The many chases in 'One Two Jaga'

16 SEPTEMBER — BRONT PALARAE and Nam Ron’s crime thriller One Two Jaga (OTJ) is being marketed internationally as Crossroads instead, with the original title serving merely as a subtitle.

The new title has inevitably lost some of the impact and visceral imagery commonly associated with the phrase. In a way, it was lost in translation.

“One two jaga” itself has no real meaning. It is a line from a children’s rhyme used in the game “Police and Thief” or “Police Sentry”:

“Police sentry/one, two, jaga/police mati/pencuri jaga” with the first line sometimes substituted with “police and thief”, depending on the literacy of the crowd.

Some say the common rhyme is a bastardisation of this rhyme:

“Police and thief/went to jungle/police catch thief/thief runs away.”

But I have yet to find any convincing origin or etymology of the rhyme, nor the history of the game, which I am sure would make for a compelling read.

The rhyme is used as a counting-out song to choose the designated “police” in what is essentially a game of tag -- similar to other rhymes such as “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” and “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor.”

One Two Jaga’s producer Bront Palarae at a press conference flanked by executive producer Joanne Goh (left) and director Nam Ron (right).  — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri
One Two Jaga’s producer Bront Palarae at a press conference flanked by executive producer Joanne Goh (left) and director Nam Ron (right). — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

And like other counting-out rhymes, it is also an interesting mathematical problem, since the chosen person would always be the 17th person picked starting from the initial point... which if you’re blessed enough as a child to care, you can always take advantage of that fact.

Regardless of the origin of the phrase, it is almost an unquestionable popular opinion that every Malaysian should catch OTJ in the cinema, if only just for how beautifully done it was.

OTJ gives us a glimpse into the dark underbelly of our society, and just like its title’s namesake, suggests that the pain and horror suffered by some of us are just part of a game for some.

For the police who is looking for that extra pay-out. For the businessman looking to shave off some of his operating costs. For the rich men looking to get richer.

And just like the game, it affects all of us and it can affect any of us.

You could just be out on a stroll, or be an innocent bystander, and the next thing you know you are running for your life praying to not get caught.

Either trapped by circumstances or exhilarated by the excitement, you return to the game the next day, running and running, all the while telling yourself that it is just part of normal life. After all, isn’t everybody running for their lives too?

And you wish that maybe someday you too can will be the policeman doing the chasing. And when you’re “it”, you would show everyone how it’s done.

Except it is never really that simple. Playing the policeman puts you under pressure. Suddenly you are expected to achieve something.

Why is everyone else running away from me? Why am I even chasing them? Why are we all wasting our breath anyway?

But as the policeman, you have the power. To strike fear in your prey. To devastate their lives with a single tag. It boosts your ego. And you run anyway, chasing them to teach them a lesson, to teach them who is boss.

That exhaustion, that anxiety, that fear that your lungs may burst or you may puke from being chased will rarely leave you as you watch OTJ.

And like it or not, the audience will catch a glimpse of the lives of the many foreign workers, migrants, and stateless children — lives they have never lived — and hopefully begin to emphatise with those to whom they usually turn a blind eye.

If OTJ manages to achieve that public service, it would already be successful.

OTJ is not the only one to utilise the police and thief trope, and refer to the children’s rhyme.

There was also the recent single by pop singer Elizabeth Tan — Police Entry, the title of which is perhaps an even weirder interpretation of the phrase. Enter what exactly?

Written by the musically hot duo Hael Husaini and Ezra Kong, the chorus interpolates the rhyme with its own twist:

“Police entry, one two jaga/Polis henti pencuri jaga/Gerak-geri kau menduga/Kerja kau menipu saja.” (... /Your moves are suspicious/You just always keep lying).

While we may wonder about the significance of law enforcement in this line, it becomes clearer in the next line which mentions: “Polis henti baik kau jaga-jaga/Dengan siapa kau menipu.” (The police on guard, you had better watch out/Who you are lying to.)

The police here is not literal, but rather a metaphor of a man being monitored so he can be caught cheating red handed — a theme familiar to those who knows Hall and Oates’ Private Eyes.

Despite the names behind the production, the single has fallen a bit flat. The arrangement was a bit insipid, the beat could have been sped up by a few BPMs, the reference to the rhyme cringey... it was as if the single was made just for the sake of seeing Tan clad in a cartoonish police costume in the music video and during promotions.

Tan was not shy to admit that she was looking to reinvent herself as “sexy”, despite how tame her image is by pop music standards.

“I purposely appeared sexy to show a different side of me. I don’t care if I was labelled sexy,” she told Malay tabloid Harian Metro.

In this regard, Tan may have tried to chase so many things that she did not manage to catch any. Again, just like the game.

That is perhaps the reality of life.

In the game “Cops and Robbers”, kids are usually divided into two teams before they try to tag each other. In Malaysia’s “Police and Thief”, it is usually just one kid trying to catch the others who run rings around him.

It is a recurrent theme in OTJ, frequently repeated by the worn-down policeman Hassan. “You catch one today, hundreds will replace him tomorrow.”

Our law enforcement may be ill-equipped to do a thankless job. But the law also rewards those who can afford to escape punishment.

The big fishes, the “Datuks” get away with it all. The small fry ends up battered and bruised, and sometimes dead.