Tanda Putera: It’s Not All that Bad

Helena Michael watches and reviews the controversial Tanda Putera and comes back with unexpected insight.

A depiction of a Prime Minister and his Deputy leading the country through a difficult period. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.


For Merdeka Day, my hubby and I decided to watch Tanda Putera. I didn’t know much about the movie, but I kept seeing it being tweeted about, and when I asked my hubby what the movie was about, he said it was a controversial movie about May 13. I asked him why he wanted to watch the movie as we don’t usually watch local Malay productions, and he said, “I want to see for myself what the fuss and controversy is all about.” Intrigued, I agreed and thought to myself, this was a good way to celebrate Merdeka-watch a local production about some part history which seems to be causing some conflict among certain quarters. We had made plans to go to the movie with some friends, and so I quickly looked for some reviews about the movie to be able to forewarn my friends. The reviews I read and heard seemed to paint a bleak picture about the movie. Almost all of them were negative, particularly pertaining to the production quality, acting skills, lack of a proper story line and one observer even pointed out the inconsistencies of time, i.e. there was a CCTV in one frame and a Proton Saga Iswara in another.

Despite all these reviews and comments, and somewhat wary about taking my friend to watch this movie, we still decided to go ahead. Having given my friend ample warning and opportunity to opt out, we booked the tickets online. I remember my friend telling me at 11am that only 4 people so far had booked tickets. I laughed and thought to myself, well, if we’re the only ones, then it will be like a VIP screening of the movie.

How did I find the movie? I must say, I really enjoyed it. There were moments in the movie when I was asking myself and my husband if the scenes were real, i.e. did these things really happen? I was surprised at how little I knew or recalled about our history. Some of the scenes about the Chinese attacking the Malays somewhat alarmed me. I guess it affected me because these incidents happened so close to home. The Communist Chinese party members were portrayed as being extremely violent and brutal. The street killing scenes in the movie reminded me of the recent shootings that have taken place around our country and how similar they appeared to be. The other brutal scene that bothered me was the one that took place in a cinema where the Chinese were told to leave and the remaining patrons (Malays) were attacked and killed. Horrors!

However, contrary to what I know about the May 13 tragedy, there was very little shown of the backlash from the Malay community i.e. the Chinese being attacked by the Malays, so it appeared like the Chinese did all the killing. In this respect, the movie lacked balance and did not appear to depict what may have really happened in and around KL during the May 13 incident. Having said that, I must add that the May 13 violence occupied only about one third of the movie.

The main plot or story (at least from what I observed) was the friendship between the Tun Abdul Razak Hussein (Malaysia’s 2nd Prime Minister) and his deputy, Tun Dr Ismail. Admittedly, I have little recollection of who Tun Dr Ismail really was. This movie, whether accurate or not, gave me insight into who he was and how close he was to Tun Abdul Razak. He also appeared to be rather influential and seemed to have been the brains behind some of the Prime Minister’s major decisions at the time.

The focus for most of the movie was on the relationship between Tun Abdul Razak and his deputy, Tun Dr Ismail. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.

It may be that my view of the movie is too naïve, but despite the brutal and violent scenes about race relations and politics, I found the movie to be quite heartwarming. I certainly did not feel (being half-Chinese and all) that I needed to defend the community or worse, hit the streets rioting! I was particularly struck by the deep trust, respect and loyalty Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail had for each other. This was seen when Tun Dr Ismail suddenly died while serving as the DPM and how this greatly affected Tun Abdul Razak. It was also evident to me how the Malay culture placed a premium on trust, respect and loyalty, even at work. Tun Abdul Razak also came across as a gentle man, who cared sincerely for the welfare of the people.

As I watched the people’s reaction (in the movie) to the news of Tun Abdul Razak’s death, I wondered whether we would feel the same way about our current Prime Minister, who is the son of Tun Abdul Razak. As it stands, I seriously doubt so as there is little resemblance of the father to the current PM.

On a different note, I must say the wives were rather young, and after the movie when I mentioned it to my friend’s girlfriend, she said, “But that’s how it is, the wives are always young.”

Throughout the movie there was a group of people, i.e. a group of friends who were caught in the middle of the crisis. Coming from different ethnic backgrounds, the May 13 incident appeared to have all the makings of tearing their friendships apart. Although the crisis did give rise to some awkward moments between them, the friends were able to rise above it after some soul searching. That was nice. While it is almost certain that this part of the story was added as part of the producer’s creative license, I am quite certain it also reflects some of the experiences ordinary Malaysians had to grapple with during the crisis.

A group of friends feature in Tanda Putera, rising above racial tension and the May 13 crisis. | Image taken from Tanda Putera promo stills.

I’d like to think I represent the ordinary moderate Malaysian. Does this movie incite me and make me feel angry? Certainly not! As I mentioned earlier, the brutality and violence were only one part of the movie, while the rest was about the struggles of a Prime Minister and his Deputy who desired a better country. Many reviews have called into question the authenticity of this representation of Tun Abdul Razak. I don’t know as I am no historian. But at this point, I will take it at face value and make no judgments. Perhaps it’s sufficient for me to know that it would be nice if leaders today emulated Tun Abdul Razak’s care and concern for the people as depicted in the movie.

We all know that movies are not 100% accurate. In fact there is a disclaimer at the end of the movie saying as much. There are many factors that need to be considered when producing a movie as well as when watching a movie. This was not made as a documentary. It was a depiction, i.e. an attempt to highlight certain aspects of a man and his role as the Prime Minister of a country wading though difficult times. As with most movies, there are moments of exaggerations or playing down, and so we ought to watch cautiously. I am however glad that I did not blindly accept the reviews that followed the initial screening of the movie, but instead decided to watch the movie for myself with an open mind. Watching this movie has made me think about how much I know about my country’s history and its leaders. It has also helped me understand a little bit more about Malay culture and some of the values that they hold dear.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Posts by

Helena M believes there is goodness in all things and persons if one looks hard enough. “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” ? William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

Posted on 5 September 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

Read more articles posted by .

Read this first: LB Terms of Use

11 Responses to Tanda Putera: It’s Not All that Bad