Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Artistic Expression and Negaraku

Written by johnleemk on 3:23:44 pm Aug 9, 2007.
Categories: ,

There is a lot of controversy in the papers and other media at the moment about a certain Malaysian studying in Taiwan. Under the nick of "Namewee", he posted several videos of himself rapping on YouTube — the most controversial being this remix of the national anthem:

Before discussing the song/video, we have to look at the point of art, one of the most misunderstood media — especially by authoritarian and totalitarian governments.

I do not exactly consider myself the artsy type; I think I would horrify a lot of people who appreciate the arts. However, one thing I have come to understand about things like theatre, music, film, literature, etc. is that they are expressions of who we are.

Expression in the most explicit form, such as directly vocalising one's concerns or writing them down (as I do) is one thing. But it is something else altogether to express yourself obliquely through the story told by art.

People like myself are not good at much beyond stating our opinions. Artists are people who state their opinions through objects of beauty, which can often be appreciated by people regardless of whether they agree with those opinions.

More importantly, art is a significantly more visceral form of expression than simple abstract, direct expressions of ideas. Art cuts to the core of who we are as human beings — the instinct to tell a tale or sing a song is older than history can possibly record.

Art is a form of commentary on ourselves as individuals, and as a society. That is something we cannot run away from. Every brushstroke, every camera angle, every lyric, says something about how the artist feels.

It is true that art entertains. That is often its primary purpose. But at the same time, virtually every work of art has something to say about ourselves. Some may be especially direct in how they tackle their point; others address the issue more subtly and from a more nuanced angle. But all have something to say.

With this in mind, what are we to make of this video and song? I cannot fully appreciate it because of my horrible Mandarin — I could barely make out a few of the most basic words and phrases used — so I have had no choice but to turn to a translation.

The most striking thing about the video is its usage of footage meant to promote Malaysia as a tourist destination; likewise, the song utilises snippets of the national anthem, sung by the artiste.

The actual commentary is very much sung from the perspective of a Chinese Malaysian, with emphasis on both Chinese and Malaysian; it is a song that only a Malaysian with a Chinese identity could sing. There are thus quite a few parts of the song that I cannot agree with, especially the derogatory references to Muslims and Malays, and the pro-Chinese ethnic arrogance.

However, at the same time, this is a song that only a Malaysian could sing. There is a lot that I have to agree with — how can you deny the inefficiency of our civil service, the corruption of our police force, or the disappointing education system in our country?

As I understand it, though, these sentiments are not the ones most responsible for the ire of the government. Rather, it is apparently his usage of the national anthem in the same context as profanity and negative racial/religious stereotyping.

I cannot speak on what the state of the law is at the moment; I am personally not sure whether this counts as sedition (though perhaps this is more the fault of the vaguely-worded Sedition Act). What I can speak on is whether this speech ought to be restricted.

I have touched on this before when I wrote of flag-burning. The pertinent question is, should we allow people to say "I hate this country"? If yes, then what is wrong with allowing them to express this sentiment, provided they do not harm anyone else?

The fact is, everything Namewee has said is something many Malaysians say and think everyday. That does not mean they or he are right, but if we do not punish them for dissenting, why should we punish him?

You can argue that what he has done shows he hates the country because he has degraded the national anthem. At first glance, it seems some might interpret his singing of the national anthem as sarcastic.

But I have listened to the song many times. I still cannot detect a trace of sarcasm in it. The song is sung not out of hatred, but of disappointment and love. Namewee does not hate Malaysia; he loves it and has expressed his love by pointing out how it can be changed, in his opinion, for the better. The opening lyrics make this very clear:

I love my country, only when you have a country you have a home
Only with a home then there will be me, standing here with you
Loudly singing, donít be afraid
Even though I curse all the time
My song, is just like the durian
Tough and spiky, only
To see if you dare to open it, to look at the truth inside
It can be very stinky, it can be very fragrant
It only depends on what kind of nostrils you have.
Every time I listen to the song again, I feel more inspired, more wistful, wishing the country I grew up in was so much better than it is now. I am inspired to reflect on what Malaysia means to me, on the memories I have of being a Malaysian. I may disagree with Namewee on what it means to be Malaysian, or about how our country can be better, but we both love our homeland, as I am sure most Malaysians do or wish they did.

Something many Malay Malaysians fail to appreciate is how frustrated non-Malay Malaysians are — a work of art I would recommend to them is anything by Yasmin Ahmad, who in Gubra gave one character this line: "for us non-Malays, it's like loving someone who doesnít love you back". I am sure there are more than enough Bumiputra who have been jilted in love to understand this feeling. Sometimes, you are tempted to do something stupid out of your mixed bitterness, love and anger — which is what many non-Malays, possibly including Namewee, have done.

You might argue that nobody should have the right to alter or deface a national symbol. But what counts as defacement? Jimi Hendrix was accused of bringing the American national anthem into disrepute through his rendition of it on an electrical guitar, but the people of his generation saw it as the ultimate expression of love for their country.

I am not saying we ought to mindlessly adopt this stand. But it is something worth thinking about and considering. Why should an R&B rendition of the national anthem be haram if it is clear the singer loves his country? Why should a rap remix of the national anthem be banned if it is made and shown out of love for the country?

The national anthem and all our national symbols belong to all of us — as Namewee sings, "Negarakuku" — my Negaraku. They are a part of who we are. Why should they be off-limits for artistic expression? In Namewee's case, we are not even talking about an expression of hatred, but an expression of love. Can anybody tell me what is so wrong with this? I love my country. Wo ai wo de guo jia. Saya cinta negaraku!

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