‘Hantu Gangster’: Race and gangster Politics
AUG 11 ― Hantu Gangster, starring and directed by Namewee, is an allegory of Malaysian politics and society, a morality tale wrapped in comedy.
Wee Meng Chee, better known as Namewee, plays Te Sai, a deadbeat criminal single dad, whose name broadly translates as “pig poop.” His excremental attempts at financing fatherhood via a life of crime earn him charming recriminations from his eponymous son, Chee Meng (big thumbs up to Tee Jing Chen for his precocious performance).
Let me say at the start that I enjoyed the film and wish it every success. As a supporter of Malaysian film, I say: GO SEE, LAH!
However, I’d like to offer some reflection and critique because, like the film, I too am concerned about the direction of Malaysia.
Although I think Hantu Gangster wants to be representative of the nation, it falls short, since it clearly panders to the worldview of the peninsula, of Malaya, rather than the country as a whole. Perhaps this is understandable given the sheer complexity of Malaysian society and the limitations of the medium of feature-length film.
Nominally set in Port Klang, replete with evocative backdrops, the film presents a muhibbah alliance of the familiar trio of Indian, Malay, and Chinese gangs.
After defeating Japanese aggressors together, three patriarchs formed the gangs to protect their respective people. By the time we arrive on the story this order is falling apart. The younger generation have lost their way, becoming common thugs and drug dealers rather than, well, uncommon thugs.
The founders are killed and their ghosts recruit Te Sai, the Chaplin of Port Klang, to help foil their killer and bring harmony to the race gangs. Like Chaplin’s The Tramp, there’s a beautiful girl, Jameela (Diana Danielle), who offers the potential for redemptive love. Like Chaplin, he screws up plenty before he saves the town and wins the girl.
The villain of the piece is a fellow who spouts familiar propaganda phrases such as “terbilang dan gemilang”, “rakyat didahulukan”, and, in a moment of utter desperation, “Wawasan 2020.” It’s interesting to speculate how the film may have navigated the restrictions of censorship from the nanny state.
While the one who murders the patriarchs is presented as the villain, I can’t help but note that the degeneration in the conduct of the younger gangsters occurred under the leadership of their deceased elders. The only ethical hero present is Jameela who serves as teacher and protector to Chee Meng.
Comedy is an apt form for Malaysia because, like our country, comedy trades in stereotypes. Stereotypes package information in convenient, though not necessarily accurate, bundles. Hantu Gangster makes ample and knowing use of ethnic stereotypes. But the stereotypes aren’t the real story here.
Hantu Gangster is really a critique of political decline in Malaysia. This critique doesn’t drive the comedy, slapstick does, comedy is a vehicle for this admittedly serious message.
It is ironic – perhaps intentionally so – that Namewee’s character Te Sai wears a jacket sporting the Union Jack as he tries to unite the “races.” But Hantu Gangster is not a nostalgic plea for the return of British administration to prevent fighting amongst natives, though it shares some similar assumptions.
(Let’s not forget that our historical Selangor Civil Wars (1867-73) involved ethnically-mixed gangs of Malays and Chinese feuding against each other, much like today).
Where Hantu Gangster misses the mark in its own peace-loving terms is the suggestion that the problem Malaya faces is race conflict. In that sense it affirms rather than opposes the Barisan Nasional’s discourse.
If there is conflict in this land, it is not between “races”; it is between political groups that can no longer be categorised solely on racial lines; it is a conflict between the one per cent who are monopolising wealth and power versus ordinary Malaysians who are struggling to make a living.
The conflict is about stability versus change, one style of governance versus the other, one economic order versus another, and a socio-political order based on race versus one that still thinks in terms of race, but promises to be race-blind.
The thesis of antagonism between races is an old one, and Dr Mahathir Mohamad is not its only proponent. In the doctor’s Malay Dilemma he put forward the claim that there were socio-biological forces driving conflict between Malays and Chinese in Malaya.
The idea of inherent racial antagonism has an older pedigree, one that can be traced to the French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau. Gobineau, often vilified as the father of racist ideology, is credited with proposing the idea of an Aryan race that would be in a natural antagonism with all other races. It was an idea that his later admirers in the Nazi party paired with 20th-century technologies to achieve brutal results.
Both Gobineau and Dr Mahathir’s thesis of race antagonism is based on false logic. Firstly, that the human species can be divided into discrete races. Secondly, that each such race possesses a distinct character and natural antagonism to others. (There’s a longer, more detailed answer, for which there’s no space here, but I will address it in other articles and lectures.)
I’d like to be generous to the film and hope that people just see it as an earnest plea against social conflict, but race-thinking is so ingrained in the Malayan psyche that I’d expect most viewers to be reaffirmed in the belief that the unit of political conflict in Malaya is race.
There’s not enough nuance in the film’s argument to say conclusively that it is mainly against destructive arguments. This is a reasonable enough demand.
However, pleading for no arguments at all would be decidedly anti-political.
Disagreement is part of any political order, but it is really only democracies that formally institutionalise it. By their structure, democratic elections present multiple options to voters. Not necessarily the best ones, but options nonetheless. The democratic system, properly and fairly practised, offers a peaceful way to select one or another faction as the government.
The problem in Malaysia of course is that we have never had a democratic transition in national government. The social violence – gangster politics – we have experienced throughout our brief history are those tied to moments where our only national government has felt its grip on power threatened. It’s neither race nor race-politics, it’s just politics.
Can we really say that we have a fully functioning democracy until we’ve seen both factions gain and lose national government in a peaceful, orderly, and dignified manner?
Until that day comes, go see this film. Enjoy it if you can, but take its mythology with some salt, kicap, or asam boi.
* Yin Shao Loong will be delivering a multimedia talk, “WHAT ARE YOU?” Ideas of race from the world to Peninsular Malaysia, at Palate Pallete at 9PM, August 28, 2012.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.