Finally, many months after aspiring to do so, I have completed the reviews of the three films that won at the Freedom Film Fest in 2012. I had a look at Nadira Ilana’s ‘The Silent Riot’ here, while I also took the time to check out ‘Rights of the Dead’ by Tricia Yeoh. They both had their merits, and undoubtedly their audience as well, but it is ‘MCM: Utopia Milik Siapa’ by Boon Kia Meng that manages to strike me a lot closer to heart.
In the film, he takes a look at the housing situation in Malaysia, with the soaring price of new homes crushing the dreams of many. That may seem somewhat bombastic, but the basic premise is that while the supply of homes is not exactly all that limited, the ability with which we can own a home is probably another issue altogether.
To that end, he uses a main character as the conduit through which the issue can be explored in a more personalised way. We meet Ihsan, a young man still making his way in the world. He’s not all that young mind, you, but at an age when many would expect more financial independence, he is still living at home with his parents not primarily out of desire, but out of necessity. This is because in spite of his best efforts, he is unable to accrue enough financial support to actually make a firm and fair commitment to owning his own house.
Through a number of voxpop interviews, we then see (in case we weren’t aware of it before) how he is not alone in this particular plight. A very pleasant surprise was one of the interviewees, Tan Yong Jue, who acted in my first official film, ‘Goldfish’, as the protagonist. I had not seen him in years, except for a small role in ‘Kurus’ (which was also many years ago). One could say that he has expanded in the intervening years, but then I laugh and realise that the exact same thing could also be said of me.
As we both grow from the innocence of adolescence, our aspirations change and evolve and get bigger in many ways (not unlike ourselves). Going beyond the simple quantity of people involved in this dilemma, the breadth and depth of the variety of reasons contributing to this situation also renders this a complex issue. As such, the potential solution and the perceived problem is vastly different relative to different people. In short, while most would agree that there is a situation (the price of housing going up), a significant enough percentile of the population, somewhat represented by some of the interviewees does not even see it as a problem. As such, it presents the situation as what it is: a complex issue with little light at the end of the tunnel. Everyone agrees that there is a light, but whether it is the daylight at the end of a long tunnel or the beam from an oncoming train is probably another story.
It does not mean that Kia Meng leaves it at that, though. What he did do was to elicit as wide a range as possible in terms of the responses given. As such, a fair amount of people are given their 15 seconds of fame, so to speak. Even more interestingly, he also tries to (re)position the idea of housing as a basic human need. Which, truth be told, it is. It’s just that when we think of human needs, we completely throw Maslow’s theories out of the window and think of poor people with no food. To own a house, and hopefully a home (there is a difference), is the aim, but we just do not necessarily realise how important and basic this is.
One of the biggest causes identified are the unscrupulous developers who build these homes and sell them for the 1%. This is not, unfortunately, the percentile of cost, but more of a reference to the highest of the upper class more able to make such purchases. These are the kinds of houses that is situated in a prime location: places like Subang Jaya, perhaps, or maybe some of the newer development areas such as Setia Alam. Of course, in that context, and perhaps if you are born and bred in that context, you’d probably laugh at the man who makes a couple of thousand having the right to also purchase multi-million ringgit homes. It’s a big ‘if’, though.
Once, a student suggest I purchase a home near Mont Kiara. I had been discussing with her about how I rent partly out of necessity in many respects, but also out of enjoyment, as a smaller part of me enjoys the more nomadic experience of living in different places. “Alah, RM1 million je, Encik Fikri,” she said, the tonality of her response making it clear to me the sense of value she places on that amount. I near spat out my “teh C tarik halia kurang manis, kurang semut”, and considered her to be a lucky girl indeed.
Others have also suggested that it is not the developers, but the banks who are leveraging an insane amount of money for people to actually make such purchases. One of the interviewees, Dr Ernest Cheong, makes such an issue, using his experience and years in the industry to graphically illustrate the difference between us, our fathers and their fathers. The basic point is that we pay a lot more over the long run in the long term, and it is this that can be quite crippling, leading me to wonder whether it is right that such industries are left at the almost-complete mercy of a capitalistic society. In general, there are many benefits to capitalism as a system applied in a certain manner, but this documentary highlights the how the failure of that system to have a proper safety net benefits the few.
For that’s what we are in many of the more important respects in this context, and this is what the film is truly about. I had just finished lessons with my students discussing the differences between stories and themes. Applying that here, the story of ‘MCM: Utopia Milik Siapa’ is about the affordability (or otherwise) of houses to the younger generation of Malaysians. The theme, however, is about that wedge that is driven between the different classes of society, driving it further and further apart.
You know Brazil? They’re hosting the World Cup this year. One of the biggest bones of contentions between the different stakeholders, however, is how the effects of hosting the tournament can truly benefit the nation. While the middle class is increasing in many respects, it also helps to expand the difference between the richest and the poorest who, in many cases, literally live side by side. While I am not saying that it is the exact same thing here, I do believe that this documentary is about exactly that. It is not so much bashing the developers as it is bashing/identifying the capitalists, the 1%, the government and other parties as the cause. They may aim for the same ending, but they’re not reading from the same page as the rest of the country. I highly doubt whether they are even reading the same book.
Your perspective and potential reaction to this documentary, then, depends on how much Starbucks coffee you consume. Dr Cheong made the point that we do, in many respects, have a tendency to think and wish for the things that’s actually beyond our means, and used coffee as an example. In short, we bitch and moan about how we don’t have enough money, then we splurge around RM15 on a frappucino latte. We expect that to be the norm, and fail to consider alternatives to this alternative we (want to) consider a necessity.
What is to blame here, then? The dream, or the reality?
Fikri has a hard time deciding where to buy his house. It’s a really big question. Check out this interesting write up inspired by the film. Can you guess which side of the fence the writer’s on?
Featured image credit: Peninsularity Ensues