M for Malaysia, Starring Tun M, Puts The Spotlight On People Power & Democracy
In 2016, Wall Street Journal ran a full exposé on Malaysia’s state-owned fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), scrutinising the company’s suspicious money transactions. A lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice alleged that at least US$3.5 billion had been stolen from 1MDB. The court trial for these accusations is still ongoing at press time.
Even as people took to the streets to voice their unhappiness from these events in rallies and protests, former government Barisan Nasional was certain of its victory in the 14th General Elections in 2018. The Electoral Commission, which organises and mobilises the election process, is parked under the Prime Minister’s office, thus putting the legitimacy of the electoral system into question.
Amid this doom and gloom, one man rose to the occasion. Enter Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who served as the nation’s Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003. His decision to return to politics and make peace with former political ‘enemies’ such as Dato’ Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Lim Kit Siang inspired Malaysians to take action.
Boasting a stunning 83.32% voter turnout, Malaysians expressed themselves on the ballot box by voting Pakatan Harapan into government on May 9, 2018.
As history was being made, a team of dedicated men and women documented this moment on film. It was a secret project that soon evolved into M for Malaysia, a compelling full-length feature film with the themes of reconciliation, hope and unity. After premiering in San Francisco on May 2019, M for Malaysia is now making its way around the film festival circuits and is slated to premiere on Malaysian cinemas on the 3rd quarter of 2019.
Before you watch the film, here are 5 important things you need to know about the soon-to-be-released documentary.
1/5 M For Malaysia Chronicles Tun M's Adventures On The Campaign Trail
M for Malaysia was never intended to be a film. It started off as a personal project by multi-hyphenated businesswoman Datin Dian Lee and Tun Mahathir’s daughter, Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir, to document what is believed to be the nonagenarian's final election.
“Despite the support Tun M rallied, we were cautiously optimistic about winning. At best, we thought the footage could be utilised for Pakatan Harapan’s campaign in the 2023 general elections, if we lost,” admits Datin Dian.
Datin Paduka Marina recruited her eldest daughter and documentary filmmaker, Ineza Roussille, to direct the project. After assembling a skeleton crew, the 3 women followed Tun M (as Tun Dr Mahathir is fondly known as) in his gruelling campaign trail across Malaysia, 16 days before the elections.
The climax of the film is set inside the ‘war room’ a Sheraton Hotel Petaling Jaya during election night, where Tun M and all the top-brass Pakatan Harapan leaders convened while the election's results were announced.
"It was a truly surreal moment for us that night when we found out we won. There were a lot of emotions: fear, happiness, anxiety and anger. We were fortunate to be there to capture all of these raw moments on tape," reflects Datin Dian.
2/5 All Of The Film's Producers Are Women
After victory was achieved in the elections, Datin Dian, Datin Paduka Marina and Ineza pored over the footage one more time. They unanimously agreed that these footages should be preserved forever in memory of a powerful, historical event.
Here, another woman stepped into the project. Datin Dian contacted Ruby Yang, a world-renowned documentary filmmaker and producer, who has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject for The Blood of Yingzhou District (2006).
In November 2018, Datin Dian and Ineza flew to Hong Kong to work with Ruby to craft a story out of their accumulated recordings. “Filming Tun M during the election campaign was easier compared to combing through 90 hours of film footage!” says Datin Dian.
After sifting through their recordings, Ruby suggested that 2 films are to be made from the footages—a local version and an international version. She was convinced the film had potential for an international audience despite being a Malaysia-centric production.
“Uplifting films like M for Malaysia have a universal attraction, even non-Malaysians can relate to the timeless tale of democracy and people power,” she says.
3/5 Tun Mahathir Is The Leading Man
As a Hong Kong-American, Ruby is saddened by the state of politics in both the countries she calls home. With American politics being more divisive than ever and Hong Kong protests taking on a more violent tone, she was inspired by the message of unity and reconciliation embodied by Pakatan Harapan.
“Today, people are polarised in their opinions and views. They don’t put aside their feelings to rationally do what’s best for society; there is little space for mediation. As I delved into M for Malaysia, I was amazed when I saw these political enemies come together to work for the country,” she shares.
Today, people are polarised in their opinions and views. They don’t put aside their feelings to rationally do what’s best for society; there is little space for mediation. As I delved into M for Malaysia, I was amazed when I saw these political enemies come together to work for the country.
— Ruby Yang
Plus, she was also fascinated by the main characters of the story: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Dr Siti Hasmah.
“There’s a Shakespearean quality to how Tun M made his return to politics. Plus, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah is so adorable! She brings out a different side to Tun M that humanises him,” says Ruby.
Like most Malaysians, Datin Dian had conflicted feelings for Tun M. After all, he was flawed in many ways as a leader and politician.
“Yet, love him or hate him, Tun M is an amazing force. One night on the trail, we realised he had a fever. We were worried for his health; he’s not a young horse anymore. But when he went onstage to deliver his speech, you couldn’t tell he was sick at all. He was witty and funny—the crowd went crazy for him,” she says.
See all the photos: The tender moments between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad & Tun Dr Siti Hasmah
4/5 Co-Producer & Director Ineza Roussille Narrates The International Cut Of The Documentary
For Ineza, growing up as the granddaughter of Tun M came with its own baggage—one that she wasn’t keen to unpack again. “When mum asked me to help her film granddad’s election campaign, my first instinct was to say no,” reflects this half-French, half-Malaysian young woman.
But she knew how important her grandfather was to Malaysia. “I eventually said yes, but I was adamant to portray the story as honestly as I could through other people’s voices, especially considering how divided Malaysians feel about him,” she says.
M for Malaysia is about Malaysia, but it is so much bigger than our country. There is a hunger for a politically positive story, and now I am glad I said yes to be a part of it despite my initial reluctance!
— Ineza Roussille
On film, Ineza gave us an intimate look at the tender side of Tun M’s character. When he speaks to the camera, there is a gentleness that is clearly reserved for his granddaughter.
There’s footage of Tun M sticking out his tongue at the camera before hitting the road for a campaign drive, his admission of exhaustion during the campaign trail and traces of nervousness in his face while waiting for the election results to be announced.
For the international version of the documentary, Ineza served as a narrator to help non-Malaysians understand our nation’s politics better. It was a decision that was well received during the documentary’s screenings abroad. “M for Malaysia is about Malaysia, but it is so much bigger than our country. There is a hunger for a politically positive story, and now I am glad I said yes to be a part of it despite my initial reluctance!” shares Ineza.
Also read: 4 Inspiring Examples Of True Leadership From Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad
5/5 Ultimately, This Film Is Dedicated To All Malaysians Who Made History Happen
Interestingly, every single person who worked on the film has ties to Malaysia. Even Ruby has a personal connection—her mother was formerly from pre-independence Malaya before moving to Hong Kong.
“My first thought when I was invited to participate was, “Oh great, I get to write the theme music for our Prime Minister and all other political characters involved!” There was definitely some patriotic sentiment evoked, as this was a musical route to contributing and giving back to my homeland,” says Rendra Zawawi, the composer for the film who is based in Los Angeles. Rendra flew back to Malaysia to compose the film score and recruited an all-Malaysian orchestra to create the final soundtrack.
In May 2019, the international edition for M for Malaysia made its premiere at CAAMFest in San Francisco—the largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films in the US. The film has since been screened at the DOC Edge in New Zealand and Asia Society in Hong Kong.
Film editor Sebastian Ng recalls feeling emotional as he watched the film on screen in Hong Kong. "Nothing is more gratifying than seeing an audience respond—positively or negatively—to a movie we have poured our heart and soul to make,” says Sebastian.
Executive producer Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir pointed out that while Tun M is the protagonist of the film, the real heroes of the story are the patriotic Malaysians who made change happen on that historical day.
“M for Malaysia is a story that the whole world needs to know. It is a tale of how Malaysian people came together to change who governed them for the first time in 60 years. And we did it without shedding a single drop of blood. In other countries, change has sometimes been violent and people have died. But we did it the Malaysian way, and proved that we are a democratic country. That is something for the history books and I think all schoolchildren must be educated on the importance of that day, becaused the real power is in the people’s hands,” she concludes passionately.
I think all schoolchildren must be educated on the importance of that day, because democracy won and the real power is in the people’s hands.
— Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir
M For Malaysia is slated to premiere in Malaysia in Q3 2019.
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- Photography Michaela Giles
- Styling Rosana Lai
- Art Direction Liew Chiaw Ching
- Producer Emilie Yabut-Razon
- Make-Up Gloomy Kwok, Jasmine Chan and Iris Li from HKMAKEUPARTIST