Monday, 20 June 2011

Man On The Fringe

In my brief stint at Off The Edge magazine, I'd had the privilege of interviewing and writing about people I'd never thought I meet and proofing the articles of some really high-powered personalities. The job had its moments but I only ever got to meet a handful of these people in person.

Copies of Benjamin McKay's 'Fringe Benefits' at The Annexe, Central Market
The first time I saw Benjamin McKay was at the first Seksualiti Merdeka, in 2008. He was in a panel that included Sharon Bong and an MP, and he was presenting a paper on public spaces and the "cruising habits of the Malaysian male." Which, he constantly reminded his audience, was done with no funding. He was a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Monash University's Sunway Campus and, I heard, knew his stuff well.

I never got to know him other than through the articles I checked, and even then, gave them a perfunctory glance for any glaring typos and whatnot. From what I would hear much later, all the copies I'd received had been substantially cleaned up beforehand.

His passing came as a shock to everyone. Back then, chances of McKay's name on a list of "people who might die tomorrow" were very, very remote.

Off The Edge folded around the same time he passed on. I barely got to know the magazine before it went, too.

My time with both McKay's articles and OTE was brief, and I did wonder if that was enough to "allow" me to attend the event that also commemorated his brief time with us. But went I did.

Fringe Benefits: Essays and Reflections on Malaysian Arts and Cinema was launched on 19 June at The Annexe, Central Market, and it was attended by several of his students, colleagues, friends and acquaintances. The book is a compilation of selected film-related articles he wrote for online Malaysian arts portal Kakiseni and Off The Edge.

The phrase "fringe benefits" had a significance. According to McKay's former colleague Yeoh Seng Guan, the fringes of a society was where interaction with the outside world was and where all the creative energies were - the edges of the box one should think out of, so to speak. So the "benefits" from the fringe are new ideas, radical ways of thinking that can enlighten and transform a society. Perhaps an allusion to a quest to bring these benefits from the fringe to the "centre" - the mainstream society.

Another thing that was mentioned was that McKay's office was located on the fringes of the campus as well. That made his fronting the "Fringe Benefits" column doubly apt.

I'm intellectually lazy, so I'll only tell you that his stuff, though at times very scholarly, were quite fun to read. Each would have a humorous undercurrent there somewhere, but he always had respect for his subjects - except, perhaps, those that deserve the full weight of his derision, though I can't remember on which occasion.

One fun article was about how common images of half-naked men were in the Philippines ("Musings on the Filipino male in advertising", Off The Edge, February 2009). The accompanying photo we had was quite low res, and I didn't relish the task of looking for a better one. We eventually settled for a less than ideal picture of "that ding-dong".

I didn't get a copy of Fringe Benefits that day. I felt I'd read enough of McKay for a while, but only as a proofreader. And I don't think it's okay to review stuff I had a part in publishing. So don't let it stop you from getting one.


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