Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Grand Lat - Malaysian Icon

ELIZABETH JOHN and ANIZA DAMIS speak to cartoonist and Malaysian cultural icon Lat (Datuk Mohd Noor Khalid) about being Malaysian and being friends

Q: Why is Town Boy such an enduring favourite with Malaysians?
A: I think many people look at Town Boy as something that promotes unity, friendship and encourages people to understand others' cultures. In this case, it was music that brought children together. But when I did that book, my life as a young adult was similar: playing music in my spare time, with friends who had the time to spare.
We became good friends because of music.Q: So, it's a story about people coming together?

A: Yes. When you are a teenager, that's the time when you have this urge to meet others and learn about other teenagers' cultures and traditions.
Even the ways of eating are different. These were things nobody told you about. It's just that we were eager to know each other.
So, it is all about life, actually. You cannot learn all this in one day. You have to live through it.
If you want to play music or get involved in art activities, you have to have a gathering. And from this gathering, you don't gain anything except being with the group; you're going to meet their family, and you're going to belong. I made friends by exchanging things.
One day I went home and shocked my mother.
I turned up with long protruding teeth because I had exchanged a comic or something for a retainer.
And you have friends coming to your house because of these things. Nobody tells you to do these things (go to friends' houses to play).
Q: What do you tell your children about making friends?
A: I encourage them to meet their school friends outside of school and have activities outside school.
Parents should encourage their children to mix. This will be a big help when the children grow up. It gives them perspective.
Of course, if we build a wall around ourselves, and just live among our clan, then we will never understand how other people live and think, and we would not have a pleasant life.
Q: The society and characters in your books are so multi-cultural. Was that reflective of your world?
A: When I started drawing for the New Straits Times in 1974, I was given the top editorial page. Back then, I had nothing to compare myself with because only Malay magazines had cartoons and they were only read by Malays.
Since I was drawing for the New Straits Times, I had to make sure that everybody was included, as in the crowds that I drew.
There's always one Bhai (Punjabi) there.
So, people asked me" "Why you always have Bhai?"
I was a bit surprised. Why would they ask that? Because when we were in school, we mixed with all sorts of ethnic groups -- Eurasians, Chinese, Indians, Sikhs, Orang Asli -- so, we knew all these races.
But this was the most popular question. Wherever I went, they'd always asked that.
I had many Sikh teachers. In primary school it was Mr Bhagwan Singh, the headmaster. Then there was also Mr Tagar Singh, who was the principal of Anderson School.
So, if people start saying, "Is this Mr So-and-so?", it can be any of them.
There was a mould. If you're Chinese, the best way for me is to focus on the dress, and draw you in a cheongsam, for instance. If I draw somebody in a cheongsam and the face doesn't look very Chinese, then it doesn't fit.
But this isn't stereotyping. Stereotyping is when you consider the whole group as having the same characteristics, especially mental abilities. That's what we shouldn't do. We shouldn't consider this group as fast learners, and another group as slow learners.
If you get to know people individually, you'll find that all these people are unique. That's why, when I do stories, I draw individuals. Whenever you feature an ethnic group or individuals of different ethnic origin, you must have a reason for it.
Not just because you want to do a Chinese thing or a Malay thing.
Q: Is that sense of wanting to know still there? Are Ma-laysians still wanting to learn about each other?
A: They should.
Young adults in Malaysia should know their surroundings. What is the fasting month about? Many people know, because they have learnt about it during their teen-age years.
So, they know not to invite Muslims for functions, especially in the evenings. It was the Hungry Ghost festival recently; you should know about it.
If you pass by a Hindu temple, ask about it. The more you understand, the more you will know about other people.
One of the things that makes me happy is the National Service, which encourages teenagers to be closer. I've seen some good results with the children of my friends, from different cultural backgrounds. They suddenly become closer and continue friendships they make there. It's a good sign. And friendships cannot be forced. It has to happen out of common interests, gatherings and hobbies.
It's too bad, though, that this is something that has to be organised. We have to arrange for our young people to meet.
Q: Do you find you have to be more careful about your drawings these days? Are people more sensitive about things?
A: Age teaches you how to go about things, how to handle the world and how to read it properly.
In drawings, you can present things the way you really want it, in such a way where it's positive.
You don't want to make people angry. You can provoke anger easily. All you have to do is pick one race, one profession or one gender, and people will get angry.
When I was a young man, many letters came to me at the NST. Some of them were from women, asking: "Why are we so fat?"
I think I made the women bigger than men because I wanted the women to win.
So, the husband who wants to secretly take a second wife and tries to get his first wife's thumbprint -- he's going to get it from the wife.
Q: Why is it that you can stereotype in cartoons and people don't get angry? Like with a good/naughty boy look?
A: First of all, the good boy/naughty boy look is to make it easy for the reader. Because you only have a few seconds to read the comic.And, it depends on how you do the story. The good boy with the centre parting, you make him a softy, but how do you do the story? If you make him a loser, then you (are wrong).
But, if you make him a winner, you're not doing an injustice.
It all depends on what your intention is, at the end of it. I don't ridicule people.
Q: You've also had to handle the issue of differences in your drawings. How have you done that?A: I had close Chinese friends in Ipoh.
But your mother says: "When you go to the house, don't eat the food there because you don't know whether it's halal."
That kind of warning does come. You have to face that fact that that happens. So, you will then realise that there are differences.
But the most important thing is the goal: what is the main purpose of the visit? What is more important: the friendship or the food?
You will eventually end up having strong friendships, friends from all ethnic groups, from all walks of life.
And you will feel the unity.
Q: Have Malaysians lost the ability to laugh at themselves or to not take differences seriously?
A: In your effort to fit in, you do laugh at that. All of us try.
But nobody can tell us: "You must not to mix with other people."
Who can say that?
We should go and mix. The more you know, the better."Mix" means really mix, as friends. Not just because two races meet and one pays the other for a service.
"You know any Chinese?" "Yes, there's one coming to my house everyday selling fish."
But you pay him. That doesn't count.
Or a Malay songkok maker who says: "Why should I know any Chinese? They don't make songkok." Let alone the bak kut teh seller.
Q: The troubles that we've been seeing over the past week seem to be over the issue of race. When you look at that, does that reflect your world? What kind of reading do you get from that?A: I've been around a bit.
You think the people in the 1960s were really happy go lucky? No. It may have been called "The Swinging Sixties", but a lot of our soldiers and police were killed and attacked. A lot of children lost their fathers, and women lost their husbands.
It was all over the news. It wasn't a really fantastic time, except maybe for the P. Ramlee songs and movies.
But in reality, the headlines were, as late as the 1970s, about our field force patrol being ambushed, shootings in Ampang, our soldiers walking into booby-traps and the National Monument being blown up.
If you were in KL at the time, you would have said: "Is the world coming to an end?"
So, doubts are there all the time.As a person who's lived quite a while, I think I'm entitled to say this. There are ups and downs, right? Like the P. Ramlee song:
Dunia ibaratnya roda
naik turun tiada hentinya
sama juga hidupnya manusia
ada yang riang, dan ada yang duka.
(The world is like a wheel / endlessly turning up and down / the same with the lives of humans / some are happy, and some are sad).
When things change, we have to accept the fact.
Q: So when people get upset and they feel that we are regressing or we are reaching a point of no return, what do you think?
A: The world doesn't just revolve around our small area. Whoever you are, no matter how successful or down trodden, you have to go home and feed your family.
Three meals a day. That's a basic thing for the common worker and the multi-millionaire.
Somebody on TV, some prominent individual, said that we mustn't overreact. Relax a bit. I think that's important. Overreaction is only for sitcoms.
Q: When you draw editorial cartoons, do you feel the need to tweak things?
A: Yes, I do.There is that thing that you try to calm things down with harmless humour on that subject itself. But it is light and it doesn't penetrate.
It's another way of saying, "Why don't we divert (attention) somewhere else instead of concentrating on this?"
While people are facing high fuel prices, you do simple humour about how you handle things. Don't be too stuffed up about it.
Sometimes, if there is something very big happening, my cartoon is about crossing the road or something. That's another way of changing the subject.
We can also remind people that they have to look back at what happened today as something that we go through and there must be a positive side to it.
Q: How is it that when everyone else is getting more and more upset, you still see the lighter side of things?
A: Because it's the same story. I've been around in the 1950s and '60s, '70s and there were things happening then, but we overcame it.
Those people who were so angry then are no longer around today.
Those people who seemed to be underdogs, don't seem like underdogs any more.
So what is there? Why should we worry? Don't worry too much.
Q: Did you ever think that your books would become the most chosen souvenir of Malaysians who want to explain Malaysia to foreigners?
A: I feel sorry for them, actually. There must be some better things for them to take, but I have heard this a lot.
The storybooks like Town Boy, where children play cong-kak, tag or hide-and-seek, people in Japan and Italy also understand them.
Q: Was that what you intended when you put the pictures and stories down in those books?
A: The intention at that time was friendship. Because in the beginning, that's what I showed, all these children who were friends.
Q: So what makes it Malaysian is friendships?
A: Yes, friendships. Because the friends you meet in school last till today.
I'm sure you have them, and in later years also you're going to remain friends.
(NST 14 september 2008)

Azan and the Muslims Sheer Ignorance!

(One person, YB Teresa Kok is being detained by the UMNO regime for azan controversial issue which was started by mischievous persons with their hidden agenda. As muslims in this century, we should be more careful by not instigating racial feud. We have to get right, accurate information before jumping into conclusion and make a fool of ourselves)

Deciphering the Muslim call to prayer (From Malaysiakini)

It is comical to see some NGOs, under the guise of defending Islam, support the Internal Security Act (ISA) being used on Raja Petra Kamarudin and Seputeh parliamentarian Teresa Kok.
For a start, these Umno-inspired NGOs know nuts about Islam: they not only give a bad image to Islam, but also embarrass knowledgeable Muslims through their sheer ignorance about matters related to fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Syariah.
One such ignorance is laid bare when Muslim Consumers Association president Maamor Osman, was reported to have lumped both the call of azan and kuliah (lectures) into the category of “syiar Islam”, and therefore no one should question these.
Syiar Islam is an oft-repeated phrase derived from the Arabic Sha’a’ir al-Islam, meaning 'rituals of Islam'. The kuliah, for the kind information of Maamor and his likes, has never been considered a ritual in Islam, whether formal or informal.
Coming from a group whose modus operandi is generating unnecessary panic among Muslim consumers about the halal-ness of a certain brand of food, I, like any practising and five-time praying Muslim who is clear about the principles of halal and haram in Islam, am not at all surprised.
Fresh in one’s memory is the issue involving a bakery two years ago, sparked by the group’s questioning of its halal status, causing not only confusion among Muslim consumers but also financial loss to the bread-maker. These groups who claim to be the defenders of Muslim consumers are actually ignorant about the basic principle of halal and haram which underlines Muslim consumership: that everything on earth is rendered by God as halal (lawful) until and unless proven otherwise, and that it is haram (prohibited) to make what is lawful as haram simply through suspicions.
Such is the state of Muslims in Malaysia that these ‘defenders of Islam’ who usually come out protesting in their childish uniforms and jackets, are allowed to carry on with their negative da’wah about Islam.

Where are the Muslim scholars and those Islamists when we need them most?

With the exception of perhaps the mufti of Perlis, none of the officers from any of the Islamic departments have come out to clear the confusion among non-Muslims, and indeed Muslims too, about Islam. Notwithstanding the accusation over the azan - hurled at Kok - is now proven false both by her own denial and the statement by the mosque involved, the damage to the Islamic call to prayer has been done.

Etiquette of azan

Muslims have a duty to correct the wrong messages sent about azan, that inseparable characteristic of their societies around the world. The azan was made obligatory and part of the Syariah during the first year after the migration of the early Muslims from Mecca to Medina.

These Muslims used to gather and calculate the time of prayer without anyone to call them. Discussing how to simplify this one day, some suggested that they rang the bell like the Christians, others suggested to use the horn like the Jews.

It was Umar al-Khattab, who was to be the second caliph after the Prophet's death, who suggested that a person call the others to prayer, to which the Prophet instructed a black Muslim youth, Bilal, to make the call to prayer (hence the name Bilal in some languages becoming synonym to the word ‘muezzin’).

The azan as we hear it today has not changed a bit in its style of presentation since the Prophet’s times. The whole purpose of the azan is to make it audible enough for people to hear. When modern PA system was introduced and became an inseparable tool for azan ever since, this requirement was easily fulfilled. With rapid urbanisation in the Muslim world, the call to the obligatory prayers naturally became louder, so as not to be drowned out by the sound of traffic and other modern day noises.

In most non-Muslim countries, the use of loudspeakers for azan is banned. Thus the azan, heard five times a day, was confined mostly to the Muslim world and characterises the environment of any Muslim country.

But what is the etiquette of azan in Islam? Because it is a form of worship, the azan too is bound by certain etiquette. For example, to pronounce the azan in improper Arabic by adding a letter or lengthening the sound of a vowel is discouraged.

According to ‘Fiqh-us-Sunnah’, an extensive work by the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Sabiq on Islamic rituals and which is considered a worldwide authority on the subject, the Prophet did not make any extra reading, supplications, chants or such practices before the azan.

To this, Ibn al-Jawzi the 12th-century Muslim jurist, adds: “I have seen people staying up a part of the night on the minaret admonishing the people, making remembrance [of God] and reciting the Qur’an in a loud voice. They keep people from sleeping and disturb those who are making late-night prayers. These are rejected and evil actions.”

This goes on to show that the azan, since time immemorial, has had a strict set of guidelines, like any other formal Muslim worship. And this applies even in exclusively Muslim locations.

Muhammad Taqi Usmani, who served for two decades at the Shariah Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan until 2002, and whose famous judgement on usury has become an important reference material for students of Islamic law and economics, has written on the tendency of some mosques to abuse the azan.

The prominent judge chided some who abused the use of loudspeakers in mosques, which not only hurt the people living around the mosques, but also created resentments against mosque managements and other religious circles.

While the use of loudspeakers complements the objective of the azan to be heard in distant places and therefore is advisable, the same is not true of sermons, Qur’anic recitations or any other activities, such as the commonly held religious lectures (kuliah) in Malaysian mosques.

Muslim jurists are unanimous that the recitation of the Qur’an in a loud voice is not allowed just to get people listen to it while they are engaged in other activities. As such, blasting it by using external loudspeakers, as in some mosques, comes under the same prohibited act.

The Prophet's wife A’ishah had once advised a religious orator in the following words, “Restrict your voice to your audience and address them only as far as they are attentive to your speech. When they turn their faces from you, stop.”

Such was the care taken to avoid possible disturbance from the speaker.

More importantly, this was expressed at a time when loudspeakers were not even in existence!

Ata ibn Abi Rabah, a jurist and scholar of Hadith, once said: "The voice of a learned man should not exceed his audience."

In another tradition narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn Umar, the second caliph Umar al-Khattab was said to have punished a man who used to deliver his speech in a loud voice.

Mufti Taqi Usmani concludes with these words: "In the light of this principle, the loudspeaker should not be used at all [during prayer] where the number of audience is such that they can hear the voice of the recitation [during prayer] or of the sermon without a loudspeaker. However, if there are many in number and cannot hear the voice directly, only the inner loudspeaker should be used, and not the loudspeaker installed outside the mosque."

Pick the battles

While it is mischievous and irresponsible of some Umno politicians and their mouthpiece Utusan Malaysia to play up the azan issue, the truth is that the issues surrounding the recent ISA arrests have generated concern and anxiety among Muslims including those who had been sympathetic to DAP because of its alliance with PAS and PKR.

The azan, like many other things in Malaysia, is considered ‘sensitive’ and therefore is fast fitting itself into the list of racialist issues in Malaysia’s racialist politics. Some Muslim politicians, during the height of the reformasi era when the general election loomed in November 1999, had once made use of the azan issue to garner political mileage and votes.

Then, leaflets and ceramahs had suggested that then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had asked to tone down the volume of the azan at the KLCC mosque. The truth of this claim has never been known, not unlike the many myths surrounding the former PM’s youthful looks and the story of why he sacked his cook in Putrajaya (never mind if you have not heard this anecdote).

Then in 2005, DAP’s Kepong MP Dr Tan Seng Giaw reportedly called for a regulation of azan because his constituency was a vastly non-Muslim constituency. So why is it not surprising that Kok was said to be behind a petition against the azan from a mosque, even if this later turned out to be untrue?

If Umno spreads another lie tomorrow that the Selangor government, of which DAP is a part, will rename a few locations in Petaling Jaya into Chinese names, it will also find some takers who will get riled up.

The DAP, through its own petty side-obsession over street signs and languages, is now in a defensive position of its own doing 51 years after independence.
This silly politicisation of language and scripts, as is happening in India up to today, should not have been brought up, because language and scripts have never been the source of racial tensions among ordinary people, and this is true in other countries too.

In the meantime, Muslims in Malaysia have a greater and heavier responsibility for Islam, because they live in a society with large non-Muslim minorities. Muslims must pick their battles, and know when to come to the defence of Islam.

The azan, which only lasts five minutes, is hardly noise pollution, but soothes hardened hearts and provides a divinely inspired music to remind us how mundane and materialistic our life is. As the Arabic saying goes, if one is not moved by melody, he is neither a man, nor a woman, but an ass.

If the azan is to be banned, I would be the first one to protest, even if I fail to answer its melodious invitation to attend the congregation at the mosque five times a day. Nowadays, our four-month old Salma helps the morning azan achieve its objective faster with her pre-dawn loud cries. The mark of a successful Muslim community is how attractive its religion has become for the other communities.

In Malaysia, non-Muslims continue to have suspicions about Islam through no fault of theirs, but because Muslims themselves cannot differentiate between becoming a Malay and living as a true Muslim, as Raja Petra has rightly pointed out through his many writings.

Someone once observed that as the Muslim civilisation declines, mosques grow in number, size and beauty, so as to compensate for their decay. At the same time, the number who attend mosques decreases, even as the call to prayer can now reach every nook and corner.

One may add, in the present context, that as Muslims lag behind in all spheres, their religious lectures tend to be louder than ever.

ABDAR RAHMAN KOYA, in his 30s, works at an Islamic publication firm in Petaling Jaya and is a correspondent to London-based Muslim political monthly Crescent International