We don’t really need more films to remind us about what’s wrong with our country – but we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to help rectify the problems, says Adrian Lee.
The launch of Ola Bola made many reminisce about Malaysia’s “good old days”. The “good old days” is a time from Merdeka till the 1970s, when most Malaysians supposedly looked beyond race or religion.
Those were the days when Ah Meng, Ali and Raju could cycle or fly kites without bothering about who was Malay, Indian or Chinese.
In reality, it is no longer common to find Malaysians from the various ethnic groups eating, playing or studying together. Even shopping trolleys and IT malls seem to be based on user demographics.
In so doing, Ola Bola tried to highlight how Malaysians today are increasingly demarcated by ethnicity and religion unlike earlier years. The film has been praised for its metaphorical reminders that success and unity can be achieved by setting aside racial and religious differences.
From a cultural studies perspective, which regards cinema as a site of contestations, Ola Bola could be viewed as criticising rising race and religious issues.
Even without watching the film, anyone keeping abreast with the latest developments in Malaysian politics should know that race and religious relations have been on a steady decline for the past 30 years.
Lest I be accused of raining on Ola Bola’s parade of praises, this display of “feel-good” unity is akin to preaching to the choir: the generation of Malaysians from the “good old days” in which the film’s plot was set would be familiar with the underlying theme of the movie.
Those who need to understand unity the most would be today’s youths. But can Malaysian youths, who’ve been indoctrinated to study, eat, play and love mainly from their respective ethnic and religious groups relate to this sense of unity espoused by an earlier generation?
Despite claiming to have a multiracial cast, Ola Bola didn’t portray a balanced representation of Malaysia’s ethnic makeup. Not present are the other ethnic communities that ultimately make Malaysia “truly Asia”.
The cinema industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum but within a society in which its issues are contextualised. The cinema industry is also a capitalist venture designed to generate maximum profit.
As Ola Bola wasn’t independently produced with a small budget nor screened for free, it could be argued the film exploited nation-building efforts and disunity for profits.
Within two weeks, the film made more than RM12m. Just how much of this would be used for nation-building efforts to “unite us as a nation” as claimed by the film’s many advertisements?
During a radio interview, one of the film’s main characters was asked, if he considers Ola Bola a success? The answer: it would be considered a success when it makes RM20m.
If the producers are really genuine about promoting unity and harmony, perhaps Ola Bola should be screened for free in schools and colleges so that its message of unity can reach more young Malaysians.
The film also doesn’t discuss other issues such as the pitiful state of Malaysian football. Instead, the repetitive airing of the film’s slogans informs us: “You will believe again.” In Malaysian football?
This is misleading for in reality, our national team nicknamed Harimau Malaya isn’t roaring: it currently ranks 171 amongst 204 countries in the Fifa world rankings.
Despite spending millions annually on football development, we rank below nations such as Antigua and Barbuda, Nicaragua, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and war-torn Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.
What about the state of sportsmanship and respect for gender in Malaysian sports? Are we mature enough to not accuse women’s volleyball outfits of being part of a Jewish conspiracy?
Or to admire the gracefulness and skills of a gymnast instead of being fixated on her leotards? Or to graciously admit defeat rather than burn flares and assault fans from visiting teams?
For the past 15 years, Malaysian cinema has already been moving towards having a more collective sense of representation through films such as Sepet, Bukak Api and Gadoh.
These films have contested critical issues and provided a space for the marginalised, which Ola Bola didn’t. Yet, Ola Bola, which remains a capitalist enterprise, does provide a breath of fresh air from the usual “hantu”, cinta and gangster formulas and is a strong contender for accolades.
It wouldn’t be surprising that a film about the 1992 Thomas Cup winning team would be produced next. The film could be titled Wanton Badminton and would be a box office success by merely saying it was produced to cultivate national unity.
And the film might court (pun intended) controversy by changing the ethnicity of the individual who made the winning smash that won Malaysia the Thomas Cup. But lest we forget, it was ultimately a team effort that won the Cup for Malaysia.
At the grassroots level, most Malaysians understand the need for unity and moderation. It is the few extremists and fanatics that occasionally attempt to throw us off track.
So there remains much work to be done in terms of unity and nation building. We are after all a team that is only 59 years young with a future to look forward to.
While the good life of yore may be a necessary reminder and incentive for present Malaysians to build a better nation, it may also be best that many stop constantly feeling nostalgic in envisioning a utopian nation built on past greatness. We wouldn’t want to live on past glories or be stuck in past mistakes.
Rather than be nation constantly on the rewind, it would be best to envision a Malaysia with a better future. We don’t really need more films to remind us about what’s wrong with our country – but we need to ask ourselves what we are doing to help rectify these problems.
As we continue demanding that everyone be recognised as Malaysians, are we truly prepared to believe in letting go of the need to recognise ourselves based on our own ethnicities?
Well, the ball – or shuttlecock – is in your court.