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Arming our writers

(© Agata Urbaniak /

ONE of the unexpected outcomes of the recent presidential election campaign in the US has been a sharp rise in gun sales. Demand for firearms and other related paraphernalia went up by 15% in October. There is a fear that president-elect Barack Obama will institute gun controls when he assumes the presidency in January 2009. This is despite Obama’s promise to respect the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms. Hence the race to arms.

In Malaysia, being caught with live bullets, never mind an actual gun, can get you the death penalty. So I find legal gun ownership in the US — there are laws protecting your right to bring a gun into your work place if you so desire — almost impossible to grasp. There are deep historical and cultural reasons behind the right to own firearms here in the US. In many parts of America, children learn to shoot from their parents the way we learn how to play football from ours.

The average Malaysian’s encounter with a gun is, in most cases, limited to glimpses of the metal holstered on the hip of that traffic cop issuing a summons. Our view of gun culture is in fact largely influenced by tragedies — the Columbines and Virginia Techs — which the world now understands as shorthand for US gun violence.

We were reminded of this potential for violence as Obama strode onto the stage in Chicago on 5 Nov 2008 to claim his victory of the presidency. While it was a historic moment for obvious reason, it was also a chilling one. His win that night was marked by the clearest symbol thus far of a fear that his life is in danger.

Obama promised to respect the right to bear arms
(© Transplanted Mountaineer, source:
It took the shape of a large bulletproof screen separating him from the thousands of people gathered in the park. It’s the first time such a screen has been used, but the US has a well-documented history of political assassinations. Who has not heard of Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King Jr, Robert F Kennedy, and Malcolm X — giants of change felled by small minds and spirits? The lessons of history have been well learnt, it seems, and every precaution is being taken to safeguard the next president of the US and his family.

Different political landscape

The whole situation is, thankfully, quite alien to us. Our political landscape is littered more with the corpses of political reputations and victims of surat layang than an actual body count. Malaysian political leaders have such little security concerns that they still hold open houses during each festival season, mingling directly with thousands of citizens. At most, a politician may suffer a sprained wrist from all that hand-shaking.

Nonetheless, assassinations entered the local ether some weeks ago with the publication of a short story, Politik Baru YB J by Datuk Chamil Wariya in Mingguan Malaysia. In what some have claimed is a thinly-veiled reference to Seputeh Member of Parliament (MP)Teresa Kok, it tells of an ethnic Chinese MP whose insensitivity to Malays threatens the delicate racial harmony of the country.

The story ends with her assassination by a young ethnic Chinese, driven by his belief that she is a threat to racial harmony. The writer has defended the work as a piece of fiction, explaining that it was written as a cautionary tale about the delicateness of racial sentiments in the country. Others have called it a threat and demanded action against him and the publisher.

The absence of a culture of violence in our political space does make the short story’s plot seem almost suggestive. Our most significant political assassination took place over a hundred years ago, with the murder of JWW Birch by Datuk Maharaja Lela in 1875. The ambush and murder of the British High Commissioner in Malaya Sir Henry Gurney in 1951 is another well-known case. However, it may be argued that he was the victim of an armed conflict rather than the target of a political assassination. But aside from these two, I can’t think of any other significant assassination in our history as a nation-state.

JWW Birch (Source:

Against the backdrop of attacks on Kok’s family home, it was perhaps an irresponsible story to publish. Nonetheless, Chamil had every right to use his art to test the boundaries of what is permissible and what is not. If only all artists are as able to give free reign to their expression, unencumbered by the fear of retribution, as he appears to be.

Express yourself

This is what excites me most about the whole incident. A work of fiction which breaks virtually every law governing “racial harmony” is published, apparently uncensored. It has heaps to offend either some mid-level government officer or some concerned citizens group — it touches on race, religion, politics, misogyny, murder, and suicide.

It is published in the Malay language in a mass-circulated news weekly, as opposed to, say, a piece written in English and published in an independent literary magazine with a print run of 1,000. The piece is discussed, dissected, debated, defended, condemned, praised, and well, nothing.

The racial strife, mass uprising, instability, stock market collapse and other signs of mayhem we are told will be unleashed if this film is screened, that book is distributed, this Noble Prize winner speaks, that rock concert is staged, or those knees exposed, failed to materialise.


One of the oft overlooked aspects of the right to bear arms in the US is that legal defences against early attempts to curb the Second Amendment were subsequently used in arguments defending the First Amendment — the right to free speech.

Article 10 of the Federal Constitution guarantees our right to free expression. We should claim the victory of Chamil’s right to artistic expression. However, we should demand that the same standard be applied to all artists, be they students who rap the national anthem or punk musicians who pull their pants down.

Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of She has been involved in arts advocacy and freedom of expression in the arts for over 15 years.  Her articles on the politics of culture have appeared in publications in Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong. A native of Petaling Jaya, Kathy is currently based in Miami.

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8 Responses to “Arming our writers”

  1. Melissa says:

    Very well articulated. Nothing is sacred in the modern world, no matter how badly we try to pretend otherwise. We hold steadfastly to our belief that we are purer, more refined and certainly more cultured than our Western counterparts, but it is a cruel joke. If guns were allowed here, I am certain the ‘fictitious’ story of YB Josephine would not have remained a distasteful piece of writing. But then, I guess that’s just my cynical Western mentality from years of MTV coming to the forefront!

  2. Steve from Arizona, USA says:

    “Obama promised to respect the right to bear arms” reads the caption under your picture of Barack Obama. Those who study history on Monday and study Obama on Tuesday, know by Wednesday that Obama is a pathological liar. Barack Obama also supports free speech, provided that it is to his liking, of course. He will attempt to censor radio programs not favourable to him. Just watch. The Americans I know who admit voting for him, say that they did so because they didn’t believe that he’d get away with the tyranny that they fully expect him to attempt. What fools. I must admit, however, that with 150 million people owning 300 million firearms, naked government tyranny in the US won’t go on for long. I guess that’s the point of the Second Amendment that the world will never get.

  3. K-Romulus says:

    Well, the pope travels around in a bulletproof pope-mobile to greet the crowds, even in “gun-free” Europe and East Asia. Do you decipher any insight into Europe or East Asia with that little tidbit?

  4. An increase in gun sales “unexpected?” Hardly.

    I was hoping the lying demagogue would win precisely because he is evil authoritarian garbage and many can plainly see this and will prepare for what he and his party may force upon us.

    Don’t understand? Then start here:

    Then move on to my “British Insanity” page to see what they have done to England and what we must at all costs prevent in America.

  5. Sorry, I meant to submit this link in place of the one I used:

  6. “Moderation.”

    So much for “Liberal” respect for freedom of speech. You use it until it no longer benefits your evil.

  7. Foo Bar says:

    Possession of bullets can bring the death penalty? Sorry, Malaysia is off my list of places to visit. It’s a lot easier to frame someone for possessing bullets (or drugs) than framing them for a murder. To apply the death penalty for these crimes is unconscionable, and I support the death penalty for serious crimes like murder.

  8. Bukkiah says:

    As an American, a gun owner, with a certain familiarity with Malaysia, I would like to mention a few things.

    Not only is the death penalty thrown around for “crimes” like bullet or gun possession, but also for drug offences. I agree with the other commenter that it is terribly wrong to deliver death when the crime did not directly involve killing. However this to me seems to be a marked difference between the West and East. Consider the caning of someone for vandalism (although the most famous case in Singapore, I believe similar punishments are used in Malaysia), a crime against an object punished in a way the West considers excessive, even cruel. This punishment was considered normal to Asians I spoke to. However I think Americans might approve of such a punishment in the case of assault and battery or some crime against a person.

    Remember the United States is 200+ years old. Americans threw off their semi-colonial chains. Malaysians were under another country’s bonds until 50 years ago (approximately). Americans are very careful, even hyper-careful to be free, there is a distinct feeling that I should take care of myself and avoid government intrusion into my life (the balance of which is constantly debated). This is not the feeling in Malaysia, or I venture to say larger Asia, where the government is looked to for much, entrusted with a great deal, and has power Americans would cringe at. Guns in the hands of free citizens guarantees (to the extent an guarantee can be made) freedom. You don’t have freedom in Asia, so what is there to guarantee.

    There is REAL debate in the US. In the US even assassinations have not led to all-out civil war, or mass killing, thank God. In Malaysia, an article, a book, a protest, is thought to be a matter of national security that could “disrupt racial harmony” (as if there is racial harmony if it could so easily be disrupted) and thus is dealt with in iron-handed fashion. Gun possession and open debate: this is NOT a difference between East and West. Just look to Thailand. That was the most passive transfer of power one could ever imagine. There were lots of guns, the spectre of horrible violence, but it didn’t materialize, thank God. There was an ultimate extreme of open debate, backed up by guns, that did NOT lead to the dread anarchy anti-gun people would have you believe.

    Malaysians are at the mercy of your government, to put you in jail without trial. You cannot say what you like, you are forced to buy certain products through a quasi-free market, you are at the mercy of criminals (mat rempits, home invasions).

    An armed society is a polite society.

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