Keywords: Sepet, Yasmin the Story Teller, Ah Loong, Orked, A Malaysian Love Story, Race Relations in Malaysia, challenges of a multiracial society, inter-racial marriage, racial polarization, review, critique.
I remember I had a quote pasted on the inside of my pencil case during my pre-U studies some years ago.
It sounded something like this;
'If you belong to your society or a culture, it can be said that, whilst you are the beneficiary to a framework that helps you understand your life and its meanings, you are also a victim of its prejudices and moral failings.'
I’ve since lost the original quote. But I think the gist is there. To me, this quote captures the paradox of our quest as men and women to belong.
It intrigued me then. It still intrigues me today.
And within this context, I must say I am very impressed with Yasmin Ahmad, the storyteller of Sepet, the Movie. I don’t think there are that many 'Malay artists' who have demonstrated the ability to transcend their own cultural views and enter into the soul of The Other.
Lat, Usman Awang…who else..?
Malaysian Chinese writers? Not that I know of too.
Before someone screamed, 'What about Malaysian writers in English', I have to say, yes, a few of our writers who wrote in the English Language touched on very similar themes. KS Maniam, Lloyd Fenando, Ee Tiang Hong, Wong Phui Nam, Salleh Ben Joned, Shirley Lim, etc.
Let me just say, Yasmin tells a better story. To me, her story-telling is effective in carrying the complex issues and sensitive theme of our multi-racial society without losing its audience. But most important of all, Sepet is a story with a heart. Within its core, there's a warm, all-embracing voice that speaks of a set of beliefs and ideals that we really do want to believe in, especially in a world like ours today.
We live in a plural society and we spend most of our lives within the fences of our own cultures. It takes tremendous sensitivity and courage to climb over the fences. You get castigated, sometimes you get killed.
I remember when I was an undergrad at University of Malaya. It was disturbing to see how everyone seemed to huddle only amongst their own racial types. One day, a group of us (mixed bag of nutcases) went up to the Vice Chancelor (unlucky him, he was trying to enjoy his mee curry at the cafeteria) to express our 'concerns' about 'racial polarization' within the campus. We spoke and he ate. He didn't look at us. And strangely enough, this kind and learned gentlemen, a respected professor in Malay Studies, denied there was racial polarization in the campus.
'I don't agree with what you all say. Look around you. I don't see racial polarization here at all.'
And so we all looked around us, over the tables and benches. I remember there wasn't a table that was really representing our nation's ideal of racial integration. Oh wait, a Chinese guy was eating roti canai served on a bright orange plastic plate with his chap-fun friends. Well, that doesn't really count, does it?
Yep, it was then obvious to him that he was quite wrong. He scanned the cafeteria and then looked at us. He wasn't smiling. But we caught the irony of the situation. We persisted in trying to convince him that something needed to be done.
And he agreed.
But he asked us to go see the Deputy VC of Student Affairs.
The 'RIGHT channel', we were told.
So the next day we went to see the 'right channel'. And we were given a long yawning tale about how great it was in the 60s when there were 'barn-dances' and 'panty-raids' in the students' hostels and condoms under the benches beside the varsity lake. To end his 'siok-sendiri' tales, the Deputy VC told us that he's got absolutely no problems mixing with other races because he plays golf regularly with his Chinese businessmen friends.
So it was that the Chinese students eat their 'chow-fun' at night at SS17, the Indian kids would disappear into Brickfields and the rural Malay students will hang-out at Pantai Dalam.
At the residential colleges, the 'Bumigeois Malays', with scholarship money, nice cars and all, would eat out at Bangsar's KFC, PizzaHut or McD and come back licking Baskin Robbins ice-creams while the rest of us eat mass-cooked 'college food'.
It was pretty fragmented, this campus life we had then.
Yes, Yasmin Ahmad, the director of Sepet, crossed those fences. Not only that. She survived the world beyond her cultural comfort-zone and came back to tell us how beautiful and how ugly the other side of the fences can be, with great sensitivity and compassion.
If you have watched all of Yasmin's famous Petronas ads, you would have noticed the consistent, undercurrent theme of 'engaging and integrating the Other' into our lives. I hope she will inspire many of us, Malaysians, to be fence-climbers.
Cultural integrators? Yeah, that's us, Malaysians!
Read my blog on Sepet: The Movie here:
Check out the Sepet: The Movie site here:
Explore Yasmin Ahmad's blog here: