By X'HO (BigO Books)


More work for the young: Fresh from learning that they must study Mathematics and Science in "orang putih", they will now have to undergo National Service.

Not that you asked, but I think the first is a truly dumb idea. If the goal is to get us to speak the proper England one, why then pick subjects that rely the least on linguistic skills? Looking at "=" and calling it "equal to" rather than "sama dengan" or "deng yu" - how is this supposed to help us to communicate better, especially when the language itself is still

taught in a dull and utilitarian manner? What's even more bizarre is that dissenting opinions such as mine can be tantamount to sedition — several Cabinet Ministers have so hinted themselves - which makes us marvel at the way things are done.

But as for National Service, I must admit that this idea intrigues me and might even be a good one, partly because it wouldn't behoove me to criticize every single government plan. (It's best to keep them off-guard). In the article "Compulsory National Service for all 18-year olds from 2004" (The Star, 13 November), our Defense Minister said -- well, pretty much what the header of the story says.

The article continues: "Those doing national service would be taught to march, raise the Jalur Gemilang and some ‘basic shooting,’ all aimed at instilling discipline, patriotism, civic consciousness, team spirit and other positive values."

Perhaps the article is being somewhat coy, and so I assume that the list of activities isn't exhaustive. I don't really see how marching, flag-raising and shooting, whether of the basic or advanced kind, can really bring about all those positive values mentioned. At worst, the students could just regard them as yet another rote activity, the only difference being that they will now have the added chance of accidentally shooting someone to death or poking out their eyes with a flag-pole.

The honourable Minister also ensures us that multi-racialism will be a key goal: "It has to be comfortable to all races with no polarisation or compartmentalisation." This is very fine in theory and I hope the practise is suitably egalitarian too. It wouldn't do for National Service to morph into an expensive incarnation of those camps we had to attend during our own school years, when the members of the majority race were taken aside occasionally to be warned that, "The Others are trying to take over."

But there is also an irony embedded deep in here, is there not? The Cabinet Minister who made the statement is at the top echelon of a political party that is racially-defined, which leads a coalition whose dominant partners are also those with similarly communal allegiances. We could say that communal cleavages continue to be one of the defining standbys of the national realpolitik. Is the Datuk Seri foreseeing a future when Malaysia's sociological topography, discursive terrain, or even (gasp) epistemic landscape will be different? When, in the words of that battered motorist Rodney King, we could all just "get along?" Only time and Time magazine will be able to tell.

This talk of National Service reminds me of Singapore (It would probably remind me of Israel, but I've never been there). Malaysia seems to be moving much closer to Singapore nowadays- not that Selat Tebrau is getting any narrower; can't you appreciate a metaphor when you see one? Aside from NS, there's also the move to remove any chance of judicial review for the detainees of the Internal Security Act, and also the increasing trend of justifying any policy introduction or change purely on economic grounds. (Which isn't to say that there aren't happy beneficiaries of this. We have to thank the mirage of the investment-hungry MSC for the fact that our Internet access isn't censored).

William Gibson once described Singapore as "Disneyland with a death penalty." Typical mat salleh condescension? Well, a more informed and nuance perspective on the island-state can be found in a new book by one of the natives, the counter-culture icon X'Ho. And what is that perspective? To summarise: Singapore's the sort of place where, once you scrape away the surface unpleasantness, you stand a chance of appreciating the REAL unpleasantness.

His book is Attack of the S.M. Space Encroachers. He tells us with tongue firmly in cheek (but whose?) that "S.M." stands for the Hokkien "sng muay" (sour grapes). And throughout the book, although the spectre of Senior Minister Lee is often evoked, his name usually is not. The logic being: His influence is already everywhere anyway!

The book is mainly a compilation of his column "The X’Ho Files" that appears in the independent rock magazine BigO. The column is by turns breezy, topical, inflamed, and informed, served with pungent doses of irony. He appreciates how the wider socio-politico scheme of things can impact on individual behaviour, resulting in little shots of unkindness:

"You are sitting in some busy coffee shop enjoying your wanton noodle. A lady bumps into you from behind . She's probably thinking it's no fault of hers. Who asked the people around not to make way for her? So she has to knock into you, lor. They don't call her lady-bump for no reason, you know. She has the "divine right" because others made life difficult for her first. And lord knows in Singapore, two wrongs do seem to make a right."

This is X'Ho in fine ranting form, right down to the chatty syntax (he's also a DJ, which probably explains things) and gratuitous sex symbols ("wanton noodle"). The extract also contains the thesis that runs throughout the book: Singaporeans are generally unpleasant because of all that has been taken away from them. Hence the notion of "space-encroaching" as a vicious cycle.

Who is X'Ho, what is he? In a foreword he raises and then self-deflatingly dismisses two low-living comparisons: "I'm demented enough to think I'm Singapore's answer to Bill Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. . Let's face it, if Burroughs or Ginsberg were citizens of Singapore, they would be crucified three lifetimes over. So, a real Burroughs or Ginsberg in Singapore? Dream on, stupid. I'm all the Burroughs and Ginsberg you're going to get in this country of Purposeful Creativity, Mercenary Courtesy and Artificial Culture (AC)."

Gore Vidal once said that irony is the defense of the powerless - and I am sure X'Ho will agree. The powerless, after all, have the best lines. He can be flashy and frivolous but he's of value because he can pierce through the self-serving cant of the oppressors, not to mention the servile drivel of their apologists. That he can do this to a toe-tapping, finger-snapping beat while maintaining a consistent (which does, alas, veer on the repetitious at times) note of hyperbolic outrage means that he's a good egg after all.

My favourite parts from this book are when he quotes and then demolishes po-faced bromides from the "nation-building press", The Straits Times. Too many to cite here, but if you want to get a taste, just check out some of our own editorials these days, and imagine them better-written and more insidious. The truth isn't a foreign country after all. — Amir Muhammad/Picture by fFurious

Note: The above first appeared in Malaysia's The Edge newspaper (Nov 18).

Click here for Alfian Sa'at's interview with X'Ho. 

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