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The Nut Graph‘s Merdeka Awards

IT’S Ramadan, yet another by-election has passed, and we are now on the eve of the 52nd anniversary of the declaration of Independence by Tunku Abdul Rahman. For The Nut Graph, this moment is tender and special, because the Merdeka month this year also marks the first anniversary of our publication.

And so, we have compiled a totally arbitrary list of what we think are the 10 best cultural expressions our country has offered to help Malaysians understand Merdeka better.

A lot of these expressions are more recent phenomena, and you will notice a high proportion of works discussing the country’s progressive left-wing history. On one hand, we feel this is justified — after all, the multiracial left-wing‘s contribution to Merdeka and nation-building have been ignored and even suppressed over the years.

But we are also not claiming that this list is definitive or exhaustive in any way. These are our picks. We welcome you to include yours in the comments section to make the picture complete.

But to start off, we give you our selection of The Nut Graph‘s first Merdeka Awards!

10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka

On 20 Oct 1947, a multiracial, Malaya-wide political action — the hartal — brought the British colonial government to its knees. Sixty years later, filmmaker Fahmi Reza made a rollicking, insightful film about the hartal. 

But this is not the only reason why Fahmi’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka is one of The Nut Graph‘s picks. Fahmi didn’t just make a film — he has created a movement that raises consciousness among young Malaysians about the nation’s untold and suppressed colonial history. In fact, on 25 Aug 2009, Fahmi was one of three esteemed guests on TV1’s Di Luar Lingkungan live talk show, on the theme of independence.

(Click for bigger view)
Where Monsoons Meet: A People’s History of Malaya

 Filmmaker and sometime columnist with The Nut Graph Amir Muhammad says: “I think that Where Monsoons Meet … should be required reading in all National Service programmes … Although it ends in 1957, this is not a story marked by mothballs and cobwebs. A progressive history of this country is well worth telling.” The Nut Graph cannot help but agree.

Bunga Manggar, Bunga Raya

(Courtesy of Five Arts Centre. Click for bigger view)
Dance terrorist Datin Marion D’Cruz says she conceptualised Bunga Manggar, Bunga Raya in 2007 because: “One of the things we’re losing, as a nation, is the desire of real, honest diversity.” The result — a stage performance that was truly collaborative and dazzling, and which challenged, celebrated and criticised the many constructions of nationhood among Malaysians — all during the 50th anniversary of Merdeka.

Disclosure: The Nut Graph editor Jacqueline Ann Surin was part of the performance, and no, she did not shanghai us into including this.


Screenshot from the film (Pic by Albert
Hue, courtesy of Amir Muhammad)
Lelaki Komunis Terakhir

Amir Muhammad’s “semi-musical documentary” on Malayan Communist Party leader Chin Peng was banned by the Home Ministry, based on a series of condemnations by a Berita Harian journalist who had not even seen it. No, it is not an ode to communism, and no, it does not pack the same political punch as 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka. Amir, however, provides a fascinating narrative about someone who, in official textbooks, remains that communist terrorist who met Tunku Abdul Rahman in Baling.

View the trailer here.

Emergency Festival

Five Arts Centre’s Emergency Festival in 2008 came at a time when Malaysians were questioning Malaysia’s political future, post-March 2008. By including exhibits, readings, screenings and live performances, the two-week long Emergency Festival allowed the public to contemplate the future by exploring a much-repressed past — the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). For those lucky enough to attend, it was also where the late Yasmin Ahmad played Chin Peng, in the reading of the 1955 Baling Talks, with relish and gusto.

(Courtesy of Five Arts Centre)

Baling (Membaling)

(Courtesy of Five Arts Centre)
Before 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka and Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, Malaya’s leftist history captured the imagination of Mark Teh. In Five Arts Centre’s Baling (Membaling), Teh interpreted the 1955 Baling talks as two Tunku Abdul Rahmans throwing a chair over a single Chin Peng’s head. Controversial? Absolutely. But it is proof that the history officialdom tries to suppress will always be interrogated sooner or later.

Cover of Said Zahari's bookMeniti Lautan Gelora: Sebuah Memoir Politik

Veteran Utusan Melayu journalist from the 1950s and 1960s, Said Zahari, was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for a total of 17 years. The details of his detention are well captured in this memoir.

But more fascinating is the way Pak Said recounts how Utusan journalists fought tooth and nail to defend the paper’s editorial independence against Umno’s onslaught in the early 1960s. Read it, get angry, and then get inspired.

Seksualiti Merdeka

Seksualiti Merdeka logoIn 2008, Seksualiti Merdeka was conceived by Pang Khee Teik and Jerome Kugan as a public festival “to foster a sense of compassion and understanding for those who faced discrimination for their gender identities and sexual orientation.” The festival was such a hit that in 2009, it was supported by human rights organisations such as Suaram and the Bar Council Human Rights Committee, and became a bigger hit. Seksualiti Merdeka reminds us that sexuality is not just a gay thing. Really, if one of us ain’t free, none of us are.

Terang Bulan

Photo of a full moon
(Pic by Dimitri_c /
It is no secret that the national anthem, Negaraku, was derived from the Perak state anthem. It is also no secret that the Perak state anthem was derived from the popular ditty Terang Bulan, although public performances of Terang Bulan are now forbidden. The thing is, when popular Malay-language radio station Era played the tune Mamula Moon in 2005 and pondered if Negaraku was derived from it, then Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage Datuk Seri Rais Yatim threw a fit. He even threatened to take action against Era under the National Anthem Act of 1968. Terang Bulan reminds us that what was a matter of taste for Tunku Abdul Rahman and the Perak royalty can now be considered a matter of treason, depending on the ears of the beholder.

Remembering the Chithambaram

Anurendra Jegadeva‘s painting depicts his daughter running along a beach, while in the foreground we see the SS Chithambaram, the vessel that first brought her forebears to the country that is now Malaysia.

Anurendra Jegadeva, Remembering the Chithambaram;
oil on canvas, 120cm x 72cm, 2008

Amid contemporary cries of Malay and Muslim supremacy, Anurendra’s painting forces Malaysians to deal with the migrant experience, and to accept the fact that “migrants” have always been part of Merdeka. We just have to ask ourselves if the official narrative of Merdeka does justice to the migrant experience.

The Nut Graph believes in kewartawanan merdeka.

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5 Responses to “The Nut Graph‘s Merdeka Awards”

  1. Azmi says:

    I will add The Nut Graph itself to my list of Merdeka awards.

    Editor’s note: Thanks, Azmi! What an honour from a reader 🙂


  2. amir says:

    Noordin Hassan’s play Anak Tanjung .

    Anthony Burgess’s novel The Malayan Trilogy.

    Ibrahim Hussein’s painting 13 May 1969 (not strictly about Merdeka, as its title makes plain, but very much about Merdeka).

  3. eddin says:

    Thumbs up to the vote for Ibrahim Hussein.

    And how to forget these lines from (Pak) Latiff Mohidin:

    “Maafkan aku, jikalau aku berlaku songsang,
    Terutamanya dalam musim perayaan ini,
    Orang lain telah merdeka,
    Aku belum…”

  4. Mark says:

    Hi The Nut Graph team,

    I second Azmi’s nomination – respect to you guys!

  5. aitze says:

    My Merdeka award goes to the NEW MALAYS.

    I call them NEW only for want of a better word. They are the fair-minded Malay [Malaysians] who believe that no Malaysian, regardless of race or religion, should be discriminated against.

    As I see it, the future of Malaysia depends entirely on them.

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