By Aisyah Saiful Bahri and Nurul Fateha
Foo Sek Han’s “Extracts from DMZine #13 (January 2115)” (thereafter, “Extracts”) takes the form of zine extracts showcasing life in fictionalised Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, almost twenty years after a cyber-attack in 2098. Zen Cho, the editor of the anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia (2015) which contains “Extracts”, describes it as a story about revolutions, one that is conscious of the “nation’s failings” but also optimistic about its people’s resilience (Cho, “Intro” 9). In this article, we argue that the portrayal of Malaysian cultural references in “Extracts” (in the form of Malaysian speculative fiction (or, MySF)), resonates with Kamau Brathwaite’s idea of the alter|native (Brathwaite 4), as it challenges the predominant Anglocentric narratives of post-colonial countries and regions. “Extracts” does this by challenging works that seem to have stagnated in portraying Malaysia via the lens of its colonial past. These works include Susan Barker’s The Orientalist and the Ghost (2008), Kate Furnivall’s The White Pearl (2011), and Dinah Jefferies’ The Separation (2013), and similar-natured local novels including Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day (2008) and Chan Ling Yap’s Sweet Offerings (2009).
We define a Malaysian cultural reference as a visible representation of a common cultural touchstone that is exclusive and distinguished to the country, be it in the form of food, artistic expressions, lived experience, and so on. We follow that speculative fiction is a broad storytelling genre, which theorises about possible futures and draws from multiple discrete genres, such as fantasy, horror, and science fiction and crosses several other genres like the gothic, u/dystopia, alternate history, post-apocalyptic fiction, steampunk, fairy tales, and many more. It adapts real socio-cultural phenomena through fictional events to provide insight into societal issues, from political instability to changes in social and personal experience. Our reading of “Extracts” is an xploration of Malaysia’s cultural references and its discontents that are not just a “simple rebellion” (Brathwaite 4), but a revolutionary future voiced by its people. Brathwaite proposes the letter x as a “cross-fertilizing of cultures” and a sign of “resistance to oppression” (Pagnoulle, “X is for X/self”) – hence xploration.
In this article, we first discuss the structure of “Extracts.” Then, in Findings, we analyse how the cultural references in “Extracts” form an alter|native perspective of Malaysia relative to Anglo-centric world literature. By reading “Extracts” as a speculative work, we argue that the story’s dramatization of a post-cyberpunk war in a fictional Malaysia lends insight into a multifaceted nation that is more than its colonial history and typical representations of postcolonial experience there.
“Extracts” is a short story that takes the form of several fragmented snapshots narrated through a fictional zine, DMZine #13. The zine is a post-war publication produced after the KL Crisis, referring to the Secessionists’ “first brainscan shutdown attack” during the Ruling Party’s concert in 2098 at Dataran Merdeka (Foo 386). Since the enforcement of a ceasefire in 2105, Dataran Merdeka has become a DMZ, on which neither of the political parties can lay claim. The country itself is divided, with the Ruling Party controlling Putrajaya and the Secessionists ruling the East Coast.
The DMZ is an ironic reference to both the real-world location of the fictional attack, the Dataran Merdeka, and to a less culturally-specific understanding of DMZ as ‘Demilitarised Zone’. The Dataran Merdeka is an iconic historical place in Kuala Lumpur, where the Malayan Declaration of Independence from the British Empire was enacted. The fictional sociohistorical setting of “Extracts” depicts Dataran Merdeka as a walled up public square, a change enforced by the Ruling Party in order to counter the Secessionist state’s continuing bio-nuclear attacks on the city.
The extracts from the zine depict a post-war era of an imagined Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and is written as if providing the latest updates on a changing local cultural landscape. Elements of science fiction, horror, and dark humour are used to stage Malaysian cultural references and envision a changed nation and cultural context, one that is conscious of its haunting past and present whilst attempting to envision a better future through speculative fiction. Through its sci-fi, horror, and dark humour, “Extracts” is a refreshing take in contrast with many works that romanticise Malaysia’s colonial past. It also mocks the serene depiction of Malaysia as popularly seen in travel brochures and instead portrays fringe cultures and political disaffection.
The DMZine focuses on how much life has changed following massively disruptive and politically-motivated bio-warfare. This type of narrative and its focalisation through an in-text fictional publication is a speculative fiction technique used to envision and exaggerate real, extra-textual socio-political conditions using science fiction elements. Malaysia’s politics has always been haunted by its colonial past, reflected in the British parliamentary style of its government and the absence of new political developments, such as bipartisanship or younger, qualified politicians. “Extracts” extrapolates this real political stagnancy into a depiction of a fragmented nation in the twenty-second century.
Using this political-ideological division as a starting point, “Extracts” portrays the citizens in a continuous state of complex change in their multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-faith society and speculatively depicts a brewing populist uprising amidst the tentative post-war peace that has set in. From within this ambivalent socio-political state, the zine extracts offer snapshots of a Malaysia that is richer in culture, literature, and cuisine but still a nation robbed of its chance at prosperity-for-all by incompetent political leaders. These cultural innovations indicate, to a certain extent, that the Ruling Party have not been able to comprehensively address the people’s needs. “Extracts”, as speculative fiction, exposes what the real Malaysian political landscape seeks to hide through neglect. It expresses the anxiety that robust cultural production should not be mistaken with prosperity and that good governance should be the backbone of a nation.
The use of the fictional zine, DMZine, is instrumental to its polemic. Zines embody “a social phenomenon,” created to establish “new forms of sociability and new ways of being in the world” (Radway 140). As MySF, “Extracts” presents an alter|native narrative of Malaysia’s future. It showcases the fictional national cultural landscape after the civil war, both in the sense of lifestyles and ongoing activities in art and literature production. DMZine as a zine, represents “collective meaning for different subcultures” living there (Bold 218), published in print form within the perimeters of the DMZ. The editorial section mentions that publishing via paper befits the purpose of concealing “information from probes and hacks” in a digitised world (Foo 387).
The use of paper renders it advantageous for disseminating (dissident) political agendas. Thus, it suggests that the publication of DMZine is possibly a front for covert political movements gaining traction behind the façade of showcasing flourishing glocal culture. This is insinuated in an interview with a food delivery worker who will avenge her friend’s death, tortured and killed by the “Ruling Party militants” (Foo 393) for delivering a package that must have compromised their location. While the DMZ citizens embrace and celebrate new glocal cultural trends, they acknowledge and criticise the lack of a structured political governance in that demilitarised zone.
The DMZ in “Extracts” is rife with digital surveillance and other threats, from the “surveillancecloud feeds” to the “hidden snipers, child suicide bombers, block-wide brainscan shutdowns” (Foo 367). The zine’s staff brave the “darkest corners of the DMZ and its deepclouds” (Foo 369) to bring updates on art and culture. Therefore, DMZine plays the role of a zine as a “counter public sphere” (Bold 218) for the people’s lived experience and a medium for political activism and reform. Amidst the flourishing culture and bustling scenes of the DMZ are xpressions of dissent and populist movements biding their time and gaining strength.
Based on the above, “Extracts” can be read as an alter|native work which offers not only a fictional portrayal of Malaysia that differs from the norm but also a vision for reimagining the extra-textual nation. “Extracts” depicts emergent ways of living and producing culture, a sentiment that resonates with Brathwaite’s call for recognising the alter|native and giving voice to that “xperience” (6), through the prism of a fictional Malaysia’s post-cyber war. “Extracts” gives voice to an “altered consciousness” which is more than “a simple rebellion” (Brathwaite 4) by emphasising the gritty mundanity of revolution through highly specific cultural references in a story driven by everyday people trying to survive in a demilitarised zone. The speculative nature of “Extracts” creates an imagined Malaysia that writes back to both the British Empire and its legacy there as well as the contemporary impact of globalisation on the nation – providing an alter|native “xperience” to dominant narrativizations of both these processes (Brathwaite 6). This is reflected through various segments of the zine that capture forms of culture in the DMZ, discussed below.
The Historical Context
Extra-textual Malaysia is already a hub of intermingling glocal cultures and Foo uses this to explore the country’s migrant history and imagined future. The history of labour migration in Malaysia can be traced back to the nineteenth century when Chinese and Indian workers were brought to the Malay Peninsula by the British colonisers. This resulted in the establishment of the “Three Cultures” model of the colonial Malaysia’s population, comprising Malays, Chinese, and Indians (Gudeman 140). After obtaining independence from the British rule in 1957, Malaysia “sought to establish a single, multicultural nation, but with a common identity” to break away from the aforementioned model (Nijhawan, “Migration Matters”).
Since the 1980s, Malaysia has been one of the major players in “global migration movements” (Kaur 276), contributing to the “many diverse languages, religions and cultures” (Nijhawan, “Migration Matters”) in Malaysia. Malaysia has been an attractive migrant destination due to its “political stability,” strong economic progress, its long-standing “dependence on foreign workers”, and common “environment and socio-cultural” elements (Hamzah et al. 797). The high demand for labour has helped fill in various jobs otherwise deemed undesirable, often referred to by the locals as “3D jobs: dangerous, dirty and difficult” (Aw, “Malaysia’s Immigrant”). In 2020, Malaysia had over two million recorded migrant workers from Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries (“Labour Market Review” 26).
From this, “Extracts” speculates on the migration issues of extra-textual Malaysia by projecting that the country will become a place for transnational communities in the next century as a result of globalisation. The “FOOD & DRINK” segment in “Extracts” describes a new Himalayan restaurant with a variety of Burmese-Nepalese dishes and a recipe for an ethnic dish (Foo 309). Parallel to this, Foo speculates in “Extracts” the future of these Nepalese migrants by imagining a Burmese-Nepalese restaurant that replaces the Burger King outlet in Masjid Jamek (Foo 309). Extra-textually, this was a real outlet in operation for years before its closure in 2019. It was iconic to the area, a commercial, transportation, and tourist attraction hub. This fictional replacement marks an emergent consumer culture in the context of the short story, as a regional ethnic restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients supplants a global neoliberal corporation.
Another extra-textual example is Kota Raya, a Kuala Lumpur landmark. A street in Kota Raya, Tan Siew Sin Road, is now called “Bangla Market”, where many shophouses are turned into Bangladeshi restaurants and grocery stores (Low, “Breathing New Life”). “Extracts”, an expression of alter-globalisation via Malaysian cultural references, embraces and brings forward regional culture as part of the nation’s multi-ethnic quality alongside other glocal cultural references, making it a specimen of a world literature that amplifies the global south.
The segment “7 THINGS TO DO IN THE DMZ” (Foo 253-5) provides several suggestions for entertainment, including a dance performance organised by the Displaced Philharmonic Orchestra (DPO). It features a dancer who performs the classic works of Russian composers, “re-envisioned to incorporate tales of the Ramayana [a Sanskrit epic] paired with Bay-era Transformers” (Foo 315). Through the incorporation of Russian and American cultural references into the Ramayana, “Extracts” pastiches Anglo-American and Russian culture, treating them as the ‘margins’, whilst situating glocal Malaysian culture as the centre through which these other cultural products are mediated. “Extracts” is broadly accessible in being written in English, the lingua franca. But the highly specific cultural pastiches can be defamiliarising for readers who do not recognise local and national Asian cultures, giving the story an authoritative edge and distancing opacity in its production of world literature through a Malaysian lens.
The fictional DPO can be further read as engaging with the scandals surrounding the extra-textual Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO). In 2008, the MPO was criticised over its ineffectiveness in developing and promoting Malaysian talents, considering the monthly budget of RM3.5 million and its favouring of European musicians (Aziz, “Philharmonic Orchestra”). Via the fictional DPO and its robust work in contrast to the problematic MPO, “Extracts” critiques the impacts of globalisation on the global south, whose political, economic, and soft power is often inferior to its European counterparts. The impact of globalisation on Malaysian music has to a certain extent, complicated the locals’ access to opportunities that can nurture and promote their talents but in “Extracts”, the world cultures flow and interweave in orchestra performances.
The game segment, “HIKIKOMORI” (Foo 319) highlights the infusion of local and external cultural influences on Malaysia’s digital industries. The Japanese term Hikikomori refers to “recluses who withdraw from all social contact and often don’t leave their houses for years at a time” (Gent, “The Plight”). Nevertheless, the development of futuristic and socially-aware games in the DMZ in “Extracts” is valued as a form of cultural production, resonating with extra-textual Malaysia’s reputation as a powerhouse of the gaming industry in Southeast Asia (“The Gaming Industry”).
Evidence suggests that role-playing games (RPGs) are one of Malaysians’ preferred online gaming categories (Hirschmann, “Most Popular Genres”) and, in “Extracts,” the DMZine reviews the fictional RPG Epilogues, a game depicting the political crisis in the DMZ. To play, gamers assume a role as a soldier in the army of the Ruling Party, allowing them to experience a simulacrum of the cyberwar. The inclusion of an RPG as part of local culture, complete with a local product referencing an actual historic event in the story enables gamers to “xplore” their own history and form their own “xperience” (Brathwaite 6) of it, albeit virtually. “Extracts” imagines the Malaysian gaming culture as part of a platform that conveys local societal conditions.
“Extracts,” via the format of a zine, offers an alter|native vision of a post-cyberwar, multifaceted Malaysia that has evolved culturally in terms of their lived experience and cultural productions, having embraced the impacts of globalised and globalisation, and capitalised on regional cultural similarities and nuances. “Extracts” also raises the point that cultural evolution is not the salve for political stagnation, which can only be remedied with structural change in governance. Our reading of “Extracts” as speculative fiction is also an xploration of pertinent issues and experiences in Malaysia, a post-colonial country but multifaceted in its challenges, cultural shifts, and people’s resilience. As MySF, “Extracts” enriches world literature in articulating an imagined Malaysia that is more than just remnants of its colonial days, whose citizenship is revolutionary in dealing with the political fiasco created by its leaders.
We would like to thank Chris Griffin for his invaluable insights and feedback on the earlier drafts of this paper.
Aisyah Saiful Bahri, Nurul Fateha, “Malaysian Speculative Fiction as Alter|native Text,” Alluvium, Vol. 9, No. 5 (2021): n.pag. Web 22 Oct 2021. DOI: https://doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v9.5.03
About the Authors
Aisyah Saiful Bahri majored in English literature at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). Her research interests include Asian speculative fiction, retellings of regional folktales, gender studies, immigrant narratives and literary representation of the monstrous. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nurul Fateha is currently writing a dissertation on cultural formations, affect, and power in children’s literature. Her MPhil (Worcester) was a cultural materialist reading of late modernity in Terry Pratchett’s children’s novels. Her other research interests include twenty-first century fiction, children’s literature, ecocriticism, metamodernism, and Southeast Asian speculative fiction . She can be contacted using any summoning spell or failing that, via email@example.com. She can usually be found near cake. @ffateha_
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