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            Pigs And Dogs, Everyone

 

            By Farish A. Noor

 

            (This article first appeared in Malaysiakini in December 2001)

 

 

            The reviewer's lot is often an unhappy one indeed. And this is

            particularly true for those of us who have to read through the

            writings of political writers in this blessed country of ours. There

            are times when one feels like knocking together the heads of

            Malaysian politicians so that they see some sense, and this is one

            of them. Having read Shahnon Ahmad's 'Anjing' (Dog) and Ibrahim

            Ali's 'Babi' (Pig), one can only come to the sad conclusion that

            there is no limit to how low Malaysian politics can sink. Now that

            the toilet of Malay literature is overflowing with masterpieces like

            'Shit' and 'Muntah' (Vomit), Malay politician-writers have begun to

            fill the zoo with dogs and pigs as well. One waits with bated breath

            (and closed nostrils) for the next putrid offering from these two

            great statesmen of our time.

 

            To ask the question which book is worse than the other would be a

            superfluous effort. Both are equally bad, and that in itself is an

            accomplishment of sorts. But there has to be some order in the midst

            of this chaos, so it is my unpleasant task to introduce to the

            reader the first of these two toilet-reading masterpieces.

 

            'Anjing' was written by the ex-Academic, ex-Sufi cult member turned

            PAS politician and member of Parliament Shahnon Ahmad. Like his

            previous works 'Shit' and 'Muntah', Shahnon's 'Anjing' is basically

            a long, rambling and incoherent narrative that is broken down to a

            series of short vignettes, each of which purports to contain an

            obscure moral message of some kind. It is clear that this is

            strictly reading for the in-crowd: The stories themselves make no

            sense whatsoever to anyone who is not familiar with the local

            political scene and the various persona who make up the cast of the

            wayang kulit (shadow play) of Malaysian politics. Courageous

            defender of truth and justice that he is, Shahnon never mentions any

            of his targets specifically. They all come under various pseudonyms

            and disguises like 'al-Kataki', 'Paduka Maha', etc.

 

            At times Shahnon comes close to saying something actually

            interesting and controversial. The short story 'Ikan Kecil Yang Tak

            Tergamak Dijamah' is meant to be about a national leader who is

            alleged to have raped an under-aged girl in her teens. (One wonders

            who that could possibly be?) But the bold Shahnon stops short from

            revealing who the person really is. In another story ('Al-Kataki'),

            Shahnon lampoons the amphibian antics of a certain politician who

            has the tendency to jump from one party to another. Again, the

            reader is left clueless as to the real identity of the person in

            question, as Shahnon never mentions the name of his subject. And so

            the stories drag on and on, and we are left with these tiresome

            jibes and backhanded accusations that are so common in the world of

            the Malay wayang.

 

            Not long after the publication of Anjing, the ex-ABIM, ex-Semangat

            '46 politician turned UMNO leader Ibrahim Ali put his pen to paper

            and came up with 'Babi'. Ibrahim himself admits that his own

            masterpiece was inspired by the work of his rival Shahnon. (The two

            books, incidentally, are almost exactly alike in appearance. Both

            have the same typesets, fonts, layout, etc. except that Shahnon's

            book has a yellow cover while Ibrahim's is green. And Shahnon's has

            a picture of a rather cute puppy on the cover while Ibrahim's has a

            full-frontal portrait of a somewhat over-endowed porker on his.)

 

            Like Shahnon's work, Ibrahim's book is basically another

            long-winding, tiresome and aimless narrative that is broken down to

            a number of short chapters. In them he gives various accounts of

            different types of swine, and it is clear that the barbed references

            are directed towards particular figures in the opposition. He spends

            considerable effort ridiculing a certain 'Babi Miang' (amorous pig)

            who was caught in a somewhat compromising situation in a certain

            room '121' (You know who you are, sir). More bile and venom is spilt

            on other 'babis', including the 'babi muda', 'babi tua', 'babi

            nyanyuk', etc. But like the intrepid Shahnon, Ibrahim the fearless

            is likewise unable or unwilling to openly name the people he is

            talking about.

 

            All sound and fury

 

            Reading Anjing and Babi consecutively is a painful exercise which

            merits the highest medal of honour and bravery this country can

            afford. The same cannot be said of those responsible for writing

            them, who should be charged with crimes against humanity.

 

            The most disappointing thing about the books is that they show too

            clearly that Malaysian politics- and Malay politics in particular-

            remains all sound and fury, signifying nothing. That Malaysian

            politicians can write such drivel while they are meant to be running

            the country is a shame and an insult to the people who voted them to

            power. That their superiors could allow them to continue wasting

            their time (and ours) thus is an indictment on the lack of political

            wisdom and leadership in this country. It is no exaggeration to say

            that in any other country no politician worth his/her salt would

            have the guts to show his/her face in public after writing such

            nonsense. But here in Malaysia they are promoted to even greater

            heights instead.

 

            For that reason at least, both Anjing and Babi deserve closer

            reading and analysis. The books (if one could call them that)

            themselves have no literary merit whatsoever, but they nonetheless

            serve as vital symptoms of a political culture that has seriously

            degenerated and gone off the rails. In them we find no sound

            political analysis or rational critique, but they reveal the mindset

            of Malay politicians who seem to think that politics is a game best

            played with their drinking buddies from the  local warong around the

            corner. Here is coffee-shop politics taken to the highest level and

            normalised as part of mainstream political discourse. Malaysians may

            continue to wonder aloud about how a racist hairdresser like Pauline

            Hanson could rise to such prominence in Australia. They should look

            no further: Ibrahim Ali and Shahnon Ahmad are two local homegrown

            examples of mediocrity elevated to genius in a country where the

            banal is regarded as extraordinary.

 

            Mediocrity elevated to genius

 

            The mediocre touch, which is now en vogue among so many Malaysian

            leaders, is clearly evident in both Babi and Anjing. In the chapter

            entitled 'Katak Tidak Berdosa Dengan Sesiapa' (Frogs Have Never Hurt

            Anyone), Ibrahim Ali extols the virtue of the amphibian critter to

            whom he has been most closely identified:

 

            "Kalau ia manusia, katak boleh diamanahkan menjadi hulubalang yang

            setia dan tempat pemimpin meletakkan kepercayaannya untuk mendapat

            maklum balas yang ikhlas dan jelas." (pg. 55)

 

            Setia (Loyalty) is obviously the key word here, being one of Ibrahim

            Ali's main selling points all the while. (The problem, perhaps, was

            not the fact that he was loyal, but that he was loyal to too many

            leaders of too many parties). And as for the claim that the 'loyal

            frog' is always the one who receives and passes on reliable feedback

            from the masses, one is tempted to ask Ibrahim what kind of

            'reliable' feedback he received and passed on during the last

            elections, when he himself lost his seat in Kelantan?

 

            But these petty foibles obviously do not get in the way of Ibrahim's

            rapier-like intellect. For him, the main attributes of the frog are

            cunning, guile and the knack for political survival. As he points

            out himself:

 

            "Baik-baik fikir untung juga jadi katak. Mana tak untungnya, dalam

            air boleh duduk, di daratpun boleh hidup. Dimana-mana ada makanan.

            Yang indahnya dia dapat tengok macam-macam. Pasalnya dia kecil. Nak

            pergi ke satu tempat ke satu tempat, dia hanya melompat." (pg. 57)

 

            Here is the traditional Malay understanding of politics in a

            nutshell. Bereft of all pretence to ethics, morality, purpose or

            ideology, it is about political survival pure and simple. Ibrahim's

            laudatory paean to the frog speaks volumes about his own

            understanding of politics, rooted as it is in a neo-feudal mindset

            which sees loyalty, pragmatism and all manner of chicanery as

            positive attributes. Like that other wily jungle denizen Sang Kancil

            who epitomises the mentality of the 'untermenshen' who would stoop

            to anything to conquer, Ibrahim's idealised frog stands for the

            ideal Malaysian politician who would do anything to get to the top,

            without letting rectitude or moral values get in his way.

 

            A bleaker picture is painted by the more morose Shahnon, who spends

            much of his time blasting away at the conceit of others and his own

            people these days. In Anjing Shahnon describes contemporary

            Malaysian politics as a free-for-all where 'politik terkini

            menghalalkan apa cara pun asalkan matlamat tercapai sudah.' (pg.

            40).

 

            Needless to say, Shahnon's primary targets are the leaders of the

            opposite political camp (UMNO and the BN). Like Ibrahim, he too

            bemoans the absence of moral scruples in Malaysian politics, but

            like Ibrahim, he too offers no rational analysis or concrete

            solutions to it. Rather, Shahnon spends much of his time and energy

            lamenting the fact that the Malays in particular have become a

            domesticated race of anjing (dogs) who have lost their bark and

            bite, and who are lorded over by the great 'Paduka Maha'.

 

            In the final chapter of his book, Shahnon launches himself on yet

            another fiery tirade against the contemporary Malay, whom he claims

            has lost his roots, his will to fight and resist, and his will for

            independence. The Malays are, for him, a race that is easily

            domesticated and manipulated ("mudah diternak, boleh diperkakaskan,

            sangup diperkudakan". Pg. 97). The great 'Maha' who he despises so,

            on the other hand, is portrayed as an almost God-like being with

            seemingly infinite powers:

 

            "Dia hanya duduk kukuh-kukuh di atas singgahsananya yang gagah

            persona itu dan di situ dia cuma memetik jari atau hanya menjueh

            mulut sebagai isharat perintahnya. Sudah banyak kali dia hanya

            memetik jarinya saja. Dan dalam sekelip mata, tampa banyak helah dan

            sebab akibatnya, jadilah apa sahaja yang dihajatnya." (pg. 99).

 

            It appears that in the eyes of Shahnon, the domestication of

            Malaysians and the Malay race in particular is complete. The great

            'Maha' merely has to snap his fingers and reality is transformed

            according to his will. The masses can no longer resist, but merely

            follow his beck and call meekly without question.

 

            But such a pessimistic view begs the simple question: Does Shahnon

            mean to say that Malaysians- and Malays in particular- are so

            servile a nation that one man alone can domesticate them all? If

            this is so, what role is there for rational agency and the process

            of social change and evolution? Have power-relations, cleavages of

            class and divisions of power anything to do with this dismal state

            of affairs? Such a simplistic and dismal view of the present demands

            an intelligent justification, but one is not forthcoming in this

            book that contains little else but Shahnon's morbid fascination with

            decay and social collapse.

 

            All in all, both Anjing and Babi make for interesting (though

            depressing) reading for social scientists and/or the unemployed who

            have nothing better to do. The books reveal more about the mindset

            and values of the authors themselves, and should therefore be read

            in that light. They teach us nothing new about Malaysian politics,

            since most jaded Malaysians are already painfully aware of the fact

            that ideology and moral values went out of the window a long time

            ago. But they do show us how and why Malaysian politics has not been

            able to evolve over the past few years, and why even after the great

            brouhaha over 'reformasi' and other trendy fads we have not been

            able to take this country beyond square one.

 

            Malaysian politics- and Malay political culture- being what it is,

            it will take much more than the rabid imaginings of Shahnon Ahmad or

            Ibrahim Ali to bring about a radical paradigm shift in the way that

            this country is run. If anything, the two latest books from them

            show that the search for a new form of politics hasn't even begun.

 

            End

 

            Shahnon Ahmad's 'Anjing' is published by Pustaka Anak Sik, Kampung

            Banggol, Kedah. June 2001. 103 pages. Price: RM 8.00.

 

            Ibrahim Ali's 'Babi' is published by Koperasi Anak Pasir Mas,

            Kelantan. 2001. 103 pages. Price: RM 8.00.