Malaysia Uncut

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Standing up to Cikgu’s army

Standing up to Cikgu’s army
Shanon Shah
When I was in primary school, I had a maniacal Cikgu Darjah (class teacher). He was a Malay man in his late thirties, who was every bit a racial and religious chauvinist. From day one, he made snide comments about non-Malays and non-Muslims. My class was roughly 60% Malay, 25% Chinese, 5% Indian, 5% Eurasian and 5% Thai. I remember these divisions so clearly, because I was amazed at how my non-Malay, non-Muslim classmates merely stared at him, blank faced, whenever he made comments like that.

I was also struck by how some of my Malay classmates shifted fearfully but silently, like me, in their seats during these tirades. And I shrunk before the rest, who would laugh and egg Cikgu on loudly.

One day, all hell broke loose when Cikgu lost his temper at one of us. One of my less savvy Chinese classmates observed, quite neutrally, Wah, bila marah Cikgu macam anjing ganas! (Cikgu is like an angry dog when he loses his temper!) A ten-year-old child was making an observation, totally devoid of malice. His crime was that he was innocent enough to say this out loud.

Cikgu hauled him up to the front of the classroom and proceeded to kick, slap, punch, scream and spit at him. My friend broke down in tears and begged for mercy. “I didn’t mean to insult you, Cikgu! Please believe me!” The rest of us sat in stunned silence. We did nothing.

I have kept this a secret for a long time. I have been too embarrassed to tell this story to anyone.

I am too embarrassed that my silence enabled Cikgu to abuse my friend and terrorise the rest of us in this way. And in telling this story now, I feel a cold, heavy knot gripping my stomach.

All you need to do is read the newspaper headlines to understand why. It seems as though Cikgu has multiplied, and his clones are not confined to teaching primary school pupils anymore – they head community and professional organisations, they teach at universities, they write textbooks for students, they participate in politics and they sit in government.

Hearing the speech, digesting the words being used by these clones of Cikgu, I have become knotted with the same fear that paralysed my ten year-old self. And these clones of Cikgu are foaming at the mouth more furiously than ever. I wonder if it is because there are actually those among us who have been questioning the twisted values and supremacist logic of these Cikgus.

In response, the fury of these Cikgus has escalated to the point where old demons are conjured to vanquish further discussion – May 13, 1969, Operasi Lallang, the Internal Security Act. Many of us have thus turned into trembling primary school pupils again, worried that Cikgu might haul us up to abuse us for opening our mouths.

But the picture is larger than this. This multiplicity of Cikgus is at large not only in Malaysia, but in so many other parts of the world. Only wearing different pairs of trousers. In Iran, the Cikgus there have sentenced filmmakers, writers and activists to death for daring to criticise the Islamist regime’s alarming tendencies towards authoritarianism and tyranny.

The novelist Naguib Mahfouz has been persecuted by the Egyptian Cikgus for daring to write truthful and accurate stories reflecting the realities of Egyptian society.

In India, Gujerati Muslims were slaughtered en masse not too long ago at the behest of Hindutva Cikgus. And Cikgu George Dubya Bush is still wreaking havoc upon marginalised citizens in his own country and the Middle East.

In Malaysia, filmmakers Amir Muhammad and Yasmin Ahmad have had to face the ire of our bureaucrat Cikgus for daring to create works that go against conventional wisdom of what constitutes “Malaysian” filmmaking. Journalists and human rights defenders have also been targeted by both official and vigilante Cikgus.

We are living in a time when Cikgu’s army – consisting of both state and non-state recruits – is going all out to dehumanise certain sectors of humanity along arbitrary categories of identity, whether it’s race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual orientation or some other criteria. Ideally, the rest of us are expected to participate, loudly, in this process of dehumanisation.

At the very least we are expected to watch, silently, as many of our fellow human beings are stripped of their humanity and subjected to verbal or physical persecution. So here’s why I’m writing this, now. Because we – citizens and human beings – are all equipped with the experience and vision to break this silence.

The Cikgus will tell us that we are merely primary school pupils – we are not Cikgus like them. We are not qualified experts like them. Hence they get to intimidate us.

I beg to differ. On issues of human dignity, we are all experts because we are all human. I therefore reiterate: this is precisely why I have decided to delve into my most unpleasant memories and confront Cikgu, nearly twenty years after he first traumatised me and my classmates.

It is my humble attempt to chip away at a small corner of this great wall of silence, erected by the Cikgus around us, which besieges us all. Cikgu might have cross-multiplied into several battalions over the last twenty years, but it is my hope that the echo of our collective voices will rock the foundations of this prison that Cikgu’s army has built around us.
Shanon Shah is a singer-songwriter whose debut Malay album, “Dilanda Cinta”, was released last year to rave reviews. He also works on human rights issues, including gender, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Comments:

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Friday, August 25, 2006 - Posted by | Commentary

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