Lessons from human nature in ‘Pendatang’ film

LIKE many Malaysians, the recently crowdfunded Malaysian film “Pendatang” has been on my “to-watch” list for the past few weeks. Many comments about the film surround its bold exploration of uncharted territory.

After watching it, I can see why it garnered close to 1 million views within a few weeks of its YouTube premiere. It is a spectacular film with anti-racism and anti-authoritarianism themes, challenging the oppressive nature of racial segregation, police brutality, and the lawlessness of those in power.

If we look more closely, “Pendatang” carries profound messages about our shared human nature. 

Usually, the term “pendatang” (or “outsiders”) is a politically and racially charged one used to denote the non-Malays. However, the director’s move to reverse this role gets the audience questioning if all human beings are fundamentally the same when confronted with similar circumstances, that is, encountering outsiders in our lives, familial relationships, and country. 

The presence of the Malay child named “Panda” in the Chinese household poses a threat to the family due to a strict prohibition of interethnic interactions in a dystopian apartheid Malaysia.

The parents’ disagreements on whether to hand over Panda to the authorities demonstrates an interplay between primal, selfish, tribalist instincts – exemplified by the father who initially insists on surrendering Panda to the authorities, but later has a change of heart – and our more altruistic capacity for love, morality and reasoning, exemplified by the mother who insists on teaching her children what is morally “right”. 

According to group selection theories, tribalism offers survival and reproductive benefits. Group living and cooperation allow better protection from predators and territorial defence and resource pooling. Our innate tribalist instinct can be used to explain favouritism towards our own kin and race, as well as nationalist values and beliefs. 

However, as we evolve, we develop altruistic and reasoning capacities that lay the foundations for morality and ultrasocial behaviours. Ultrasociality, defined as the ability to live in large social groups, and cooperate and sympathise with those who are genetically unrelated with us, is an evolutionary success enabling the formation of multicultural societies. 

In the animal kingdom, acts of reciprocity are often observed among various species, where direct returns of benefits occur.  Examples include chimpanzees engaging in grooming behaviour and hermit crabs forming alliances with sea anemones.

Humans, on the other hand, are capable of extending our acts of altruism to strangers through indirect reciprocity. Indirect reciprocity when someone helps you and you help another person without expecting a direct return. 

The dystopian world portrayed in the film shows unchecked tribalist instincts leading to totalitarianism and an apartheid system. A historical example of this is South Africa from 1948 to the early 1990s, where racial segregation and the domination of the white minority were prevalent. 

The traits that set us apart from other species in the animal kingdom are our capacities to use autonomous reasoning to formulate and follow moral principles. We no longer live in the wild where fierce competition and constant threats to our lives are the norm. As rational beings living in multicultural modern societies, we should treat each other as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion. This allows respecting the fundamental rights and liberties of individuals who cohabit a country with us as the first step to fostering social harmony and cooperation. 

The film serves as a reminder that being human involves a constant balancing act between our biologically ancient tendencies and rationality. As we can see, the root of the problem lies not in other races, ethnicities, or religions, but in our unchecked selfish and tribalist instincts. These instincts, as depicted in the film, are not only a source of inter-group conflicts but also in-group conflicts. The movie highlights that conflicts can arise irrespective of the presence of “others”, just as harmony can prevail in their existence. 

As fellow Malaysians, to safeguard our nation’s future, it is as simple as heeding the director’s call: tribalism is outdated; the way forward lies in embracing ultrasociality, altruism, and multiculturalism. – January 16, 2024. 

* Chew Zhun Yee reads The Malaysian Insight.  

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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