Colours have always embodied symbolic and emotive meanings, whether in art, religion, politics or culture. Black signifies death, white signifies innocence, red signifies passion, blue signifies calm, and so on. But these are just the rudimentary skin that we learn as initial reactions. Beneath them lie a complex and constantly shifting threads of weight and significance as histories and people trade in an ever-going negotiation of power.
Burst the Fear by Sharon Chin
The colour yellow has gained phenomenal notoriety in the current Malaysian landscape. It has inspired hope, mobilised connectedness, instigated arrests and aroused fears. Yellow is the chosen colour by the BERSIH, Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, that saw a historic gathering of more than 20,000 people turning the heart of Kuala Lumpur yellow in November 2007. On 9 July 2011, another walk by the yellow-clad masses is planned, resulting in a salvo of reactions and counter reactions by supporters and opposers alike. Included in this is a wave of art work, poetry and designs that continue to suture layers of meanings and symbolism onto the colour yellow.
Be Heard by Sharon Chin
In school, students are taught that the colour yellow in the Malaysian flag signifies the Malay royalty. Encased by the crescent moon and star, its symbolic weight is granted through its attachment to Islam as the official religion, and the unity of the 14 states that make up the federation. The choice of symbols and colours went through numerous negotiation and careful consideration. It was a sign of our journey towards independence and autonomy from British rule, and was designed and chosen based on a democratic process that fit its aspirations. A design competition for a new flag was organised by the Federal Legislative Council in 1947, and shortlisted designs voted upon by the public by post. Out of 373 entries, Mohamed Hamzah, a 29 year old architect working for the Jabatan Kerja Raya in Johor Bahru won the competition.
Tear Gas, Water Cannon by Sharon Chin
The current tide of yellow resonates with this history of transformation. Tired of flawed democratic processes, the BERSIH coalition is calling for a change that can result in real power flowing back to the ordinary citizen through clean and fair elections. Yellow now signifies the power of the people, subverting the consolidation of power on institutions that is deemed to no longer adequately represent the interests of the masses. This can be seen from the creative expressions as seen here.
by Shieko Reto
Shieko’s work depicts the ordinary citizen, clad in yellow, literally cleaning up the “blue” that makes up the nation with her vacuum cleaner. Blue, which traditionally signifies unity of the people (in the reading of the Malaysian flag), now instead stands in for the “blue” of state power, signified by the blue uniform of the police. The role of communication technologies in facilitating democratic processes (and the attempts to subdue it) is also expressed through the beating up of the Digi yellow mascot by the police in blues. The posters by Sharon Chin speaks of the multiplicity of alternative ways that ordinary citizens can engage with the political process, from dancing to overcoming fears. Interestingly, yellow is also now used to call for unity, overtaking the previous monopoly of the meaning from the colour blue.
by Shieko Reto
There are equal attempts to reclaim and redefine yellow by those who oppose BERSIH, as can be seen through the “kotor” (dirty) icon. It aims to challenge the meaning of yellow as “cleansing” democratic systems to instead, signify corruption and moral decay. It gains currency through mimicry, and notably, replaces the “X” symbol of the ballot which signifies the power of the people, with the image of a red keris – a sign of Malay supremacy. This brings racial relations into the symbolic conversation, augmented by the colour red which alludes to violence or danger, and stands in as a visual reminder of bloodshed that has taken place (or has been repeatedly warned as an ever-present potential) in the nation’s history.
Kotor by Unknown
The calls for transformation in social and political power is clearly accompanied by the disruption and subversion of symbolic meanings attached to our national colours. Instead of a neat, state-led processes of meaning making, even the creation of visual and poetic commentaries have an anarchic and memetic spontaneity, gathering strength and vitality with each new interpretation and creation. This in itself represents the energy, power shifts and longings of what constitutes “nation” at this time. So what does the colour yellow now signify? The prevalence of meanings will depend on the resonance, stickiness and replication or adaptation by people. In other words, what meanings prevail depends on how many people choose to reify, subvert or reinforce particular symbols and expressions. Funnily enough, it’s a kind of democracy in working.
Kami Semua Ambiga (We are all Ambigas) by Mark Teh
Bersih chairperson Datuk Ambiga featured here in the flyer
Unggun Bersih by A.Samad Said
Malaysia’s poet laureate was questioned by police under the country’s Sedition Act after reciting this poem in public.
Semakin lara kita didera bara—
kita laungkan juga pesan merdeka:
Demokrasi sebenderang mentari
sehasrat hajat semurni harga diri.
Lama resah kita—demokrasi luka;
lama duka kita—demokrasi lara.
Demokrasi yang angkuh, kita cemuhi;
suara bebas yang utuh, kita idami!
Dua abad lalu Sam Adams berseru:
(di Boston dijirus teh ke laut biru):
Tak diperlu gempita sorak yang gebu,
diperlu hanya unggun api yang syahdu.
Kini menyalalah unggun sakti itu;
kini merebaklah nyala unggun itu.
The Bersih Fire
As the coals that molest us rage higher
we shout still the message of Merdeka
for democracy as bright as the sun
as pure as dignity our purpose is one
Deep is our worry – as democracy’s wounds
long is our sadness – as democracy’s woes
at arrogant democracy we scorn
for a strong free voice we dream
Two centuries ago Sam Adams decreed
in Boston was tea poured into blue seas
no need for riotous shouts full of ire
only for a truly heartfelt fire
Alight now the sacred fire
spread afar raging higher.
Sharon Chin Bersih Leaflet
We are all AMBIGAS