(© Agata Urbaniak / sxc.hu)
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: Wikipedia.org)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: Wikipedia.org)
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.
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 www.kakiseni.com. 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.