Living in Kasar Times

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 14th, 2007. Filed under: TOM_Main.

(NOTE: This article first appeared in Off The Edge, Issue 26, March 2007)

Its quite rare for a talcum-powdered, linen-clad bloke like me to get angry in public, and so I write this piece with a hint of embarrassment to begin with. During one of my antique hunts around Central Market recently, I experienced something that raised my blood pressure high enough to warrant an article being written about it.

While trawling through the mountains of made-for-tourists kitsch that passes as contemporary Southeast Asian folk art and handicrafts (nursing the futile hope of actually chancing upon something worth buying, in vain), I overheard a conversation among some young kutu types. They were looking at some wayang kulit puppets hanging by the door of one of the shops in the market, and pointing to the figures of the Mahabharata heroes Yudistira and Arjuna, two of the five Pandawa brothers of lore. The punk-headed kutu said to his skin-headed friend with a ring in his nose: “Apalah hero wayang ni. Kurus, ramping macam mak nyah lah. Tangan tak de muscle pun, macam mana nak jadi hero? Nampak macam bapok saja!”

Under normal circumstances I would have let such an untutored remark pass. If Malaysians can’t be bothered to read a little bit more about their own culture and history, then why should we feel offended when tourists say similar things and think similar thoughts? Who would care to explain to the kutu braders why the heroic figures in the Nusantara rendition of the Mahabharata were and remain so slender, so fine, almost feminine? And even if I had set up my soapbox to deliver an impromptu lecture of Southeast Asian masculine aesthetics, who would have listened? I cursed my luck for not being able to find a single decent piece of nyonya jewellery instead…

But one month on, events have prompted me to go back to that episode. Like some pathetic gesture of trying to regain lost time, I regret that I had not stood my ground and defended the slender arms of dear ol’ Arjuna, he of the long eyelashes and warm pouting lips. I regret the fact that I had not defended the value of halus against the unwavering, relentless, smelly tide of kasar and kasarism instead. For indeed, we live in kasar times.

Signs of kasar-ness are all around us today: Politicians lose their cool and reach for their daggers, shouting slogans of blood and triumphalism as soon as they see a microphone. Powerful men on the make assume that their powers are so limitless that the mansions they build have to reflect their largess as well, to the point where their homes rival the palaces of kings both in size and vulgarity. Arguments are no longer met with counter-arguments, but with lawsuits or death threats instead. So much for our beloved ‘Asian values’ that are supposed to be ever so halus, refined and sophisticated.

But a reading of the Hikayat Pandawa Lima (The Epic of the Five Pandawas, the Malay rendition of the Mahabharata) points to another age when power was seen and understood not in terms of violent pyrotechnics; but rather the opposite: As restraint, control, poise and demeanour. The figures of Yudistira and Arjuna embody this aesthetic and moral ideal in its essence. In the Hikayat Pandawa (as is the case of many other ancient Nusantara epics) the ideal hero is the man who restrains himself, rather than let his ego and libido run riot. The ideal hero meditates (there are often long episodes of meditation in caves and mountains, making for good scenic shots), eats little (hence the slender waistline, nothing to do with pilates), speaks even less (another Bergmanesque touch, ideally filmed in grainy black-and-white) and when he has to fight is often forced to battle with his conscience before, during and after the bloody deed.

While the ugly, pug-faced, muscle-bound, lumbering baddies are the first to reach for their kerises, the ideal hero unsheathes his weapon with all the finesse of a tea ceremony, fully aware of the consequences of the act he is performing and the cost of his actions soon after. That is why all of the bad characters we see in the wayang performances tend to have bulbous eyes, thick lips, exaggerated noses, pot bellies, heavy muscular arms and legs, thick wrists and ankles: Practically everything about them and their bodies speaks the language of excess and overkill: Too much passion, too much anger, too much testosterone, too much facial hair, too much chilli in their diet.

Halus versus kasar: The moral dialectic of the Southeast Asian universe was staged on a number of registers, including aesthetic, moral and political. The Kasar villain oppresses, bullies, intimidates, pushes his weight around, doesn’t listen to others. The modern equivalent shares surface similarities: he hogs the road, his palatial home dwarfs that of his neighbour’s, his Krakatoa-strength karaoke set leaves his friends deaf and dumb, his SUV and bling-bling make gangsta pimps look like Church wardens.

Conversely, the Halus hero resists, and finds his strength in consistency, persistence and quiet determination. While the marauding kasar armies rape and pillage, he meditates on the rock, concentrating all the power of the universe in his little finger, waiting to unleash his slender feminine keris that will fly through the sky and lay waste to the unwashed horde. The modern equivalent would be the politician who holds his tongue, who tempers his discourse, who calms the crowd – rather than reving up the hate machine. The modern halus hero knows that what matters to the nation is not another fat ugly megamall or skyscraper, but clean accounts and efficient auditing instead. He knows that its not what sort of car he drives that matters, but rather how he drives it.

We were once a people who were halus. (Well, not all of us were I’m sure, but I’m trying to be generous in self-flattery here.) This was a region where power was seen not through the prism of violence and bloodshed, but was demonstrated through calculated restraint that evolved and expressed itself in a manner that was elegant, dignified, civilised. Damn, we had class then.

Now our halus heroes are dismissed as bapoks, Mat Rempits have become patriots overnight and hysterical demagogues and hate-mongers become public figures instead. What a low blow to a nation that could have aimed higher. We live in kasar times, and everything seems so koman and chekai now…

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