Saturday, 31 August 2013

Why I Really Dislike This Year's Merdeka/Malaysia Day Petronas Advert

This year's Petronas Merdeka and Malaysia Day Advert (a two-for-one value deal) is wonderfully made. More than 3 minutes long, it is a sweeping panorama of multiple communities, varied Malaysian locations, and intergenerational histories. Filled with wide angle slo-mo shots set to sweeping music, it is epic in scope and has been variedly praised as "moving", "beautiful" and "the best advert Petronas has made in a long time".

Allow me to be a contrarian here: I am not a fan. In fact, I'm surprised not more people find the underlying narrative and subtext of the advert deeply disappointing.

"Our lives may be different, but our hopes and dreams are the same", goes the ending slogan.

At first this seems both a fitting and reconciliatory reminder that deep down we as Malaysians are all one and the same despite our surface differences.

But when you look at the advert closely, you notice that the main characters (all from different ethnic groups) really do live different lives; they simply happen to live in the same country.

They do not have friends from other races. They live apart from each other. They do not intermarry. The only time they "mingle" at all is in a bus on their maiden voyage to university (Universiti Petronas, naturally). Then they each focus on their own courses and after they graduate, they move on with their own lives.

If art is a mirror to life, then perhaps this advert mirrors a deeply saddening truth of contemporary Malaysia: after 56 years of independence and 50 years of nationhood, we have nothing to show other than different groups of people who share nothing in common besides citizenship in the same country. We live parallel lives that do not intersect and we know and care very little of each other. We are our own "Others".

According to this advert, our hopes and dreams are the same only on a superficial level: we want our children to do well academically and career-wise, to enjoy stability, to have families of their own. There is no hope for anything more than a better life for our kids. Not a better life for all Malaysians, just our kids. There is no shared Malaysian future, no common aspiration, no intersecting lives.

There is no Malaysian dream.

How can we not notice this deficiency? How can we lap praise at this advert? It's showing us our shortcomings as if it were our strengths.

Yasmin Ahmad, in her short advert where two women spoke to each other in different languages yet understood each other perfectly well, showcased a far more humble but beautiful and (genuinely) moving vision of our country, one which perhaps, in the time since her passing, has unfortunately become more like the Petronas Merdeka/Malaysia Day advert of 2013.

Happy Merdeka Day, and Happy Malaysia Day, my fellow Malaysians.