M For Malaysia Review: A Surprisingly (Fairly) Unbiased, Emotionally Moving Documentary

Last year saw the release of Rise: Ini Kalilah. A glossy, melodramatic, hokey, terribly biased and frankly repulsive film that ended with a Malaysian-Chinese and a white dude who had just arrived from Australia (or something) hugging each other on a hill — because of course, we need the approval of a white guy — under the graceful waves of Jalur Gemilangs… in slow motion. The only thing missing was a stream of fireworks in the background illuminating the night’s sky. I walked into M For Malaysia worried that it was going to be more of the same, especially since it’s produced by Tun Dr Mahathir’s daughter, Marina Mahathir and co-directed by one of his granddaughters, Ineza Roussille (alongside Dian Lee). Sure, it’s a documentary as opposed to a biographical film, but documentaries can be biased propaganda pieces too (see: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11). Thankfully, this is anything but.

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The opening credits of the film reintroduces us to Najib, the villainous Kleptocrat, through stylistically rendered animation. It’s still surreal that the man syphoned around close to 3 billion ringgit of the public’s money into his personal accounts. We then see him pass sarcastic remarks about Bersih, mocking — in his words — the “fragile people who collapsed on the road just by getting hit by a little bit of tear gas.” That familiar, irksome, smug voice of his gets our blood boiling like the Indonesian Merapi. We see a Pakatan Harapan politician calling him a Naked Emperor. Syed Saddiq tells a heartbreaking tale about how Najib once threatened his mom. This story, I hadn’t heard of before, making it all the more affecting.

We anticipate Tun M’s “hero-introduction” shot, but we don’t get it. No praises being sung, not by his fellow party members, not by his family. Instead, Roussille and Lee paint him in a manner that I never would’ve thought possible in a local film period, what more a big-screen release — they paint the truth. Because of the strength of the Malaysian economy during Tun M’s first tenure, because he industrialised our country, we often forget that he was in fact a dictator that ruled with an iron fist. One who not only limited freedom of expression but also through Operasi Lalang (that started in 1987) chucked opposition members in detention camps if and when he pleased.

M For Malaysia

He even came up with an entire narrative, claiming that his then DPM, Anwar Ibrahim, was involved in “illicit” sexual activities, denounced him and threw him in prison all because he challenged some of Tun M’s political ideas. Hiding under the veil of economic advancement, Tun Dr Mahathir was perhaps the first true political villain (anti-hero perhaps?) in Malaysia. All of this is explicitly addressed in M For Malaysia. Terms like ‘ruthless’ and ‘unjust’ are used to describe him. At one point, director Ineza Roussille (who, let me remind you, is Tum M’s own flesh and blood), looks into the camera and says she simply did not agree with the actions of her grandfather during his first political tenure. I rubbed my eyes just to check if I was dreaming.

But that was one of the reasons that made our GE14 so enthralling, right? Not only were we fighting against one of the great — to quote a line from Harry Potter, “He Who Must Not Be Named did great things. Terrible, yes, but great,” — political scoundrels of the 21st-century (an absolute asshole, Najib), not only did we witness Tun Mahathir rise from the proverbial depths of the ocean, cleansed — a changed man akin to Jamie Lannister of Game of Thrones (one scene shows Tun M admitting to the mistakes he’s done in the past), we also saw him and his former associate, the man he once unjustly put in prison, shake hands and come together to take down the devil incarnate. The narrative transcended realism into the realm of Valmikian mythology. Watching it play out in M For Malaysia brought tears to my eyes. By the end of it, I was a weeping mess.

M For Malaysia

I love how the election campaign scenes are edited. On one end we see Tun Mahathir, who’s truly blessed with the gift of gab, take smart jabs at Najib. One the other, we see Najib repeatedly poking fun of Mahathir’s age. In pro-wrestling, it’s called going for the “cheap pop.” Najib talks about increasing BR1M and giving people money if they vote for him, Tun M says something along the lines of “I can’t/won’t pay you a single cent, but we have to take Najib down for the integrity of our nation.” It wasn’t a debate, but Sebastian Ng’s editing made it feel that way. As an audience member, it was like watching Muhammad Ali tango in the ring with a back-alley wannabe. (Rendra Zawawi’s musical score is also great. It’s emphatic without being forceful, powerful without being cheesy, affecting without being melodramatic.)

The film tackles a lot more, like the re-delineation attempts by the former government, the hanky panky that tried to go on in polling stations and even the delays by the SPRM (this was particularly interesting as we got to see ‘behind-the-scenes footage of the goings-on in the PH war room while awaiting results). But I’d like to talk about the quiet and personal moments. Because while almost everyone you see on screen may appear to be larger-than-life beings, they’re in fact, just human. They’re fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, daughters, sons, grandchildren. Two scenes illustrate this wonderfully. One of which sees Tun Siti nagging her husband about his cough and another sees Marina Mahathir bickering with her mom about makeup. These moments are not about politics. They’re delicate junctures that show us another dimension of these individuals.

And for those worried if M For Malaysia is an “anti-BN” piece of film. Notice the words that are used. Tun M doesn’t say “jangan pangkah BN,” rather, “jangan pangkah Najib.” Also, an anti-BN propaganda wouldn’t have an entire scene praising Tun Abdul Razak, Najib’s very own father. That said, M For Malaysia isn’t a masterpiece of a documentary. Almost everything we see on screen are stuff we’re already familiar with — it’s pieced together beautifully by the directing duo and Sebastian Ng, but we don’t learn anything fresh.

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And because it tries to encapsulate such a broad scope of our political history, a lot of it feels fairly touch and go. Three separate documentaries can be made on the subjects touched on in M For Malaysia — one on Mahathir’s first tenure, a whole other one can be made about Najib’s corruption, and another one on GE14 specifically. Also, Roussille asked the likes of Wan Azizah and Lim Guan Eng on to reflect on their experiences during/thoughts on Ops Lalang, but they’re generally very calm and soft spoken individuals. Why not ask someone like Nurul Izzah and Lim Kit Siang, individuals who are known to be straightforward and always unafraid to speak exactly what’s on their mind.

Having said that, as a heartwarming capsule of one of our nation’s most important moments, M For Malaysia is beautifully crafted. There’s no denying the tears that constantly flowed down my cheeks and the fine hairs that stood erect at the back of my neck. It summed up our struggles, our desire for change, showed us what a conniving individual Najib is and painted Tun Mahathir not as an unblemished angel who descended from the heavens, not as a great man, but as a flawed man who accomplished great things with the support of us, the people.

A not-so-short aside. I had a chat with a good friend and BN diehard a few months back. (Yes, we can be friends with people who have different political perspectives as our own.) He was questioning Pakatan Harapan’s accomplishments so far, citing the ever-dwindling Malaysian economy and their unfulfilled promises. Many BN supporters and members have said and continue to say the same.

But here’s the thing.

You can poke holes at the manifesto and ask, ‘what did PH accomplish so far?” And I will say, “nothing much. Not yet anyway.” You can tell me PH has been losing both popularity and by-elections and I will simply nod my head. You can show me the stats on the economy and I won’t argue. (Frankly, I don’t think I should be arguing numbers when I can’t even play blackjack without counting with my fingers.) If you say PH “sucks,” I will say our dear education minister is probably the worst of the lot.

You see, I’m not ashamed to admit any of that because that’s not why I cast my vote for Pakatan Harapan on 9 May 2018. I cast my vote for PH because since I was old enough to understand politics, I always wondered how a country can be governed by the same party for more than five decades and still call itself a democratic nation. I wondered how the same man can sit on the proverbial Iron Throne for more than 20 years and carry the flag of democracy while he’s at it. How can that same man throw opposition party members in jail and still remain in power? And then the student of the same man (Najib) — still of the same party — come in, steal our money, be involved in murder conspiracies (allegedly) and face no repercussions.

I didn’t vote for PH because I thought PH was better. I’m not a fool to think that a former dictator was now going to be our magnanimous saviour. But those were my only options weren’t they? So earlier that morning when I cast my vote, I only had one thing in mind: To shift the power back to the people again. To make Malaysia a true democratic nation. To show the people in charge, BN and PH and independent parties alike, that if you screw up, we will remove you from power. To make my vote mean something. And on that front the rakyat succeeded. It may be a small feat to some, but to a lot of others, it was the first great victory.

M For Malaysia

Which made me wonder, what does the ‘M’ in M For Malaysia truly stand for? The simple answer: Our current Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir. After all, his first name starts with the letter ‘M’ and people often refer to him as Tun M. Mahathir For Malaysia. But notice how, despite being the protagonist, the film doesn’t close with him, but with Dato’ Ambika. She who has been leading the charge in fighting against the Kleptocrats and for proper democracy way before the emergence of Tun M version 2.0. One who has always been vocal about who this country belongs to: the citizens, not the politicians. Here, once again she delivers an emphatic message — (I’m paraphrasing) ‘It’s the people who have the power, and the government, regardless of party, will have to bring their ‘A’ game or get booted out.’ So perhaps the ‘M’ doesn’t stand for Mahathir. Perhaps it stands for MALAYSIANS. Malaysians For Malaysia. Does have a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

Rating: 4/5

M For Malaysia is currently screening in Malaysian cinemas. It will only be screening for another 3 days, so be sure to check it out soon!

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