Raging Against the Machine: Reflections on Pendatang, Abang Adik and Maryam Pagi Ke Malam

By Yee Heng Yeh

May 2024 FEATURE
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Pendatang (Photo courtesy of Kuman Pictures and Tapir Films)

WHAT DO (a) a family living in a speculative, segregated Malaysia; (b) two brothers squeezed into a Pudu flat and; (c) a woman of royalty who owns an art gallery, all have in common?

Actually, more than you would think.

These are the protagonists of three Malaysian films released last year: Pendatang (directed by Ng Ken Kin), Abang Adik (directed by Jin Ong) and Maryam Pagi Ke Malam (directed by Badrul Hisham Ismail). It would be reductive to view them only through a political lens—yet it is interesting to note a common thread: each film explores the ways in which individuals survive, navigate or challenge the socio-legal systems they are trapped in.

Pendatang presents a future where Malaysia is parcelled of into race-specific areas. We learn that this development was triggered by an incident that happened on a particular September 27 (the characters refer to this as “927”, the same way May 13 is simply denoted as “513” in Chinese). In this segregated society, supplies are strictly rationed, the friendly neighbourhood watch is an armed militia, and movement is limited by curfews and barbed wires, Kampung Baru-style. The world-building is deliberate, evoking spectres from the past to warn us about the future.

A Chinese family moves into a Malay kampung house, still haunted by the belongings of its past inhabitants, where they later discover a Malay girl hiding in the attic (nicknamed “Panda”). The dilemma is clear: to turn her in and save their own skin, or try to smuggle her into the Malay area? As personal morals clash with official policies, the film suggests that what is legal is far from being right. The title also subverts the derogatory rhetoric surrounding the term “pendatang”, so often weaponised against racial minorities; here, the Malay child is the outsider who requires protection from the majority.

On the other hand, Abang Adik shows us the dystopia that exists here and now— of Malaysians who fall through the cracks of the nation’s identity registry. The power dynamics are brutal but complex. In the first scene, we see Adi, himself a stateless individual, working with a crime boss to extort more money in a migrant smuggling deal. When the cops come raiding, Adi is markedly a less vulnerable victim, since a photocopy of his birth certificate allows him to slip through the net that ensnares the undocumented migrants. (The Chinese title translates to “The Youth of Pudu”, which allows a more expansive interpretation than “Abang Adik”: throughout the film, we see migrant workers leap of rooftops, share food with Abang and rounded up like cattle during a midnight raid—we wonder: aren’t they, too, the youth of Pudu?)

Abang (big brother to Adi) encourages him to apply for an IC in order to obtain official citizenship; but Adi is vehemently resistant to the idea, since he would have to meet his estranged father to do so—this resistance leads to an abrupt turn to violence in the second act. The film’s core question: What kind of humanity can prevail in a system like this? And so it is most moving when it surprises us with tender moments: Abang’s short-lived romance with a girl from Myanmar, or the birthday party of a neighbour who acts as their mother figure—in this world, joy is not only possible, but also necessary.

Maryam Pagi Ke Malam (Photo courtesy of Anomalous Films and Rhu Graha).

Marginalisation, however, does not just happen on the margins, as Maryam Pagi Ke Malam reminds us. The eponymous Maryam enjoys every privilege afforded to a woman of her standing—but she also suffers from the shackles of the same identities that bestow so much social status. The Kafkaesque process of getting approval for her marriage—because she is Malay, of royal blood and a woman—is documented over the course of a day. We experience Maryam’s growing frustration as she is subjected to demeaning questions and doubts, even from her closest friends. Racism, too, can be intersectional.

The film is incisive as satire, revealing the hypocrisies of those in power who proclaim moral superiority just to profit from it—this best exemplified by the Starbucks-sipping, Palestinian-flag-bearing ustaz. Notably, the only characters who sympathise with Maryam are those employed by her or her family: her personal assistant, the family tailor and her spunky lawyer. In the end, unable to even talk to her partner about her day, she is unutterably alone, even more so than Panda or Adi. (A friend pointed out how this comparison brings up questions of class solidarity—or the lack thereof…)

Abang Adik (Photo courtesy of MM2 Entertainment, More Entertainment and New Century Southward Development).

Hopeless or Not

So, if you are entangled in such a system, is there no way out? Pendatang suggests that such an artificial system would eventually collapse on itself. This collapse, though violent, seems like the only solution —hence the plot swerving into a barrage of shootouts, complete with a Mexican standoff.

In Abang Adik, no such dismantling occurs. The system is too big and merciless; the characters, ultimately powerless, can only take things one day at a time. Maryam’s final shot shows her the next morning, having to do battle all over again. Her raging against the machine continues; she, too, waits for a Godot of her own.

Though these three films may share thematic ground, their releases are starkly different. Abang Adik had a conventional cinema release (with unconventional success) after a triumphant run in Taiwan. Pendatang, billed as Malaysia’s first crowdfunded movie, premiered freely on YouTube—co-producer Amir Muhammad had to emphasise that this was not done to avoid censorship so much as to make it widely accessible. And Maryam? Given that it unabashedly tackles the three R’s (race, religion, royalty), it is no surprise that it has only been shown at international film festivals and private screenings.

Like these characters, Malaysian filmmakers also employ their own strategies to navigate the systems they inhabit. I think about the online vitriol directed at Pendatang even before its release, purely on its title. I think about Amanda Nell Eu’s statement denouncing the censored cut of Tiger Stripes released in local cinemas.[1] I think about how, just this January, the director and producer of Mentega Terbang were charged in court for “‘hurting religious feelings”—over a film that came out over two years ago.

Most of all, I think about the recent proposed amendments to Malaysia’s citizenship law that would further disempower stateless groups. I think about the continual reports of raids carried out by the immigration department. In all three films, there is a tragic resonance—these characters crushed by the system do not just appear out of thin air; they are borrowed from life, and remain even after the credits roll. They remind us that deeper tragedies continue happening, off-screen.


[1] https://variety.com/2023/film/news/tiger-stripes-director-amanda-nell-eu-denounces-malaysian-censorship-film-release-1235761726/

Yee Heng Yeh

is a writer and Mandarin-to-English translator whose work has been featured in The KITA! Podcast, adda, Strange Horizons, NutMag, Nashville Review and Guernica. You can find him on Twitter at @ HengYeh42.