Tanda Putera: UMNO Hegemony Finally Shaken


Is Tanda Putera art? Will it win any Oscars? Is TP a contribution to Malaysian history? If TP is supposed to be objective, why is it only fit to be shown to a Malay audience and not open to public scrutiny?

Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

For the first time after 55 years of domination, UMNO’s hegemony has finally been shaken. Through all these years of Alliance/BN rule, UMNO has been able to sustain it’s relative success and cultural hegemony by presenting their definition of reality to the masses through the mainstream media – newspapers, textbooks, TV and films. They have tried to create a ‘consensus’ that the reality they have created is the only way of seeing the world and of viewing historical facts. Any groups who present an alternative view are therefore marginalized for after all, “history is written by winners” as Alex Haley said.

Thus, before every general election since May 13, 1969, the official propaganda organs, especially the mainstream press and television, have without fail, saturated their coverage with the spectre of chaos and bloodshed should the opposition win. This has been taken to a repulsive extent when scenes of arson and corpses during the May 13 incident have been used in official adverts by the ruling coalition, for example in the 1990 general election in which I participated as a candidate. Such adverts have been invariably accompanied by racist commentary on episodes such as the May 13 pogrom, aimed at engendering chauvinistic feelings among the majority Malay population against the Chinese who have been portrayed in official propaganda as the upstart “immigrants”.


Why Always Show Bukit Kepong?

All these years, FINAS (the film corporation paid for by Malaysian taxpayers) has provided only one film that has been shown at prime time before every general election, namely, “Bukit Kepong”. This was the episode during the Emergency when the insurgents – portrayed in the film as wholly Chinese – had attacked the police station at Bukit Kepong. Not surprisingly, all the mata-mata were all portrayed in the film as Malays. The rationale for showing “Bukit Kepong” before the general election was never spelt out, although the crude intention to sow racist hatred among the Malay masses toward the “Chinese communists” was crystal clear.

UMNO’s “cultural hegemony” worked well for years, until the contradictions inherent in the Umnoputra-weighted New Economic Policy began to create irreparable fissures in the Malay community. Along came the affable PAS stalwart, Mat Sabu who introduced Mat Indera as the Malay leader in the Bukit Kepong assault to an erstwhile historically naïve public. He further pointed to the elephant in the room – namely, that the Bukit Kepong assault by the Mat Indera-led insurgents was against the British colonial power that controlled the country at the time and should be viewed as a patriotic act!

The even more tragic episode in Malaysia’s history is of course, the May 13 pogrom. The official rendition has been to portray the events as the result of “Opposition” (read “Chinese”) arrogance and insensitivity to “Malay” feelings, as well as being Communist inspired. Thus, “May 13” has been the most frequently used ghost story (in the words of the Tunku) in UMNO’s “soft” arsenal. The message before every general election was that “May 13” bloodshed would/might recur if the Opposition ever came to power…


Declassified Documents on May 13

My 2007 title was an attempt to bring to light the available documents on the May 13 incident and to provide an alternative to the official version which has now been thoroughly discredited. The declassification of the official May 13th records in the British Archives in 1999 had provided a welcome opportunity to research this painful incident more thoroughly. I would love to have similar access to the Malaysian Special Branch records for the period, if only they possessed the same integrity for historical records. (Would a victorious Pakatan Rakyat government declassify these records in the name of transparency and Freedom of information, I wonder?) 

The British Foreign Office records drawn from files of confidential  memoranda, embassy exchanges, correspondents’ despatches (banned in Malaysia at the time) certainly debunk the official Malaysian government’s version that the bloodshed was caused by “Chinese provocation” against Malays, that the communists had a hand in it, and that the fatalities only numbered 137. The thesis in my book is that the pogrom was orchestrated by the emergent state capitalist class in UMNO to secure their interests, which they have succeeded in doing until the present day, not least because of the threats of fascist violence used and reused at suitable junctures since then.


Tanda Putera: For Malay Eyes Only!

Judging from the online interview given by the director of Tanda Putera (TP), it is clear that this film had been produced in an attempt to counter the impact of my 2007 title.  My authoritatively researched book invited Malaysians to review for themselves, the evidence that debunked both UMNO’s ghost stories and the notion that opposition votes in the 2008 general election would lead to mayhem. The reality was that the political tsunami happened and there was no mayhem.

Unfortunately for the makers of TP, as Abe Lincoln said, “We cannot escape history.” Or as Peter Carey, the writer has put it:

“History is like a bloodstain that keeps on showing on the wall no matter how many new owners take possession, no matter how many times we paint over it.”

Also, unfortunately for the director of the film, her film has been unceremoniously put on hold from general release for political expediency. It seems her political masters cannot afford to show this to the Chinese voters or it would be disaster for the 13th general election! Would an artist with integrity put up with such an indignity? Would an artist with integrity tolerate being treated like a mercenary to be used at the whims and fancies of her paymasters for their own narrow ends?

We now know that TP has recently been shown to a select captive audience of Felda settlers who happened to be in Kuala Lumpur for an official function. While journalists were asked to leave, some through their professional persistence, managed to stay and see the film. Thus we can only go by their reviews of the film, viz. that the Chinese are portrayed as the aggressors in the aftermath of the 1969 general election; that the Chinese had gone to Malay kampungs shouting arrogant and insensitive slogans; a scene of Chinese youth urinating on a flagpole at the Mentri Besar’s residence;  Chinese youth vandalizing campaign materials; a Chinese crowd shouting “Malays go and die”; A Chinese crowd disallowing two Malay youth on motorbikes to pass through, claiming that Selangor belonged to them; that the communists had a hand in orchestrating the mayhem; that foreign correspondents at the time fielded unreliable despatches… all blood racing stuff to arouse Malay emotions.


May 13 Tragedy, Tanda Putera Farce

Is Tanda Putera art? Will it win any Oscars? Is TP a contribution to Malaysian history? If TP is supposed to be objective, why is it only fit to be shown to a Malay audience and not open to public scrutiny?

Voltaire said that “history can be well written only in a free country.” Our country is not even free enough to screen the film! At the moment, it can only be shown for “Malay eyes only”. From the review of the film, the webpage of the film and the utterances of the film director so far, I would conclude as Marx did in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:

“All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice … the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”