Malaysian-born filmmaker Lau Kek Huat grapples with the difficulties of visually representing the Emergency
September 6, 2023
This piece is part of “The Rainforest Speaks: Reimagining the Malayan Emergency,” featuring art by Sim Chi Yin.
Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from a workshop about the Cold War and Chinese-Malayan cultural productions, held at the National Taiwan University in June 2022. During the workshop, Taiwan-based Malaysian filmmaker Lau Kek Huat discussed the Malayan Emergency and his documentary Absent Without Leave (2016). The film narrates the stories of Malayan Communist Party members living in exile, through the lens of the director and his search for his missing grandfather—one of many Malayans who fought a guerrilla war against the British colonial government in the rainforests of Malaya during the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960). In this excerpt, Lau describes his motivations for making the film, and how it fits in the wider historical and filmic context of Malaysia. The accompanying stills are from the film. Watch the trailer for Absent Without Leave below.
–Min Ke / 民客
1948年，其實公共關係部門（Department of Public Relations）、MFU和馬來亞電臺（Radio Malaya）才整合起來，成為一個很強大的官方宣傳機構。其實，MFU在5、60年代，它是亞州最大的紀錄片機構。它有最先進的器材，以及各方面對於官方宣傳打心理戰的經驗，其實是非常老道的。我們要知道後來的越戰，它對於war psychology這件事情，很多的經驗是取自馬來亞的。馬來亞怎麼掌控（handle）緊急法令這個時期。
這些電影對於後來在那個時代看這些電影下長大的人，其實是有造成一些影響的。像Shirley Geok-Lin Lim在她的Among the White Moon Faces裡面就有提到，她小時候看這些官宣電影（propaganda films）的時候，她就深深感覺到，她好像被教導要恨這些華人共產黨。可是，它又跟自己作為一個華人的認同感，有一點衝突。然後，這樣的一個矛盾：如何認同這個好像是被官方所營造的華文沙文主義者？其實，一直到今天為止，我常常覺得像 Shirley Lim的個體經驗，我們都沒有很成功的把它呈現在現在的影像。個體的經驗都被否定了。很多國家的敘事壓制了個體的經驗。
On Forgetfulness, Censorship, and the Emergency
In 1948, the Department of Public Relations, Malayan Film Unit (MFU), and Radio Malaya merged. Together, they formed the MFU, a governmental propaganda agency with a commanding presence. In fact, MFU was the biggest documentary film institution in Asia during the 1950s and 1960s. Not only did it possess state-of-the-art filming equipment, it was also well-versed in warfare psychology given its experience in depicting the Malayan Emergency. The Vietnam War that later transpired took many pages out of MFU’s book of tactics.
The MFU’s main goal was to Malayanize the people, and this is where we witness the production of violence through nation-state narratives. The MFU set out to make many propaganda films, and the Malayan Communist Party members featured in these films are all blurry, homogenous, East Asian faces that lack individuality. They are not subjects who own a voice. Even if they do speak, they are clumsy and lacking in language proficiency. These are bandits, and they are not open to reason.
In her book Among the White Moon Faces, Malaysian-born Asian American writer Shirley Geok-Lin Lim recounts being taught to detest the Malayan Chinese communists when watching these propaganda films, which conflicts with her identity as Chinese. How could she ever identify herself with these seemingly state-constructed Chinese chauvinists? Up until today, I always felt that individual experiences such as Shirley Lim’s have never been successfully portrayed through visuals. These individual experiences have been negated and suppressed by the nation-state narrative. Most films that do not serve the nation-state narrative always end up cut or censored.
We (ethnic Chinese) first had to deal with being the imagined objects under the gaze of the British colonizers, and then with anti-Chinese sentiments that came with the Cold War British anti-communist policies. Later, we had to deal with a racialized national narrative that excluded the Chinese. Films that do not fit into such narratives become Cold War specters (and are censored). Thus, my generation of ethnic Chinese, and also the many generations before us, grew up in such an environment. We got accustomed to national issues being taboo, and we distrust our society and also politics. I have a straightforward example: when I was making Absent Without Leave, my parents would tell me to stay away from politics and to stop caring so much about society.
In such an environment filled with fear and insecurity, we become forgetful. We think that maybe such issues have never existed or should be rightfully absent. We would not even ask for the reason for their absences. So, what are the repercussions of our forgetfulness?
First of all, filmmakers self-censor their works and limit themselves to the kinds of films that they make. The societal atmosphere in Malaysia caused us to grow up being highly anxious about our identity: What does it mean to be Chinese? Malay? Indian? I have observed many films where filmmakers avoid politics from the start, for they feel that it is too sensitive or inappropriate to touch on these issues.
There is an implicit expectation that all stories should strive towards achieving racial harmony or end with it as a resolution, which is why we should tread carefully around or avoid sensitive issues. I am not at all against working towards racial harmony, but on the discussion of social issues, we need to raise questions and exchange views critically to draw out the connections between all ethnicities. Otherwise, our so-called racial harmony can only stand on shaky ground.
Censorship affects the market of your film. Selling your film to get sufficient monetary returns to fund your next film remains a problem for us. Under these limitations, Malaysian filmmakers are predestined to go independent. One must be able to work under limited support and resources, which is why I started making documentaries instead.
Apart from the films being banned in Malaysia due to censorship, another problem that we face when making films is the insufficient database collection of Malaysian film archives in terms of news footage, audio-visual recordings, and historical information. When making documentaries, I had to get most of my visuals from the archives of Australia, Japan, or Britain. These countries and their institutions have control over your access and use of these materials, since you will need their permission first and foremost.
That is why, in Absent Without Leave, I constantly ask: What is this place like, this place called home? A netizen left a comment on my Facebook post, asking: If I am rooted overseas, how far am I from home? Am I still a Malaysian? My answer to this is: It is because I started asking these questions that I finally got closer to Malaysia. You don’t have to imagine home as some place that you will definitely return to and settle down. Home is a form of arrival. The question really is: how would you be able to reach Malaysia or Malaya, in its truest sense?
This excerpt was transcribed by Yap Hock Yam, who advised on this piece.
All images are film stills from Absent Without Leave, used with permission from 蜂鳥影像有限公司 Hummingbird Production Co Ltd.