IF a picture paints a thousand words, then one wonders what description of Kedah its billboards are now painting. A drive down Lebuhraya Sultanah Bahiyah in Alor Setar reveals a succession of billboards for a variety of companies and products with slogans in Jawi script. In fact, one of the billboards promoting Media Prima-owned radio station Hot FM even has its iconic deejay, Fara Fauzana, decked in a black tudung. The image would not be so jarring if not for the fact that in reality, Fara does not cover her hair.
There is nothing wrong with having Muslim women wearing tudung on billboards. There is also nothing wrong with having Malaysian billboards in Jawi. In fact, having Jawi and Muslim women represented in this way promotes the diversity that forms the backbone of Malaysian society. But we must also understand that the tudung and the Jawi script, though religiously and culturally legitimate, are not politically neutral. In fact, in Malaysia’s current social and political context, these could be manipulated as convenient symbols of Malay and Islamic supremacy.
These billboards have proliferated in Kedah due to a change of policy post-March 2008 by the PAS-led government. This is identical to PAS’s policy in Kelantan, too. It is also no secret that Hot FM, and Fara, acquiesced without much ado. In fact, Fara’s publicist said she looked “prettier in a tudung”. The question, though, is whether this policy is endorsed by PAS’s Pakatan Rakyat (PR) partners?
The policy has been in place in Kedah since July 2008, so it is likely that the DAP and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) aren’t too fussed about it. But this then begs the question of consistency within the PR. Say the PR took over federal government one day. Should we expect drastically different PR governments depending on which party – DAP, PAS or PKR – wins the largest number of seats? Can we rely on these billboards to predict what a PR-led Malaysia might look like?
Not religion per se
The issue has nothing to do with religious doctrine. Sure, it is a widely accepted view that Muslim women are supposed to cover their hair. Nevertheless, ulama and Muslim leaders remain divided on whether it is the state’s duty to enforce dress codes upon women.
If this is the case, what message are the PAS-led governments sending? What does this say about the PAS slogan, “PAS for all”? Being an Islamist party, would PAS respect the rights of not only non-Muslims, but Muslims who differ with PAS?
For example, many would respect that 100% of PAS’s muslimat observe the tudung stringently. But if they ever came to federal power, what policy would PAS have on Muslim women who do not wear the tudung so strictly, or at all? Some might argue that this is much ado about nothing, since Fara herself continues about her daily business with her hair uncovered. However, the reason why Fara is able to do this is because she is based in the Klang Valley, not Kedah or Kelantan.
On the other hand, if the companies involved have acquiesced to PAS’s demands without much noise, we must ask ourselves if this has anything to do with religion at all. Why appease PAS and not the Umno-led states, for example? Are these companies conceding that Umno is less “Islamic” than PAS? Is it truly an attempt to appease Muslim “sensitivities”, or is it merely an attempt to pocket the Muslim ringgit? Could the issue be a case of manufacturing and then cornering the “Islamic” market on everything from instant coffee to broadband services to radio airwaves?
The issue of using the Jawi script is less problematic. After all, Jawi is but the Malay language in Arabic script. If Malaysian society evolved such that all Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, learnt Malay in Jawi, then there would be no problem at all.
The problem now is that, for Malaysians who don’t read Jawi, the signboards would be quite alienating. Sure, many of these billboards reproduce the slogans in the Latin alphabet. But, for example, the Hot FM billboard has its slogan – Bukan sekadar kecohkan pagi, tapi teman hangat sepanjang hari – only in Jawi. What would a non-Jawi literate Malaysian think if he or she encountered this billboard for the first time in Kedah? Besides, Jawi itself has its share of racial and religious loadings. For example, the ritual circumcision of Muslim boys in Kedah is referred to as “masuk jawi”.
Why the fuss?
Why, some might ask, make such a fuss about billboards? Do these actually translate into everyday practices in Kedah? Arguably not – folks in Alor Setar saunter along as usual, the non-tudung-ed women unperturbed by the billboards, and the non-Jawi readers still able to choose their own coffee, internet connection or radio station.
Nevertheless, if images represent who we are as a nation, then we have to ask ourselves what these images from Kedah mean. Are they a political signal from PAS, not just to Kedah and Kelantan, but to the rest of the country? And what does this say about the PR’s internal consistency? Exactly what would a Malaysia under the PR look like?
PAS MPs have gone out of their way to convince Malaysians that they are no longer obsessed with setting up an Islamic state. But actions often speak louder than words.
Additionally, is the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) for or against this? Perchance this, too, plays into the hands of a more syariah-compliant Umno?
Ultimately, the issue goes beyond the PR and the BN. It actually comes back to the rakyat – when we vote for a better Malaysia, what does that Malaysia look like to each of us, really?
Shanon Shah was born and raised in Alor Setar. He was flabbergasted by the change in his hometown’s billboard-scape in his first proper return after more than a year.