to go beyond speculation in this matter, I am glad he has asked the question publically. It is an important one as it points to the undeniable fact that, while a few Malaysian Indians have made significant contributions to the practice and theorization of the visual arts, overall, our numbers are low.
This is something that gave me pause during my years of intense involvement in the Malaysian scene from 1996 to 2002. I gave my support and encouragement to individual artists with a sense of communal allegiance whenever the opportunity came my way, but my own concerns during that period were national and international, and while intra-national questions of race and communalism formed the framework of my practice, I was not community oriented. I often wonder if I could have engaged more actively with my community in those years in terms of promoting and developing the arts.
This personal reflection and recollection, triggered by Ooi’s question, leads to a more fundamental question that lies at the heart of my Malaysian identity. Am I an Indian first or a Malaysian first? An Indian Malaysian or a Malaysian Indian! Of course, an analogous question arises for the other races of our multiethnic nation. Such pondering has even been turned into political capital. Malaysia’s present Prime Minister is reported to have said, back in 2010, “I am a Malay first, I want to say that … But being Malay does not mean that you are not Malaysian.” While the country struggles with the horrors of the recent covid-19 crisis atop an ongoing and now long running political one, the foundations of the nation are being shaken. Will the old Malaysia, whose founding social contract is premised on communalism, survive this crisis in its present form? Will we regress to a more ethnocentric paradigm, or will we emerge from this national trauma with a reformed and refined national agreement? These questions might seem far from the world of Malaysian art but this is where the stream of thoughts that flowed that follows from Ooi’s innocent, perhaps not so innocent question, has brought me – WHY ARE THERE so few artists of Indian … descent in Malaysia?”
Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, Papadopoulos’ Greece, Pinochet’s Chile, and Suharto’s Indonesia are the 7 regimes that Laurence W. Britt analyzed to develop his set of fascistic characteristics. Like Umberto Eco before him, he came up with 14 key characteristics, which he construed as fascist and proto-fascist means of obtaining, expanding, and maintaining power. He presented this list in an Op-Ed titled Fascism Anyone? in Volume 23, No. 2 Spring 2003 of ‘Free Inquiry’ as follows – 1. Powerful and continuing expressions of nationalism. 2. Disdain for the importance of human rights. 3. Identification of enemies/scapegoats as a unifying cause. 4. The supremacy of the military/avid militarism. 5. Rampant sexism. 6. A controlled mass media. 7. Obsession with national security. 8. Religion and ruling elite tied together. 9. Power of corporations protected. 10. Power of labor suppressed or eliminated. 11. Disdain and suppression of intellectuals and the arts 12. Obsession with crime and punishment. 13. Rampant cronyism and corruption. 14. Fraudulent elections.
While, as Daniel Malmer notes this list was not intended to be used to diagnose fascism in present governments, but rather characterize historical fascist governments, it is nevertheless interesting to see how many of these fascistic characteristic apply to the purported democracies of the world.
As a Malaysian, I find that the polity of my country seems to exhibit a good 11 of the Britt’s 14 traits. If this were not worrying enough for the long view, we have just joined a list of dysfunctional nations that have suspended parliamentary rule and instituted emergency powers in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic. This is the first such declaration of emergency since the aftermath of the race riots of May 13th 1969.
According to Bloomberg, the state of emergency was declared soon after some key leaders in the ruling coalition’s largest partner, United Malays National Organisation had called for a fresh election. They also report that the Pakatan Harapan opposition has admonished the Prime Minister for burdening the people with a declaration of emergency for the sake of saving himself. Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs has described the emergency as “totally unnecessary” and that “If you’re not careful, we will slip from parliamentary democracy into a rule by diktat.”
Fascism must be distinguished from other kinds of authoritarianism and dictatorship and according to Gaetano Salvemini its key characteristic is the displacement of democracy and due process by what Robert Paxton has paraphrased as the “acclamation of the street.” Unlike other forms of oppression, fascism redirects the peoples’ passions into “an obligatory domestic unity” based on scapegoating within the nation and xenophobia without. In this definition the term ‘fascist’ can not be applied to even the most oppressive predemocratic dictatorships as it involves the idea of sliding away from free institutions in pursuit of a nationalist imperative.
In The Anatomy of Fascism Paxton proposes five stages in this decline. Stage One is the establishment of radical Right movements with some explicit or implicit link to fascism. He asserts that this has been the situation in “every industrial, urbanized society with mass politics” since the end of World War II. In Stage Two, these movements become rooted in their political systems as the mainstream elites start to cultivate and direct them against purported internal enemies. Stage Three is the seizure of power, Stage Four, the exercise of power and Stage Five involves the movements radicalization or entropy.
So what is Fascism? In The Anatomy of Fascism, Robert Paxton defines fascism as “a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.”
While there is no doubt that Donald Trump and by implication the Republican Party have been flirting with White Supremacy, and thereby bringing the USA within the ambit of Paxton’s definition, as a Malaysian Tamil who has lived in the UK, I can not but think of the analogous forces that have given us Brexit, Ketuanan Melayu and Hindutva.
Further, as an immigrant to Canada and as a resident of British Columbia, I struggle to disentangle my new, welcoming and multicultural home from its White Supremacist provenance, and I wonder about the future.
With the coffin shaped sculpture, May 13, 1969 by Redza Piyadasa as a blurry backdrop, this image, titled 8 My Country, from the Dendang Koboi Gelap, 2016, raises the question of nation in contemporary Southeast Asian art. It marks the irony that one of the few art works that contemporaneously addressed our national tragedy, does not stand proudly and self-reflectively in the light of the Balai Seni Lukis Negara, Malaysia, but instead, presents itself nakedly to the gaze of others at the National Gallery of Singapore.
For those who are not familiar with South East Asian Art and Malaysian history -Essentially May 13th 1969 is an infamous day of racial rioting for Malaysia. Many people died. Reza Piyadasa is one of the few artists of that time who made contemporaneous artworks that have ‘survived’, which in the art world, means collected and written about, and in this particular case, commissioned and remade. This piece memorializes the tragedy and explores its meaning for the nation.
My photo above, which is a simple art gallery selfie type shot, carries within it the possibility of a critique of both Malaysian and Singaporean institutional attitudes – 1. Why has the Malaysian institution of record not bothered to collect this important work of national self-reflection and, in not doing so, missed the opportunity to interrogate and explore its meanings? May 13, 1969 is a work that should stand proudly in the National Gallery in Malaysia. 2. While National Gallery of Singapore is entitled to collect any work it finds interesting and should be commended for recognizing and preserving this important work, I can’t help but ask – what happens to the reading of May 13, 1969, when this this racially and politically provocative work is presented to the gaze of global others, outside of its meaningful context, far from its original function of affording self-reflection?
May 13, 1969 was remade in 2006, the original having been destroyed by the artist in a performative act.
I am a Malaysian of Jaffna Tamil extraction. My late father was a Seremban born Malaysian but my Mother, also now deceased, was a Jaffna girl. Just as the Malays of the peninsular index the notion of a homeland with the term Tanah Melayu, the Tamils of Jaffna use the term Elam. Unlike the Indians and Chinese populations of Malaysia, the majority of whom came under the auspices of the British, the Tamils of Sri Lanka are the descendants of the subjects of ancient Tamil Kingdoms. As such, they have a sense of attachment and entitlement to the land commonly found in those who have occupied and ruled for centuries. Neither the majority Sinhalese nor the minority Tamils are beholden to any compromise or ‘social contract’ the one that binds Malays and non-Malays in Malaysia. This sense of entitlement lead to irresolvable conflict and I have observed this violent Elam struggle from afar. I have experienced it vicariously through news of grandparents and aunties caught in the crossfire between the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam)and the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), cousins in being sent away to India and Canada as they reached their teenage years for fear of being killed by the SLA (Sri Lankan Army) or Forcibly recruited by the Tigers …. and there are many other such family situations that I have experienced vicariously, scenarios whose trauma I have felt through my own mother’s emotional responses.
My father was a pragmatist and a dove, “Minority Tamils need to compromise with the Sinhala majority! Given the demographics of post-colonial Sri Lanka, armed struggle is futile ,” I can imagine him encapsulating his position. My mother however, was a Tigress at heart! Metaphorically speaking,that is! “They have taken away our language and now they will push us into to the sea!” She could not stand the injustices, indignities and the cruelties experienced by the Tamils and once the war had begun she was emotionally behind “our boys and girls” fighting with the LTTE! You have to recall that the LTTE was not designated as a terrorist organization in Malaysia at the time of this war of independence. (It is much later in 2014 that the designation was given, long after the war had been lost and the LTTE decimated in 2009). And my mother’s openly emotional allegiance meant serious arguments with my father. Although, I was more interested in questions of race, nationality and justice in my own Malaysian milieu, I absorbed all the contrasting positions and sentiments … more in On Being a Malaysian Tamil 2
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’sreputation for being ‘antisemitic’,wasrecently brought to mind by theproblems experienced by his familyin the movie business (in the context of investments made in the production of the film Dr Strange). In the interest of the truth, of his legacy, and perhaps even of his family’s business interests, I urge him to make one specific correction in his world Jewry rhetoric. As evidenced by the SenatorIlhan Omaraffair, there is an urgent need to cleave in two the confused referent/s of these signifiers – ‘Jew’ and ‘Zionist.’ In fact, as explained by Rabbi Dovid Weiss in the Al Jazeera interview above, the conflation of these signs serves the cause of Zionism. Haderim (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews are amongst the firmest and truest defenders of Palestine and Palestinians. Many Muslim nations, communities and leaders have been fair weather friends of the Palestinians, but not these gentle, archaic and God fearing Jews. Just listen to the humility, clarity, love and courage expressed by the Rabbi, bearing in mind that his people resist Zionism from communities across the world and even, at great risk, from the within the heart of Israel (Haderim Jews constituted over 12% of Israel’s population in 2017). While I am tickled by the reflexive candour of Mahathir’s taxonomy of noses and comprehend the political expediency revealed in his explanation that ‘the people’ will understand better if he says ‘Yahudi‘ (Jews) instead of ‘Zionist’, I am nevertheless perplexed by, even ashamed of, his perpetuation of this Zionist conflation, not least because it obscures the diversity of positions held by the Jewish peoples, amongst whom are these staunch allies of Palestine! I hope that the good Dr. will be more nuanced in his use of the terms ‘Jewish’, ‘Zionist’ and even ‘Israeli’ before he ends his time on the world’s stage.