Marina Mahathir: Malaysia is my colour movie


Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir is the keynote speaker at the fifth George Town Literary Festival (GTLF), which takes place on November 27-29 . On a daily basis, Malaysians look out in the news for her most recent comments on issues that interest and bother the country. Often, she says things others would not; or if they did, the impact is often not as strong as when this liberal social activist shares her thoughts.

Being the eldest child of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad helped attract publicity, of course, but Marina’s reputation comes largely from her constant championing of important social issues. Her work in raising consciousness about HIV/AIDS helped define her public image; she headed the Malaysian AIDS Council and the Malaysian AIDS Foundation for 12 years. More recently, she became a board member of Sisters in Islam (SIS), a movement that has been a thorn in the side of – and a favourite target of – ultraconservative Muslims for years.

Her bi-weekly column in The Star – “Musings” – has always had an enormous following since it began in 1989. Books published by her include In Liberal Doses (1997) and Telling it Straight (2012), which are largely collections of her column articles. She was for a time an influential blogger as well, and a compilation of blog posts written while her father was in hospital for 50 days was published as 50 Days: Rantings by MM (2009).

The UN in Malaysia named her Person of the Year in 2010 for her work on HIV/ AIDS and women’s rights. In November last year, she received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the Penang-based Wawasan Open University. This comes on top of the honorary Master of Arts degree granted her by USM in 1997.

In a country where the battlefront is as much on the cultural front as on the political pitch, few doubt that Marina’s passion for social issues is a source of inspiration for her fellow citizens – be they young or old, men or women, Muslims or non-Muslims.

On August 9, I met up with Marina at The Loaf in Bangsar Village II for a breakfast of fresh bread and coffee, and a chat on being Malaysian today and about life in general.

Thanks for agreeing to meet me on a Sunday morning, and thanks for agreeing to be the keynote speaker for the GTLF. You participated in the Singapore Literary Festival recently as well, didn’t you?

Yes, that was in 2012. When I was invited, they asked if I had a book to launch. I didn’t, and that sort of gave the impetus for Telling it Straight, my second collection from Musings, my column in The Star, to be done in time for the event. I was on a panel with author Catherine Lim, and it was standing room only. I was really surprised at how much Singaporeans actually knew me. They actually recognised me – I would walk down Orchard Road and people would come up to me to introduce themselves.

Well, you are famous in Singapore. For starters, there are supposed to be about half a million Malaysians living there. They do retain an interest in Malaysia and its politics, and of course in personalities like you as well. This heightened interest among overseas Malaysians has been most obvious since 2008. Right now, they are more worried than anything else.

Yes, I know. It is open house season at the moment, for Hari Raya; I have visitors constantly asking me about the political situation, and the first thing they say is, “So how? So how?” I simply say, “I don’t know.”


We are all looking forward to you gracing the GTLF this year. Do you know Penang well?

Well, I grew up in Kedah and had an uncle living in Penang. For us, Penang was the big city where you went for Hari Raya shopping, to buy shoes and what not. It was always a place to visit.

It has become a really cool place now. I am annoyed that I missed George Town Festival this year. We usually try to go up for certain things, but we couldn’t make it this year. But Malaysia is changing. In KL, you meet people from all over Malaysia – from Penang as well, of course. We are very cosmopolitan now.

But whatever one may say, in the end, Penang food remains a great attraction.

You were awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by Wawasan Open University in 2014.

I felt very honoured. It was the second time I was given a university degree; the first was in 1997 from USM. Most strangely, I am not allowed to speak at USM today; in fact, I often get disinvited at the last minute by public university authorities. If students invite me now, I ask them to make sure that they have permission or they will be wasting their time – all a bit silly in this time and age when the students can contact me and talk to me anytime through social media.

Let’s talk a bit about freedom of expression in Malaysia today. It is dire, is it not?

It is very dire. Just this example of me being prohibited from speaking to young people in universities is ridiculous. I do get invitations from corporations though, and from private universities. I can’t imagine what it is they think I would say that is so dangerous.

I was in Kuching in July, at the Global R&D Leaders and CEOs Conference organised by Akademi Sains Malaysia. At the last minute I decided to change my subject to speak on social media instead of my original subject because I noticed that there was nothing on it at the conference. So I started out by saying, “I am honoured to be invited to speak at this conference, but it is ironic indeed that I should be speaking here when I am not allowed into all the public universities, when all the VCs are here.” There was uncomfortable laughter around the room, as you can imagine (laughs).

My talks are usually motivational in nature, but everything seems to be seen through a political lens now. They are scared of shadows, are they not?

At SIS, we try very hard to open up space so that not everything is viewed within this narrow, patriarchal narrative on Islam, which doesn’t gel with reality – especially women’s reality. We are pushing very hard there; we try to get other organisations involved because the issues are all related. It is not only about women and Islam; it is connected to democracy and other issues.

It is now starkly illustrated for us how important freedom of expression – freedom of information – is, at a time when things get twisted and turned any which way. What is the truth? We need this freedom to know what the truth is.

Social media is extra powerful also because the print media is “crap”. Trying to control the Internet is not possible either, so they should instead aim for more balance in their reporting. People can get past whatever electronic controls are put into place – it is better for the print media to come up with better arguments instead. Cyber troopers don’t work either because they just repeat things, and in the end get a bit insulting of everyone’s intelligence.

You know how we parrot that Malaysia is diverse because it has these many races, etc. But the diversity is really much more than that. Today, one feels the need to qualify one’s ethnicity whenever one mentions it, in order to limit the caricaturing going on that we are now so conscious of.

I went to the St Nicholas Convent School in Alor Setar; the students there all had grown up in this little town, and we knew where the bookshop or the coffee shop was. As teenage girls, we had a lot of common experiences.

Then when I went to Tunku Kurshiah College, though we were all Malays there, we were from all parts of the country. We were actually very different from each other. The girls from Kelantan, for example, were incomprehensible to me. In Alor Setar, my schoolmates, whatever their race, would speak Kedah Malay. The Johor students, in turn, were always so gung-ho about their state, unlike us Kedahans who tended to be more humble.

Also, Malay faces can cover the whole spectrum – from the very dark to the very fair.

Although we were all Malays, our teachers were not. We were exposed to a lot of different races that way. I remember them well. We had foreign teachers as well, from the Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO). There was Ms Ida Glaser, for example, who is now Dr Glaser; she is head of Muslim-Christian Studies in Oxford. I didn’t realise it then, but she was only 20 years old when she was teaching us. What we learned was that where you came from mattered more than your race.


Language as an art form, as literature, philosophy and poetry, and as the main tool for personal expression and self-analysis is often left underdeveloped in post-colonial countries. Limits on the freedom of expression have not helped either.

Well, we shoot ourselves in the foot all the time. Raising the educational level is the thing. Among the Malays, the concern seems to be about getting a place in an institution of learning. But they don’t seem as concerned about the quality of education that they get there. They should ask how it gets this way that after they graduate, they end up without a job.

The syllabus, the quality of teaching – all that is important. “What do you expect your kids to be doing after they leave school?” is the question parents should ask. They are not making the connection.

Today, we seem to going into Arabic language and cultural attitudes, and even behaviour. I have written about “Arab colonialism”. We are even dropping the most common Malay references and are using Arabic forms. I call it the McDonaldisation of Islam, especially in the case of Wahhabi Islam. If you take the franchise, you take the whole package, the clothes and everything else. You see that happening in China even, where the Muslims have been Muslims much longer than we have, and in Cambodia as well. You are being obliged to take the whole package if you want the money.

The truth is the Arab world is an extremely diverse one. But we are taking on a very stereotyped version of it.

Recently, a greater number of Malay voices are being heard. This comes partly from opposition to what they see as incompetent government, and partly for fear of the narrow Islamisation that is occurring. Is there a point when the tension between Malayness and Muslimness as Arabness becomes a public argument?

Important point. Why all this talk of Malay supremacy when you lack general knowledge and you don’t even know your own cultural legacy? Malay arts and Malay language are all dying. All this insisting, all this aggression that we see today, is not reminiscent of the Malay gentleman, the cultured personality that we associate with Malay culture in the old days.

I remember the bum-shaking that a group of retired Malay military men did in front of Ambiga (Sreenevasan)’s house. We should all be very ashamed of that. Malays are not an aggressive people; we don’t like to be confrontational – all that just leads to unnecessary conflict. We don’t want to scream our every point. Malay adat, Malay gentleness – where has that gone? I suppose social media culture bears some of the blame.

On one hand, you want young Malays to be docile through controlled education, and yet you want them to be aggressive about Malay supremacy. That’s a contradiction.

Malaysia has been nation building for so long, and yet trying to define and develop culture top-down through simple factors, like language or controlled political discourses, do not really work in the long run.

I think young people are becoming very conscious of that. For example, we have Buku Jalanan. This is a movement started at UiTM by students who were fed up with not being allowed to read certain books. So they discussed books outside campus instead. Now, you have Buku Jalanan activities not only in Malaysia, but among Malaysian students throughout the world.

Amir Muhammad is one other person who has done a lot on this front. The young writers whom he encourages to write do so in a new way. It takes a while for me to catch on to their use of language and the new words, but the movement is great. The machine that these alternatives have to rage against is formidable though.

At Popular Bookstores’ Readers’ Choice Awards lists, what you find in the nonfiction section are religious books, plus my dad’s book. In the fiction section, all you get are romance novels.

You have to get children interested in literature at an early age. At the same time, we see how social media is changing our habits. It’s happening to me too – I lose patience with long articles. Our reading habits change, and our writing habits change as well.

Things are so politicised in Malaysia. I try not to read my newspapers until late in the day. I don’t want to start my day on the wrong note. Self-protection lah; I have to keep my mind sane. But I do sense that something is different now. The disappointment with the system is very widespread today.

Marina, how do you handle being famous and being an influential cultural personality?

Influential… I don’t know to what extent I am influential. It is of course impossible to measure that. Fame is a funny thing. I don’t want to complain about it because people are really only being nice, but it can get a bit much. The other day, I fell asleep on the plane coming back from Kuching. When I woke up and before I could disembark, the captain wanted to take a picture with me. I felt very embarrassed, what with people streaming by and getting off the plane.

One thing I notice though. While young people will come up to me to say that they like my work and they read my column, older people will say that they are admirers of my father. It’s like I am a substitute. Sometimes, if I feel jahat, I will say, “Oh, and not me?”(laughs).

What pressures do you feel from being famous?

Well, I do think about what I should wear. Just not covering my head is already becoming a statement. You get a bit paranoid. But now as I get older, it gets easier. My choices of what to wear become more limited anyway (laughs).

I don’t want to be a hypocrite, and I do not want to behave differently in Malaysia from when I am overseas. And I don’t want to have to fight small annoying fights, when there are real big battles to fight. So there is real pressure for me to avoid such fights and yet remain what I am.

And then there is what my brother calls “Upward delegation of responsibility”. I get people telling me I have to write about this and that, or nothing will happen. But I cannot write about 10 million things – I am not an expert on 10 million things. And anyway, it disempowers others for me to be the one to be doing all this.

I don’t like to talk off the top of my head either. People want me to join them for this and that. But I would say, “You do it,lah”. The process of doing it yourself is what empowers you.

One last question:What advice do you have for young Malaysians today?

I used to think badly of people who leave the country, but now I think people should go where they can develop their full potential when they have the chance. They need the experience.

We tend to act like Malaysia is the whole world. We are not! The world today, unlike when we were young, is so open. If you have the talent, you can do anything; you don’t have to be confined to these borders. But remain engaged with Malaysia. Don’t become disengaged.

You know, Malaysians tend to be very patriotic people wherever they live. There is no such thing as leaving – that’s only physical. Malaysians are very used to our multicultural landscape. We are very much at home in it. We often underestimate the value of this.

I remember what it was like living in Japan and coming back for visits to Malaysia. Japan is homogenous in many ways, as you know. So, whenever I came back to Malaysia from there, I always felt like I was transporting myself from a black-andwhite movie into a colour movie. I really felt that. My senses were not stimulated in Japan the way they are in Malaysia.

We need to value more what we have here.

Ooi Kee Beng is the deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). His works can be accessed at

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