"Her films made us less lonely," says Alfian Sa'at.

Why Yasmin Ahmad was so important to me

Yasmin Ahmad is the late Malaysian film director. She died of a brain haemorrhage on July 25 after collapsing with a stroke. She was 51.

Alfian Sa’at

Yasmin Ahmad had many Singaporean fans. During one of our meetings, she confided how she had found such a warm reception for her films in Singapore, as compared to her native Malaysia. By ‘warm’, one of the things she meant was a marked absence of hostility that greeted her work, which ranged from interrogations of her Islamic credentials to accusations of manipulative sentimentality.

The Singaporean reception to her work can only be meaningfully analysed if we consider how it is constituted. From my personal observations, there are two separate strands of spectatorship involved. To non-Malay Singaporeans, her work represented a corrective to the oppressive elements of Bumiputra privilege up north — here was a Malay-Muslim filmmaker who created a space for multiracial plurality in Malaysian cinema, and who was not afraid to criticise the very policies of which she herself was a potential beneficiary.

There was much to admire about this kind of humanism, even as it seemed at times to veer precariously into escapist utopianism.

And then there was a group of people for whom Yasmin Ahmad became the voice we’d been waiting for. It was a voice that spoke to, and for, a generation of young Malay Singaporeans underserved by a Sinocentric local media, who found very little we could relate to in the country of our birth. Turning our gaze towards the Peninsula was not the most viable of options; firstly, there was always the nagging guilt that to be considered truly Singaporean, we had to excise our connections with Malaysia. The strange rite of citizenship in Singapore consisted of claiming a status as an immigrant detached from one’s ‘motherland’, such that we could place ourselves on an equal platform with the Chinese and Indians. But this was complicated by the paranoia that our northern neighbour was a ‘potential hostile force’, much more so than distant China and India, so Malays had to put in extra effort at this disavowal of our origins.

Secondly, there were certain aspects of Malaysian society that seemed perplexing to us: an Islamist party in the far north organising a ‘lullaby-singing competition for children and spouse’ as a way of reconciling music and religion, henna-haired Datins and pipe-smoking Datuks hinting at the traces of low corruption among high society, and that very puzzling riddle: the casual pairing of a tudung with a short-sleeved T-shirt.

But who were we, and why did Yasmin’s films resonate so much with us? I can only speak of the circle of Malay friends that I have, although I suspect that our numbers are growing. We’re a product of Singapore’s bilingual education system, and many of us come from lower-middle-to-middle-class backgrounds. We all received decent grades for our Malay in school, even though in Malay class, we’d probably put our hands up and ask, ‘Cikgu, ‘imagination’ cakap Melayu apa?’ (How do you say ‘imagination’ in Malay?)

Our mothers are prone to melodramatic meltdowns and our fathers watch too much Malaysian news on TV. We think a ‘lepak’ (idling) place like Simpang Bedok possesses its charms because they have Malaysian stall assistants who hand you money with their right hand, their left hand respectfully clasping their right wrist. We like hanging out at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station because it’s on Malaysian land and we can smoke to our hearts’ content–although we’ll also admit that the whole idea of being in a place where the railway is called Keretapi Tanah Melayu (literally ‘Train Running On Malay Soil’) does warm and fuzzy things to our self-worth.

We’ve had our individual encounters with service staff from China who spoke to us in Mandarin, and our coping strategies included advice from religion: ‘kesabaran itu sebahagian daripada iman’ (patience is part of faith), our mothers’ sayings: ‘biar orang buat kita, jangan kita yang buat orang’ (let others do unto us, but never should we do unto others), and of course the wisdom of P. Ramlee movies: the ‘cubaan…’ (this is just a trial) lament from the movie ‘Pendekar Bujang Lapok’.

We think the Chinese can’t sing or dance as well as us because they all ‘takde soul’. Indians, on the other hand, have both soul and rhythm. We have at least one friend who jams in a band.

We love our slang, much of which consists of distorted English loan-words: ‘over’ (excessive), ‘potong steam’ (to interrupt something abruptly, causing one to lose momentum) and ‘tangkap feel’ (to be inspired). Once in a while, we’ll invent our own: the affectionate ‘Mintod’ (Minah + Tudung) and ‘sentimentel’ (sentimental + mentel, or ‘coy’), although we know that when it comes to neologistic invention we’re way behind the good people of Jakarta.

We think Malay MP’s are handsomely paid mouthpieces for the State, a sentiment we sometimes share with our parents, who’d instead use the phrase ‘Pak Turut’ (Mr Yes-man). We think the ‘drug problem’ shouldn’t be handled on a community level, like how nobody insists that the Chinese Development Assistance Council should be tackling the ‘gambling problem’ or that the Singapore Indian Development Association should be dealing with the ‘alcoholism problem’. We know how difficult it is to talk about Malay marginality in Singapore–the Malays who do it are accused of a ‘victim mentality’, and the non-Malays who do it tend to be opposition politicians (like Chiam See Tong who spoke about Malays and the army in Parliament, or Chee Soon Juan who spoke about the tudung issue at Speaker’s Corner), and they get accused of ‘politicking’.

We think Berita Harian gets carried away with their ‘Anak Melayu’ stories, of the ‘Anak Melayu Mengharumkan Nama Bangsa’ (literally—‘Malay Child Adds Fragrance to the Community’s Name’) variety. We think that images of a Malay graduate wearing his or her convocation gown belongs to the category of images on laminated motivational posters–inspirational, but in the cheesiest way possible (caption: ‘if they can do it, you can do it too!’). We’re sick and tired of watching English TV shows where a Malay lead (Aaron Aziz, Suhaimi Yusof) plays a policeman. We watch Singapore films like ’12 Storeys’, where a Malay man asks a lead character for free tuition for his son (which means his son’s not good at his studies, and also, that he’s cheap) and ‘Money No Enough’, where a Malay man plays a TV salesman (a pushover who gets bullied by Jack Neo and Mark Lee into giving them free gifts) and wonder when the parade of humiliating stereotypes will end.

We think honorific terms like ‘kak’ (sister) and ‘abang’ (brother) are so ‘kampung’ (village) but we end up using them with both endearment and irony, on those people whose ideas and works we felt close to (‘mesra’). We’ll have conversations where we’ll go, “have you read this article our Kak Lily (Zubaidah Rahim) wrote where she whacked Singapore’s super-kiasu foreign policy?”, or “there’s this interesting Facebook post by our Abang Farish (Noor) on the uses and abuses of history”. And then, of course, there was ‘Kak Yasmin’, or ‘Kak Min’.

Most Malaysian Malay films made in the 80’s and 90’s were terrible: implausible plots, hammy acting, and too many people sporting moustaches. Then Yasmin Ahmad’s films came along. When they were showing on Singapore screens, the audience consisted of both Malays and non-Malays, a crossover phenomenon rarely observed since Cathay Keris unleashed the Maria Menado-starrer ‘Pontianak’—and that was in 1957. The fact that there was a multiracial Singaporean audience which appreciated Yasmin’s films helped to mitigate our anxieties about orientating our identities northwards.

Orked, the character played by Sharifah Amani in ‘Sepet’ and ‘Gubra’, became our poster girl: she was spunky, opinionated, watched Wong Kar Wai movies, read Franz Fanon, and code-switched with ease between English and Malay. See, we wanted to tell the non-Malays in the audience, we’re not all lazy, cliquish, parochial working-class folks. We saw the rapport between Orked’s parents (played by Ida Nerina and Harith Iskandar), and felt that we were sharing with the audience the importance of the family in Malay life—and not in a ‘let’s-have-as-many-kids-as-possible’ sense.

On an MRT train ride a few days ago, I scrolled through my phone and stumbled across an SMS from Yasmin, sent to me in September last year. It read: ‘Long before you stood up for Sepet in Kakiseni, a Singaporean friend gave me a book of poems written by you. Even then I wished to meet the writer of those beautiful poems, just to chat about ways of, and reasons for, expressing oneself. We should do that some time, kan?’

We never managed to have that conversation. But if it had indeed transpired, I know one of the things I would have told her is this: sometimes we don’t need to know the reasons why we express ourselves. Sometimes what we create might have effects we would never have anticipated. As Yasmin would often modestly state, all she wanted to do was ‘tell a story’–and one might add, ‘Malaysian stories’. Little did she know how important those stories were to a whole generation of alienated Malay Singaporeans. Watching her works allowed us to recognize ourselves and restored to us a sense of racial dignity. Her films made us less lonely. While we mourn Yasmin’s passing, there is at least one consolation. We still have her films for company.


The Online Citizen thanks Alfian for allowing us to re-publish the above article.