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Creative common ground


THE afternoon of 24 Aug 2008 was like any other bustling Saturday at KL Sentral station.

Save for one anomaly: in the midst of hundreds of shuttling commuters, about 120 people had congregated in two locations at the terminal.

They were there to read.

Among those who sat cross-legged on the floor, or stood transfixed to read for 15 minutes, were blogger and social activist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, and Sisters in Islam co-founder Norani Othman. Both were reading the book Norani edited, Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism, which was recently banned.

The reading initiative was part of the Read While Waiting Project (RWP) organised by the youth collective Random Alphabets (RA). The project seeks to promote reading among youths, not just in Malaysia but throughout the region. On 24 Aug, similar RWP flash mobs took place in Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

Norani Othman (left) and Marina Mahathir in literary action
Zain HD, organiser and RA frontman, tells The Nut Graph that he came up with the idea for RWP in November 2006. “I wanted to do something good. I thought it was such a shame and so disappointing that people don’t read while they wait,” he says.

Zain used a flash mob — an increasingly creative and popular way to get people together — to organise the project.

Flash mobs

Flash mobs are a burgeoning youth sub-culture that has cropped up all over the world.

Notable examples include the World Pillow Fight Day on 22 March 2008. Touted as the world’s largest flash mob to date, people in more than 35 cities from Shanghai to New York City convened, wearing costumes and brandishing cushions, to pillow-fight in specific locations within their respective cities.

On 24 Feb 2007, some 200 flash mob “agents” froze in unison for five minutes in Grand Central Station, for no other reason than to participate in a safe and fun group activity.

By definition, a flash mob is a sudden, but concerted, mass public gathering where participants perform a random act, at a specific time, before dispersing. Flash mobs are by nature apolitical, organised for sheer entertainment, and they allow individuals to participate in egalitarian action.

Contrary to what the term suggests, flash mobs are non-disorderly and non-threatening, as evidenced by the freeze event and the reading activity at KL Sentral. While some organisers conduct the mobs as a social experiment, some do it simply for fun and novelty’s sake.

View scenes from the Read While Waiting Project

Nevertheless, the RWP flash mob is an example of how Malaysians are creatively reclaiming public spaces to express themselves, finding a sense of solidarity among peers, or creating awareness for a cause. Despite legal restrictions in Malaysia against public assemblies, these avenues of expression have been successfully carried out.

In 2008, apart from the RWP, other flash mobs have occurred in shopping complexes and parks in Malaysia. One such event was the 13 April 2008 Freeze in Unison, also organised by RA. On that day, more than 1,000 youths stopped dead in their tracks in the lobby of a shopping mall for four minutes. The event was held to demonstrate how Malaysians of different stripes and views can be driven to accomplish an action in unison.

The event’s success prompted radio station to organise a 20 April 2008 event in another mall to commemorate World Earth Day. That flash mob was to draw attention to the fact that the average person uses up energy equivalent to nearly two dozen 100-watt light bulbs. Freezing for four minutes would conserve a fraction of that energy.

Covert and democratic

Zain says the popularity of flash mobs is rising because of its covert and democratic nature. “I suppose they are interesting because of the whole underground feel to it, and the participatory aspect. Compared to concerts, which one would watch, you’re actually part of it.”

Scenes from the KL Freeze, April 2008
Furthermore, flash mobs generate plenty of buzz among youths prior to and after an event as they are typically organised via online social networking sites such as Facebook, and through blogs. Organisers are able to market their cause to the masses, and participants get to enjoy the thrill of the mob.

Admittedly, Zain says, not everyone participates to show solidarity for a cause. But in the end, everyone goes home better informed.

Reclaiming public spaces

Flash mobs may be a fast-developing part of youth culture in urban centres, but the activity bears an uncanny resemblance to the 1950s and 60s “happening” movement in Europe and the US, which emerged at a time when people were questioning “modern-life” matters such as wars.

The term “flash mob” was coined by American avant-garde painter Allan Krapow. In his 1966 pamphlet titled Some Recent Happenings, he defined the activity as off-stage performance art that “seems closer to life.”

A happening, Krapow said, is “performed according to plan but without rehearsal, audience, or repetition.”

There were some happenings in Malaysia in the 1970s, executed by performing arts students in local universities. One such student was Marion D’Cruz, who is today executive producer of Five Arts Centre.

D’Cruz says she learnt about happenings in a theatre history class at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “It was a period when unusual events were taking place, and people were trying to find ways to express themselves.

Group of readers at RWP
RWP participants at KL Sentral
“The performing arts students used to [participate in] these happenings, sometimes with a particular agenda, or sometimes for the sake of it. We would just dress up or paint our faces, or interrupt lectures,” she tells The Nut Graph.

Shortly before the March 2008 elections, D’Cruz and four others decided to recreate happenings to encourage Malaysians to head to the polling stations. Due to scheduling conflicts, they were only able to carry out one attempt: “We got into an elevator and one person very loudly counted: ‘Five, six, seven, eight.’ Then we all started singing Rasa Sayang. We stopped when the doors opened, walked out, turned, and said: ‘Vote wisely.’”

Other ways

Malaysians have also been reclaiming public spaces in other ways to exercise freedom of expression. Most recently, Hindraf supporters and bloggers used Aidilfitri open houses in early October to call for the release of those detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. (While Hindraf supporters were vilified for doing so at the Muslim ministers’ open house, they were welcomed at the open house of opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.)

Artist Caesar Chong on a train as part of the Lamu project (Courtesy of
Let Arts Move You)
In 2007, art collectives Rumah Air Panas and Kolektif Pembangun Seni organised the Let Arts Move You (Lamu) project, a series of visual-art events at several KTM train stations that was aimed at promoting contemporary art to the public. The project featured video clips, digital prints and photographs by 11 Malaysian and regional artists for nine days.

Project director Lim Kok Yoong says the project aimed at giving passengers room to contemplate the wide range of possibilities in art making, as well as to bring them closer to art makers.

“The public transportation system is where you can approach people. We put up performances and static visual works on the train so people could see that art can exist in ordinary places. Art doesn’t have to happen in a gallery,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Lim says even though some passengers didn’t take to the activities, the project received positive responses overall.


Despite the popularity of some of these actions, fear about breaking the law is still common. Zain says: “A lot of people are very paranoid about being in flash mobs or in just any gathering. They’ll ask: ‘Oh, is this legal, is that legal?’”

The concern is not surprising, considering that Section 141 of the Penal Code says a gathering of more than five persons, without permit, is unlawful. Additionally, mass gatherings such as the Bersih rally in December 2007 and Hindraf rallies have resulted in arrests, on top of the use of hard-handed tactics by the police to quell these demonstrations.

Zain reading Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries
However, flash mobs often escape government scrutiny and action because they are comparitively non-confrontational. And in Malaysia, they have yet to challenge the powerful status quo in the same way that the Bersih and Hindraf rallies did.

“Obviously what we’re doing does not fit any of the sections according to the law. It’s not about endangering public security or public order, or about politics,” Zain says.

Perhaps therein lies the power of flash mobs and public events like the Lamu project in drawing the crowds, including the paranoid. Through these actions, Malaysians may be able to safely reclaim their right to express or congregate in public spaces — and have some fun while they are at it.

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