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Lloyd Fernando a postcolonial writer of Malaysia explores issues of identity and cultures in a multi-racial society as well as issue of nationalism in his two novels, Scorpion Orchid (1976) and Green is the Colour (1993). The writing of the Green is the Colour was inspired by an episode in Misa Melayu an 18th century Malay Literary and historical classic by Raja Chulan Ibni Raja Hamid. The manuscript narrated the history of Malay Royals of Perak who ruled the state between 1700 to 1780's. The episode being referred to is about a woman named Siti Sara, daughter of Lebai Hanap, a Tamil in Sayong who was married to a Tamil called Seri Raja Khan but was divorced after a while. A suitor named Abdullah from another place wanted to marry Siti Sara but his proposal was turned down by Maharaja Lela the leader of the district despite the approval that he had initially given before. Maharaja Lela had become infatuated with Siti Sara and wanted to marry her himself but Siti Sara firmly refused. He insisted on having Siti Sara for himself and so he kidnapped her. Since all hopes were lost, Abdullah and Siti Sara finally came together in love. Seri Maharaja Lela who was infuriated and humiliated for being rejected by Siti Sara, finally offered her to the Sultan as a slave.
Fernando worked on an actual incident of racial riot of 13th May 1969 that happened in Malaysia more than 40 years ago. Although considered to be almost taboo to be discussed in public, Fernando did a very good job in addressing it. On the surface level one can read the novel merely as a love novel though it is incomparable to the works of famous authors like Julie Garwood and Judith McNaught. However, Green is the Colour is more than just a romantic novel, because besides love, it explores much more important things such as nationalism and racism which are very vital in a multicultural country like Malaysia up until today.
Set after the racial riot of Malaysia on 13th May 1969, the story portrays how the country is still scarred by violence, fear and groups of people taking law of enforcement into their own hands roaming in the countryside. Basically, the 13 May 1969 incident is a term for the Sino-Malay sectarian violence ignited in Kuala Lumpur and later spread to the surrounding area of Selangor. The tragedy which particularly affected people in Kuala Lumpur caused a lot of injuries, destructions and death of the citizen. This incident leads the government to take some drastic steps to maintain peace and order among the multiracial citizens in which the rebuilding of the nation became one of the important agendas.
Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Rise and Spread of Nationalism (1983) defines nation as "imagined, limited and sovereign communities". The "imagined community" is different from an actual community because "it is not (and, for practical reasons, cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members". Gellner (1964) as cited by Anderson makes a comparable point by saying that "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: rather it invents nations where they do not exist." A nation may never know each of the other members face to face; but, they may have similar interests or identify as part of the same nation. Anderson also states that the creation of imagined communities became possible because of "print-capitalism". Capitalist entrepreneurs printed their books and media in the vernacular (instead of exclusive script languages, such as Latin) in order to maximize circulation.
Quayum(2009) in his introductory note for "Writing A Nation Essays on Malaysian Literature" states that "nationalism which implies idealisation of the nation that has many positive qualities in its ideal state, creates the sense of belonging, solidarity and shared membership for all its citizens whereby all members recognise mutual rights and duties towards one another. Besides, it also creates a sense of conviction and loyalty among members to certain shared artefacts of the nation. However, to some extent nationalism may also be dangerous in such a way that the idealisation of the nation can turn into idolatry and nationalist sentiment can deteriorate into demagoguery, divisiveness, despotism, radicalism and racism leading to sectarian arrogance and destroy the creative bond of the wholeness of humanity. It can also quash the freedom of the individual when people come to consider the abstract cause of the nation as superior to the autonomy of the self" (p.5)
Green is the Colour (1993) provide crucial insights into the state of belonging and nation-formation, as well as the understated realities of racial- religious segregation and politics of prejudice which are still rampant in the contemporary Malaysian ideological landscape (Qayum and Nam, 2009). Interestingly, Fernando chooses Siti Sara the woman character of the story to convey his message on the theme of nationalism. Although some critics think that Fernando may have stereotyped his woman characters in both his novels as being weak and having an inactive role towards the nation building because of the depiction of the rape incidents, we should not deny their roles as a representation of a nation. Quayum (2001) for example sees the character of Siti Sara in Green is the Colour as a metaphor of a nation and feels that her rape by Panglima is especially significant:
"...she is at the centre of the novel and associated with the countryside and the natural beauty of Malaysia from time to time. The author's worst fears about the future of Malaysia would be realised if corrupt politicians and bureaucrats like Panglima were allowed to remain at the helm and rule of the country. The way is open for them to abuse the country in the way Panglima abuses Sara. "
(Shaping a New National Destiny with Dialogic Vision: Fernando's Green is the Colour, p. 168-173).
Fernando in away cautions the reader that the unsettled issues such as religious segregation and prejudice among the multiracial and multi-religious citizen are capable of creating a bigger problem resulting in the destruction of the nation symbolised by the rape incident of Sara. His interpretation of nation or "imagined community" would be a community that can accept differences and tolerate each other. The effect of the racial riots on the entire nation especially on the band of closely linked individuals like Sara, Yun Ming, Gita and Dahlan and how it affects their relationships particularly through their contesting views of the nation are very well depicted in the story. However, as Quayum (2007) puts it, as long as we consider love as the base of all metaphysics and humanity and as the highest principle in life, we can never go wrong in self-refashioning ourselves as a nation or a society.
Another problem which can hinder the formation of a nation in the country is the exploitation of power by the leaders. This issue has been addressed through the character of Panglima who always abuses his power as the political secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs in order to fulfill his evil desires. He hides behind his "mask of nationalism" and propagates his ideas of nationalism. He is in favour of a forced cultural assimilation and thus uses his power on his subordinate like Yun Ming who regards him as a mentor. Panglima believes that the citizen can be prosperous and kept together through a single set of values whereby the migrant races are required to sacrifice their ethnic identity and integrate with the local culture. Among others, he exploited his power and device a scheme for Dahlan's and Yun Ming's abduction and torture resulting in Dahlan's death and Yun Ming being separated from Siti Sara. Through his neat plan Panglima finally succeed in imposing his power to draw Siti Sara near to him and rape her in his house. Here, Fernando implies that his worst fear about the future of Malaysia would be realised if corrupt politicians and bureaucrats like Panglima are allowed to rule the country. Fernando through his collected essays in Cultures in Conflict (1982) as well as his two novels, articulates his firmly held beliefs in racial and religious integration and deftly criticized communal and divisive politics like what can be witnessed in the 13th May 1969 riot.
The idea of an ideal nation according to Fernando would be a nation that can tolerate differences and appreciate others like what can be seen in the portrayal of cross-cultural relationship between Siti Sara and Yun Ming . Yun Ming, a second generation Chinese is a civil servant working for the Ministry of Home Affairs seeks justice by working from within the government. He is attracted to Sara, an oversea- graduate lecturer teaching in a local premier university from the first moment he sees her at a concert. Yun Ming and Sara put aside the differences in their race and religion in order to pursue their relationship. Sara is attracted to Yun Ming who is described as a gentle, moderate man and looks at things from a "human point of view" and believes in the "brotherhood of all". His sincerity and trustworthiness are evidenced through his willingness to risk his life in distributing relief goods in the Malay areas even during the peak of racial riot. Siti Sara who at first tries not to make her feeling obvious finally accept Yun Ming and begins to find comfort and peace in his company. The understanding and tolerance that Sara never gets from her spouse leads Sara to be deeply in love with him. Despite all the challenges and disapproval from others (except from Lebai Hanifah, Siti Sara's father), the couple is almost successful in their relationship until Yun Ming is caught and Sara is raped all under the instruction of Panglima.
In addition, Fernando also thinks that "provoker" like Dahlan who carelessly addresses sensitive issues related to religion as well as extremist like Omar who believes in the building of nation based on one religion are not welcomed in his "imagined community" because they only bring troubles and stir the peace and order in the country. Instead, Fernando's through this novel proposes people like Lebai Hanifah a respectful Quranic teacher in the village and who is also Siti Sara's father, together with Yun Ming, Sara and Gita to represent his ideal nation. The character of Sara who is described by some as not having a "unitary, parochial sense of identity" like her lover Yun Ming, nor adopt a "monolithic model of nationalism" like her husband Omar, has actually been chosen by Fernando to articulate his notion that through this kind of acceptance and flexibility, an "imagined communities" proposed by Anderson will be realised.