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THIS IS THE WAY I RESIST: LITERATURE, DEMOCRACY AND FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN TODAY’S SOUTHEAST ASIA

MOHD FAIZAL MUSA (FAISAL TEHRANI)

Opening Speech 4th Asean Literary Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia.

1. Why Do We Write?

There’s no good reason for me to be here; sharing this space, expressing my aesthetic rights without a singular imperative: I believe in literature. I have faith in democracy. I have the right to express myself and to express the rights of others that I believe in too. Surely every person out there believes in their rights, although some do not believe them to be equal. But we are all equal citizens of the same earth, there is no other way to champion these rights than to struggle with each other to find compromise; be it through legislation, or revolution if necessary. As Hannah Arendt put it:

If the laws of [your] country do not live up to the demands of the Rights of Man, [you] are expected to change them, by legislation…or through revolutionary action

I write because I demand the full restoration of rights that have been hijacked from their rightful place.

 

2. Uniting Southeast Asia Through Literature

Many years ago I met a young Indonesian singer. He asked me, “So mas Faisal, do you read any particular Indonesian novelist?” I said, “Oh yes, plenty. I like Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and Seno Gumira Ajidarma for instance.”

He responded, “I know Seno, but who on earth is Pramoedya?”

You see, when the late Pramoedya was banned in Indonesia, he was already a much celebrated figure in Malaysia. So much so that one of his works was a compulsory text in our schools. This was during my mother’s school days. I first read Keluarga Geriyla when I was 14. We Malaysians are proud to be among the first to truly recognise and embrace Pramoedya’s genius. We didn’t really care about the baggage he carried. We found solidarity in his work.

Or, look at Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere (Touch Me Not). First written in Madrid, Paris and Berlin for the people of the Philippines, this tremendous magnum opus was translated into Indonesian by Tjetje Jusuf, funded by The Asia Foundation, and published in Jakarta by PT Dunia Pustaka Jaya, which finally landed in our bookstores in Kuala Lumpur.  Note that at that time, there was an attempt by the church to ban Dr Rizal’s work, as the religious establishment intended to hide their shameful complicity with the oppressor, hanging to power than the everlasting teachings of Christ.

This was how we were once united.  Both works, by Pram and Rizal focused on the fight against colonial masters. This was how we knew each other back then. This was how I was nourished as a writer.

And this is why, standing here in front of you, fellow ASEAN members, and Indonesian friends, I feel like a little brother speaking to his elder brethren; a member of a large family.

 

3. Dear ASEAN Writers, What Are We Facing?

The regrettable fact is that we are not even on the map of world literature, as perceived by the others. We, the ASEAN writers and readers are, borrowing Alice D. Ba’s sociological term, currently facing ‘strategic uncertainty’. Perhaps, politically this is best defined as the ‘principle of non-interference’ between the ASEAN countries. Of course, as practitioners in the arts all of us should realise that the commitment to non-interference has generated many complications and uncertainties, right at the heart of the controversies surrounding ASEAN’s development today. We see that civil society groups from our countries have increasingly changed their trajectory towards a ‘people-centric security policy’ instead of the ‘traditional state-centric approach’ typically characteristic of the ASEAN member states. However, a similar impetus seems to be lacking from us, the writers; giving a voice to human suffering, expressing our fight against the oppressors be it the state, or non-state actors. Perhaps we have not felt enough the suffering of the Cambodian crisis in the 1970s and the crisis of East Timor in 1998.

In literature, no human rights violation can be a private matter. Indeed, literature places crisis at the centre, highlighting violations, publicising the issue, and we as writers need to go beyond, by offering solutions. It is not enough for us to present stories anymore.

Refugees, terrorism, hybrid democracy - these are the issues that must be confronted among us, to be written and shared, to call attention to and work towards a solution.. The non-interference policy at the government level should not be adopted by us. We should not submit ourselves to the regime. We should not allow a Master to dictate or limit our work. As authors we are in control of the meaning and words we convey. We create them. I agree with Humpty-Dumpty’s words to Alice, we need to become the Master:

   “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty-Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

            Let’s not allow the crises in our region to fester without being defined and expressed. After all, we, the authors are the Masters. Others will read and listen to us, not the other way around.

 

4. The Sanskrit Cosmopolis

My dear fellow writers, I must apologise. You may never have heard of me before. I write in Malay. I am from ‘the Sanskrit cosmopolis’ region. 

What is the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ as coined by S. Pollock? Ronit Ricci simplifies or rather refines the term as: “authors’ and audiences’ participating in a Sankritic literary world that stretches from Kashmir to Bali as attested in the Sanskrit inscriptions at Angkor Wat (from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries) and in Javanese poetry (written between the ninth and fourteenth centuries) that is highly Sanskritised in its vocabulary, verse, forms and content.”

Today, most of the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ have been Islamised and embedded within its culture, developing their own colourful socio-political background as a result of colonialism. The ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ of the present day is dominated by Malay speakers. As Ronit Ricci contextualises it: “…the most widely spoken language in Southeast Asia, with an estimated 250 million speakers (taking into account speakers of the national languages of Malaysia and Indonesia) places it in the category of major world languages.”

She also concludes in her essay, ‘World Literature and Muslims in Southeast Asia’, that:

“Southeast Asian literary cultures – the Islamic ones – remain marginal in most World Literature courses despite their richness, the lessons they have to offer on particular and global histories, translation practices, religious thought, aesthetics and poetics less widely studied, performative traditions, and more.” 

My fellow writers, this is perhaps why, we are rarely considered by international literary elites.

Dear friends, and future acquaintances;

Thank you for being here today. It means so much.

For years my name has been excluded from anthologies, dropped from school text books, erased from university syllabuses and strangely in the name of “protecting” God, 6 of my books have been banned.

So of course, why haven’t you heard of me before?

The fact remains that I love Malay literature; though it is sadly so marginalised. This is precisely among the reasons why I continue to write in Malay.

5. Forms. Styles.

Those who have read my novel, Bagaimana Anyss Naik ke Langit (How Anyss Went to Heaven) may ask, why do I write so unglamorously?

My reason is to resist, to dissent from common forms. I want to look back, and revive the characteristics of traditional and early modern works in Malay literature.

I want to resurrect the form of storytelling that had long existed in this region. I fully realise and consciously understand that this might repel some readers. But I chose to bridge the past and the present. The function of Malay literature has always been as ‘a tool of communication’.

Malay storytellers aren’t just entertainers for leisure and amusement. Storytellers are chosen, recognised, and revered as educators. They imbue didactic elements in their narratives. One must understand that the Malays have “no fixed ideas on how to tell a story”, but are constantly reminded that “stories are lessons”, exemplary fictions, as Ishak Haji Muhammad (Pak Sako) once wrote in 1940, with “intended purpose woven into the stories.”

I also discovered that other than ‘lessons’, Malay writers also produced a lot of travel and mystery fiction. Between 1939 to 1940, travel and mystery short stories were freely adapted with the same emphasis on didactic elements.

In terms of technique and style, I found that Malay writers were fluent narrative essayists, or as Johan Jaafar states “…the content or matter is more important than anything else. With it, the writers use any form of structure as long as they achieve their aim”.

Other distinctive features are typically a descriptive introduction, sermons, usually rather long ones. Johan writes that “it is not surprising to come across the writers’ sermon which is sometimes even longer than the story itself.”

The earliest Malay novel – Hikayat Panglima Nikosa – is the perfect example of this. The novel was written by Ahmad Syawal Abdul Hamid, published in 1876 in Kuching, Sarawak. It clearly illustrates how discourses and lessons are integrated into fiction. Out of 27 pages, 14 were advice on agriculture, 11 on the narrative and struggle of the protagonist to liberate his state from the disturbance of pirates and 2 were describing the setting or background of Jalanan Baharu.

Another researcher stated that, Hikayat Panglima Nikosa Mendapat Kesusahan Waktu Perang Sampai Mendapat Kesenangan was scripted in Jawi, and I. Proudfoot, a notable researcher on Borneo stated that the novel is a “fictional account of the exploits of a local Malay hero emphasising the value of education and the advantage of agriculture”.

On the other hand, Phillip L. Thomas perceives Hikayat Panglima Nikosa as an “early Sarawak fiction recommending education, town planning and rationalised agriculture.”

Hikayat Panglima Nikosa’s status as the first Malay novel is corroborated by scholars such as S. Othman Kelantan and Abdullah Tahir. However, some are of the view that the first Malay novel is Hikayat Faridah Hanum by Syed Sheikh al Hadi (1925/1926). It’s important to note that this early work also stressed on didactic elements.

Those who have read Bagaimana Anyss Naik ke Langit can see that, the novella is my experimental effort to construct a contemporary Malay fiction using old frameworks. Travelogue-mystery stories; oral reports-news reports; human rights advocacy presented as prose on the Penan.

In the West, this form of writing is perhaps recognised as a ‘novelised book of nonfiction’. A style of documentary. Now I must remind you that the Malays had already been doing this, so it is not a question of “exporting this [genre] across literature”; it is not a question “of invention”. This was already a part of Malay fiction. What’s new is the narrative, not the form. But perhaps many of us did not realise this because we have not dug deep enough to encounter it, or perhaps we are simply disconnected from tradition.

I can understand if certain readers, or even literary agents find this kind of fiction difficult to follow. This form of writing “lacks a suitable home, or could have been scattered between four or five different [genres], none of which quite fit”. The “creative nonfiction” genre is considered a “no man’s land” and bookstores often have trouble putting them on designated shelves.

It is obvious that people outside the realm of Malay literature do not understand why I write this way. It escapes their consideration that I emerge from a culture “affected by the imperial process from the moment of colonisation to the present”.

 

6. The Aesthetics of Fiction, and Muslim Clerics

Art is appreciated by interpretation, and thus is a social activity. The interpretation of art shows us how artistic works are an essential component of culture, and artworks are inherited by us through tradition. Without tradition, artists have no foundation. A work of art is only made possible by its precedence, crafted for the relevance of a certain audience at a certain time.

Controlling, banning, or censoring works of art takes human dignity as hostage. The aesthetics of art manifests the state of our human dignity. The aesthetics of art in itself is a social process. Thus controlling, banning, censoring books, films, cartoons and others amount to violating the freedom of an artist, as a human being. If this is done selectively, then it violates equality. Since it involves the audiences, it also violates a fraternity; the creators of art and the appreciators of art.

The ability to interpret art is the right of the audience, banning works of art deprives the readers of their agency to conceive their own interpretation; replaced instead by an imposed authoritative interpretation intended to control the mindset of the readers.

They are denying the basic human dignity of the right to think for oneself, and the right to appreciate art as a chain of culture, transmitted through tradition. Banning works of art is not simply a matter of that specific work of art. It disrupts the natural continuity and evolution of the tradition itself.

This is why the universal standards of human rights associate art with the concept of culture, in reference to both Article 27 of the UDHR and Article 15 of the ICESCR:

Article 27 of the UDHR states that:

  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

While the rights enshrined in Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are:

1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the right of everyone:

(a) To take part in cultural life;

(b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;

(c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

2. The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realisation of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.

3. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

4. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognise the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.

In 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark published a guideline to protect culture and the arts, and in our context, literature. The guide, ‘The Right to Art and Culture Strategic Framework for Culture and Development’ explains how artworks are inherently connected to freedom of expression, thus censoring art is a violation of human rights. Since the arts, including literature serves as a ‘change agent’ in society, blocking access to the ‘agent’ is simply a direct abuse of power. I quote:

“Free artistic expressions encourage experimentation, diversity and imagination. Art often serves as a reference point that generates critical reflections and debate about human identity, modernity and socio-political issues. It can challenge people to see things in a new way. It can facilitate the scrutiny of those in power, the exposure of corruption and the demand for accountability. Artistic expression can be direct and provocative or can approach subjects subtly, using metaphors – often with equally powerful impact. A dynamic, progressive and visionary art sector is therefore a potentially strong “change agent”, and it forms an integrated part of civil society that strives for pluralism, openness and respect for human rights. Culture in diverse contexts has the ability to empower, mobilise, open minds and make people reflect, and thereby act more openly and communicatively. It is no coincidence that artists have always been prominently involved in movements, revolutions and processes of change. In practice, however, freedom of expression as a fundamental human right is frequently restricted through tactics that include censorship, restrictive press legislation and harassment of journalists, bloggers and others who voice their opinions, as well as crackdowns on religious minorities and other suppression of religious freedom. Artists live dangerously in many countries. According to Freedom House, more than 1.6 billion people – 23 percent of the world’s population – face severe consequences if they try to exercise freedom of expression. Citizens who dare to assert their human rights in these repressive countries typically suffer harassment and imprisonment, and they often are subjected to physical or psychological abuse. In these countries, state control over public life is pervasive, and individuals have little if any recourse to justice for crimes the state commits against them. Almost one-third of the United Nations member states exercise strong censorship.”

No doubt, denying readers their right to understand on their own, and to interpret, is a violation of human rights. In literature, close reading is to observe humanity, or should I say; humanity reading, and this is derived from humanism, be it secular or religious.

However, Islamic authorities in Malaysia have their own methods of close reading. Their version of ‘close reading’ is by closing other readings, and by closing the door to other readings, they violate a basic human right: to enjoy, celebrate, accept, or reject my works. By only allowing their reading and denying access to the rest, this authoritative move violates my rights and the rights of the audience. Thus we are compelled to transcend aesthetic borders, limited by choices, contexts, values, and the range of discussion, the barriers that are erected ultimately to limit our minds within the small cage of their understanding.

7. Why do you write?

When I was writing How Anyss Went to Heaven, there were a few questions constantly agitating, provoking and lingering on my mind:

  1. How do I represent fact and fiction? I let my mind be interrogated by the challenges of style and genre.
  2. How do I treat the abundance of real testimonies of human rights violations, how do I adapt them into fictional moments – yet maintain references to “reality?” How will my story convey the trauma, the “tales of atrocity” – how do I break down yet simultaneously achieve the narrative and aesthetic expectations?
  3. What is the truest form, if any, of representing human rights violations? I am not a Penan. I am not even a second-hand witness. How should I approach their suffering? How do I get close, and how close is close?
  4. Should I dramatise, and thus exaggerate their plight? Should I use violence and pathos to augment sympathy for the victims?
  5. How do I elucidate awareness on these rights within the narrative?
  6. How do I paint specific actors in this particular human rights violation, since they’re still alive, and are powerful enough to put me in danger.

It is not an easy task to write a human rights novel. James Dawes, a scholar of Comparative Literature from Harvard University cautions us in ‘That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocity’ that if we choose to use sentimental-conventional linear plots, we will be subjected to three risks. Firstly, the readers might feel that they have done their part by reading a human rights novel, and sharing in the victim’s pain. Secondly, the narratives in human rights novels that illustrate a successful battle against violations or violators  might be deceiving the reader that the crisis or particular issue has ended, while it has not. Thirdly, I certainly do not want to commodify human suffering through tales of human rights violations.

Therefore, Dawes, to which I agree, had suggested a new genre – human rights novels with a distinct approach of writing. That is:

i. To not entertain the ‘emotional connection or empathy’. This is done by using ‘post modern tactics’. The objective of using post modern approaches is to assist the readers so that they can ‘move beyond facile ideas of identification, to foreground the difficulty of communicating traumatic experiences, and to question the prospect of achieving resolution or closure’.

ii. To use non-linear and open ended narrative forms in order to represent the failure of their protagonists’ attempts to communicate and alleviate suffering.

Why is this approach more preferable? It is simply because reading is an act of responsibility. It endows the responsibility on humans to act. Again, as Dawes stated, we, as authors and readers, are people ‘who decided to do something’.

 

8. Human Rights

What made you change, Faisal?

Literature. Tradition.

In his book ‘What is literature?’ Jean-Paul Sartre, the eminent philosopher laid down the moral duty of intellectuals, and the people to adjudicate in the face of religious, cultural and political conflicts. Literature, according to Sartre is an impedimenta, a conflict-fighting apparatus which operates in double action: a) as a reflection to the oppressor; and b) as an impetus commanding the oppressed to gain recognition and inspiring their actions. Literature is a guide, an escort, a plan and devise to the oppressed minorities. However, in my opinion the authors’ ‘role’ is also prophetic. It does not end as soon as the author finishes or successfully produces the new literary creation. The writer cannot simply wait for the artistic creation to inspire social change or hope that the work will motivate the readers to take action. An artist is a genuine intellectual, and if one is responsible, one needs to be out there; advocating the work. Literature is communication. Literature is engagement. In this respect, you will see that writers falter.

I have been writing human rights fiction since my very first novel. Not many readers realise this. In 2008, Universiti Islam Antarabangsa’s Professor Dr Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf acknowledged me for ‘rocking the boat’. She discussed this in her paper ‘Human Rights and National Literature: A Comparative Study of the Experiences in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines’.

However, I was a cultural relativist then.

Among my notable works are the novel; Perempuan Politikus Melayu or The Malay Woman Politician, the play entitled Nurse, and long short story; Crises.

Many may recall that I have been writing historical fiction; 1515 or the banned play, Karbala. Historical fiction is important. Since history is a domino. One falls and the others follow suit. Those in power fear extirpation.

Many may recall that I have written works of religious exhortation too. Many, in fact.

Because of these themes, I was accorded recognition, garnered wide readership, and enjoyed extensive media coverage.

I wrote works that empower Malay-Muslims, as I saw that my people’s minds were still in captivity. They are ashamed of being Malay. Thus, I wrote Bedar Sukma Bisu depicting how skilful the Malays were in the art of shipbuilding; Manikam Kalbu, another novel, expounds the art and philosophy of Malay dressing, among others.

Never did I imagine that my passion to empower the Malays and remind them of their strengths in Islam, will be hijacked by Islamo-fascists, who would drag me deep into this. They exploited me. Please allow me to reiterate, literature is communication. Literature is engagement. And in this respect, you will see that writers do falter. Sometimes they get sucked into the wrong circle of artists. 

I started writing at the age of 16 and published my first novel at the age of 19. I won many prestigious literary awards in Malaysia. My pen name is Faisal Tehrani. However, in 2010, everything capsized. From being the poster boy of Malay literature, I became the most marginalised author.

What really happened? Believing that I was a Shia adherent, the severely oppressed Shia community in my country sought my assistance. Since then, I had become an accidental human rights defender. I got my human rights training in Geneva, and Dublin. My views changed dramatically from being a Cultural Relativist to a Universalist. In 2012, the current Prime Minister launched my novel, Perempuan Nan Bercinta (Women in Love). In 2014, it was banned by Malaysia’s Home Ministry, citing the reason that it is “likely to be prejudicial to public order”. In 2015, another four of my books were banned. And earlier this year, yet another one is banned. Six altogether.

On 9th September 2006, the Prime Minister stated that his administration is to uphold Article 27 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR 1948). He pronounced this during a human rights conference in conjunction with the Malaysian Human Rights Day. Article 27 of the UDHR 1948 states that: ‘Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits. And; everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author’.

It means that you and I; all of us have our right to participate in cultural life. It means that you and I; all of us can create our own art, enjoy it, share it, and the authorities cannot take away those rights from us, and must provide full protection.

Let me assure you. There is nothing egregious about my work. Perhaps you dislike the themes that I chose, or the way I write, or the discourse presented. But there is nothing wrong with my work.

To be specific, what’s wrong here are the Muslim clerics. In Malaysia, you cannot challenge these corrupted clerics. They are infallible.

In general, a quick online search will tell you that my works are loaded with Shi’i content. The truth is, I simply support freedom of religion. I am against ‘institutionalised Islam’ in Malaysia. I am against the idea of imposing Sharia law. I am against the Wahabisation (or Salafisation) of Malaysia.

The banning of my books is not just about me. It is a betrayal of the 1957 Proclamation of Independence that guarantees the constitution as the supreme law. Book-banning in Malaysia is among other symptoms of defeat of the Federal Constitution. Since it was made “to safeguard the fundamental rights and liberties of the people” under the “constitutional monarchy based on Parliamentary democracy”.

Book-banning in Malaysia is among others, a sign of rising extremism globally, the kind that stifles and violates the rights of people. It is another kind of terror. And I am another casualty of war.

My 23rd novel, Bagaimana Anyss Naik Ke Langit (How Anyss Went to Heaven) focuses on the plight of the Penan, an indigenous group in Malaysia, in the state of Sarawak.  Although it was not banned, bookstores are refusing to sell it. This commercial censorship proves that fear is creeping effectively.

It is lonely to be banned. Nobody invites you to poetry readings anymore. Your most important books are suddenly not available on bookshelves.

But I still have faith in literature, and in this war imposed by extremists, words and stories have proven to be our real weapons to fight back. For that, I will write more, sorry, there is no backing off. No turning back.

However, the literary elites of this world have no interest in our rich culture and tradition. We are literally small.

My stand as a human rights defender can be observed through Homosektual (published by Mingguan Malaysia, 24 June 2012), and A Muslim, A Lutheran (translated by Yana Rizal, on Projek Dialog, 19 October 2015). I have produced a children’s book entitled “Advencer Yaya dan Fufu. Buku 1: Jangan Cakap Begitu” (published in 2016, by DuBook Press). This work briefly introduces Articles 1 and 2 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, to readers aged five and below.

In May 2014, the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission formally requested the Malaysian government to explain the banning of my novel Perempuan Nan Bercinta, citing it as a human rights violation.

Related to this issue, four Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations admonished the Malaysian government in a special communication citing the banning of Perempuan Nan Bercinta and Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang. The Special Rapporteurs regarded these acts as intimidation, meant to impede my work as a human rights activist and academic. These Special Rapporteurs were the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights; the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and of association; and the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. They, the establishment ignored this admonishment, and instead banned four more of my books, effective 1st April 2015. And another one this year.

 

9. Noli Me Tangere

One of important themes that I have explored in my writings is the concept of a mature and self-confident religion. A religion that is immune to opposition, criticism, disagreements or even ridicule from insiders and outsiders. I believe that my religion – Islam – has this capacity, but the Malay clerics can be easily offended.

I’ve cried fire in a crowded theatre because there really is a fire. For instance, 119 Malaysians had gone to Syria in 2015 to fight with ISIS. Among those who created havoc in the Bali bombing of 2002 and the Marriott hotel bombing in 2003 were Malaysians. The person responsible for raising funds for the South-east Asian terror campaign, and fighting against the Philippine security forces in Malawi, is Dr Mahmud Ahmad, dubbed as Malaysia’s most wanted terrorist. Muslim clerics have been radicalised by too much sensitivity, they no longer have faith in their own religion that they think to be fragile, and react immaturely. I must analyse the root of this crisis. Another factor is the expansion of Wahhabism in this part of the region. Should I not cry fire? If my freedom of expression is considered offensive, let me remind you, the principle of freedom of expression allows bad expressions; from the stupid to the dangerous. The remedy to any bad expression is better expressions in response. Thus, any party that thinks that I am wrong should respond accordingly. Any attempt to silence me, you, all of us; the writers, are regressive and unacceptable.

The legendary ASEAN writer, a true nationalist and Malay icon, Dr Jose Rizal cried fire in Noli me Tangere. He exposed three religious evils, namely hypocrisy, superstition, and commercialism in religion. The abuse of religion should surely be considered as blasphemy.

I will not claim that my banned works are at the same level as Noli me Tangere. Obviously our works, my works are not a direct incitement to murder, which if it is, then the limitations should be case-specific. My banned works are also not libel or slander, which if it is, then the remedy should be sought in court. I am restricted because the religious establishment cannot tolerate me as a strange, alternative, and remote writer – my differences are unacceptable. Tolerance, dear ladies and gentlemen, requires work. It is an active effort. With tolerance we recognise the right of others to differ. Of course my expressions are not absolute, and toleration does not mean an unquestionable acceptance of what I write. I understand if I am being monitored, but please, noli me tangere; touch me not.

 

10. Closing

Dear friends,

ASEAN is an exceptional brand. Fellow writers, a) we have plenty to write about, b) we are not even considered within the literary world map, c) we need to fight for our rights. Our right to express ourselves in a challenging, strategically-uncertain world, our right to resist, and to unite Southeast Asia through literature, through our literary work. Let’s cry fire. It is not being irresponsible, on the contrary we are being responsible. For there is a fire in our region. A fire burning the whole of humanity. Let’s fight and resist together. Let’s collect our works together. Let’s compile them. Let’s tell others that there are generations that have inherited from Pram and Rizal. Let’s torch the way for the future. So the fire we ignite here in Jakarta will enlighten the whole of ASEAN. 

Thank you, I love you all.

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