FILM and television producer Lina Tan graduated with a Mass Communications degree in 1991. She has worked in production houses in Malaysia and Singapore, and has produced for, among others, the Disney Channel and AXN.
In 1999, she founded Red Communications, under which she has produced and directed many local TV commercials and programmes. Among them are 3R (Respect, Relax, Respond), a series focusing on women’s issues, which won for Best Infotainment Programme at the Asian TV Awards 2002. Profil Seni, a documentary on the performing arts in Malaysia, won Best TV Documentary at the Anugerah Seri Angkasa in 2005, and Best Documentary Film at the 19th Malaysian Film Festival in 2006.
In 2004, Tan formed a subsidiary company called Red Films, under which she produced the hit movie Gol & Gincu, which was written by and starred Rafidah Abdullah. Tan’s other credits as film producer include the movies Kami and Pisau Cukur.
She talks to The Nut Graph in the Red Communications office in Petaling Jaya on 13 May 2010.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Lina: I was born in 1967 in Malacca town, and I grew up entirely in Malacca until I left to study after Form Six.
Can you trace your ancestry?
Both my parents are Chinese Peranakan born in Malaysia. Their parents were also born here. Beyond that, we’re not entirely sure. My dad thinks his grandfather might have come to Malaya from China, but he doesn’t know about his grandmother’s lineage. On my mum’s side, I have a photo of my maternal great-grandfather wearing a sarong, but it doesn’t look like a “local” sarong. So we’re not sure where it came from.
Looking at what we do know, I would say I’m at the very least a fourth-generation Chinese [Malaysian].
My paternal grandfather was a station master. Many Peranakan in those days would either be government servants or in business. My dad and his siblings were teachers who worked for the government. My mum used to sell Tupperware and Pyrex – she was very much the salesperson. She was one of the early ones who threw Pyrex “parties”!
In those days, it wasn’t highly regarded for a woman to do business house-to-house, so my mum’s work was not supported by my dad or his relatives. My dad, on the other hand, had a stable job with a reputable school. [He was] a senior assistant at Gajah Berang School in Malacca. So there was a bit of difference in character between my parents, and I think I inherited some of my mum’s entrepreneurial spirit. She would take the initiative to go out, look for customers, without the benefit of mobile phones and the internet!
What are your strongest memories of the place where you grew up?
My fondest memories were during my primary and secondary school days at Infant Jesus Convent. I remember having to write Jawi in Standard Five. I was hopeless at it, so my best friend, a Malay [Malaysian] girl, would do my homework for me. It didn’t work, because the teachers immediately knew that it wasn’t my writing! (Laughs) But it was fun – we would cycle home after school, and her mother was friends with my parents, so we would hang out at each other’s houses.
After Standard Six, all the well-achieving Malay [Malaysian] girls were sent to asrama penuh, while the non-Malay [Malaysians] went on to Form One and so forth. It was a period of change, and it was sad, because I lost many of my Malay [Malaysian] friends.
I remember one day when the daughter of [then] Malacca chief minister and the daughter of [a then] Malacca judge joined our class, and we became very good friends. We would go over to the judge’s daughter’s house, a huge government house with sprawling grounds, to play football. We celebrated every Aidilfitiri there. There was never any thought of racial differences … we were all just friends.
I have very good memories of University Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang. I had Malay [Malaysian] roommates all the four years I was there due to USM’s policy of mixed races in one room. I remember my roommate needing to pray, and I was worried that I was not meant to be in the room during that time. She said, “No lah, its fine, don’t worry.” I really learnt then about cultural differences and similarities.
It was at USM that I saw racial segregation for the first time. There were Malay, Chinese, and Indian [Malaysians], and then there were the rest of us who didn’t want to be segregated into racial groups. It was a bit of a culture shock.
I also felt the racial disparity when it came to my Form Six results. I got one A, one B, one C, one D and one E, and just made the cut-off point to enter Mass Communications at USM. As we were comparing notes, I found out that my Malay [Malaysian] roommate had scored one B, one D, one E, and two Fs. And I thought, “You only passed three papers and failed two, and you got into the same course that I’m doing?”
Then there were the really smart Malay [Malaysian] girls and guys who got in on their own merit, and were also struggling with the notion of “getting things easy just because of their race.”
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I find it strange that when I’m overseas I feel very Malaysian; but when I come back to my own country, I struggle with being Malaysian. I don’t get bumiputera privileges, but at the same time I don’t think I’m so Chinese that I need to retain that identity by going to a Chinese school or by learning the language.
I struggle when I hear people talk about defending the Chinese legacy, and I wonder what they’re really referring to: the right to study Mandarin? You can still do that as language skills are important, and the more languages you learn, the better. [Or] the right to education? Yes, education is very important, but we need good, solid education across the board.
I never grew up in a very “Chinese” environment. I don’t speak Chinese or any dialects, because my family always spoke English or Malay.
I also struggle with classifications. Filling in the forms … okay, fine, I’m Chinese [Malaysian]. What religion? I don’t know, I have certain beliefs, but it’s so personal to me that to put it on paper for the sake of putting something down seems pointless. And really, what does my religion have to do with a bank application? Just so I can be a statistic?
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
I think that “1Malaysia” is a great tagline, but the reality is far from this idealistic concept, and the future does not seem very bright for racial unity. If we continue to have political parties based on race, religion and gender, we will never, ever abolish the mentality, the whole system, that we have now.
Everything is so divisive. Because I am Chinese [Malaysian] and female, I can never be a part of that particular ruling party that decides who gets to be the prime minister, and I could never even be considered. Because race-based politics is about fighting for your race. It’s not about fighting for human rights. It’s about, “I’ll support you because you are my race.” Or, “I don’t care about the other races, let their own kind take care of them.” It’s ridiculous.
I love this country, but the biggest thing that drives me nuts is the segregation, and I’m faced with it every day in the media industry. We’re always dividing the message – are we targeting Malay [Malaysians]? Are we’re targeting Chinese [Malaysians]? What’s the grassroots mindset? Can they accept this? Why are we not targeting a Malaysian society to make them understand universal human values that promote understanding and respect, regardless of our differences?
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