If you thought that recent political events in Malaysia were the stuff screenwriters would dream up then you wouldn’t be far wrong. The results of the general election stunned not only the politicians and the citizenry but also the whole world. It was like the climax of a screenplay when the hero achieves the impossible. (In a screenplay, this would happen at the second plot point in act two, around the 90th minute of a two-hour long film.)
After a decade of arrogance, mismanagement and kleptocracy on the part of the United Malays National Organisation, a realisation had dawned on the suffering population. Like dutiful parents, they were not about to see their own children — and grandchildren — go through yet more suffering. Enough was enough!
As with characters in a screenplay, ordinary people and opposition politicians were now mobilised, and about to embark upon a perilous journey, not unlike their ancestors pitting their strength against a gargantuan. Being a civilised society, these ‘heroes’ were to emerge triumphant by exercising their will through the ballot box. Incredibly, democracy was seen to actually function. All the insidious and nefarious attempts to thwart the rights and aspirations of the people had gone awry. It was nothing short of a miracle.
So what actually happened? It was a return to the archetype — and the monomyth — as it has been since the beginning of time.
The psychologist Carl Jung developed a theory of archetypes — models of human behaviour that are universally present in individual psyches and which recur throughout the ages. Building on this, the mythologist Joseph Campbell developed his idea of the monomyth or the hero’s journey. He saw that archetypes were a constantly recurring symbol or motif in mythology, literature and painting. He saw the presence of the monomyth in the narratives of Gautama Buddha, Moses and Christ, the depiction of characters and events sharing similar traits or patterns. This aspect is particularly evident in cinema. Two of Campbell’s students, Stuart Voytilla and Christopher Vogler, took it further, and applied it to the Hollywood screenplay.
The hero comes up against a formidable force (the villain), but his salvation is actually within himself. He would only discover this after answering the call to adventure, and embarking on an arduous (physical or psychological) journey. He meets the mentor who offers him advice. In his darkest hour, he is about to give up but then remembers the mentor’s advice. With the experiences he has gained, he gives it one last shot, and achieves an unexpected victory. His journey ends, but the real reward is his own transformation to a higher, more spiritual self.
Here, the archetypal elements are the recognisable character types of the hero, the heroine, the villain, the mentor, the shadow and the ally, while the recurring motifs are the journey, the awakening, the reward and so on. To Jung, the human mind retains fundamental, unconscious and biological aspects of our ancestors, so-called primordial images that function as symbols of basic human motivations, values and personalities.
For Jung, then, all the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes that are consciously applied and adapted to reality. And this is what happened in Malaysia leading up to the events of 9 May 2018.
Mahathir was once the hero, but had fallen from grace. But as a true hero, he answered ‘the call to adventure’, to save the country. Abdullah Badawi was easy meat for Mahathir but Najib Razak was a different story. There was a ‘formidable power’ behind the throne in the form of a ‘megalomaniac wife’. Both Najib and Rosmah Mansor were ‘monarchs’, with the mainstream media in their clutches and a limitless stash of money to buy off the people around them.
Drastic times called for drastic measures. Mahathir, once the enemy, now had to be friends with and unite the bickering opposition parties, and get them to ‘struggle as one entity’. The refrain at nationwide talks: Najib was the thief. On social media, Mahathir was depicted as the wise man concerned for fate of the nation, with the refrain that ‘the struggle was not over yet’. The villain’s evil deeds were constantly exposed. Coupled with the hardships of rising costs due to the sales tax, the people did not find it difficult to react positively to the opposition’s rhetoric. A secret weapon was unleashed towards the close of the campaign period: respected, veteran stalwarts of the ruling party (Rafidah Aziz, Rais Yatim and Daim Zainuddin) gave their support to the opposition; the billionaire Robert Kuok also stepped into the arena. The desire for change struck the right chord, swaying the fence sitters and winning over disgruntled pro-government allies.
History was made. Continuing the archetype, the resurrected leader initiated a council of elders to help the ailing nation. It had been a journey for the entire country. And a remarkable return to the archetypes in a chaotic, postmodern world. Order was finally restored. And like a film, a sequel is in order. But that’s another story.
Hassan Abd Muthalib is an animation film-maker and film historian