Doctor Chekhov, Writer


April 16, 2017

The following text is adapted from a keynote address given to the recipients of the 2017 Whiting Awards for emerging writers.

When my mother’s mother began to die of a mysterious, undiagnosable neurological illness, the first thing she lost was her sense of taste. For most families, perhaps, this would be a rather inconsequential loss, but this had severe repercussions for us. As the matriarch of our heaving, multi-generational family, she had always helmed the kitchen with an efficient, if somewhat despotic, hand. Because all the food in that household was cooked by her—years earlier, an attempted takeover by one of the uncle’s wives had been swiftly and tyrannically rebuffed—my grandmother was, in fact, the ultimate arbiter of taste. For decades, this had been a relatively stable and blissful arrangement: she was an acutely talented cook. But as her taste buds numbed, week by week, the food turned from mild to well-seasoned to intolerably spicy. It was, perhaps, a kind of neural compensation for her—the way people with early hearing loss often begin to speak more loudly—but the fish curry now went off on the palate like a thermonuclear bomb. The lentils exfoliated the tongue. The fried spinach was an incinerating terror; the okra, an endurance sport. When even the white rice, the final refuge of the Asian tongue, began to arrive at the table with halved Thai bird peppers on top, the seeds squinting above it, we squirmed in terror. But we steeled ourselves and kept eating: numbness begetting numbness.

I want to talk to you today about desensitization. In my other life, I am an oncologist. Numbness, you might say, is my occupational hazard. Over the past month or so, I have watched twelve of my patients die from or relapse with cancer. Yesterday, I heard that a friend who ran my favorite restaurant, the place I went for daily refuge while I was writing my last book, passed away from tongue cancer that had colonized her brain and bones. When interviewers ask me how I carry on carrying on, I speak about the startling successes with some of my patients, about hope and the future. But I do not—I cannot—tell them that a certain kind of numbness must be a part of it. I come home from the bone-marrow-transplant wards on a January morning and play with my dog, rearrange the furniture, and practice polynomial factorization with my daughter. I celebrate a recent laboratory paper with a glass of champagne. I return to the wards the next morning and look down a microscope to find a marrow choked up with leukemia cells after a heroic attempt at salvage chemotherapy. And this cycle repeats. You might say that I have an advanced degree in desensitization.

But, of course, I am not here to describe the numbness that accompanies medical practice. There is a different form of desensitization that surrounds us today. When I was asked to give this talk to a roomful of aspiring writers, I had to confront the elephant-in-the-room question: How shall we continue to write in these numbing times?

On April 21, 1890, a thirty-year-old doctor turned writer named Anton Chekhov travelled to Sakhalin Island, a penal colony, in the Sea of Okhotsk, north of Japan. The journey took three months. To get to Sakhalin, Chekhov had to cross, by train, the wind-blown steppes of northern Russia and the still-frozen Siberian tundra. He boarded a horse-drawn carriage, then a steamer across the Amur River, and then a small trawler ship across the Okhotsk Sea.

Why, you might ask, did an unusually sensitive and mild-mannered man—delicate of physical and mental constitution—choose to travel to a hostile, faraway island inhabited by thieves, hustlers, and murderers? Chekhov told some of his friends that he was going to Sakhalin to run a census (and indeed he did run a census, although he didn’t seem to care particularly about the data). He told others that he was doing some sort of ethnographic project on the prisoners and settlers as part of his medical studies. But the census and the medical project were half-lies, each merely an excuse—a “device,” to use his word—to bring him to the island.

So what was the real reason that drove the journey? Chekhov’s medical training had left him spiritually depleted. He had honed his observational skills and matured into an astute diagnostician. But the extraordinary quality of suffering that he had witnessed, and the inscrutable arbitrariness of sickness and death, benumbed him. Much of this anguish would find eventual voice in his later works—particularly in the story “Ward No. 6”—but he wrote virtually nothing about it at the time. We also know that his health was declining. Chekhov’s brother had died, of tuberculosis, in 1889, a year prior to Chekhov’s departure, and Chekhov himself, having spit up blood just before the arduous journey, also knew that he was infected with the bacillus, and that the illness would likely kill him. Perhaps he thought that the island would offer a kind of medical or mental sanatorium.

But as much as he was encumbered by the diseased state of his body, Chekhov was repulsed by the diseased state around him—by the sickness of the body politic. “To a certain extent,” his biographer Ernest Simmons writes, “his anxieties mirrored those of all thinking people of the Eighties, this ‘epoch of social stagnation.’ “ Tsarist Russia in the eighteen-eighties was suffused with moral and economic depravity. It was a society overrun by corruption, bribery, and nepotism. Censorship abounded. The news was frequently manipulated and false. Political dissidents were kidnapped, assassinated, or packed off to prison. The élites ensconced themselves in grotesquely opulent homes while poverty, violence, illness, and incipient famine haunted parts of the land.

It wasn’t just disease or death that Chekhov was trying to escape; it was deadliness. “There is a sort of stagnation in my soul,” he wrote to a friend. Chekhov, then, was looking to resensitize himself—to un-numb the numbness. He sought a place where he might inoculate himself against the ennui that was slowly destroying his soul.

Sakhalin Island, to put it mildly, was not a place for the faint-hearted. What Chekhov found there was a community even more depraved than the one he had left behind—an island society on the edge of sanity, law, and self-discipline. The men on this island hunted each other for sport. Women were routinely sold into prostitution. The children were malnourished and enslaved by adults. The prisoners bribed the guards, and the guards beat the convicts nearly to death.

Two examples from Chekhov’s writings about Sakhalin Island serve as conduits or portals to a deeper point. One is an encounter on the ferry across the Amur River:

On the Amur steamer going to Sakhalin, there was a convict who had murdered his wife and wore fetters on his legs. His daughter, a little girl of six, was with him. I noticed wherever the convict moved the little girl scrambled after him, holding on to his fetters. At night the child slept with the convicts and soldiers all in a heap together.

The second describes a meeting with a woman on the island:

An old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive—she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buying a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?

In Plato’s Republic, Leontius, the soldier, forced to confront a glut of decaying human corpses, turns his eyes away in horror and shame. But the appetite to look overtakes him; he rushes toward the bodies, forcing his eyes open and shouting, “Look for yourselves, you evil wretches.” Chekhov, the writer, neither turns away in disgust nor rushes forward to satisfy a sadistic curiosity. He simply looks, and looks again. The gaze is unsparing and penetrating, clear-eyed, clinical—a word used often in association with Chekhov. You cannot see if your eyes are clouded with tears, he seems to tell us: a weeping doctor is a useless doctor. He cuts away the artifice. He cauterizes our indulgences in pity or piety: it is impossible, he reminds us, to feel pity for the self-pitying.

But Chekhov, importantly, does not only cauterize. If the nerve ends were left seared, dead, and blunted—numbed—then he would be a lesser writer. In Chekhov, the clinical detachment—that cool, unsparing, astringent gaze—gives way to tenderness, to a sensitivity that is precisely the opposite of dispassion. The dissecting lamps must be turned on and left on, he realizes, but the patient cannot be left to wither under the mercury bulbs. She must be tended and resuscitated, made whole again. It is easy for the doctor to express moral outrage or indignation at the patient’s illness, but there is narcissism in that revulsion. It is easy, too, to concoct a moral fable out of sickness—“this is a punishment that the patient brought on himself”—but there is sadism in that confabulation. It is vastly more difficult, and more courageous, to observe, describe, diagnose, empathize, and heal. “Six principles that make for a good story,” Chekhov would later write, “are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.” The first five principles cleanse and desensitize our wounds. But it is the last—compassion—that moves us beyond numbness toward healing.

Chekhov, in short, invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness. “These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize,” Virginia Woolf would later write about Chekhov. “In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong. But where the tune is unfamiliar . . . as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”

It was this world—arbitrary and strange, not unjust but simply lacking justice, without moral or spiritual tidiness, with no simple harmonies, no hum-along tunes—that would find its full-throated voice in Chekhov’s most powerful later works. This world would be actualized in the plays and stories that he crafted after 1890, which would define his oeuvre and establish his reputation: “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Cherry Orchard,” and “Ward No. 6.” These works indubitably define modern writing. But, perhaps more significantly, they launch modern writing. Indeed, we might argue that Chekhov invented the modern novel—and, for that matter, contemporary narrative nonfiction—along the way. If the immensity of that achievement escapes us today, it’s because the fundamental elements of Chekhov’s writing—its clinical humanism, its keen compassion, its steadfast rejection of the narcissism of moral outrage and the sadism of moral fables—have become so familiar in the greatest of our literature that, like the air we breathe, they escape notice. We want to see Chekhov through the lens of the modern novel, but it’s the novel that must be seen through the lens of Chekhov.

I hesitate to make this story into a parable—its protagonist would have protested—but this, after all, is a keynote address. What—how—shall we write during this time of numbness? One temptation, perhaps, is to succumb to Leontius’ first urge: to turn our eyes away. Numbness begets numbness, and it’s easy to steel ourselves to our times, or to withdraw from engagement altogether. There’s a more insidious and seductive temptation: to indulge in self-pity and piety. Anger, like false news, is cheap and easily digestible; it is the fast food of the indignant.

Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?

Each of us will find individual answers to these questions. There is no formula that describes what your solution might be (although Chekhov’s six principles of storytelling certainly come close to such a formula). But it is humbling to recall the breadth and depth of our literary debt to a thirty-year-old physician who set out to cure his anesthesia. The opposite of “anesthetic,” we might recall, is “aesthetic”—a word that originally referred to whatever could be perceived or felt but that came to refer to the nature of beauty. Beauty, in all its myriad forms, can only be created in opposition to numbness. That, at least for me, serves as a quiet manifesto for our times.

Siddhartha Mukherjee has published three books, including “The Emperor of All Maladies,” for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, and, most recently, “The Gene: An Intimate History.”

On the Twitter Man in The White House


March 15, 2017

The Epic of Donald Trump–The Twitter Man

by  Garrison Keillor

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-epic-of-donald-trump/2017/03/14/4a206218-08cf-11e7-93dc-00f9bdd74ed1_story.html?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-b%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.21c356aa8b80

Image result for Donald Trump--The Twitter Man

The Twitter Man in The White House

The $54 billion bonus heading for the Pentagon is a beautiful thing, and so far I haven’t heard a dog bark against it, even though we don’t appear to have $54 billion worth of new enemies and we’ve now come to admire former enemy Vladimir Putin, and the idea of throwing billions at the Islamic State is like going after bedbugs with bazookas, so there it sits, a big lake of cash waiting for water skiers.

Base pay for a private first class these days is around $22,000 and, granted, it is not rocket science — aerospace engineers can earn a hundred grand or more — but a Radio City Rockette earns about $1,500 per week. Should we be paying more for precision tap-dancing than for the defense of our country? Meanwhile, apple pickers are hauling down around $23,000 while orange pickers get $20,000. I’d say our soldiers are due for a big raise. Those caissons don’t roll themselves, you know. The shores of Tripoli are an ever-present threat to our security. And the halls of Montezuma are out for revenge.

I just hope that my good friends in the Pentagon will stop and think about the value of the arts and literature to our national defense. Some of that money, perhaps $3 billion or $4 billion, would be well spent encouraging writers and artists to cast a warmer light on our uniformed services than what we’ve seen the past century or so when, aside from George M. Cohan’s “Over There” (1917) and Frank Loesser’s “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942), the arts have been decidedly anti-war.

Image result for bob dylan quotes

When was the last time a great poet wrote an ode to the importance of following orders? 1854, that’s when. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” immortalizing Lord Cardigan’s botched mission in the Battle of Balaclava — “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Tennyson was England’s poet laureate at the time and felt obliged to turn a military disaster into something heroic. No American poet laureate ever wrote anything similar, and maybe that’s because they’re paid $35,000 a year. Make that $350,000 and give the laureate the rank of major general and a cap with a plume and see if the tune doesn’t change.

Our Nobel laureate Bob Dylan could have written (but did not):

Well it ain’t no use to sit around the barracks

And ask why you must drill.

Or ask why we have to carry rifles:

They are to injure, maim and kill.

Get out of bed at the break of dawn,

Put your helmet and your uniform on,

You’re not a bishop, son, you’re just a pawn.

Don’t think twice, it’s all right.

It’s no wonder that wealthy New York real estate heirs shopped around for physicians to diagnose heel spurs to exempt them from the draft. For a century, nobody has written a great work of literature celebrating America’s military — “Slaughterhouse-Five”? “Catch-22”? “The Naked and the Dead”? “The Things They Carried”? I don’t think so. Nobody read “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and went down to the recruiting office to sign up.

It was not always thus. Look at what Homer did for the Greeks with his “Iliad.” It’s an action epic, one hero after another, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, Ajax — no introspective nonconformist in the ranks, wondering, “Why are we brutalizing each other? Why can’t we sit down and talk through our differences?” Because we are us and they are them, and it’s one for all and all for one, so grab your spear and go puncture those Trojans, son.

What we need to make America great again is American literature about greatness. Look at Leo Tolstoy. He could’ve just written “Peace” but he wrote “War.” too, both of them, glorifying General Mikhail Kutuzov, who engineered the defeat of Napoleon. Spending some of that $54 billion on the arts would be an excellent investment. If they need someone to write an epic poem, here I am, my pen is poised.

Media to the right of him,

Media to the left of him,

Democrats embittered.

Loud was his battle cry,

The man with long red tie,

Onward he twittered.

Rising in early dawn,

Turning his smartphone on,

Texting he bravely fought,

Tweet after tweet he shot

With his red hat on,

Looking like George C. Scott

Playing George Patton.

It’s the story of a man who overcame his heel-spur handicap by playing golf regularly and eventually took command in his bomber jacket and led the country to greatness. It’s going to be fantastic. I promise you.

Garrison Keillor is an author and radio personality.

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”


November 17, 2016

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”

By Ooi Kee Beng

Image result for michelangelo paintings--inspiration

One of the first things that any undergraduate learns is that when writing a scientific text, he or she must provide references. In fact, without such references, a text is not considered scientific.

This referencing behaviour is meant to show that the student has been reading the correct material; and that he has been digesting the words so thoroughly that he can now include the thoughts in his own writing. Now, what a Malaysian student will end up doing is provide references to books and articles written by professors based in faraway universities and colleges.

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Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS (Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore

My argument is not with this jarring asymmetry in global knowledge. It has always been the case in human history that in every period of time, knowledge is concentrated and generated at certain centres much more than at others. At the moment, much first appears in the English language and in countries using that language. What’s more, the spread of new knowledge is also strongly overseen by a global network based on that language.

Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, among others, have played that role before. But none has the global reach and the amazing speed and width of dissemination that English today commands. The soft power that America enjoys today – and no other culture comes close to the reach of its soft power – is not merely of its own doing; it rides on the back of hundreds of years of English imperial strength and colonial mastery, during which the English language and its cultural preconditions penetrated the farthest reaches of the world.

My concern is with a serious side effect of the sharp imbalance in knowledge generation in our times. What happens is that people outside the English-speaking world are left nursing a lack of confidence, not only in themselves but also in those in close proximity to them. Their behaviour where the transfer and generation of knowledge are concerned becomes rather warped.

In writing a scientific text, for example, it is much more probable than not that a Third World person will refer an idea or train of thought to a known person from a distant land even when that idea may have come to him through some other more immediate and personal channel. This is because he had learned to assume that he gains more points among his peers by referring to the politically and academically correct person; and that his own ideas are merely approximations of that bigger idea expressed better by others.

But if we contemplate the matter and observe what actually happens in our daily life, we should realise that inspiration comes most of the time from proximate impulses and from individuals in our surrounding.

Given the habit of referring distantly, the chances of us giving credit to those around us are also diminished, and complimenting things and people in our immediate surrounding – for referencing someone is indeed a high form of compliment – is rendered suspect.

The competition among students and scholars of showing that they know something that their peers have as yet not gotten around to knowing cultivates in them the tendency to be stingy with praise and to be secretive about their immediate sources of inspiration.

This is an impoverishment of the soul and of our culture; where we withhold praise and admiration from those close to us and give generously of the same to distant and often dead persons.

Note that I am merely using academic referencing to initiate a debate on a more general matter. In my experience, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but if I were to inform people around me of personal epiphanies, I would not get as good a hearing as I would if I referred whatever idea I just had to some distant knowledge authority.

Perhaps this explains why prophets always come from distant lands speaking exotic languages; and sometimes bearing superior arms. Those who dare to be prophets in their homeland are forced to flee into exile or are crucified in one way or another.

Catholic hymns are sung in Latin, Japanese Buddhists chant in Chinese, and Muslim thoughts are preferred in Arabic. In the secular sphere, Coolness wears an American accent. Indeed, we seem tobe talking here about something generically human.

We tend not to join clubs that will accept us as members. Since you know me, you cannot possibly be a significant person. But I am being far too categorical here; I am not being generous. Come to think of it, there are two ideal types of people. There are those who cannot imagine that people they come into contact with can be important; and then there are those who treat all coming into their orbit as meaningful and significant. Most of us are sometimes the one, and sometimes the other.

My basic point is that, epiphanies are always waiting to happen and inspiration can come to us at any time and place. We just have to let this take place by not imagining that profundity dwells far away, and are foreign to us.

We just have to realise instead that inspiration lurks around every corner, and is present at every meeting.

This article is republished in Merdeka for the Mind: Essays  on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century by Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2015). pp 9-11.

 

 

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature


October 16, 2016

Bob Dylan wins Nobel Prize for Literature

by Dean Johns

http://www.malaysiakini.com

The awarding of a richly deserved Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan has shocked and dismayed some of the non-musical writing fraternity around the world.

Though it is hard to think of any other writer in recent times whose work has so poetically and powerfully, let alone so memorably and enjoyably, inspired and encouraged the causes of peace, love, freedom and justice.

In fact there was a time when those of us who grew up with early Dylan classics as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’ were so naive as to believe that they were compelling enough to help us literally change the world.

We were completely kidding ourselves, of course, as subsequent events have all-too-clearly revealed. But the spirit of the sentiments that Dylan expressed lives on, and continues to give us heart and hope.

Thus by extension his anthems remain anathema to the war-mongers, whore-mongers and just plain mongrels who still misrule so many countries and rob and miserably mislead their citizens.

So I see Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize as not just a fitting reward for him personally, and for the common people everywhere, but also as a poke in the eye for the members and accomplices of every rotten ruling regime on the planet, from China and Russia to Syria and Zimbabwe.

And, of course, along with almost countless others, Malaysia, for whose Islamic-supremacist and viciously anti-Semitic UMNO-BN regime the Swedish Academy’s honouring of Bob Dylan must be an especially bitter pill to swallow, as Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman of Jewish parents.

Then there’s the jealousy factor. Dylan has been actually given his Prize, whereas the members and cronies of UMNO-BN have to allegedly buy their awards and titles either by selling their souls in the service of royalty or the regime, or else by handing-over wads of hard cash.

But of course they’ll try to ignore Dylan’s achievement, or else try and diminish or outright dismiss it among themselves with such typically self-serving sentiments as “Dylan may well be an icon, but UMNO-BN is a far bigger ‘I con’,” or “he might have more gold albums than us, but we’ve got far more actual gold”.

Or else, “one single, solitary Nobel Prize is nothing compared with the numerous ignoble prizes we’ve awarded ourselves in all our decades of nobbling Malaysia and fobbing the Malaysian people off with a pack of lies.”

Deserving the Nobble Prize for Lieterature

In short, the members and accomplices of UMNO-BN can console themselves in the face of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature with the thought that each and every one of them deserves the Nobble Prize for Lieterature.

They can take heart too, if they like, from the fact that, to judge from the titles of many of the songs for which Bob Dylan has been so highly honoured for writing, he could well have created them for UMNO-BN.

I’m joking, of course, as there’s no evidence in Bob Dylan’s life or work, as far as I know, that he’s ever so much as heard of Malaysia or its malevolent ruling regime.

However, it is tempting to observe that such titles as ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Idiot Wind’ and ‘Talkin’ Devil’ could well be intended as descriptions of any of the public speeches or press-statements made by UMNO-BN ministers or minions in the past half-century or so.

Similarly, titles like ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, ‘Rattled’, ‘Sitting on a Barbed Wire Fence’, ‘Wanted Man’ and ‘Wiggle Wiggle’ seem to be uncannily apt descriptions of how Prime (but let’s be honest here) Crime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must be feeling and doing as he anxiously awaits the results of international investigations into his alleged 1MDB embezzlement and money-laundering project.

Certainly the 2006 Dylan title ‘Ain’t Talkin’’ pretty accurately sums-up Najib’s attitude in the face of all the allegations he and his accomplices and accessories in this and many other scams are facing, and ‘Disease of Conceit’ aptly describes the attitude that got them into this fix in the first place.

No matter what he does to try and take ‘Shelter from the Storm’, however, let’s hope that other Dylan titles like ‘Seven Curses’, ‘Pay in Blood’, ‘End of the Line’, ‘Everything is Broken’, ‘Going Going Gone’ and above all ‘Steel Bars’ are accurate predictors of what’s in store for him and his entire UMNO-BN band of blunderers, plunderers and pathological liars.

So that, after so many decades of ‘Long and Wasted Years’ in which ‘The Devil’s Been Busy’ despite UMNO-BN’s false mantra of ‘With God On Our Side’, Malaysians will finally get to hear the ‘Chimes of Freedom’.


DEAN JOHNS, after many years in Asia, currently lives with his Malaysian-born wife and daughter in Sydney, where he coaches and mentors writers and authors and practises as a writing therapist. Published books of his columns for Malaysiakini include ‘Mad about Malaysia’, ‘Even Madder about Malaysia’, ‘Missing Malaysia’, ‘1Malaysia.con’ and ‘Malaysia Mania’.

 

The Musical Compositions of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand–A Tribute


Your Weekend Musical Guest–The Musical Compositions of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand


บทเพลงพระราชนิพนธ์ในพระบาทสมเด็จพระเจ้าอยู่หัวภูมิพลอดุลยเดชฯ

Image result for His Majesty King of Thailand

Dr. Kamisiah Haider and Din Merican have chosen to play the musical compositions of the dearly departed, much respected and admired, and loved His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand.

For this weekend, we pay tribute to a multi-talented long serving  His Majesty King of Thailand for his many contributions to socio-economic development of the country he loved very much. By listening to His Majesty’s compositions, we  should not be surprised that His Majesty  The King is regarded as the Soul of Thailand. His Majesty’s musical compositions reflect his love and passion for the Thai People.

His Majesty is not just a wise and compassionate King but also a pioneer agriculturalist, humanist-environmentalist, scientist and talented musician. Let us and all mourners in Thailand listen to His Majesty’s wonderful compositions that will be remembered and appreciated through the ages by us in ASEAN and around the world.

Once again we wish to convey our heartfelt condolences to the people and the government of Thailand, in particular to our Thai friends, associates and readers of Din Merican’s blog. We join you in your moments of grief of His Majesty’s passing. At the same time, let us celebrate His Majesty’s life and legacy through his music.–Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican

 

Enough Pressure, desegregation can occur


August 12, 2016

Enough Pressure, desegregation can occur

by Tunku Zain Al-Abidin

http://www.the star.com.my

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/what-you-think/article/art-of-desegregationtunku-zain-al-abidin

The (Malaysian) government’s role in regulating the things (some) Malaysians consider to be fun has punctuated our country’s political life for decades.  The first Prime Minister brushed off protests by students of Universiti Malaya over certain concerts in campus, but perhaps Malaysians of my generation will remember the controversy over Michael Jackson’s performance in 1996 being amusingly portrayed by cartoonist Dato’ Lat.

In the face of religious objections to Selena Gomez’s recent concert, the Selangor Menteri Besar bravely replied “sexiness is God’s creation and subjective, do not be over excited by it”.  Prayers for her concert to be cancelled did not have the desired effect, but she dressed more modestly than usual, and 4,000 Selenators kept their hands to themselves.

Pokemon Go is the current target for calls for a ban. Apart from religious justifications, the mobile nature of the game has also led to arguments based on concerns about public safety and trespassing.

So far, only the Kedah fatwa committee has declared the game haram for Muslims, while the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has released safety guidelines. Earlier, the minister gave himself some wriggle room by saying: “Even though some countries may restrict it, we in Malaysia have not reached that stage.”

The same minister also stepped in to modify the awards for the upcoming Malaysian Film Festival so that the Best Picture category will no longer be segregated by language, which had been the case since 2011, though the awards have been running since 1980.

This year, two acclaimed films (Jagat and Ola Bola) were nominated in the Non-Bahasa Malaysia category, and actor Afdlin Shauki announced he would be boycotting the festival because of the segregation, asking “When will Malaysians, no matter the race, be truly recognised for their craft as Malaysian artwork?”

This move was publicly approved by Dato’ Seri Nazir Razak and Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, triggering viral support, but perhaps the most dramatic act was cinematographer Mohd Noor Kassim returning his two awards (won in 2009 for Setem and 2011 for Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa) to organiser National Film Development Corporation (Finas) Director-General in a garbage bag. “In film, the language of film is what’s important,” he said.  Indeed, this week at the premiere of Temuan Takdir — a fully Malay film — its Malaysian multiracial credentials were rightfully highlighted.

While the minister’s intervention might be hailed as a progressive move as a result of listening to the people, we should question the very idea of politicians having such powers over culture in the first place.

There is a fine line between government being a facilitator and promoter of culture as defined by the people on the one hand, and of actually being the arbiter of what constitutes Malaysian culture on the other.  (In pre-Merdeka times, some art forms certainly enjoyed royal patronage, yet folk art also prospered outside the palaces.)

The creation and appreciation of culture (including our enjoyment of non-Malaysian output) belongs to every citizen, not to politicians, yet during cultural controversies, agitators often cite the Federal Constitution, the National Culture Policy, Bangsa Malaysia, 1Malaysia and of course, their own religious beliefs to press the government to take their side and use the power of the State to enforce it.

However, another cultural controversy came and went without any political involvement last week when local television show MeleTOP parodied Yuna’s performance with Usher (of them singing “Crush” at the Roots Picnic music festival) featuring an actor in blackface.

The video was widely shared online, leading Yuna to post a forceful message asking those who found it funny to educate themselves on the practice now considered highly disrespectful in the United States.  Here was an example of cultural sensitivity being developed not by political fiat, but by an appeal to history and education — and the show duly removed the video and issued a “sincere apology.”

Last weekend at KLPAC, I witnessed another precious cross-cultural phenomenon — Ahmad Yatim’s adaptation of Trisno Sumardjo’s translation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet directed by Dato’ Faridah Merican.

The fact that a play written in Tudor England can resonate with a Malaysian audience in our national language emphasises the universality of storytelling.

While there are brave pioneers in the arts world leading the way forward, the political world remains stuck in the past, or at best constrained by what apologists will call “political realities.”

Our country’s newest political party has an explicitly racial name and there are two classes of membership based on race.  Our arts pioneers have shown with enough pressure, desegregation can occur.

It is up to voters to apply the same pressure in our politics towards towards the same objective.

* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas