Entering a new “grey zone” of shifting cultures

Published in theCICAK.com.
Sept. 20, 2006

A still from Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want
To Sleep Alone
Photo taken from the website of the

I had the privilege of attending the North American premiere of I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (Hei Yan Quan) last Monday at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The film is Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s treatise on the lives of foreign migrant workers in Kuala Lumpur, and a reference to his own experience as an immigrant in Taiwan.

The film was an enigma, virtually devoid of dialogue between the main characters, featuring long, loooong still shots with no camera movement whatsoever, and a curious absence of any shots of the KL skyline (besides a few glimpses of the outside of Pudu Jail and some coffee shops downtown); it could really have been filmed anywhere in the world if not for those fleeting references to local landmarks and the smattering of Malay spoken in the beginning of the movie.

Even more intriguing, however, was the question asked by a Canadian man during a Q&A with the director after the screening was over. The man, an older, bespectacled fellow, was curious about a scene where the two main female characters in the movie were doing something rather sexually repulsive to a coma patient (the brother-in-law of one of the women), and asked: “Is this a cultural thing?”

My first reaction, in between snickers from my two Canadian friends, was to stand up and yell at the guy and ask him how he could dare to ask such a question.

But after some thought (and much laughter at the guy’s ignorance), I began to wonder how much the outside world knew of our country, despite our tall-tower-building and increasing globalisation.

You would think that we wouldn’t still be asked if we lived on trees, or have people express surprise that we enjoy Starbucks and Ikea in Malaysia too. But it’s a sad fact that I’ve had educated people tell me they know next to nothing about Malaysia.

“I have no idea what Malaysian culture is like, so I don’t know if the movie told me anything about it,” says Mark Elton, one of the people who attended the screening.

Perhaps part of this perception is due to ignorance on the part of those living on the other side of the globe, or a disinterest in cultures beyond their own borders, but I do wonder whether this lack of knowledge could be the result of a shifting paradigm in our country.

In fact, could the portrayal of migrant workers in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone – Bangladeshi, Indonesian, and Mainland Chinese – even be the future for Malaysia’s culture?

With many Malaysian-born students moving away for school and staying abroad for their careers, and an influx of foreign workers and students into the country, I wonder if there could be a possibility that Malaysia could become the next “melting pot,” a mesh of cultures even more diverse than the Malay/Chinese/Indian/Orang Asli mix we have today.

I was surprised to learn, through a phone conversation with my aunt, that there were quite a few Nigerian students coming to Malaysia to study, getting an overseas degree and foreign experience without the exorbitant fees charged in the United Kingdom or the States.

Now, I suppose this could go against my original argument that people don’t know anything about our country. But I would propose that Malaysia is entering a new grey zone, its cultural landscape shifting so quickly in some parts and stagnating in others that it is nearly impossible to define what “Malaysian culture” truly is.

Are we identified by our lack of courtesy and deplorable driving conditions, our slowly disappearing art forms and quickly increasing censorship, our wonderful food and horribly dirty hawker stalls?

Or perhaps by our helplessness in the face of endemic corruption as well as endless political optimism about our progress, eagerly “modernising” our city centres and providing Astro to every man, woman and child while ignoring the threats of brain drain and emotional and intellectual poverty?

Or could these stereotypical views of Malaysia drift and metamorphose into something completely unrecognisable, something which could be scary yet breathtaking if we gave it the chance?

There are a few ways of dealing with the changes: we can either bury the individuality of each new person contributing to our country’s shifting cultural scenery, xenophobically mumbling about “foreign values” and telling people to get out of the country if they don’t like the status quo, or we can adapt, evolve, accept and perhaps even encourage these changes.

Maybe it’s time to start learning more about what this new “Malaysian culture” is, nurturing the traditional along with the alien, holding as sacred the old, precious values while not being afraid to embrace the new and foreign and let go of outdated, closed-minded policies and practices.

It may be a difficult, even impossible thing to do when we aren’t even sure which parts of our past, present, and future are to be priorities in shaping Vision 2020.

But surely the first step is to learn and open up our minds to the possibility of new, varied beginnings, rather than wallowing in apathy and a narrow-minded, misguided focus on technology and how it will make everything better and more modern.

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