dari jemapoh ke manchestee

from http://www.kakiseni.com (31 July)

The continuing adventures of Hishamuddin Rais

by Amir Muhammad

Hishamuddin Rais claimed to be the founder and only member of NGI, which he defined as "Non-Governmental Individual". Among the most recent crop of ISA detainees he is the only one not associated with a political party or organization. He was not the secretary-general or information bureau chief of anything. This is because he had many times claimed dread at the very idea of attending a meeting that would begin by reading the minutes of the previous meeting.

He is still best-known for his stewardship of the student movement in the tumultuous 1973-4 demonstrations on subjects like American imperialism and Israeli expansionism, plus the more local concerns of Kedah peasants and Johore squatters. It seems like a different age:
The students back then were even powerful enough to temporarily take over the campus of Universiti Malaya. His name and that of fellow student Anwar Ibrahim remained potent for decades later although their ideologies were different (Hishamuddin socialist, Anwar Islamic). A crucial difference is the fact that Hishamuddin chose to escape the country to resist arrest (and also indirectly resist being absorbed into the establishment the way Anwar was), which meant that his credentials as a non-conformist would not be as tainted by careerist ambitions and expediency.

Throughout his 20 years in self-imposed exile, he remained the Malaysian rebel with a series of adventures in Iraq, Palestine, India, Australia, Moscow, Belgium and finally England. News and speculation of him would filter back to the local media. For an account of these amazing years, I refer you to Sheryll Stothard's five-part article in Malaysiakini.com. (*)

Stothard writes: "Rebels do not thrive in Malaysia. Well, not before Mahathir and Anwar, anyway. Traditionally, the entrenched 'values' of piety, honour, respect and budi bahasa that mixes with our inherited feudalism within a more insidious patriarchal order make it difficult soil for rebel seedlings to take root."

So Hishamuddin was an anomaly, and remained so even after he was allowed to return in 1994. With the cachet associated with his name, he could have become a politician or corporate crony (stranger things have happened!), but he chose filmmaking and freelance writing as his hardly lucrative twin vocations. Before the political landscape changed so drastically in September 1998, he could pass of as an eccentric, excitable, artistic sort who nonetheless would be living mainly off the intrigue associated with his past.

His frisky debut film, "Dari Jemapoh ke Manchestee" was shot on a low budget and is only now being screened to the public. It is a youthful story about four kids trying to escape from their humdrum lives in a stolen red Volvo. The sympathy of the film is entirely with the young ones as opposed to the stifling adults. This is remarkable as Hisham was not only pushing middle-age but pushing it from the wrong side of the door. The film screened in many international festivals - including Rotterdam, Stockholm and Singapore - but he didn't get a chance to attend any because a condition of his return was that he could no longer have a passport.

The film was made in a different genre and style than other Malay movies, which is why I wrote that it's actually about the possibilities of freedom. There are no cookie-cutter stars. Even here, his refusal to conform to established pieties or to respect some of the sacred cows of contemporary Malaysian society continued to set him apart. Plus, he has a sense of humour.

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