The Perils of being Hishamuddin Rais

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November 1998

I walk into the busy office from which Hishamuddin Rais produced his first feature film, “From Jemapoh to Manchester”, late for his press conference on an issue quite removed from his work as film director and documentarist. The man sits surrounded by microphones reading his statement of defense against accusations levelled both by the Malay language daily, Utusan Malaysia, and the prime minister. Even while I tried to balance my little recorder onto a stool loaded with other recording devices, it stuck as a little odd that the man accused by Mahathir as the dalang (master puppeteer) behind the pro-Anwar, anti-Mahathir demonstrations of the past weeks was sitting before us, a free man. 

Picked up on Saturday in the vicinity of downtown Sogo-Pertama Complex demonstrations on his way to a meeting with a TV3 executive, Hishammuddin was released when the police failed in their application to the Magistrates for a remand order. He was one of 51 people released out of over 260 people arrested as a result of what some claim was an indiscriminate police dragnet during Saturdays protests. 

He alternates between Malay and English, “Since I came back three years ago I have not acted or behaved in a way to threaten the security of this country. I am film maker and my life is with film … 

“Sekali lagi saya ucapkan terima kasih kepada kerajaan dan semua pihak kerana membenarkan saya pulang ke tanah air. Saya juga bershukur kerana mendapat ruang untuk menjalankan profession saya sebagai pembuat filem dan jurugambar di tanah air sendiri.

“Once again I reaffirm that I’m thankful to the government and other people who in one way or another have allowed me to return to Malaysia after an absence of twenty years. I’m thankful that I have been given space that I can work and engage in my profession as a film maker and a photographer.

“Saya berharap dengan kenyataan ini semua kekeliruan terhadap diri saya dapat dibetulkan untuk kesejateraan nusa dan bangsa. 

“I hope with my written statement and clarifcation will clear all insinuation about me, the person, for the sake of my country and our nation.”

Asked what he felt about his detention, he said that he was not angry. “Yang sebenarnya saya tidak marah kepada sesiapa kerana saya sudah beberapa kali masuk ke penjara dan hanya orang silap faham dan bersalah pandang terhadap siapa saya sebenarnya.

“I’m not angry neither am regreting what had happened to me that I was picked up and I was accused. I could understand that people still misconstrue who I am because of what was in the past.”

At this point in time Hishamuddin’s personal history seems to trail him like a long shadow. 

“After twenty years I have a lot of things in my life. I would like once and for all to say that I am no longer carrying the baggage of history. Saya tidak lagi membawa beban sejarah bahawanya saya adalah generasi ’74. Saya bukan mengatakan bahawa saya segan atau malu tentang [sejarah] itu.

“I am not ashamed or embarressed that I am part of that generation. But we move on, we do new things … we can be new people.

“Kita boleh buat satu yang baru, melakukan satu yang baru. Dan memang sejarah itu sejarah saya, saya mengakui.” On legal action against his accusers, he said , “I’m not taking any legal action on anybody of accusing or whatever …  its just that they mis-represent me. Saya tidak akan ambil apa-apa langkah pada masa ini kerana itu kekeliruan mereka … Saya harap sesiapa yang telah bertanggung jawab membuat kekeliruan itu akan sama-sama berbesar hati, kita bermaaf-maafan kerana itu adalah satu kesilapan.

“On the accusation that he was seen at demonstrations, Hishamuddin said he could not deny the fact, but asserted his right and responsibility to be there. Saya telah turun melihat demonstrasi yang pertama kali akhir Sdr. Anwar Ibrahim bercakap di Masjid Negara saya ada di situ … saya tidak nafikan …I am not denying that I was there. I was there. I am not ashamed that I was there.

“Saya tidak malu kerana di sana. Kerana itu saya sebagi seorang jurugambar  dan saya sebagai seorang rakyat Malaysia saya berhak untuk melihat apa yang menjadi kepada negara saya. I am, in part, because I am a photographer and I am also a citizen of this country, I should be responsibile to look and see what is actually happening to my country.

On why he was picked up, he adds that the question is best posed to the police. When he was picked up, he told the three officers that there was no need for them to hold him or handcuff him as he was not about to run. “I was on the run for twenty years”, he reminded them, “for another five minutes, I’m not about to run”. “Saya tak tahu sama ada saya ditangkap secara rambang atau … sdr seharusnya memberikan persoalan itu kepada pihak polislah … tapi saya rasa padatu kerana saya ada  temu janji saya sedang duduk di situ dan saya nak bergerak pergi ke satu hair salon dimana ada kawan saya di situ, dan saya dipegang oleh tiga orang pegawai polis dan saya kata tak payah pegang saya, tak payah gari saya kerana saya tak akan lari. Saya terus dibawa ke Black Maria di situ.  Saya kata saya dah lari dua puluh tahun,  lima minit lagi saya tak akan lari, tak payah gari-gari saya cakap.”

His project, he added, is to capture this historic moment, and that as a documentary photographer he has a keen interest in capturing this and other significant moments on film. He noted that many from the 70s generation are looking for images of that time, but with little success.

“Saya documentarist-photographer – saya mendokumenkan bukan sahaja gambar ini, banyak gambar KL … banyak gambar lama-lama ini, saya ambik dan mendokumenkan. Saya tahu sepuluh, dua puluh tahun lagi ini akan jadi sejarah bangsa kita. Saya melihat apa yang terjadi pada 1974 dahulu, dua puluh tahun kemudian orang tercari-cari balik di mana gambarnya, di mana [kutipnya].. saya rasa saya bertanggung jawab kerana saya juga telah belajar ilmu tentangni itulah saya tercari-cari gambar tersebut.

“Sama ada mereka nak menuduhkan saya sebagai dalang …  itu terpulang kepada pandangan mereka tersendiri.

“If they were considering that I have been the master mind, the master puppeteer in this thing I think its up to them to think so but I’m making my position very clear that I am not a dalang, not master puppeteer.  And the whole thing is totally ridiculous, it is impossible for to be Mr Dalang, Mr Puppeteer. Lets put it this way. I’ve been here less than four years,  … in fact my conversation with all the youngsters who were detained together, none of them have any idea who I am or who I was. And how could I be leading thousand and thousand of people when  they have no idea [who I am] …  for me its totally ridiculous. 

“Jadi tak masuk akal bahawa anak-anak muda ni yang tak tahu siapa, dilahirkan … katalah ’74, umur dia baru 23, 24, tak tahu sejarah saya … mereka tak tahu siapa saya macam mana say boleh memimpin dia. Apakah percakapan saya, [dicelaman] mana saya bagikan, tunjukan. 

Takda. Saya hanya tulisan saya keluar berminggu-minggu keluar. Tentang apa? Tentang filem.  …Hishamuddin beralih kepada filemnya yang akan dipersembahkan di Stockholm; soal ini,  katakannya lebih berfaedah

“Let’s talk about something more real. My movie is being released at the Stockholm International Film Festival. That should be the focus of this country when we are working so hard to uplift [ourselves]. My film is the first film to be exhibited at 9th Stokholm International Film Fetsival .. it was given two nights screening as the mid-week attraction.”

“Adakah Hisham akan terus merakamkan peristiwa-peristiwa demonstrasi atau apalagi,” tanya seorang wartawan. “Saya rasa saya akan terus merakamkan kerana ini adalah tugas saya, cara saya cari makan …Of course I will continue to photograph. Is it illegal for me to photograph or record the history of my country? 

“I don’t think so that it is illegal to do that. So therefore I will continue photograph to document what is happening in our country today. I think it is rather important that we all keep this as a collective memory for the near future and the future generations.”

One last question was posed about the similarities between the political upheavals of 1974 and the present crisis. “Macam ni, 1974, 1998 adalah dua saat-saat yang berbeza-beza. 1974 and 1978 are two different eras, are two different generations. Whether you can emulate or you can translate what happened in 1974 to 1998, I don’t know. 

“Sama ada boleh diterjemaahkan apa yang berlaku pada 1974 kepada 1998 itu satu perkara yang tidak tahu. Chemistry-nya berbeza 1974, chemistry-nya berbeza 1998. There is a different chemistry taking place between 1974 and 1998. Its two completely different circumstance. I have no idea what is the chemistry now, and its only history will tell us whether they are the same or they are not the same.” And yet another last question: “Adakah wajar anak muda kita menentang kerajaan”, asked a journalist.

“Demonstrasi [adalah] manifestasi kerana mereka nak menyampaikan satu perkara. Demonstrations is a manifestation of a united feeling to convey some of their griviences or support. We have seen recently a demonstration condemning President Estrada at the Philippines embassy in support of Dr. Mahathir. I salute such rights. In a democratic country people will come together in a united voice, a united platform to show their support or condemnation.

“Baru-baru ini kita nampak satu tunjuk perasaan didepan keduataan Filipina kerana membantah kepada kenyataan Estrada. Inilah satu yang harus kita sokong kerana ini adalah satu process demokrasi. Process demokrasi ialah process dimana rakyat dapat berkumpul menyuarakan pendapat secara berkelompok atau bersama-sama.

“They have the right to come together …collectively … but I disagree with violence. Saya tidak bersetuju dengan keganasan kerana keganasaan ini bukan demonstrasi. Violence is not demonstration. A demonstration, peacefully, is a process of democratisation. Menunjuk perasaan secara aman adalah process demokrasi. Dan kita mesti sanjung process ini.

That night TV3 made mention of Hishamuddin’s denial in one line even as ruling party politicians spoke for minutes on end, redefining the meaning of dead air time 

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