by Barathi Selvam
A lonely road, wrapped in darkness with street lights flickering far away. The phone is your only companion but the feared scenario has transpired—it is out of battery. You are walking all alone and see the presence of a human, walking in your direction. A sigh of relief quickly evaporated from your throat and you are enveloped by a fear for your life; only because the person walking opposite you is a dark-skinned guy, probably an Indian.
This scenario has likely been experienced by many at least once. The fear of having to rub shoulders with a dark-skinned person is commonly exaggerated as a life-threatening situation. Rhetoric that puts Indians in such a disadvantaged position is a racist colonial imprint that can also be witnessed with the treatment of black people in many parts of the western world.
Such stereotypical imagination probably and largely constructed due to certain events of crime allegedly perpetrated by Indians. Continuous exaggeration of Malaysian Indians’ involvement in criminal activities through media framing, social colloquial or political propagation reinforces prejudices and stereotypes against the Indian community. Though we can agree that race or ethnicity is not some prefixed criteria to be a gangster, one could not fail to ponder what leads an individual, especially Indians, to the world of crime and violence.
Set in 1991, the story revolves around three main characters: Appoy (a young boy), his father Maniam (a factory worker) and Durai (Maniam’s younger brother who is a mechanic-turned gangster). 1991 is an interesting timeline as it marks the expiration of New Economic Policy (NEP) (1971) formulated to reengineer the economic inequity amongst Malaysians and the beginning of Malaysia’s National Development Policy (NDP). Over time, both policies were criticised for marginalising the majority working class despite ethnic groups although it created an illusion that merely Malays benefitted from them. Thus, the film’s setting in this particular timeline is not accidental but an ideological question raised against the powers that be. How far did the poor, especially the poor Indians, benefit from these policies?
Interaction between the three main characters and their environment relates to the viewers the cause and effect of poverty. In the movie, Maniam is a hardworking breadwinner who staunchly believes the future of their lives is to be determined only by his son’s education. However, the model of education that emphasises memorising and regurgitating appealed very little to Appoy whose passion lies in creative outputs. On the other hand, Durai who was initially a mechanic found that his act of bravery (fist-fighting) is remunerated generously in the world of crime compared to his honest way of money-making.
Jagat (2015) travelled on this journey to demonstrate the cause and effect behind this polemic. He derived that socio-economy induces, cultivates and sharpens countless intentions including becoming a gangster or taking part in criminal activities. The socio-economic framework adopted in Jagat (2015) offers some critical insights beyond the image of gangsterism closely associated with the Indian community in Malaysia. Obviously, not without unboxing a can of worms.
To begin with, the film endured the issue of limited screening spaces in Malaysian theatres and later being neglected at the 28th Malaysian Film Festival (Filem Festival Malaysia, FFM). Despite receiving international attention and accolades for displaying the polemics of the Indian communities in Malaysia in its bare bones, Jagat was nominated as a non-Malay Malaysian film for not abiding by the 70% Malay language requirement of FFM. Many criticised the practice as a form of segregation that manifests in the marginalisation of Malaysian Indians.
This evoked the question of whether a film must be in Malay language to be considered a Malaysian product. Does this diminish and marginalise the existence of various ethnic groups in Malaysia? Flourishing criticisms from different walks of life forced the segregating category to be lifted seeing the film and its director winning the Best Film and Best Director of the year.
Instead of sugar-coating or romanticising poverty, the filmmaker’s narrative identified that gangsterism is highly sought after as a response to the limited opportunities for the community to survive or advance their social mobility.
Predominantly, Malaysia’s growing attraction towards capitalism and neoliberal economy has resulted in the nation’s delineation towards rapid development and modernisation. Former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammad’s (1) appetite for privatisation displaced tens of thousands of plantation workers as plantation estates were sold off due to an expeditious conversion from agriculture to the industrialisation economy. They had to evacuate their houses with a minimal relocation, usually for transportation, to find a new refuge and a fresh livelihood. In most cases, the workers were forcefully evicted with neither fair compensation nor alternative housing.
Forced Evictions in the eyes of International Laws (2)
The Human Rights Committee of the United Nation regards the practice of forced eviction as violating article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It says: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honour and reputation.”
Meanwhile, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that “the obligation of States parties to provide, to the maximum of their available resources, alternative accommodation for evicted persons who need it includes the protection of the family unit, especially when the persons are responsible for the care and education of dependent children.” Whereas the “State party has a duty to take reasonable measures to provide alternative housing to persons who are left homeless as a result of eviction, irrespective of whether the eviction is initiated by its authorities or by private entities such as the owner of the property.”
The committee also acknowledged that “in certain circumstances, States parties may be able to demonstrate that, despite having made every effort, to the maximum of available resources, it has been impossible to offer a permanent, alternative residence to an evicted person who needs alternative accommodation. In such circumstances, temporary accommodation that does not meet all the requirements of an adequate alternative dwelling may be used. However, States must endeavour to ensure that the temporary accommodation protects the human dignity of the persons evicted, meets all safety and security requirements and does not become a permanent solution, but is a step towards obtaining adequate housing.”Despite the outlined international standards on the rights to housing and eliminating forced evictions, the displacing activities persisted. Thus, armed with hope, many displaced Malaysian Indians chose to settle in nearby towns or cities where their existing skills were largely inapplicable. However, some managed to acquire low-skilled jobs with meagre wages.
Poverty & Crime
In one of the scenes in Jagat, Maniam who was once a young play artist at his estate had to forgo his artistic interests as the quest for survival became his top priority. He lamented with his friends while consuming a few bottles of alcohol. In another scene, while Durai was fencing over the idea of becoming a gangster, he saw his brother, Maniam replacing a torn string to tighten his pants while news aired on the radio claimed the Indian-ethnic political party Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) (3) would be elevating the livelihood of Malaysian Indians. The string is the usual replacement of a belt for a poor chap. Here the audiences are also experiencing the wrath of poverty as witnessed through the lens of Durai.
The depth of poverty that the family suffers was transmitted to the viewers with a minimal yet crisp juxtaposition alluding that the promises enunciated in successive national policies and political campaigns were nothing but political manoeuvrings for political mileage. In the eyes of Durai, poverty has usurped the family which can only be overcome with money obtained through illegal activities. He quickly ascends in the ranks and the eyes of Appoy. The school-going Appoy had begun to falter in his interest with the mechanical education that failed to feed his creative mind. Each time he attempts to explore and expand his creative attributes, it is cruelly shutdown by both his family and school. His immediate inspiration was the roguish Uncle Durai capable of exerting power and violence to his own will.
The intentions of both Durai and Appoy succumbing to the world of crime differs but are rooted in the socio-economic framework. The inability of the characters to break away from poverty disenfranchised the entire family from decent human communication. In ensuring the family is fed, Maniam works laboriously hoping Appoy’s education one day will reverse their misfortune.
The film steadily unfolds the socio-economic circumstances gravitating the primary characters to one or another aspect of life in dealing with the adversity of a life rooted in poverty. Thus, Jagat attempted to illustrate that money or lack of it is the base to various social ills, in the context of Malaysian Indians.
The Journey Ahead
Many decades have passed since the formulation of numerous policies in the hope of minimising inter-ethnic economic disparity in parallel with countless sloganeering campaigns in the aim of nation-building, national integration and at certain times smoothen the inter-ethnic harmony. From Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian Race), 1Malaysia to Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian Family), the rhetoric of creating a unified Malaysian community functions as lip service rather than substantial policies. A large segment consists of the working class Malaysian Indians weren’t equipped with significant opportunities to climb the economic ladder as the obstacles to liberate themselves from clutches of poverty were daunting.
Even though it can be deduced that only a minority group within the minority Malaysian Indians are forced to indulge in criminal activities, the overarching stereotypical view persists until today. Exponential rise in deaths in custody and police brutality involving Malaysian Indians gives an impression that these are motivated by racist intentions. Targeted by authorities due to ethnicity is still a common complaint without much progress. Political willingness to ratify International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) when it was opposed by the right-wings was shallow and disappointingly weak.
A Malaysia that is inhabitable to all of its population is still a dream to many. Chances to build such a Malaysia requires critical and conscious engagement to challenge and negotiate the disproportionate status quo propagated, constructed and reinforced by various actors, most convincingly by mainstream ethno-religious political parties. A Malaysia that’s truly for all is possible only when and if this baggage is left right before the door.
(1) His first tenure: 1981 - 2003
(2) ‘Forced evictions: Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing’, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. https://www.ohchr.org/en/special-procedures/sr-housing/forced-evictions#:~:text=Forced%20evictions%20may%20violate%20article,Forced%20evictions%20may%20also%20violate (Accessed 10 May 2022).
(3) A member of the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN). The coalition is known for its racial-alliance formula with UMNO, MCA and MIC as the primary partners.