On skodeng visual culture

Marshall McLuhan perhaps never foresaw how the global village would one day become like a Malay village where a person’s code of morality was carefully circumscribed and their private life is everybody’s business. One aspect of the online Malay village is the exchange of saliva-inducing moral tut-tutting and cruel assassination of character between internet users via the ‘skodeng’ video. These are videos of people in intimate situations uploaded online by voyeuristic moral vigilantes. The details of many of the videos are in Malay and are searing with judgmental commentary. Many are tagged with the now notorious word ‘skodeng’ or spying. The videos, made in the idiom of amateur/gonzo salaciousness, are captured using mobile phones or digital cameras.

‘Skodeng’ is the byword for the contemporary state of Malay sexual morality. It is not simply a Malay person’s expression of prurience, sexual frustration, and the need to punish others, but a product of state-sponsored moral policing that entices the volunteering public into positions of ancillary power. Members of the public have always been a part of the controlling of bodies, erotics, and movement within its imagined communities. The more commonly applied methods of moral policing come in the form of raids by religious officers who act on tip-offs from members of the public. And moral vigilantes officialised under the auspices of federal and state religious authorities – like Badan Amal Makruf Nahimunkar (disbanded in 2005), the Putrajaya Islamic Council Volunteer Squad, and RELA – have been never low in supply.

On Valentine’s Day in 2011, the Malaysian state of Selangor’s religious department rounded up 80 Muslim individuals for committing khalwat in an operation called ‘Ops Valentine’. The nine-hour operation, which began at 8pm, was a two phase event involving visits to the recreational and public parks around Selangor and raids in budget hotels. Sexual relations outside of wedlock is considered a sharia offence for Muslims under the Section 23(3) of the Sharia Criminal Offences (Federal Territories) Act 1997. Along with the case of Ops Valentine, state governments and religious authorities have been known to assign the role of moral enforcers to less official citizen volunteers termed ‘mat skodeng’ (male spies/peeping toms).

Moral policing has been described as a political tool to shore up the moral vote, but it has become a social tool with far-reaching consequences. By enlisting vigilantes to assist in the moral policing, religious authorities may have inadvertently unleashed a phenomenon in which members of the Muslim public take it upon themselves to expose furtive activities of other people to humiliate and possibly, blackmail. Instead of reporting to religious authorities, however, skodeng voyeurs resort to another kind of vigilante ‘justice’: video evidence and the threat of shame.

The moral high ground also comes with a privileged view of the moralising gaze. According to the feminist activist and web media expert, Jac SM Kee, one’s legitimacy or moral ‘right’ to see (and judge) coincides with their their privileged social and religious position in society. Malay people are institutionally privileged and a version of their faith Islam is often used by the state as a stick to beat people with. When religion is used as a state tool to intimidate, those with a righteous streak have a convenient source of legitimacy that the aura of Malay privilege and state Islam provide.

The ability to look with dehumanising intent is a position of power; the male gaze determines the mainstream ways of eroticised looking, the touristic gaze looks on from a position of seclusion from the reaches of the exotic Other, the white gaze reduces the non-white into insignificance. Once legitimised by being the on the ‘right’ side of morality, one feels emboldened and justified to look and judge. But the moralising gaze gains much of its power from seeing without being seen. Once the tables are turned against them in which they are exposed and subjected to scrutiny, they lose their power and pleasure.

There’s no mistaking that the skodeng video exists as part and parcel of our sex-tape, nip-slip, invasive papparazzi-style image-saturated society in which forbiddenness, desiribility, and erotic legitimacy are mediated through audio-visual material. Skodeng videos are part of a visual culture where the boundaries between the public and private are tantalisingly thin. One major cost of media voyeurism is the devaluation of privacy and the privileging of spectatorship over interaction that renders the viewer passive but hungry for more.

It may not be a stretch to suggest that mediated voyeurism, with regards to the production and viewing of skodeng videos, is not an isolated expression of social deviance and state intervention, but rather exists in a constellation of the more banal world of reality television and its close cousins: curated television programmes of home or amateur videos of embarrassing or extraordinary circumstances such as police car chases or animals performing improbable acts caught on tape, all of which are sadly available on Malaysian television.

We cannot discount how high profile moral policing has created a culture of surveillance in Malaysia in which an unseen eye ensures that we are at our best behaviour. To briefly invoke Foucault: those who are observed (or think they are observed) and controlled by an unseen eye will end up observing themselves and disciplining their every move. The fear of the law, fines, CCTV, nosy neighbours, and now personal video devices are part of this culture of surveillance.

Somehow acts of observation and control have shifted from the self to being exerted over others in this culture of surveillance. One also wonders whether concerns about the lack of integrity that the police and other guardians of social order have in Malaysian society means that we resort to privatised methods of securing personal safety and order. And in the case of securing moral order, the lack of trust in authorities distorted by a warped sense of righteousness means that ordinary individuals can reinstate a veneer of morality in their own twisted way.

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Acknowledgements:
The author wants to thank Jac SM Kee for her contribution to the writing of this post and journal article. This post is a condensed, truncated, and deliberately florid version of a journal article in progress. Please refrain from citing this piece without my permission.

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