Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 16, November 2007

Khoo Gaik Cheng

Reclaiming Adat:
Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature

Vancouver: UBC Press, 2006
pp. 254. ISBN: 9780774811736

Reviewed by Jyh Wee Sew

  1. Compared to the commercially viable Hindustani and Chinese films, Malay films have quite an isolated existence. Khoo Gaik Cheng's Reclaiming Adat; Contemporary Malaysian Film and Literature fills a gap in the study of a lesser known genre. The book informs the reader that the visuals of the select Malay films hold more than what meets the eyes. Khoo offers interesting interpretations of customised modernity in Malay cinema in this book. The analysis examines various scenes in selected Malay films against a backdrop of Malay customs. In addition to film analysis, Khoo examines a few Malay writers who maintain some English readership. Some of these Malaysian writers wrote against the existing socio-political landscape. The selected Malaysian writers are representative of different phases of intellectual development in the country.
  2. This book has three appendices followed by endnotes that serve to clarify the notions examined in each chapter. Appendices B and C consist of significant Malay film titles including those examined in the book. The bibliography contains key references on Malay literary criticism. As an overview to the following five chapters in the book, the notion of adat is examined to foreshadow the discussion in the first chapter. Following Wazir Jahan Karim, a Malay social cultural anthropologist, adat is explained as the local customary laws that existed before the advent of Islam (p. 5). Khoo brings in an additional academic viewpoint by incorporating a psychoanalytic perspective to the discussion of Malay cinema. The explanation in the book contains a Lacanian psychological analysis, in which an understanding of the inconsistencies of human behaviour is possible (p. 17).
  3. In the second chapter, Hikayat Hang Tuah the Malay epic on Tuah, a Malay warrior (equivalent to the rank of a police officer in the modern socio-structure) of the Malacca sultanate was re-examined in relation to the Mahathir-Anwar political polemics. Tuah was the epitome of loyalty in the Malay world. His supreme loyalty to the authority was reflected in his willingness to kill his childhood friend Jebat. In avenging Tuah's death, which was faked by the Bendahara (the equivalent of Prime Minister), Jebat went amok against the sultan, whom Jebat held responsible for Tuah's denigration. The Tuah-Jebat conflict challenges the idea of dogged loyalty in the Malay world. To illuminate the argument, Fatimah Busu's short story that targets Tuah's blind loyalty was invoked.[1] Jebat's voice in Fatimah Busu's allegorical version of the Tuah-Jebat conflict was quoted, 'It's time you learned that your loyalty to the sultan is about as important a frog's concern for a piece of cat-shit' (p. 38).
  4. The third chapter concerns four Malay writers who deploy different approaches in presenting the concept of Malaysian nationhood. The male writers examined in the book are Salleh Ben Joned, Rehman Rashid, Karim Raslan and Amir Muhammad. These Malay writers represent the intellectual strands of old, the transitional, the new and the anglophone respectively (p. 59). Ironically, according to Khoo, the younger Rehman and Karim write themselves into Malayness and thus they alter Malayness in the process. The most senior of the four, Salleh Ben Joned, on the other hand, writes himself out of Malayness (p. 73). Salleh's writings cover many issues from language, literature, national identity to politics from the early seventies to the nineties. His mind-boggling commentaries are witty, humorous and controversial as some of his writings are also associated with blasphemous intentions by some readers.[2]
  5. Chapter Four has a comprehensive introductory note on the history of Malay cinema. The roots of Malay film were traced to Bangsawan the Malay theatre. The first Malay film was a remake of an Indian film entitled Laila Majnun (p. 90). Khoo claims that Malay cinema is a cinema of denial due to many reasons. Some of which are as follows:

      Multi-ethnic diversity is not typically shown in Malay cinema (p. 104).

      The issue of representing non-Malay ethnic was not broached (p. 105).

      The censorship board perceives itself to be the moral and national guardian (p. 108).

  6. Chapter Five examines the complexities of Malay modernity in relation to traditional healings in urban areas and polygamy (pp. 132–33). Following Maila Stivens, Khoo informs the reader that these forms of neo-modernity should not be seen as the stereotypical comprehension of non-Western modernity against hegemonic Western modernity. Instead, they are multiple existences of differentiated modernities to be contextualised according to the local settings (p. 134). Globalisation and local Malay customs clashes in the film genre. Malay films open up a space of representation for Malay customs to renegotiate with modernity. The glocalization of modernity, for example, is represented in Malay films like Prempuan, Isteri Dan…? (Woman Wife and Whore) directed by U-Wei in 1994. Khoo analyses this film critically from a feminist standpoint in Chapter Six:

      he makes her sleep on the floor and refuses to let her share his bed, saying it is reserved for his wife and that she is only a prostitute….in an attempt to regain some social standing, she tricks him into marrying her when…she tips off the religious office that there is an unmarried couple in their hotel room…Her cigarette-smoking alone…encodes the contagion of urban modernity, marks her as rebellious, independent, and transgressive…she epitomises female sexual autonomy (pp. 189–91).

  7. A lack of discourse on multimodalities in the analytical framework of Malay film is an epistemological weakness in chapters four and five. These two genres require a distinction between visual and textual literacy.[3] Feature films hold the visual dimension known as spectacle, a notion likened to the invisible mode of story telling.[4]
  8. As such, film and literary works may not share the same knowledge base in research. The semiotics of the imagery schemas in films is different from that of decoding the text schema. Furthermore, Malay film is a collective collaboration of many minds which is further regulated by a censorship board. The voices cumulating in a monolithic viewpoint in Malay film is different from literary works of the sole author. Similar regulatory sanctions for the promotion of correct values are found in Malaysian advertising. [5]
  9. In the analysis of Erma Fatima's television drama Ku Kejar Kau Lari [I Pursue, You Flee], Khoo presents her feminist reading against the male lead character Nafique who failed to understand Nita, his wife's, longing for care and concern:

      "I don't understand, what else do you want?" This bewildered response to his wife's simple demands highlights the authentic male's inability to cope with modern life…His only violent gesture is throwing his cactus on the floor…The cactus has phallic connotations (in shape and in its hardy and prickly nature), as does his preoccupation as "one of the best cameraman in town," symbolizing his unspoken, quiet, but ever-present masculinity (pp. 202–03).

    Viewers might not necessarily share Khoo's feminist reading from the scenes in Perempuan, Isteri Dan…? and Ku Kejar Kau Lari. Khoo's analysis inevitably points itself to the power of viewing over the human characters in film. That this sense of control is derivable from film makes film a fascinating media. The pleasure of viewing provides the viewers with a satisfying feeling from looking in, unobserved, on someone's life-world to the extent of seeing through their eyes.[6] More interestingly, the audience feels powerful and they feel safe knowing that the characters in the film would never find out about the audience entering their world.[7]
  10. In terms of intercultural education, Malay films are valuable resources relevant for the teaching and learning of cultural awareness. Khoo's literary analysis offers insights to the psychological attributes of modern Malay community particularly the angst in coping with modernity for the Malay urbanites. Similar to the exploitation of English films in moral education, the visually stimulating scenes in the Malay films provide the opportunities for character and leadership skills training.[8] This book becomes a convenient resource material for teachers to identify topics relevant for critical thinking lessons.
  11. In conclusion, Khoo offers interesting interpretations on some of the controversial Malay film productions otherwise inaccessible due to language and commercial barriers. Many scenes commonly viewed as spectacles of popular entertainment in Malay cinema are reconstructed with literary analysis. This book makes a critical study of Malay cinema and selected Malay writers, who have made a contribution in defining Malaysian modernity. Readers and viewers of Malay cinema will find interesting psychoanalyses of select Malay films and writings.


    [1] Fatimah Busu, 'Dark night of the soul,' in Fables of Eve, trans. Harry Aveling, Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1991, pp. 247–82.

    [2] Jyh Wee Sew, 'Book Review: As I Please: Selected Writings 1975–1994 by Salleh Ben Joned' in Crossroads 9:2 (1995): pp. 133–36.

    [3] Richard Baxstrom, 'Book Review: Reclaiming Adat by Khoo Gaik Cheng' in Pacific Affair, (2006), online:, accessed 18 June 2007.

    [4] Andrew Darley, Visual Digital Culture: Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Culture, London: Routledge, 2000, p. 104.

    [5] Todd J.M. Holden and Azrina Husin, 'Moral advertising in Malaysian TV commercials,' in Global Goes Local: Popular Culture in Asia, ed. Timothy J. Craig & Richard King, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002, pp. 138–59.

    [6] Darley, Visual Digital Culture, p. 104.

    [7] Darley, Visual Digital Culture, p. 104.

    [8] See Lau Chek Wai, 'Character through films in Moral Education,' in Engaging Films & Music Videos in Critical Thinking, ed. Charlene Tan, Singapore: McGraw Hill, 2007, pp. 172–82.


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