Searching for that Quintessential Malaysia

Before I begin, I will note here that I have yet to watch Ola Bola. Not because I doubt that it's a good film. It must be, judging by the ovation of responses it has received over the past month. But because as personal preference, I refrain from watching films when it's on heat. I prefer the excitement to die down, so I will be able to judge the film without the hype.

 A scene from Ola Bola. Source:  Rafzan Tomomi

A scene from Ola Bola. Source: Rafzan Tomomi

After all, Astro has been hyping Ola Bola like crazy. You see it in almost every thirty minute Astro advertisement break. Even now, the film has become a subject of controversy over supposed historical inaccuracies despite the film-makers clarifying that it was inspired by true events - not intended as an accurate historical representation of what went down in the 1980 Olympics qualifier match.

On social media, Malaysians have praised Ola Bola over its message of unity. It may be too early in 2016, but many have even claimed it the Malaysian movie of the year. Even public figures like Rafidah Aziz and Nazir Razak have highlighted the film as an inspiration for the Malaysian public. In a time of national political crisis, Ola Bola's tagline, "You Will Believe Again" strikes the hearts of Malaysians who yearn for a time where unity was what embodied the nation.

But what the reactions to Ola Bola also reveal is a nostalgia for a calmer, united Malaysia. A time when ethnicity didn't matter and the concept of muhibbah was embodied, not made into slogans. Before Ola Bola however, there was Lat.

 Lat's Kampung Boy series. Source:  Dirk Riehle

Lat's Kampung Boy series. Source: Dirk Riehle

The 64 year-old Perak-born's works are synonymous with a gentle satire of Malaysian culture and politics. It's not hard to picture what nostalgia means for Malaysians. It's present in films, artworks and literature: a iconic caricature of three children from the Malay, Chinese and Indian race. A kampung-setting from the 1970s and a simple life devoid of racial politics. The narrative is present most glaringly in Petronas advertisements, especially those directed by the late film-maker Yasmin Ahmad. Both Yasmin Ahmad and Lat show intimate relationships we share with our families and neighbours, where the true spirit of muhibbah lies.

And why not? 1970s Malaysia is a perfect backdrop against which muhibbah is born. The year before saw the May 13th racial riots that eventually led to the implementation of the Malaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) and the declaration of the Rukun Negara as Malaysian ideology. But given the reactions of Malaysians today, can we really wind back the clocks to a nostalgia that has long left us?

In 2010, Prime Minister Najib Razak set forth the 1Malaysia initiative, putting emphasis on racial harmony and national unity. What began as a nationwide focal point has now evolved into a massive branding exercise and business lubricator. The road to capitalism is neon-paved with noble intentions.

In modern Malaysia where the discourse has shifted to also include religion, the concept of unity becomes even more complex. It is no longer just about ethnicity. In the reality of the 1970s, religion's place in the Malaysian consciousness was less prominent. While Islam may have been the dominant religion, its theological focus was less intense and the practice of other religions less obvious.

So what really is the nostalgic quintessential Malaysia that we want to believe in again? A typical urban caricature paints a group of friends sitting down in a mamak stall, watching the national football team performing on a projected screen. Not an image romantic as a village full of caring neighbours, but close enough.

Perhaps the fruitless search for it is what's stopping us from charting a new national agenda, among the turmoil of countless political scandals. With a growing population that's quickly becoming incredibly diverse and the lines of ethnicity blurring - the rethinking of a quintessential Malaysia is more important than ever.