Writing Reformasi (Abstract)

Khoo Boo Teik


Amir Muhammad
“Perforated Sheets,” a newspaper column
Kuala Lumpur / New Straits Times / 2 September 1998 – 3 February 1999

 Sabri Zain
Face Off: A Malaysian Reformasi Diary (1998–99)
Singapore / Options Publications / 2000

 Shahnon Ahmad
SHIT@Pukimak@PM (Novel Politik Yang Busuk Lagi Membusukkan)
(SHIT@Pukimak@PM: A political novel that stinks and creates stinks)

Kubang Krian, Kelantan, Malaysia / Pustaka Reka / 1999

In 1998-99, the government of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was rocked by a Malay cultural revolt that arose after Mahathir dismissed his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. The state-controlled mass media sensationalized the “reasons” for Anwar’s fall—allegations of adultery and sodomy—thereby transgressing a “social contract” forbidding a ruler from shaming the ruled. In addition to its political manifestations, Reformasi blossomed as a cultural movement producing writings that criticized, challenged, and mocked Mahathir’s regime. Reformasi came to stand for alternative expression and debate unshackled by state censorship. This essay offers a political reading of a set of newspaper columns, a diary, and a novel which were popular among dissident circles.

Amir Muhammad is a brilliant, young, independent literary and film critic whose newspaper column employed bitingly sarcastic literary criticism to make connections between art and life. He wrote about blatantly partisan media coverage, totalitarian state control, patriotism “run amok,” and seventeenth-century witch-hunts. Amir’s column parodied a regime in trouble, poking holes in its legitimacy, but his prose remained polished and polite.

Sabri Zain wrote from the streets, participating in “Reformasi events” and spreading the “alternative” news via his online Reformasi Diary at a time when no one believed the mainstream media. His diary records the face off between ordinary, unarmed, peaceful protesters and baton-wielding riot police backed by water cannon. He chronicles a rapid change in social and political attitudes that led to a new sense of solidarity borne of the search for justice.

National Laureate Shahnon Ahmad’s vicious allegory is located in the bowels of the human body where bodily waste forms a “shit front” headed by one powerful lump, “PM.” This “stinking and stink-creating administration” leads a sycophantic polity inhabited by nodding “yes shits.” Amidst popular disgust at revelations of anal penetration, semen, and masturbation, perhaps one National Laureate’s catharsis offered cultural release to a community oppressed by aib (shame).

Khoo Boo Teik
Khoo Boo Teik is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and author of Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad (Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1995).

Read the full unabridged article HERE

Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. Issue 1 (March 2002). Power and Politics