Checkmate – Daulat and the Malaysian Political Film (part 2)

Continuing his discourse on ‘Daulat’, Hassan Muthalib discusses how Machiavellian ideals are played out in Imran Sheik’s film.

Whither Morals, Ethics and Principles?
For me, ‘Daulat’ and all of the films mentioned above are actually not about politics per se. They are about ordinary human beings, as was excellently depicted in the internationally-acclaimed South Korean film, ‘Parasite’, in which a jobless family live in almost sub-human conditions. Each one of them has talent, but greed gets the better of them. They resort to connivance when the opportunity arises, but when things start to go wrong, they resort to violence and even murder.

Similarly, the human beings in ‘Daulat’ who are in politics develop specific beliefs and behaviour. This leads them to act in specific ways to achieve what they want by any means possible. As Suri (Vanida Imran) says in the film, “In order for our party to win, I’m willing to do anything.” Anything? What about morals? And precepts of her religion? Has she forgotten that she is a Malay and a Muslim?

In an interesting visual sequence, we see her walking reverently into an isolated room, and sitting as if in meditation seemingly communing with Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance philosopher, who is grandiosely depicted in a huge portrait that covers the wall in front of her. Aha, so this is her qiblat – and her ‘god’! She is the super new Malay, who will tap into anything that will help fulfil her purpose. The scene is almost occult in its depiction. (It somehow reminds me of someone who was reputed to have dabbled in the occult, and was actually the power behind the throne. It must be my imagination running wild during the Restricted Movement Ordinance due to Covid-19!)

It is obvious that Suri is steeped in the philosophy of Machiavelli (and a Westerner at that), that politics has no relation to morals. This also calls to attention another aspect of the story: has she had foreign education where she has been influenced by certain European political philosophy? Perhaps like a former prime minister who is now facing trial in the courts, whose favourite bywords have been “You help me, I help you” and “Cash is king”. Like the characters in ‘Apokalips X’, Suri, a Malay and a Muslim, has allowed herself to be totally distanced from her culture and her religion. For her, politics is, in the words of writer/poet Ambrose Bierce, “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles,” and that “it is the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”

For Suri, the end justifies the means, and to hell with values, ethics, principles and morals. Yasu Tanaka also touched on this aspect of the character of certain Malay-Muslims in ‘Nota’, a film about a two-timing husband and a vengeful wife who resorts to ultimately killing her rival. For Yasu, a foreigner working in Malaysia, it was strange that Islam, being a religion of peace, was not reflected in the behaviour and actions of many Muslims. In a scene in the village, the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, is heard. However, the Muslim couple who arrive by boat and a village elder who greets them disregard the call, and simply walk past the musholla where villagers are praying.

In ‘Guru’, a story based on an actual character in India, South Indian director Mani Ratnam proposes that corruption and wrongdoing in business is acceptable if it were to benefit the masses. On the other hand, J.C. Chandor provides a unique twist in ‘A Most Violent Year’. Based on actual stressful events in 1981 in New York, a businessman tries to adhere to his own moral compass amid the rampant violence, corruption and decay around him. At the end, he is still true to his principles, but is on the point of bankruptcy. He is saved by his wife – with the money that she has stolen from his own company over the years.

Another interesting element of the communion scene with Machiavelli is that while Suri has accepted him as her guru and mentor, in reality she has a mistaken idea of his philosophy. Director U-Wei Haji Saari has remarked that it is alright not to understand something, but it is downright dangerous if one misunderstands it. Machiavelli did not advocate ruthlessness by leaders, except that they needed to be realistic rather than idealistic to achieve glory and survive in politics. Suri’s interpretation is obviously at fault here. She is a deviant, and Machiavelli would have been horrified.

Suri also seems to have forgotten the teachings of the religion she has been born into, and has long cast it aside. Hasn’t the Prophet (Upon Whom be Peace) said that the best path to take is the middle one? And that scholars (read: thinkers) should not knock on the doors of princes? He has even predicted that one day, His followers will be “…stricken with a disease…be overindulgent with luxury, coveting property, resorting to trickery in their efforts to garner the wealth of the world, be at odds with each other, backbite and ultimately resort to cruelty to their own kind.” (Hadith: Abu Hurairah)

In contrast, Tun Malik (Dato’ Jalaluddin Hassan) has very little screen time and hardly even speaks. It is clear that he is more of a thinker than a talker. He is obviously made of better stuff, and is in tune with his religion, but unfortunately, he is out of touch with the reality of politics of the times. Therefore, he will not last long. At the beginning of the film, Tun Malik pronounces the oath of office as prime minister with the words: “Bismillahir Rahmannir Rahim. Wallahi. Wabillahi. Wa tallah hi…” The mention of Allah as the Most Merciful and Most Compassionate precedes the taking of the oath of office, again by using His name. At the end of the film, Suri does the same, but the context is different. Tun Malik is seen as walking the straight path as a leader. Therefore, his oath would be genuine.


His manner and the way he is depicted visually point to this. There are scenes of him in his office where natural light pours in from an expansive window, and also where he looks out of the window. In the language of film, it signifies that he is looking to the future and of what needs to be done for the country. The framing that includes the sky denotes spirituality or morals. He is a man of principles, and Dato Seri Hassan (Tony Eusoff) and Suri know this. Hassan knows him and what he will do. He will prosecute all those who have misused their positions when in power. But Tun Malik is, alas, too idealistic a man, and that is his Achilles heel. And Suri knows it. But time is of the essence. She has to destablise his party before more of her compatriots’ wrongdoings are exposed, and they get hauled up in court.

For Suri and her party, power is only for the benefit of themselves. When Suri meets Hassan, it is frequently in a room with no windows and with gothic-style artificial lighting, a binary opposite to be contrasted with the scenes of Tun Malik. And what about Suri’s oath? We have seen how she manipulates people to the point of driving her own president to perform an act of killing. She displays no mercy or compassion. The attributes of God of mercy and compassion as mentioned in the oath are lost on her. She has taken the name of the Lord in vain. She has no qualms or sense of guilt. Her rivals are just chess pieces to be moved around for the desired purpose. Machiavelli would have shaken his head in disbelief.

Even if ‘Daulat’ is a fiction film, the screenplay is so structured that it cannot but be seen as pointing to or referencing recent political events in the country. From the early 1980s, Malaysians have become increasingly aware of politics when it started to impinge on their lives as never before. Race and religion played a key role in politics and was used to the hilt by the politicians in power. They were only tools to be used to achieve the objectives.

The Machiavellian approach has long been in use in a supposedly Muslim country. Suri is a natural outcome of all the shenanigans that have been practised for six decades. Politicians such as her are far distanced from the teachings of their religion, as Mamat Khalid has shown in ‘Apokalips X’. Such people are denounced in the Qur’an as the munafik (hypocrites), who are worse than the kafir (infidels). (This does not include the Unbelievers.)

This calls into question one other element.  A former (Malay) public service department head remarked in the early 1970s (after May 13th) that he did not like the way the government was using religion to control the people. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has noted, after becoming the premier a second time, that Islamic studies had been over emphasised in the Malaysian school curriculum. Billions of ringgit have been spent on Islamic education and the building of mosques around the country. One wonders why all that did not go on to create a nation of pious, caring and rational people from among the Muslim citizenry.

Instead, what has developed is a society that is not looking at itself to question if its actions and behaviour are truly Islamic, but is instead continually looking outwards to criticise others for their own deficiencies, with the recurring refrain that Islam is ‘under threat’. And if the behaviour and actions of many of today’s politicians, corporate people and clerics is an indication, there is definitely something that has gone wrong. Whether intended or not, ‘Daulat’ poses an unasked question about the politicians in the film.

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, has noted that stories are all about how men (and women) should live their lives. Suri’s address to the audience at the end of the film is the clue as to Imran Sheik’s intent and what he is exploring in the film. Today’s politics are so bizarre and so far removed from that indulged in by the founding fathers, being utterly devoid of ethics and morality.

Suri takes the Machiavellian stance, that for a person of power to succeed, he must be ‘armed’ and then use that power to achieve his objective. That there is a gap, in the words of Machiavelli, “between how one lives and how one should live,” and “…he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation.”

In Aristotle’s times, such schemers and manipulators as in the modern day did not exist. But Machiavelli had experienced all manner of trials and tribulations, and so what he preached came from out of his own experiences. If only Suri had understood what Machiavelli had really meant…

Read parts one and part three. Originally published as ‘Daulat’ by Imran Sheik: Truth is stranger – and more ruthless – than fiction’ on Academia. You can watch ‘Daulat’ here.

Featured image credit: George Becker / Pexels

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