Babi (Namewee, 2020)

No stranger to controversy, Namewee’s latest, Babi, saw him once again questioned by the authorities when a complaint was lodged citing the film’s alleged “racist elements” which “tarnished Malaysia’s image” while the producer was also later accused of failing to gain the proper license for the film’s production. In fact, some were convinced that the film itself was fake and Namewee’s claims that it had been shortlisted for major international festivals were just bluster, yet it does really exist even if some really wish that it didn’t considering the rather bleak picture it paints of a society marked by racial discrimination and corrupted authority. 

Namewee opens with a lengthy context sequence outlining major events which occurred in the year 2000 from the Australian Olympics to Bush’s election while claiming that the shocking story he’s about to tell is true but was never reported because, it’s implied, it was covered up by the authorities. A boy dies at an ordinary high school, apparently having gone over one of the balconies and landing in the courtyard below. The school, panicked, want to get this cleared up as soon as possible, preferably before going home time because they’d rather the parents didn’t find out about it and are desperate to keep it out of the papers. For all of these reasons, it’s best for them to call the boy’s death a suicide, yet empathetic and soon to retire police officer Singh insists on a full and proper investigation. 

What follows is a Rashomon-like series of alternative witness statements each of which move silently towards the truth. What’s certain is that a fight broke out between rival gangs in the cafeteria after rich kid Kiet’s coke was knocked over, he assumed deliberately. Kiet is an extremely unpleasant and entitled young man resentful that no one likes him but constantly harping on about his prominent father while showing off his wealth by, among other things, driving a BMW to school. This perhaps plays into an unpleasant stereotype as Kiet is a member of the ethnic Chinese community which, despite being a minority, is resented by some Malays the film suggests for its supposed stranglehold on the national economy. The Chinese minority, meanwhile, continue to suffer degrees of discrimination. The boy who died, Chong, had been turned down when applying for a university scholarship because of his ethnicity despite his Malay friend Yisin attempting to speak up for him with the teachers. 

The teachers are, however, not interested and apparently extremely racist themselves. Arch villain Mr. Nasir quite obviously has it in for anyone not Malay, snapping as the leader of the Indian boys is questioned that “Indians are all liars” which is even more awkward considering the lead policeman is an Indian Sikh. Bullying another Indian student, he likens the necklace he’s wearing to a “dog collar” while branding Chong an “outsider” and an “immigrant” when he dares to ask questions about the procedures for awarding scholarships which Mr. Nasir claims are intended for the indigenous community while continuing to insist that Chong must be rich simply because he is Chinese. 

Mr. Nasir is himself a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the contemporary society and an embodiment of the corrupt authority that provokes the boys’ rebellion. He is actively, even gleefully, racist and routinely abuses his power in the most heinous of ways, while the leaders of the Chinese and Malay gangs also lost fathers to corrupt authority figures. Aside from his racism, Mr. Nasir is also extremely homophobic, taking aside an effeminate Indian student, ripping off his accessories, and later humiliating him. Yet his chief complaint is about the word scrawled on the bathroom wall, “Babi”, meaning pig, which he takes as a mockery of Islam. 

As the closing captions explain, the teachers were later transferred while a number of students were expelled from the school though we cannot know the veracity of Namewee’s claims, no one has apparently ever reported on the case. The incident remains “unreported but not forgotten”. In any case there is genuine poignancy in the frustrated friendship between a Malay boy and his two Chinese friends, eventually corrupted by jealousy and resentment caused by societal conservatism and discrimination. Yet as bleak and nihilistic as the film’s conclusion may seem, it does allow a ray of light in the youngsters’ eventual rebellion against the corruption which so oppresses them, united if only in a moment by their desire to break free of its duplicitous constraints. 


Babi screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)