January 21st, 2015 by Hafiz Noor Shams
Hearing voices announcing something over the loudspeakers in public spaces makes me uncomfortable. It gives me the feeling that somebody is watching me and worse, the unknown person is giving me an order. The automatic reaction by the libertarian in me is to question and resist, even if the announcement makes sense.
Most announcements in KL Sentral, Kuala Lumpur’s Grand Union Station with its wide atrium, are harmless. Please let the passengers on-board get off the train first. Please watch your belongings. Please watch your step.
Judging by how some people refuse to wait for others to get out of the train before getting in, it feels like I am not the only trying to resist the announcement…
But from time to time it gets a little suspicious. Come join us for the F1 racing this weekend in Sepang! Drink this coffee.
No, I do not want to watch the F1 under the tropical sun. No, I do not like your coffee.
Yes, they are advertorials telling you to buy something that you do not need.
One time in a train car, a “refresher” would spray a scent of a particular brand of quick canned coffee into the enclosed air. There was no way for me to run, except getting out of the train. The advertisement campaign assaulted not only my eardrums but my olfactory organ too.
I learned to identify which train cars were installed with the horrible refresher and refused to ride on it, preferring to wait for better smelling train sets. It was not hard to know which was which. Oh, that is the car with the horrible smell of coffee. Oh, that is the coffee Wonda train car! I will let the train go for a better smelling one.
The PA system does have it uses. Sometimes, when the trains break down, the announcement helps. But at other times, all the gentle reminders – in London, I think it is “Mind the gap”; in New York, “Stand clear of the closing door, please” or was it in California with its BART? I do not remember; in Paris, well, the Parisian Metro is unique with its chime “na-na-na-na” – are definitely a hint of paternalism. It is a kind of soft paternalism that almost everybody ignores but at its heart is that suffocating authoritarian worldview.
The cavernous badly lit KL Sentral exacerbates, as with any cavernous building would, the sensation with that slight echo that follows the initial sound wave.
Growing up Malaysia, I quickly associate loudspeakers and echoes with Islam. The calls to prayer, the azan, are familiar and with so many mosques around, it can be maddeningly incomprehensible and downright annoying. In this country, expressing dissatisfaction against the competition between mosques for the loudest azan prize can bring trouble as the overly sensitive conservatives ignore comprehension of the azan recital in favor of noise. The louder the azans, the sermons, speeches and readings, the louder will the echoes be.
The echoes give the idea that god the supreme being is speaking to you. This is not just me feeling it and writing crap theory. Switch on the TV or the radio when an Islamic program is up in the air and you can hear how the editors use the echo effect whenever a verse from the Koran is read. In a more adventurous unorthodox Islamic program – I think it was Imam Muda where judges look for the best “Islamic idol” (just like the American Idol!) – an echo would accompany the contestants when he or she read a Koranic verse. So, there is something holy about the echoes.
My travels across Southeast Asia have made me realized the role of echoes in depicting something as holy is not limited just to Islam. I stayed for a week in an alley in Mandalay, Myanmar. At the top of the short alley is the Ein Daw Yar Pagoda. The Buddhist chanting I heard every morning and in the evening through its PA system was, forgive me for the neologism, echorized. It sounded like a prerecorded mantra chanting. I could hear the word amitaba through the artificial echo and among the unrecognizable words. And there was also echo in traditional Christian chanting from the mediaeval times as they sang in their tall cathedrals.
Religion, either god himself (herself for the feminist?) or the institution is an authority, I suppose sociologically, rightly or wrongly. The echo is a signifier of holy authority.
Holy and authority. Those are two of my favorite things.
And so I come back to KL Sentral with its banal announcements along with its echoes.
The libertarian is clenching a fist, but with only four fingers closed.