Great artists, laureates and thinkers, are consistently the antithesis of rules, which is what makes them special and gifted, observes Nicholas Chan.
As if his luminous literary achievements and rather transcendent, iconic appearance do not make the man prominent enough, national laureate A Samad Said, or more affectionately known as Pak Samad, made it to the headlines again recently following his brief arrest by police.
The alleged crime was nothing sinister – at least to me that is – the flying of a pre-Independence flag called the Sang Saka Malaya.
The arrest of the 78-year-old Samad at midnight for such a benevolent act sparked national outrage as it seemed unbecoming even for Malaysia, a country with an authoritarian history that peaked during the Mahathir era (made infamous by the numerous crackdowns and mass arrests of political dissidents).
This article will not delve into the controversies surrounding the flag or the appropriateness in flying it; instead it will deal with the treatment accorded to our national laureate, a talent by any standards, whose leanings and ideologies are deemed incorrect by the powers that be – more so politically, it would seem, rather than intellectually.
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The Deputy Prime Minister hastily criticised Pak Samad’s act as “incredibly embarrassing”, while Communications and Multimedia Minister Ahmad Shabery Cheek quickly joined the fray and accused the man of being an attention seeker, even comparing him to the heretic Ayah Pin.
Although such leaders could be excused as they are never known for their statesmanship, a check on online sentiments would reveal that the attacks by those behind a computer were no less vitriolic and personal. This is unbecoming, even for Malaysia.
From a broader context, this speaks a lot about our brain drain. Apart from obvious political and economic reasons, it would appear that the root of Malaysia’s talent rejection syndrome could be identified at a cultural level as well. Society in general, does not seem to celebrate talents or understand what it means to be a talent. Malaysia’s patriarchal society, governed in a quasi-totalitarian way, might be the largest culprit to this.
Since birth, we were given a very constrictive sense of “goodness”. You score high grades in exams, you are good; you practise a certain way of life, you are good; you are from a particular race, you are good. Big Government frequently pokes in here and there and tells you what to wear, what films to watch and even what party you should support.
Achievers within the system or the Good Samaritans are instead celebrated (perhaps deliberately) like talents. Datukships and even professorships are showered generously on these people, creating false recognition of talents constantly.
On the other hand, material or even social incentives for creativity and innovation are scarce for those without connections or the “right” political stripes – even if they are highly recognised in the international arena. “Out of the box” thinking is always the talking point of speeches and at forums, but the reality in Malaysia is that toeing the line of the box is really more important than going out of it.
But then, a lot of top talent are just that, especially those in arts and literature. They are iconoclasts; they don’t play by the rules; they challenge norms to their foundations; they create wonders from unfamiliar territories; they seek to explain the unexplained; and the process can always be unnerving for those accustomed with traditions and dogmas.
They do not function like governments, which put a lot of emphasis on frameworks and rules (metaphorically speaking, boxes) because those are the prerequisites of law and order, and of fairness and integrity. Great artists, laureates and thinkers, are consistently the antithesis of rules, which is what makes them special and gifted.
Which is why, they are mostly anti-establishment. Galileo had a hard time with the church for his heliocentric views; similarly, Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection is still challenging the religious establishments. Picasso’s paintings immortalised his anti-war stance as well as his contempt and disdain of General Francisco Franco (who ruled Spain for nearly forty years) and the fascists.
Confucius’s ideology of ren zhen (仁政), or the politics of humaneness did not receive much endorsement in his time; in fact, he was almost assassinated by political opponents for it. Socrates was not so fortunate, and received his demise for his irritation of the powers that be as a social and moral critic. Prophets like Jesus and Muhammad were, without question, obviously challengers to the governments/established order of their times.
The list could go on and on, but the prevailing fact is that the greatest creators, be it of arts or ideas, are always anti-establishment (if something is already around, why create it, right?). They are creatively destructive, I would say, as the mindwork of creativity always revolves around the challenging and dismantling of foundations and elements.
What borders on the anarchic and radical to the masses is a thing of beauty to them. To frame them as heretics or revolutionaries is only a matter of interpretation. Time has again and again proved that these individuals are just ahead of their times rather than being mad or blasphemous.
Of course, a good government can’t be made up of wild musicians and mad scientists. But then, a good government is always a reasonable one. One that values talents and respects them for being who they are, and not regarding them as embarrassments for their perceived erratic behaviour.
The much heralded 1Malaysia concept of celebrating differences should not be superficially confined to qualities like skin colour, religion and language, but needs to go deeper into the realms of spirituality and intellectualism. If we want to make our talents feel at home in Malaysia, we must be able to feel at home with them too!