OPINIONThinking Allowed

Before 1Malaysia, there was Yasmin Ahmad

By Mariam Mokhtar

Just before Merdeka, and major festivals, like Chinese New Year, Deepavali or Hari Raya, all Malaysians used to look forward to a Yasmin Ahmad commercial. These short clips were poignant scenes portraying Malaysian society, and most of the adverts, left a lump in one’s throat. Many were tearjerkers too.

They often depicted events we once experienced, like the feeling of togetherness, or a future we should not ever lose sight of, one of tolerance and a love for our fellow human beings. Most of Yasmin’s stories were of hope, forgiveness and compassion.

The Johore-born Yasmin infused the people of different races and religions, who lived under the Malaysian sun, as one people. She liked to impart a message of togetherness and inclusivity, and of a people united. Despite being of different races, these people grew up with similar goals and ideals, and were gripped by the same fears and anxieties.

Yasmin wanted to show that we were all compassionate and forgiving, and that Malaysians were capable of unity. Perhaps, it would be true to say, that before ‘1Malaysia’, we had Yasmin Ahmad.

In July 2009, at a meeting, with singer Siti Nurhaliza and officials from Media Prima, about a new project, Yasmin appeared to rest her head, on her hands, on a table, as if she was tired. Unbeknownst to everyone, she had suffered a stroke. Despite having brain surgery to alleviate the cerebral haemorrhage, Yasmin died two days later. She was only 51 years old. Malaysia lost an acclaimed film director and a champion of unity. Her films and advertisements are sorely missed, to this day.

Last year, as a special dedication to an inspiring Malaysian, Google dedicated a special doodle to celebrate what would have been her 56th birthday, on January 7, 2014.

Like most highly creative and unconventional people, Yasmin’s works, like her films which touch on sensitive issues of race and religion, were appreciated abroad, more than in Malaysia.

She has won numerous international awards, despite being harassed by the authorities at home. She has been mocked by the conservative Muslim clerics in Malaysia, but she remained defiant and said that, “Only God can deter me (from making films)”.

In an interview with Reuters, her film, “Muallaf” (The Convert), was singled out for condemnation by Muslim clerics who criticised Yasmin because they deemed that it was un-Islamic for the star, a Muslim actress, 21-year-old Sharifah Amani, to have shaved her head and acted beside a Christian Chinese character.

Yasmin brushed aside the criticism and said, “We have nothing against them (the clerics). We wish they will stop attacking us.”

One of her chief critics at the time, was the equally controversial and divisive cleric, the Perak Mufti, Harussani Idris Zakaria, who said, “As Muslims, we should not sacrifice our religion for the sake of wanting to be popular.”

Last month, the “Yasmin at Kong Heng” museum, which is dedicated to Yasmin Ahmad, and is situated in 89-91, Old Block Apartments, Jalan Sultan Yussuf, Ipoh, was under threat of closure, because of a lack of funds.

The museum, which was started by family and friends of Yasmin, was inspired by Yasmin’s mother, Inom Yon. The museum opened to the public in November 2014 and Yasmin’s sister, Orked Ahmad said, “My mother established the museum, so that the spirit of Yasmin lives on”.

Orked explained that extra funds are needed to upgrade the displays and services, and allow the museum to open four days a week, instead of only at the weekend. She said, “We want to do many things. We want to create a virtual museum, renovate the materials inside the museum and so on, but the problem is that we do not have enough money.”

The museum started fundraising through a crowdfunding campaign, called “Start Some Good”, and has set a goal of US$70,000 (RM293,598) to serve its museum visitors.

The museum has the backing of local, independent film directors, such as director Liew Seng Tat, and musician Pete Teo who said, “Most of us, whether you are aware or not, owe a debt to Yasmin Ahmad.”

One wonders if Petronas, for which Yasmin made many of her adverts, will also come to the museum’s aid.

(NB: If you wish to donate, the phone number for Yasmin at Kong Heng is 05 241 8977)

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