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Faiz Subri and Malay masculinity

Published in Malay Mail Online

Penang footballer Faiz Subri’s recent FIFA Puskás Award for his bewitching knuckleball free-kick brought its own share of hangers-on and opportunists.

Faiz’s win was incontrovertibly his own, a demonstration of his personal passion and talent rather than a reflection of the state of the country’s football prowess or lack thereof.

A recent video that went viral online showed Faiz’s top five goals, and it served as proof that Faiz’s performance was not really a fluke as he netted one goal after another wonderful goal from an incredible distance.

But over the 11 months since he scored that winning goal, Faiz has had to suddenly carry the hopes and dignity of a country whose team currently ranks 161 in the world below Aruba and above Macedonia, a far cry from its 79th place in 1993 when the ranking was first devised.

Born a Malay, Faiz has also had to carry the burden and pride of the majority ethnic group, which is still struggling with its post-colonial identity even nearly 60 years after Malaya declared itself independent.

In the days leading up to the award, Faiz was handed a full set of black Baju Melayu with gold thread on its songket samping and tengkolok — all in all worth RM3,000 — by Institut Seni Malaysia Melaka.

Malay revivalist group Armada Malaiu Malaysia also gifted Faiz with another set of Malay attire. Perhaps named after the term “Malaiu” used by Italian scholar Antonio Pigafetta who accompanied Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the group is known for showing up in full ancient Malay warrior attire at events and press conferences.

The colourful suit it gave Faiz, complete with a traditional petticoat jacket, sandals, a towering tanjak and keris, however was mercilessly ridiculed by the public.

Why the ridicule? While the attire was meant to evoke an ancient Malay warrior, the only thing it reminded people of were sadly either a Malay groom or a Malay supremacist, a weird combo of where so-called Malay masculinity rears its head in this age.

But it has not always been like this. A podcast by BFM Radio’s philosophy show Night School late last month caught my attention with its conjecture of how Malay masculinity has played out over the years.

In it, hosts Ahmad Fuad Rahmat and Sharaad Kuttan highlighted how the Malay masculinity actually lacked the sort of hyper-masculinity that dominated 1980s American pop culture with the likes of “Rambo”-ish Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Instead, the 1980s silver screens were filled with brooding and melancholic Malay men who were struggling to keep pace with city life following migration from the rural areas.

And while 1980s American rock was filled with glam rock bands singing about sex, drugs, and rock and roll, the Malay bands influenced by the genre had evolved into its own world of “rock kapak”, and became popular through melancholic ballads about lost love, unrequited feelings, and an intense yearning for affection.

Even the ancient archetype of Malay maleness, the heroic Hang Tuah, is remembered as someone who was subservient and loyal to his Malay ruler, while it was his rival Hang Jebat who possessed qualities viewed by current mainstream as masculine: headstrong, rebellious, and wild.

Do not forget the martial arts preferred by Malays, the silat, which although in its combat form is decisive and lethal, is mostly known by its showy and daring steps and opening moves that is more akin to dance. Like the Brazilian capoeira, it is more elegant and gentle rather than brash and unreserved.

And yet, I would venture that this view of Malay masculinity has been forgotten these days, and replaced by that hyper-masculinity that was previously absent.

There is perhaps more need for Malay men these days to show their bravado and machismo, which sadly culminated in the current Malay fiction trend of a dominating and abusive partner.

That Malay wedding? A fantasy for some who view it as the day where men are kings, and women their queens at their service, right until the consummation of their marriage at the wedding night.

The “rock kapak” bands produced men like Awie, the frontman of hard rock legend Wings, who despite a public record of physical abuse against his former wife, has just been awarded a “datukship” by Pahang — which he perversely attributed to his fortune after a third marriage. And yes, Awie posed in a full Malay suit with keris after his award.

And that respected art known as silat? Bastardised by the comical Red Shirts and other Malay supremacists who dubbed it the “last line of defence” of the Malays against other minority races which they view as trying to usurp the alleged rightful position of the Malay race and Islam in the country.

The proud Malay suit is now associated with caricatures such as Rani Kulup and his gang, who wield their power in the form of publicity and police reports that can make or ruin somebody’s lives for no good reason.

In the end, Faiz did not wear his Baju Melayu on stage, even when FIFA relaxed its rule. He showed up in a tuxedo like most others. He spoke English, not Bahasa Melayu. And for this, he was lambasted by some for purportedly failing the Malay race.

Faiz had a good reason to not wear his Baju Melayu. It was after all January, freezing winter in Zurich. Therein lies the irony: if the tailors were serious, they could always construct a Baju Melayu with material fit for winter. But such are purists everywhere, stubborn and unmoving — inevitably to their death.

Malay men must move along with the times as they find their place in society. To cope with the rising wave of feminism and equality does not mean asserting the negative traits associated with men, but to rise above traditional gender roles and stereotypes.

This goes out to husbands and fathers who wish to transcend society’s archaic expectations of what a man should be. You are not alone, and together we will raise sons and daughters to break the mould, for a better future.

Published inMMO column
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