Three artistic works, recently showcased in Kuala Lumpur and beyond, suggest why it matters that we think about the history of the Malayan Emergency in concert with the contemporary COVID-19 and climate emergencies
September 6, 2023
This piece is part of “The Rainforest Speaks: Reimagining the Malayan Emergency,” featuring art by Sim Chi Yin.
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism.Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” Trans. Harry Zohn (1940)
On an official visit to the United States in 1960, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was so impressed by the U.S. Marine Corps War Memorial that he halted plans-in-progress for a national monument in Kuala Lumpur and commissioned the American sculptor, Felix de Wheldon, who designed the statue in Arlington, Virginia, for the job instead.1Lai, Chee Kien. 2007. Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture in Kuala Lumpur, 1957-1966. Kuala Lumpur: Galeri Petronas, p.125. Inspired by the iconic photograph taken at the Battle of Iwo Jima in World War Two, the U.S. memorial features a group of soldiers collectively raising the American flag. Similarly, Malaysia’s National Monument is composed of five figures representing members of the Malayan Security Forces. Standing at the highest point is a soldier waving the national flag, surrounded by two others standing guard with rifles and a kneeling figure, who is supporting a wounded comrade. Beneath this tableau lies two prone figures representing the defeated communist combatants. The inscription on the plinth at the sculpture’s base pays tribute to those who died fighting against the Japanese during the occupation (1941–1945) and the Communist Party of Malaya’s guerrilla army during the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960): “Dedicated to the heroic fighters in the cause of peace and freedom.”
Erected in 1966 as part of a series of architectural structures built in the capital city to mark independence from British rule, the National Monument and its design history are emblematic of how the Cold War shaped the historical processes of decolonization in Malaysia. When the British declared a state of emergency in Malaya in 1948 in response to the killing of three European planters by communists, it was intended as a “temporary measure” to quell an increasingly militant workers movement that had successfully organized strikes to disrupt the colonial mining and plantation economy on which Britain heavily depended to replenish its postwar reserves.2Bayly, Christopher, and Tim Harper. Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. UK: 2008. What transpired instead was a brutal twelve-year war that killed thousands of civilians and combatants, forcibly resettled an estimated half a million people, and introduced authoritarian laws to curb political dissent that became precursors of the illiberal practices of the postcolonial capitalist state today. Ending only in 1960, three years after Malaya’s independence, the Emergency effectively installed in power a local ruling elite that was aligned with the capitalist bloc and provided a historical blueprint of authoritarian measures needed to pursue economic development.
Three artistic works, recently showcased in Kuala Lumpur and beyond, suggest why it matters that we not only critically engage with dominant historical narratives of the Malayan Emergency, but also understand that past in relation to the COVID-19 and climate emergencies of the present. The epigraph above by Walter Benjamin provides two senses of the term emergency that are helpful for linking these seemingly disparate historical moments. The first definition, presented in scare quotes, refers to a chronic state of oppression whereby suffering comes to be seen as normal and inevitable rather than preventable. This meaning is exemplified today by the conditions of stark inequality illuminated and intensified by the COVID-19 health emergency and ineffectual state measures to address the climate emergency. The second definition, the “real state of emergency,” refers to an active intervention to fight forces of injustice. That meaning is appropriated by official historical narratives of the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960), which frame the British defeat of the communist-led uprising as a victory for “the cause of peace and freedom.” When such narratives are interrogated, we begin to see how recent state responses to the COVID-19 and climate crises have actually sustained the structural inequalities that were buttressed by the anti-communist counterinsurgency.
Emergency I: Colonial counterinsurgency
The history of Malayan national independence is generally taught in schools as a bloodless revolution, achieved through gentlemanly negotiations between the British and leaders of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s longest-ruling party. This history lesson usually glosses over the twelve-year counterinsurgency, which is mentioned chiefly to invoke the communist as the vanquished “Public Enemy No. 1,” the infamous title accorded to the Communist Party of Malaya’s leader Chin Peng. The play, A Notional History, examines the enduring presence of the communist bogeyman, the notional figure that haunts dominant historical narratives about the nation’s formation. Staged by Five Arts Center under the direction of Mark Teh, the play is a work of documentary theater in that it draws from a range of documents—for example, secondary school textbooks, video recordings of a public forum on history curriculum, news clippings, social media screenshots, and film footage of interviews with ex-communist guerrillas—to understand how and why the communist figures in the public imagination.
Taking turns to present monologues, the three performers—the actor and musician Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri, the activist Fahmi Reza, and the journalist Rahmah Pauzi—reflect on their respective encounters with communists, real or imagined, to understand the nation’s ironic obsession yet lack of historical understanding about them. As Faiq recalls, prior to his involvement with Five Arts Center, what little he knew about the Malayan Emergency derived from the stories told by his father, who was born in the first year of the counterinsurgency.
“Apa nama dia?” his father would say when repeating lore about the communist leader, “Rashid Maidin…dia komunis, kebal. Tembak seribu kali pun tak mampus!”
“What’s his name? Rashid Maidin…the invincible communist who could withstand a thousand bullets!”
The question as to why the communist specter refuses to die is explored in Fahmi’s monologues. In 2009, Fahmi set out to make a documentary film, Revolusi ‘48, to understand why the communists took up arms in 1948. The film remains, though clips of interview footage with the ex-guerrillas are screened as part of the play. In a rare display of vulnerability, Fahmi admits that one reason why he may not have finished making the film was because he “takut kena backlash,” fearing the fallout that would come from being seen as a “communist sympathizer.” This admission is remarkable given that Fahmi has faced police arrests and been charged under sedition laws for fearlessly satirizing politicians through Internet memes, which have made him a public figure. Yet, his fears are not unfounded. After speaking at a public forum in 2018, Fahmi became the target of a disinformation campaign by major media outlets, which reported that he glorified communism, when in fact he had simply suggested that history textbooks should not be a mouthpiece for ruling propaganda, but accommodate multiple perspectives of the past. Fahmi encountered online harassment and received death threats for not having actually said anything about communists. His experiences suggest that, emptied of specific historical meaning, “communist” is effectively a weapon in the ideological arsenal to malign one’s opponent. An obfuscation tactic to derail conversation. A fear trigger that nips historical curiosity in the bud.
Having viewed all fourteen hours of Fahmi’s documentary footage, Rahmah shares how encountering the communists being interviewed in their old age led her to “unlearn” Cold War racial ideologies that were embedded in the history lessons she’d been taught. “In my memory,” she reflects, “the communists had always been Chinese, homesick and angry. . . . But here I see people who could have been my own grandparents, who speak in my own mother tongue. . . . As I see a woman in a headscarf, I am reminded of something that I’ve been wearing since I was five. We share the same faith. But weren’t the communists godless?!” Clips of the grandmotherly woman in a hijab, whose name is not given, show her patiently explaining the Communist Party’s political convictions:
Discussing the right-wing party, UMNO’s ethno-nationalist slogan, “Hidup Melayu! Long live Malays!” she states, “We disagreed. Because in Malaysia, we have many communities. Chinese, Indians, and Malays. All these people were oppressed.”
Responding to why the communists fought against the British, she asks, “Why did they care so much about Malaysia? They didn’t care about the people. They only cared about our natural resources. Now we know they plundered our natural resources.”
As to how communists saw local army personnel who fought against them alongside the British: “These soldiers were doing their jobs. They had no class consciousness. They wanted to feed their families and they were unaware they were oppressed. That’s why when they entered the jungles, we withdrew. We didn’t want to fight them unless they fired first. Then we would defend ourselves. Our army didn’t want to do them harm. We realised they were like everyone else, coerced. Some of the soldiers were my own family members. . . . When they left their camps and we went inside their tents, we would find clothes and food left behind. They understood.
The testimonies of the Malay-Muslim communists, like those excerpted above, not only cast doubt on the prevailing understanding of communism as a racialized Chinese threat against Malays. They also underscore how the menacing communist figure has induced a historical amnesia of class struggle and stymied attempts to organize against oppression across racial lines. These insights prompt us to consider how legacies of the Malayan Emergency are evident in the labour policies and resource extraction practices of contemporary state-driven capitalism.
Emergency II: COVID-19
On International Labor Day in 2020, less than two months after lockdowns were imposed in Malaysia, immigration authorities arrested undocumented migrants and refugees in areas where large clusters of COVID-19 cases had been detected. Then-defense minister Ismail Sabri Yaacob justified the move as necessary to prevent the spread of the virus to “our own innocent citizens.” News and social media were flooded with horrific images of hundreds of people being lined up outside buildings surrounded by razor wire and sprayed with disinfectant, before boarding police trucks to be taken to detention centers. Given that lockdown measures were relaxed a few days later to jumpstart a flailing economy, the media spectacle can arguably be read as enabling the government to appear as having done its part to protect public health.
The short documentary film, Rasa dan Asa (Flavors, Feelings, and Hope) shows how extraordinary moments of crisis intensify the hardships already experienced by marginalized groups during ordinary times. Directed by Nasrikah, an Indonesian migrant worker and advisor to PERTIMIG (the Indonesian Migrant Workers Association in Malaysia) and Okui Lala, a Malaysian video artist whose work explores themes of diaspora, identity, and belonging, the film spotlights the experiences of Indonesian migrant domestic workers (MDW) during the pandemic. Focusing on the stories of Ningrum and Binti, the documentary draws parallels between the acute nature of lockdown experiences and the chronic work conditions of MDWs. People being home-bound at all hours meant no down time for MDWs, many of whom lack fixed working hours. Movement Control Orders, the official term for lockdowns in Malaysia, might as well refer to how certain employers treat MDWs by withholding their use of mobile phones and limiting their contact with the outside world even before the pandemic. Whereas pandemic travel restrictions imposed prolonged separation periods between loved ones, extended time apart from their own children is a job feature for MDWs, who have to leave their families behind in order to support them.
While media reports of MDW abuse tend to focus on individual employers’ immorality, the film surfaces the systemic legal and economic forces that make MDWs vulnerable to exploitation. Following the nation’s plans for accelerated economic development since the 1980s, a growing number of Malaysian middle-class households rely on MDW labor, primarily from Indonesia and the Philippines, as more women enter into the paid workforce. The following lines from a poem written by Nurjanah, an Indonesian MDW in Singapore, highlight how the rights and welfare of workers like her are deliberately ignored by their employers, who rely on them in order to chase their own dreams and aspirations:
Apakah semua menutup mata dengan sengaja?
Atau berpura-pura lupa lalu terlewatkan begitu sahaja
Do they close their eyes on purpose?
Or do they pretend to forget and just let things pass?
While cases of MDWs’ mistreatment by employers have resulted in political rows between Malaysia and Indonesia, both countries have yet to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 189, which outlines measures for protecting domestic workers’ human rights and ensuring decent working conditions. In Malaysia, existing employment laws exclude domestic workers from rights extended to other workers, such as a minimum wage and regular days off. These legal arrangements render MDW labor invisible, which has made vital economic contributions to both their host and sending countries, and effectively buttress the hierarchical social structures on which capitalist wealth accumulation depends.
These exploitative conditions arguably trace their historical roots to the colonial plantation and mining economies, which relied heavily on migrant labor whose wages were repressed. If dominant narratives about the Malayan Emergency effectively suppress a history of labor resistance, then Rasa dan Asa shows how film can serve as an empowering medium for workers, and an outreach tool for connecting MDWs to PERTIMIG, an organization run by Indonesian MDWs for MDWs. Rather than depict MDWs as passive victims in need of rescue, as often happens when abuse cases make headlines, the documentary demonstrates that migrants have as much to teach the Malaysians from whom they were learning how to make films. While the original plan was for a professional crew to film the MDWs, the lockdowns meant that in addition to appearing on camera, much of the footage was shot by the workers themselves, using their own mobile phones. Training on lighting, sound, and video recording was provided to MDWs via Zoom in the late hours of the night, when the workers finally had time for themselves. It was through this collaborative process that Malaysian members of the production team learned of the film subjects’ lived realities and their tenacity to tell their stories.
Film stills from Rasa dan Asa (2021) of Ningrum performing the Sundanese Jaipong dance. Images reproduced with permission from the film directors, Nasrikah and Okui Lala.
In a memorable scene, Ningrum transforms her cramped bedroom into a lit stage to perform the Sundanese Jaipong dance, the shadows accentuating her graceful movements alluding to the rich cultural identities, histories, and knowledge of MDWs that are rarely foregrounded in other works. The scene captures the film’s overall efforts in restoring a sense of dignity and confidence eroded by the systemic devaluation of domestic work. In so doing, the film not only affirms that workers have the capacity to lead and ought to be at the forefront of the labor struggle. It also indirectly suggests that depreciating the cultural knowledge of disenfranchised groups is part of how a capitalist extractive economy operates.
Emergency III: Climate Catastrophe
Since the early 1980s, parts of Southeast Asia have been routinely enveloped by haze caused by the setting of peat and forest fires to clear jungle land for oil palm plantations. In Malaysia, state governments have declared haze emergencies multiple times—in 1997, 2005, and 2013—when hazardous air quality levels in certain districts warranted school closures and outdoor activity bans. Despite the health effects and the social and economic disruptions caused by the haze, governments of the most directly impacted countries—Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia—have been slow in addressing the chronic problem, given their state-vested interests in the lucrative oil palm sector.3Varkkey, Helena. 2015. The Haze Problem in Southeast Asia: Palm Oil and Patronage. New York and London: Routledge. Instead of recognizing that the haze is a preventable capitalism-manufactured crisis, governments routinely issue health advisories reminding citizens to monitor air quality indexes and adjust their daily activities, as though the haze is a natural weather pattern like the monsoon rains. If the British readily engaged in a de facto war to protect its stake in the colonial plantation economy, then postcolonial governments are more than willing to do the same, albeit by subjecting its peoples to the slow violence of environmental degradation.
The Borneo Heart Exhibition, first held in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in 2021 and then in Kuala Lumpur in 2023, issues a different call to action: center the knowledge of local, Indigenous peoples who are at the frontlines of the climate crisis. The exhibition brings together works by the artist Yee I-Lann in collaboration with weavers, dancers, videographers, and other cultural workers from Sabah and beyond. The use of the heart as a metaphor for Borneo is a response to how the island, Southeast Asia’s largest, is often cast as economically, culturally backwards even as its rainforests, one of the world’s oldest and most biodiverse, have experienced rampant deforestation in the name of development. Any meaningful attempt to mitigate the climate emergency must therefore interrogate the knowledge-power structures that marginalize Borneo’s peoples to facilitate capitalist extraction and see local, Indigenous knowledge as vital resources for cultivating life-sustaining relations between people and the planet. The exhibition showcases how art-making can be a practice of unlearning hierarchical ways of thinking and relearning mutually restorative ways of doing and relating with others.
Two concepts inform the exhibition. The first is the tikar or the woven mat, a quotidian household object made from plants by women that are used for rituals sacred and mundane. An artist who primarily works with the photographic medium, Yee’s turn to the tikar was inspired by an old family photo in which several generations, including her grandmother, who was a weaver, were gathered on a mat for the annual harvest festival. Yee’s interest in the tikar led to her collaboration with the women weavers of inland Keningau and Omadal Island, off Sabah’s eastern coast. Whereas Keningau is the state’s political heartland, where many of its notable politicians are from, Omadal Island is home to stateless descendants of sea nomads. The exhibition’s second concept, tamu, informs Yee’s choice to work with both land- and sea-based communities. Tamu refers to the local market where communities from different parts of the island have traded their wares since precolonial times. For Yee, the tamu represents the interdependency that lies at the heart of human existence; it is where the hill people and the sea people meet to trade rice for salt, because “one needs what one doesn’t have. One needs diversity. One needs the person who is not from one’s community.”
Histories of conflict and territorial contestations between Sabah and the Philippines, combined with political interference by the Malaysian federal government into state affairs have fomented deep political enmity between land and sea peoples. One of Yee’s earlier artworks, evocatively titled, Palm of Putrajaya (2023), deftly captures how the divide-and-rule tactics of pitting locals against migrants plays into the federal government’s plans (Putrajaya is the nation’s administrative capital) of designating vast tracts of Malaysian Borneo land for the oil palm monocrop. It is worth noting that a declaration of emergency rule across the nation in 1969—made in the wake of the deadly 13 May racial riots in Kuala Lumpur—enabled a political takeover of Sarawak’s state affairs to establish networks of power that channeled the wealth derived from the state’s natural resources away from its people to federal coffers.4Leigh, Michael B. 2018 . The Rising Moon: Political Change in Sarawak. Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Development Center; Straumann, Lukas. 2014. Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia. Zurich: Bergli Books.
Whereas Yee’s previous work illuminates the workings of state power, her turn to the tikar foregrounds the shared practices of weaving found across the island’s different communities and the rich body of knowledge they collectively hold. The Tikar Reben (Ribbon Mat), a thin strip measuring over 200 feet, functions as a weaving dictionary in that it incorporates the variety of patterns from the different communities in that locale, seen in the image above. A video art of the same title captures footage of the Ribbon Mat being unfurled from the coast to the water villages, with the tikar literally connecting land and sea. Used together, these two words in Malay—tanah air—mean homeland or country. The tikar, however, teaches us to disassociate tanah air from the nation-state and instead notice the soil (tanah) and water (air) that produces the plants from which mats are made. In essence, the tikar represents the deeply interwoven and thus interdependent relationship of all living beings with one another.
Besides bearing distinct motifs and patterns of the weavers’ cultural traditions, the mats are also made from plants local to their environments. The mats by Dusun and Murut weavers in Keningau are made of bamboo pus that exude a golden sheen, seen in the image below while those by Bajau weavers from Omadal Island are made of softened pandanus leaves that hold vibrant color dyes. Yet, as one of the weavers, Siat Yanau notes, “…now we’re worried because palm oil plantations are reaching onto the areas where bamboo pus grows.” The loss of nature to modernization leads to the loss of culture and it is this concern that motivates Shahrizan bin Juin, one of the few men to take up what is traditionally women’s work. “I’m worried,” he says. “In the future, no one will be interested in this tradition. So, let me continue it”.
The tikar shown at the Borneo Heart Exhibition is evidence that sustaining weaving practices is not only for tradition’s sake. As repositories of ancient knowledge passed on from generation to generation, the mats produced by Yee with the weavers possess the versatility to respond to contemporary crises. The Tikar/Meja (Mat/Table) installation presents the mats as a medium for social analysis. Comprising sixty mats, each featuring a table silhouette of a different shape, the works juxtapose two modes of social power: the table, a trope of what Yee calls the “violence of administration” meted through rigid identity categories that dictate history and language, vs. the mat, which creates a communal, egalitarian, feminist space. The process of experimenting with the mat as a visual field for assembling different objects to express Yee’s dreamscape resulted in the serendipitous creation of a new weaving pattern called mansau-ansau, which in the Murut language means “to keep journeying without knowing where you’re headed.” The weaving of karaoke song lyrics and emojis also expands the mat’s vocabulary of motifs, facilitating new ways of interacting with the tikar.
The innovations are not just aesthetic, but also economic. When Omadal Island’s tourism economy dried up in the wake of COVID-19, it was the women’s work of weaving mats for the Borneo Heart Exhibition that sustained families. As Yee explains in her artist’s notes about the Balai Bikin project, plans are now underway to build a community space that will serve as a makers’ hall and alternative art school for the study and documentation of local knowledge. Funded entirely by the sales proceeds of heritage mats made by the women weavers, the building project is a community-driven effort to create alternative sustainable livelihoods that would reduce dependency on traditional fishing and restore the health of marine life in that area. This enterprise demonstrates the tikar’s transformative power in restructuring social relations to improve economic conditions and protect the environment. Alternative ways of knowing and being with one another that are mutually life-sustaining is possible in times of crisis.
The Malayan Emergency was fought to maintain structures of inequality, fomenting anti-communist fear and racialized enmity to subdue leftist opposition to economic exploitation. Subsequent state emergencies declared in response to health and environmental crises have only reinforced, if not exacerbated, socioeconomic disparities, which have been generated by capitalist-driven development. The three artistic works discussed above, however, challenge the emergency logic that extracting wealth for some at the expense of others must continue at all costs. Their collaborative art-making practices not only demonstrate that building egalitarian relations and embracing difference can emerge from a renewed understanding of the past. They also show that the task of bringing about a better world brings beauty and joy from unexpected places.