On Merdeka Day I decided to watch the 4.20pm screening of Tanda Putera at GSC Mid Valley. I got to the cinema two hours early, to find that only one seat was left. I bought the very last seat, so the hall was now fully booked for this showing.
Thirty minutes before showtime I returned to the cinema to discover a group of men and women dressed in colourful baju Melayu and baju kurung. They were in high spirits, repeatedly singing Negaraku and shouting “Merdeka” as they posed for photographs outside the cinema, complete with Malaysian flags of various sizes. “This is going to be good,” I told myself.
As we waited to enter the cinema I found myself in the wrong queue. Apparently 90 percent of the cinema had been block-booked by Finas and I had inadvertently joined the line of happy Negaraku-singing moviegoers who had been given free tickets to the show. They were reporting to a young man with a list, to get their names ticked off. I walked past them into the cinema hall and took my seat.
To be honest I had a difficult time making head or tail of the central narrative of Tanda Putera. It seemed to me that the show was merely a list of disparate Umno propaganda points, written by an unintelligent public relations operative.
Producer/screenwriter/director Shuhaimi Baba tried to make a movie by stringing these points together, interspaced with some very emotional scenes. But, frankly, the result is disturbing to say the least. It is also simplistic and largely incomprehensible.
As the movie unfolded it appeared to me that Shuhaimi was aiming to refute Kua Kia Soong’s book May 13 point by point, rather than focusing on the achievements of Abdul Razak Hussein and Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman.
In his book Kua provides an alternative explanation of the ‘May 13 Incident’.
Based on declassified documents from the British Public Records Office in London and news reports filed by foreign correspondents from Kuala Lumpur in 1969, Kua’s analysis concludes that the riots were not a spontaneous outbreak of racial violence but a hastily organised, opportunistic coup d’état whereby the newly developing state capitalist class, led by Razak, seized power from the weakened Malay aristocratic class, represented by Tunku Abdul Rahman.
According to Kua, the racial violence unleashed by the coup d’état enabled the suspension of parliamentary democracy, the postponement of general elections in Sabah and Sarawak and the establishment of rule by decree by the new Malay elite through the National Operations Council.
The riots so shocked the nation that all Malaysians accepted the tenets of the now familiar Ketuanan Melayu without challenge. The seeds of crony capitalism were sown by the events of May 13.
To dispose of Kua’s analysis, Shuhaimi went out of her way to show that Tengku, Razak and Dr Ismail were in fact very pally with one another. According to her, there was no coup d’état because Tengku voluntarily resigned and appointed Razak as his successor.
The credibility of news reports and analysis by foreign diplomats and journalists were conveniently dismissed by showing that they were confined to their hotels rooms during the riots, so they could not possibly know what actually occurred. In one scene the British high commissioner somehow appeared in a National Operations Council meeting. When the diplomat tries to express his views he is rebuked by Dr Ismail for lying.
What I learnt
For what it is worth, this is what I learnt from Tanda Putera:
(i) The communists were Chinese that wanted to stop the 1969 elections by assassinating Razak. They failed but in the process they murdered an Umno man and his best Chinese friend, Ah Piau. The communists were finally defeated when Malaysia’s youngest IGP, Hanif Omar, killed the “Chief Communist” sometime in the mid-1970s.
(ii) The May 13 Incident began because aggressive Chinese members of Gerakan insulted the Malays by telling them to go back to their kampungs during their victory parade in Kuala Lumpur on May 12. Later on Gerakan turned out to be the good guys after all because the party frog-jumped from the opposition to Barisan National, thereby ensuring peace, prosperity and stability in Malaysia.
(iii) A few Chinese men urinated on the flagpole in Harun Idris’ residence. This resulted in hundreds of Malays, armed with poles, swords and parangs, gathering Kampung Baru. Harun persuaded them to drop their weapons but when he failed he cried and fainted twice. Harun was actually a very nice, gentle man.
(iv) May 13 began when Chinese thugs beat up two Malay men in Setapak. The Malay men were on their way to Kampung Baru and when the crowd there saw their condition spur-of-the-moment violence erupted.
(v) Dr Ismail was a sick man who sacrificed his health by becoming deputy prime minister. He was a very nice man who gave a personal loan to his Chinese maid for her to buy a house. He died without timely medical attention because he had insisted that his personal doctor accompany Razak, who was also sick, to the CHOGM in Canada.
(vi) Razak was a very nice man who was very fond of giving gifts. When he went to a primary school in a Felda kampung he was shocked by its condition so he immediately allocated funds to renovate the building. He also ordered that the school children be given free shoes, socks, uniforms and even toothpaste and toothbrushes. He gave the schoolteacher a tie. In his office he gave his staff gifts. In fact, even after he died Razak ensured that his staff was given gifts from London.
(vii) Dr Mahathir Mohamad was expelled from Umno in 1969 because he wrote a rude letter asking Tengku Abdul Rahman to resign.
(viii) Ordinary Malay and Chinese people were actually very nice and protective of one another when mobs ruled Malaysia in 1969. The undergraduates in Universiti Malaya were particularly nice to one another during this dangerous period.
(ix) There were only three Indians in 1969-1976. One, presumably V David, was involved in the Gerakan post-election victory parade. Another, a senior police officer, was assassinated by communists. The third one, an ordinary man, cried when Razak’s casket arrived at Subang airport from London.
Failure to convince
As a taxpayer it infuriates me that Shuhaimi, after being gifted such a massive budget by Malaysian standards, produced such a sloppy movie. She deals with the primary subject matter - the relationship between Dr Ismail and Razak and their roles in shaping Malaysian history from 1969 until their deaths in 1973 and 1976 respectively - so poorly that we are left with a shallow understanding of their immense contributions.
Tanda Putera turns these lofty Malaysian statesmen into caricatures of their true selves.
Shuhaimi even fails in the most basic elements of film-making. She cannot get her continuity and propping right. For example, in May 1969, the Universiti Malaya students in her sub-plot drove around in a Toyota Corolla KE20, which was launched in 1970. The Chinese thugs from Gerakan and DAP roamed Kuala Lumpur to insult Malays in a Toyota Dyna Hiace lorry that was only launched in 1982. Shuhaimi was as careless with her detailing as she was with her facts.
Tanda Putera fails as a historical drama but it may succeed as a piece of propaganda. The storyline, such as it is, is soon forgotten. They would only remember their feelings - revulsion against the Chinese, gratitude for the leadership of Umno and sympathy for the untimely deaths of Dr Ismail and Razak.
Above all else Tanda Putera is a justification of the pillars of Mahathirism. It preaches that there are only two races that count in Malaysia; the Malays and the Chinese. The Chinese are a super race - super smart, super competent and super aggressive - who are intent on complete economic and political domination of Malaysia.
Without the protection and benevolence of Umno, and the use of taxpayers funds to provide for the Malays, they would stand no chance against this super race. Indians and others play only bit parts in Malaysia and can be safely ignored.
Once the movie ended I quickly got up to look around. Several of my fellow moviegoers, who were dressed in baju Melayu, were openly sobbing, overcome by the long drawn-out scenes of Razak on his deathbed in London. To my surprise, however, a large portion of the “sold out” cinema was empty. On this most patriotic of days, when given free tickets to view this “historical” movie, a quarter of the crowd did not even bother to turn up.
Perhaps this piece of propaganda will not be as influential as the powers that be hope for after all.