From Wazir Jahan Karim

In Penang, the George Town Festival 2012 opened on June 15th, under a 'starry starry night' with a spectacular performance of "Silat: Our Heritage for the World" at the Fort Cornwallis open theatre in George Town. it was an innovative rendition of the famous Malay legend of Hang Tuah, using multi-modality staging of silat - Malay martial arts choreography with a circular moving wayang kulit or shadow play screen to serve as the prologue. Lighting artworks and soundscapes evoked different emotions of fear, anger, triumph and remorse. The dalang or storey teller narrates Tuah's victorious duel with a Majapahit warrior, Tamingsari. Tuah defeats him and wins Tamingsari's kris which has come to symbolise the immortality of Malay Statehood, honour and valour. However Tuah becomes a victim of fitnah, or malice of having an affair with one of the sultan's favourite dayang or women courtesan and is sentenced to death without trail. He is spared by the compassionate Bendahara, a wise Prime Minister who spares and hides him but Hang Jebat his closest friend, thinking that his friend is dead, runs amuk in the palace over this grave injustice to his friend. Ironically, Tuah is summoned to contain Jebat and in this famous agonising duel, Hang Tuah drops the Tamingsari keris. Jebat pushes the kris to Tuah to save his life and Tuah instead kills Jebat in a ritualistic sula, driving the kris.

As the Tuah-Jebat duel progresses, the screen moves faster round the stage, displaying eerie shadows of the two warriors locked in a duel of death. The killing of Jebat evokes the anguish voice of the dalang in a spine-chilling wail, questioning the eternal Malay dilemma of fidelity to King over love and honour of friendship. The gamelan orchestra coordinates soundscapes with haunting lights to back different emotive sequences of the story.

Tuah-Jebat debate is grounded in an eternal dilemma of Malay politics, often cited in historical and anthropological text as a universal human tragedy, equivalent to a Sophoclean perfect tragedy of a fatalistic co-incidence - of unity of time, place and action. This deserves a seat, NOT ONLY in international stage dramatisation or film production BUT ALSO IN REAL LIFE REGIONAL POLITICS. Ruling our amuk, when does obedience to feudal institutions of authority give way to expressions of free communication in an open democracy? Malaysia's former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed attempted to curb the powers of the Sultans in Malaysia and removed in his speech, ancient self-effacing terms like patek, meaning 'slave' or 'humble servant'. He also preferred to bow rather than kiss the hand of the Sultan or King. Today a raging debate goes on in Thailand over the increasing number of people charged in court or jailed over a show of insubordination or disrespect to Thailand's reigning monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Yet at the same time there are nicer episodes like Malaysia's gracious HRH Raja Zarith Sofia, Oxford educated consort of the Sultan of Johor who recently launched the book 'Memories of our Mothers' and paid tribute to her ailing mother whom she nursed till her death. It seems so human and ordinary and she wrote like we did about our mothers, from her heart rather than her crown. With the increasing number of princes and princesses marrying commoners, the off springs are blue blood only by virtue of heritage institutions rather than genealogical descent. Europe's blue blood have become ordinary citizens and only celebrities by virtue of class and fame in celebrity pages, equivalent to the actors of Hollywood.

So sooner than later, Asia's reigning monarchs will embrace their familiarity with commoners and move with changing times but until this happens, we have to be grateful for their support for unity and peace. At least they buffer us for unfavourable events of racism or civil strife.

Social Movements in the Middle-East 2010-2011: A Time When Leaders Fear what their Citizens might do.

Wazir Jahan Karim, February 1 2011

Previously, in the Middle-East, citizens feared what their leaders would do, if they took to the streets and complained against inequalities in income, corruption, unemployment, rising food and oil prices and discrimination against minorities. The consequences were appalling, judging from the faith of thousands of Kurds who were killed with mustard gas in Iraq in the days of Saddam or the Algerians who were shot when in 1992, they rose against the military when parliamentary elections were cancelled. When the United States and its allies did business with dictators and autocrats who had been in power for decades, they had little interest in promoting democracy, gender empowerment or social equality. They backed corrupt regimes to maintain the status quo and funded their military. The US gives 1.3 billion each year to fund the military in Egypt and pushes the United Nations to impose embargoes on nations which do not conform to globally acceptable standards of human rights or nuclear disarmament policy. But most American allies in the Middle East have committed 'crimes against humanity'-they have harmed and tortured their own citizens who have risen against despotism. So who sets these standards of 'humanity' and why is it that selling weapons and armoury to dangerous despots who might use them against their own citizens, are allowed and promoted by advanced nations which produce them?

Contradictions in American foreign policy boggle the mind. Britain and the United States fed the United Nations with information that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction and in 2003, used this to invade Iraq with visions of promoting democracy and freedom. When the country was reduced to rubble, thousands of civilians were killed and contracts worth billions were signed with American corporations. There were no rumblings of breach of human rights or crimes against humanity, in the United Nations. Not entrenched in the reconstruction of Iraq was the creation of new jobs for citizens and sustainable employment.

So it is the year of the golden rabbit after all. Economists believe that everyone (who has not died in the uprisings) can still invest and there will be auto recovery of the global economy. Countries which produce gold are laughing all the way home and arm dealers are making progress in the Middle East. Democracy will rule but it takes time to put things in focus. Meanwhile business deals are in order. The Italian economy is dependent on Libya and has no plan B. Did the Italians who took Libya so brutally without democracy in mind and who now are dependent on Libya's oil and assets , ever asked Gaddafi if democracy was alive in Libya? I did realise Tony Blair had made deals with Gaddafi over the Lockerbie bombing to boost Britain's arms sales and oil concessions. Despotism, corruption, nepotism and dictatorships were okay then for Tony.

Meanwhile the Republicans have done their leg work in Tunisia and spoken to the interim government that they are here to stay and not be swayed by the earnestness of young Arabs to have a non corruptible fair and equitable Statehood. The Egyptians are running the show again and relaxing their borders at Gaza. And never underestimate Yemen, another US ally. The next regime may be less 'allaying', so deep are their hostilities for the American government. The Iranians finally got to swing down the Suez after thirty years and the Arab youth are confident and undefeatable. They have created a brave new world, unchallenged in Arab history. On the upside, things may really shape up in the year of the rabbit. We may strike gold with good old fashion democracy. And civil society, with real people uprising, demanding real change is back in fashion. This may be a good year for the optimist.