Mat Kilau – another attempt at Malay nationalism at the expense of others

Kua Kia Soong, Free Malaysia Today

DAP Youth chief Dr Kelvin Yii has justified his party colleagues hosting viewing sessions for the latest Malaysian blockbuster “Mat Kilau” by claiming that many DAP leaders have screened it for free in their constituencies because they want to promote and support local productions.

One wonders whether there was any discussion among the DAP leaders about the merits of the film. Otherwise, this gesture by the DAP just seems to be an opportunistic attempt to “capture Malay votes”.

Malay patriots such as Tok Gajah and Mat Kilau, who resisted the new tax and revenue laws introduced by the British near the end of the 19th century, certainly deserve to be honoured as I wrote in “Class & Communalism in Malaysia” (Zed Press 1983: 27).

Nonetheless, the nature of the anti-colonial struggle has shown that the contributions of the non-Malays, not only in the development of the country but also in the anti-colonial and anti-fascist wars from 1939 to 1957, were crucial to our nation’s independence.

Official history and the cultural presentation of our history must, therefore, reflect historical facts and thus be true and fair to all who have contributed so much to what we have attained today, regardless of their ethnicity.

“Mat Kilau” is not the first local film to court controversy. In 2012, we had “Tanda Putera”.

Judging from an online interview given by the movie’s director Shuhaimi Baba, it was clear that “Tanda Putera” had been made to counter the impact of my 2007 book, “May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969”, which was based on historical records of the time.

Unfortunately for the director of “Tanda Putera”, her film had been unceremoniously put on hold from general release for political expediency. It seems her political masters could not afford to show this to the Chinese voters, or it could have been a disaster for the ruling coalition in the 13th general election (GE13) in May 2013.

“Tanda Putera” was subsequently 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 watch the film.

Thus, we can only go by their reviews of the film. They wrote about how the Chinese were portrayed as the aggressors in the aftermath of the 1969 general election and that the Chinese had gone to Malay kampungs shouting arrogant and insensitive slogans.

They also cited scenes showing, among other things, a Chinese youth urinating on a flagpole outside the Selangor menteri besar’s residence and Chinese youths vandalising election campaign materials.

According to these reviews, the movie also showed how foreign media correspondents had allegedly fielded unreliable despatches.

All of the above were obviously meant to arouse Malay supremacist emotions.

So, why didn’t the DAP promote “Tanda Putera”, which was also a local production? At the time, I wrote several articles to debunk these flagrant liberties taken by the director and producer of the film. Yes, I defended the DAP then against this outright cinematic bending of the truth.

Insensitive and callous

Now, we have another attempt through “Mat Kilau” to raise the spirit of “Malay nationalism” while the prime minister tries to convince us that we are “Keluarga Malaysia”.

So far, we have had the Sikhs complaining that the portrayal of non-Malay characters as villains in the film was distasteful and problematic. They also called the portrayal of other races and religions as insensitive and callous.

There is a “scheming Chinese” character who is killed violently at the end of the movie while another character from Borneo is more than happy to be an assassin for the British.

All these non-Muslims meet their “just desserts” in the film – all convenient portrayals of ethnic stereotypes to feed the fertile Malay supremacist minds.

Can you imagine the reaction from the Malay community if a non-Malay filmmaker had done the same to characters representing the Malay community?

For instance, has anybody made a film that covers collaborators of the British and Japanese during the Japanese occupation and the anti-colonial struggle based on historical facts and not liberally “spun” by the filmmaker?

“Malay nationalism” was an essential part of the anti-colonial struggle but it was not the only component of “Malayan nationalism” in which the Chinese, Indians, Sarawakians, and Sabahans all played a big part and sacrificed their lives in the anti-fascist and anti-colonial wars. Their sacrifices should not be trivialised in such cheap pandering to the mythmaking of “ketuanan Melayu”.

As defenders of the freedom of expression, we do not call for the banning of “Mat Kilau”, although we question the ban on many other cultural expressions by Malaysian authorities through the years.

For example, in 2015 the film “The New Village” by Wong Kew-Lit, a local award-winning filmmaker whose works have been broadcast on both terrestrial and satellite TV networks, was banned by the home ministry even though it was passed by the Film Censorship Board (LPF) on Sept 11, 2012.

In a written reply, the home ministry said the complaints and objections received regarding its content are said to show respect for the struggles of the Communist party against the cruelty of the British.

Before that, in 2006, Amir Muhammad’s documentary “The Last Communist” was banned from being shown in Malaysia but enjoyed several screenings in prestigious international film festivals in Berlin, Seattle, London, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

From my own detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for editing “The Root Causes of Racial Polarisation” in 1987, I dare say any non-Malay who dares to make such a film to rouse ethnic chauvinism runs the risk of being detained without trial.

The prime minister who is so proud of his latest tagline “Keluarga Malaysia”, should tell the nation what he thinks of this latest pandering to Malay chauvinism in the film “Mat Kilau” and its treatment of non-Malay characters.

The DAP should also tell us what merits they see in this film and explain to us why they are promoting the film by screening it free to their constituents. I would be interested to know if they are promoting the film to their non-Malay constituents as well. If not, why not?