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Vol. 10, No. 5, 2011
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what's running amok in

Bonnie Costello


Bonnie Costello is Professor of English at Boston University and author of many books and articles on modern poetry, most recently Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life and the Turning World (Cornell UP 2008). She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and currently a fellow at the Cullman Center for Writers and Scholars at the New York Public Library, where she is working on a book Private Faces in Public Places: Modern Poetry and the First Person Plural.

Some societies address the frustrations of individuals and minorities through open, often messy and prolonged, debate. Others contain and codify such disequilibrium as temporary madness. On a recent trip to Malaysia I witnessed an example of the latter. Anyone interested in the contorted face of multiculturalism, the troubling role of Islam in a democratic society, or the way a consensus-driven society contains anger and resistance, should be interested in contemporary Malaysia. Under the gleaming façade of an emergent economy, parts of Malaysia are running amok.

New York Times July 9:
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Police officers arrested almost 1,700 people and fired tear gas at protesters here in Malaysia’s capital on Saturday in an attempt to prevent an afternoon rally by advocates of an overhaul of elections.

I was visiting Malaysia with my husband, who had been hired to run some business seminars at the One World hotel in Selangor, just outside Kuala Lumpur (KL). We had planned to spend the weekend visiting the city before he began work on Monday. This was my first time in Asia and KL had been billed as the “new Asia:” full of vital ethnic traditions, yet high-speed modern -- a model of continuity, harmony and economic growth. Unfortunately, just after we settled our things at One World, all streets into the city and neighbouring tourist sights were shut down by government decree, to prevent defiance of a ban on a political rally. So we spent our first weekend in Asia at the only place accessible, the vast Utama Mall, attached to the hotel, where it was a usual busy Saturday, with assorted Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Caucasian throngs, decked in everything from mini-skirts to niqabs, jostling in and out of Adidas, Baskin Robbins, the Body Shop, Chili’s, Lacoste, Levi’s, the Gap, Florsheim, the Hunter Douglas Gallery and the New York New York Deli. Thousands who were already inside the city on this day defied the ban and confronted police barricades (how many thousands was unclear: somewhere between 5,000 -- government estimate -- and 50,000 -- opposition estimate). But the streets of KL when we got there on Sunday morning were open again and bustling, as if nothing had happened, the protest folded back into an uncanny normalcy. My family back home, reading about the rally in the back pages of Western newspapers, feared for our safety. But this was no “Arab Spring.” Tracking the event, and the discussions around it, from my more proximate vantage point, I discovered that it bore a particularly Malaysian stamp, resonating with patterns of life and long established value systems that have not so much been displaced by modern development as transferred to it.

Malaysia is rarely on our radar these days, preoccupied as we are with China and the Middle East. The Western media has generally ignored the country, at least since the racial and ethnic riots of 1969 were quelled by major affirmative action legislation to ensure Malay dominance and economic advancement. This multi-cultural country (with a Malay-Muslim 60% majority and large Chinese-Buddhist and Indian-Hindu minorities) has not been ignored by the business world. As a stable democracy with broad literacy, it has been open for international investment and outsourcing, especially in high-tech electronics manufacturing, for several decades. It weathered the Asian financial crisis of the 90s and has been growing at 6-8 percent per year. Prime Minister Najib Razak in his Economic Transformation Programme (Malaysian bureaucrats love big title programs) aims for “full development by 2020.” Modern technology and rural tradition share in the Malaysian sense of identity, which boasts of semi conductor factories in Penang and aboriginal villages in Sabah. It’s not unusual to see a grazing cow or stray rooster on the side of a highway, or a floating fishing village near an airport. But if this corner of “new Asia” has mostly escaped our notice, a butterfly wing does flap now and then to change the climate of opinion, and the recent disturbance over the banned street rally made vibrations through the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The New York Times. The flap over the rally was a kind of schadenfreude for messier, liberal and currently dysfunctional Western democracies -- a reminder that in any tightly regulated, consensus-enforcing society, where individual freedoms are subordinated to the interests of the group (or in the case of Malaysia, certain groups over others), some will always run amok. At least that’s how resistance is often expressed, interpreted and handled in Malaysian society.

Amok is a Malay word, one of the few to make its way into English. The phrase ‘running amok’ has its origin in a Malay phenomenon reported to the west by James Cooke in 1770, after his trip around the world. The Malay term mengamok means “mad with uncontrollable rage” and describes a furious or desperate charge often associated with a ‘tiger spirit’ or hantu belian, that possesses a person, causing him to lash out destructively, often murderously, until he is subdued (and often killed) by his fellows. The phenomenon was first identified by psychologists as a cultural syndrome, particularly common to crowded kampong and longhouse villages, where extended families dwelt together and where there was no privacy, and no room for individual choice or action, apart from the will of the tribal community. While it has entered general use, the term still has particular resonance in Malaysia, where it provides a label for a variety of disruptive actions. What’s more important than the objective validity of ‘amok’ as a syndrome is the very fact that the culture often chooses to deal with its protests in this way. This may be due in part to the memory of the riots of 1969, when 2,500 people lost their lives and a national emergency was declared. But the very way in which that frightening memory is invoked to obstruct dialogue and protest suggests a strong preference for public order over freedom of expression, and a passive acceptance of a system that suppresses individual rights and favours some groups over others. The social message seems to be: just go to the mall or the mosque (there are hundreds of them around KL, built with government sponsorship) and forget about this little upset.

The day after the July rally an article appeared in the country’s mainstream English language newspaper (The Star) that shaped my sense of the peculiar resonance between old and new ways in how Malaysia copes with frustrations arising in a consensus oriented society. I couldn’t help thinking, too, that the paper (all the papers are tacit instruments of the state) had deliberately run the story alongside the report on the rally, in order to imply a parallel and cast the rally in a primitive light. The headline read: “Eight students go into a hysteria at institute.” The incident took place in Kemaman, a coastal kampong in the Terrenagu region, where Malaysia has drawn most of its oil. Like much of eastern Malaysia, this area is dominated by a bumiputera (sons of the soil) population. The influence of the entrepreneurial Chinese minority is weaker there. It wasn’t so much the incident that the article reported, but the response to the incident and even the manner of the reporting in modern KL, that caught my attention, suggesting how magical thinking persists in the information age, and how even the more technologically advanced parts of the country codify and vent frustration as temporary possession rather than rational protest.

Kemaman: Eight students at the new Kemasik National Youth Skills Institute (IKBN) became hysterical during their morning assembly.

The incident began at about 9 am yesterday when three of them suddenly screamed without reason before it spread to five other students.

A source said a bomoh was summoned to ward off evil spirits said to be haunting the institute.

“The bomoh claimed that the area was keras (filled with supernatural beings). “The management is also working to ‘cleanse’ the area to prevent such incidents from recurring” the source added.

It is learnt that the five girls and three boys involved in the incident, all 19, were sent home after the incident.

Now this isn’t strictly speaking an example of ‘running amok’ since it is not overtly destructive. It looks more like a case of latah, a related Malay syndrome of crazy screaming or giggling. But either way, this sudden outburst and its identification with evil spirits, suggests how the institute (a local instrument of the state) might be a modern form of kampong public order and group control, and the hysteria a response to that pressure.

It would be easy to read this episode merely as a quaint anecdote about the more rural (and more Malay) and backward part of eastern Malaysia, recalcitrant in its superstitions despite efforts such as the IKBN to modernize. But the prominent place in this KL newspaper, and the neutrality with which the idea of spiritual cleansing is reported, suggests that the story might be part of a larger pattern. Substitute the state for the longhouse, and we might see that running amok is a contemporary, not just a retrograde, phenomenon. The distinction might not be old ways resurging against new ways, but enduring culture of conformity and control (from longhouse to institute) expressing and interpreting resistance in mad and uncontrollable behaviour.

The British found Malays unsuited to either the hard labor required to maintain rubber plantations and tin mines or the entrepreneurial spirit and individual initiative needed to optimize these resources. But they sentimentalized kampong culture as a pastoral ideal. The interests and feelings of individuals within these communities were almost entirely subsumed in a cooperative environment -- necessary to the survival of a labour-intensive agricultural economy or the pressures of jungle life and the hostility of outside groups. This romantic image of the Malay way of life persists. In the 21st century independent Malaysia does a thriving business in cultural tourism -- where visitors can stay in kampongs or even in longhouse dwellings once inhabited by headhunting primitives, and experience this idyllic lifestyle, forgetting for a time the stresses of their own more competitive, individualistic cultures.

The longhouse is an extreme version of the kampong and the antithesis of the bourgeois interior. This rectangle on stilts features a row of rooms on one long side, in which families lived the most intimate parts of their lives, but the other long wall is entirely communal, and there much of the cooking, educating and decision making of the group -- maybe 20 families or more in one longhouse -- is done. No one is lonely; no one goes hungry. But for Malaysians, there have always been dark corners in these close, conformist quarters where frustration or anger with the group or individual desire and feeling can appear as madness.

The Singapore historian Jeff Baker has identified the traditional kampong village structure with a value Malaysians even today place on group responsibility and social decorum, cooperativeness fostered in politeness. Individual feelings of aggression, anger and frustration are suppressed. The worst insult, Baker writes, is to bekurang aja or lacking in manners. Baker points out that traditional Malay culture offered little emotional outlet for the people. (The arts in Malaysia even today tend to reinforce group identity rather than the expression of individual feeling or desire). But such feelings and desires do not just vanish from the human psyche. In Malaysia, their expression is codified and isolated rather than integrated and respected. So where strong individual feelings do arise, they tend to express themselves in ‘mad’ behaviour, such as violent amok and crazy latah. While it survives in the countryside, and particularly in the more rural east of Malaysia, longhouse dwelling has mostly been replaced by urban condos and suburban bungalows. Malaysians don’t go postal any more often than in other societies. Yet the collectivist pressures of kampong culture continue to inform public opinion and government policy, leaving little room for open protest.

The kampong emphasis on order and harmony of the group integrated well, Baker argues, with the offerings of Islam, which spread widely in Malaysia during the 15th century, offering broad racial identity for multiple tribes and regional communities and reinforcing at a more universal scale the Malay emphasis on consensus, family and group. But earlier animistic beliefs were not cast off so much as integrated into the totalizing forms of Islam. In a sense the tiger spirit of amok might be seen as part of the persistence of this animism (as an emotional outlet) against the more rationalized and controlling law of Islam. As Malaysia gained independence and nationalized, the state took the place of the kampong, not by eradicating Malay cultural distinction or melting it into a pot with Chinese, Indian and other interests, but by identifying the state with Islamized Malay culture, which now gained governmental and political hegemony over this patchwork nation. Without going into the complex history that brought about this cultural diversity and then this constitutional hegemony, we can observe that it follows from trends and choices emerging well before independence. The British civil service found the Malay values of group responsibility, social order and politeness, ideal for supporting its administrative aims. Malay dominance in such segments as the police, government administration and other civil service functions is directly attributable to this Malay value system. If the state is Malay it is not only because of the drastic affirmative action policies put in place several decades ago (that ensure Malay hegemony) but in part because kampong culture made the Malays good bureaucrats and keepers of public order in the first place. So when that public order is threatened or disturbed, the threat is not addressed and debated but is implicitly referred back to kampong culture where it takes on the character of amok.

What was the rally about, anyway? No one seemed to know. A major street demonstration had been proposed by an opposition group called Bersih 2. The group called for clean elections (bersih means clean) though pundits objected that the mixed outcome of the 2008 elections proved corruption was minimal. The lack of open debate in the media has made it difficult for opposition groups to articulate their positions to the public and maybe even to themselves. They tend to be cast as aimless spoilers or troublemakers. While the right of free speech and the right of assembly are recognized in the constitution, the government immediately called on the higher imperative of public order and refused the group a license. The government’s first gesture was to offer a stadium -- a place of control and containment, unlike the street, where the unpredictable tiger spirit might get loose. Was the offer refused or withdrawn? From my tourist’s survey of shopkeepers, clerks and cab drivers I would say that the negotiations were never clear to the average citizen. It seems that even when the protesters reluctantly accepted the alternative of the stadium, the government then denied them the police permit they would require even for that venue, suggesting that the negotiations and offer of compromise were only a show. Whatever the facts might have been, the group defied the ban, showing up in large numbers in the streets of KL. The government successfully contained the outburst by keeping entrances to the city blocked and used tear gas and water cannons for crowd control. Thousands were arrested, though mostly released the next day. Indeed, while the papers continued to discuss the episode for a few days, uniformly condemning the demonstrators and questioning their motives, the outburst was essentially a one-day affair -- a case of amok quieted by isolating and excluding the mad ones. While the Western media raised an eyebrow, the Malaysian media largely rallied around the government actions and like bomohs, the Malaysian pundits and government spokesmen cleared out the evil spirits.

The politics of this event seemed to me far less significant than the cultural patterns it echoed and revealed. This was particularly clear in the media coverage and letters to the editor, in which the phrase “street rallies are not our way” and “Malaysia is not a country of extremes” and “we are a peace-loving and orderly society” were the consistent theme. I didn’t find a single article supporting or justifying the demonstration, or even acknowledging the right to demonstrate, though the turnout suggested a swell of frustration with the status quo. While Malaysia ostensibly has a free press, the mainstream newspapers seemed shockingly biased. Many of the Malaysians we met agreed, but seemed unfazed by this fact. But one senses that cultural as much as political bias was at play in this reporting. An old structure was in place for interpreting the disturbance. To the Malaysian newspapers, the Bersih rally was just another version of sudden local derangement.

The call for public order regularly trumps civil liberties in Malaysia. But the phrase is invoked not just as a mask of tyranny, but also as an expression of the Malay hierarchy of values. Not only public demonstrations, but other forms of expression are suppressed in its service. The word ‘Allah’ is constitutionally banned from all print publications in Malaysia, regardless of their authors’ faith. The calls for public order and civility certainly serve the status quo, but they are endorsed by a society that confirms the value of group responsibility over individual expression or point of view. Not only street rallies are kurang ajar; one doesn’t publish words or images that might disrupt consensus and harmony. While I was in Malaysia two books determined to be “undesirable documents” were Zunar’s 1 Funny Malaysia, a series of political cartoons, and the more sober The March to Putrajaya: Malaysia’s New Era at Hand, by Kim Quek. There was no noticeable outcry in the media against these bans.

A shared emphasis on family unity, respectability and honour provides one principle of cohesion in this multiethnic country. The family is the first link in the chain of subordinations that maintains public order and harmony in this diverse society. The unquestioned bedrock of values and the interests of family are always assumed to guide and control personal interests. The front page of The Star (July 13), a few days after the rally, presented a full-page image of Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, the woman behind the Parent Action Group for Education and a model Malaysian mother. Her wedding ring was conspicuous in her portrait on the cover, and the article itself contained images of the matronly Noor Azimah surrounded by her large family, for whom she gave up a prominent accounting career.

But for every feature article on family order and propriety, there is another news item about deviant personal behaviour. This conformist nation’s fascination with those who run amok shows particularly in the attention it gives to bizarre sexual and domestic behaviour, especially of the violent and destructive sort. The state presents itself as a protector of family values, setting up numerous programs and departments authorized to maintain and nurture the family unit (and also providing employment slots for affirmative action Malays). So, for instance, the State, Woman, Family Development and Welfare Committee, is working to rein in spouses who might run amok through the medium of internet sex. The article, “Melacca counsels couples who use social media” cites the Director: “We are designing a module to emphasize how they [married couples] can use social networks to strengthen the family institution and not indulge in cyber love affairs that could break up their marriage.” This report says less about the power of the state to direct behaviour than the inclination of individuals to stray within the uncontrolled realm of cyberspace. The media is full of front page sensational news about domestic deviance. Indeed, at first I thought The Star and The Straights Times were tabloids, until I was informed that they are in fact mainstream newspapers addressed to the educated middle and upper classes. Here are just of few of such headlines I found in these papers during my few days in KL:

“Man hacks woman, 75, to death.”
“Woman drugs husband and cuts off his penis”
“Worker admits recording video of woman urinating”
“Buddhist Priest snubs ‘lover’: there will be no happy ending for an 82 year old woman pining for a younger man. He wants nothing to do with her.”
“Boy, ten, claims teen sodomized him”
“Monks teach ladyboys to be men.”
“Geckos no cure against impotence or AIDS”

The prominent attention the newspapers give to these examples of deviant behaviour suggests not so much a perverse or prurient society as a ritualized mechanism: like amoks and latahs, these transgressors concentrate the private frustrations of a consensus society and characterize them as perversions, thus carrying off those feelings of resistance so that public order can prevail.

In Malaysian society’s effort to locate new principles of consensus for this tensely diverse, multicultural and striated condition, help has come in the form of a common hazard and an external enemy: the ‘haze’ from Indonesian forest burning. Indonesia is Malaysia’s other -- bargained off in the Dutch/British trade treaty of 1824; Indonesia is today much poorer, more primitive and much less stable than Malaysia. Malaysians import maids and other low wage workers from this neighbour, but a recent murder by an Indonesian maid of her Malaysian boss has led to austere visa restrictions and government control of what had been an ad hoc arrangement. Whatever the actual source of this toxic cloud, the haze is real enough: it’s a smoggy menace hanging over the beautiful beaches of Penang. It stings the eyes and smells like burning plastic in downtown KL. “The Haze is Making me Sick, Mummy,” read one headline. A lead editorial in The Straits Times argued: “The Haze has much to be blamed for the damage incurred over the last 13 years and Indonesia must be serious about tackling this issue.”

The haze was in the air and in the news everyday I was there and while a physical source was determined the vaporous character of the hazard leant another mystical ingredient to Malaysia’s magical thinking, as if field burning in Sumatra were a kind of ritual curse sent across to threaten superior Malaysian cleanliness. The haze of course also provided a perfect distraction from the crisis over the rally; it unified the country around an international climatic threat and folded the internal cultural and political frustrations back into consensus and public order.



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