Anywhere but Putrajaya – Outsider Thoughts from the Malay Heartland

 Prelude

I recently went to Johor – the core of the largest distinctly Malay polity in history: the Sultanate of Johor-Riau; the home of the modern Malay language, the heartland of the grand old party of Malayan and now Malaysian politics, UMNO – at the invitation of a dear old friend of mine. We have known each other for perhaps twenty years now, since we were small boys in khaki shorts. He is a riotous laugh, an insightful thinker, and a talented musician.

 

He also happens to be an UMNO princeling: his father was a minister and – up until the last election – an MP holding the family seat that his grandfather had held since its conception. His grandfather in turn was a titanic figure in the party and in national politics at large during the Hussein Onn and first Mahathir administrations, a minister whose remit stretched far beyond Putrajaya into the everyday lives of citizens around the country. Whilst the differences in our assumed politics might be an expanse, this has never prevented us from being fast friends, or indeed prevented me from having anything but a warm relationship with the family. When we were at university in London, he once decided to spin a tale that I was actually his long-lost twin brother, disowned for converting to Catholicism. That most of his flatmates believed the claim without scepticism is as amusing today as it was then.

 

So when I asked him if I would be able to tail along for a day of campaigning with his father as he tried to re-win the seat he had lost, he saw no reason to say no. I came equipped with a notebook and questions. For the sake of narrative transparency, I should be upfront at the outset: I do not think I came back to the city with good answers to any of my questions. Perhaps I was equipped with the wrong ones – perhaps when I was scribbling notes the night before, I had still not yet sufficiently left the city behind. I can perhaps only say with certainty that I learned exactly how much I did not know or understand about the nation at large; and that the scope of my newfound ignorance has left me dazzled and hungry to uncover more.

 

But the discovery of ignorance is itself crossing the threshold from the mundane to the extraordinary. It is the admission of smallness against vast creation that is the beginning of understanding it, and your place within it.

  



I – Moths Must Leave the Flame

Bags packed, doors shut, down from the city. Leaving the city is not just leaving a place: it is leaving an ideal, a way of life, a means of thinking. It is no great point of geopolitical insight to point out that cities – capital cities especially – are often a world apart from the rest of the country they inhabit. London is not England, Shanghai is not China, Los Angeles is not America (thank Christ). The metropole is separate and distinct, in many ways it is a conscious rejection of stagnant, indolent nature. A great city is the greatest lie a country can build itself, aspiration given physical form in rebar and scaffolding. Everything a nation wishes others to see of it, everything it wishes to be – or, perhaps more importantly, everything it wishes it wishes it could be – is embodied in its great cities. Here we build monuments to our greatness, scraping insolently on the dome of Heaven as if to boldly knock at its door and ask if would kindly make room for our magnificence.

 

The city is bustling and alive, full of secrets and hopes and opportunity. It is where dreams and hopes reside, where opportunity and heartbreak alike intermingle, drawing man from the countryside like a moth to a lamp – all-encompassing and warming and comforting but also simultaneously searing with ultimate, almost divine judgment. It cuts out the parts of you that cannot survive in this urban jungle, and burns up entirely those too weak to withstand it. You are a concrete monkey beyond argument or imagining: you have spent almost all your life in one capital city or another; basking in the confluence of massed humanity working, breathing, living together to create a place greater than the sum of its buildings and inhabitants. And yet only the moths that leave the lamp may feed and survive. Those that linger forever in the comfort will starve. The city might feed the belly and fill the wallet but it is rarely nourishment for the soul. The hero must leave the safety of home and hearth to complete his quest, the king cannot rule forever from within the castle walls, answers will not be found at the centre of the universe unless you have travelled its roads beforehand. So down from the city: make heavy your foot and push the tarmac beneath your wheels, leave behind the city and troubles and dive into the vast, pale unknown. Gather yourself and step past the threshold. Wisdom and terror alike await you there. 

 

The first sign of the change is signposted to you by the handiwork of the architects. The plate glass skyscrapers fade into ugly concrete blocks that themselves disappear to make way for low-rises with pink roof tiles. You slip back through time, as if the tentative steps of progress falter and halt, lingering in the balance for a moment like a pendulum caught in its swing, before fly-wheeling back against itself. As the miles pass by so do the years. The bubble of the metropole recedes, flitters, and then pops entirely without your noticing. English disappears, as do the towering overpasses that blot out the horizon. Instead, first rows on rows of oil palms, then nothing less than the sheer enormity of sky and primordial jungle. Gradually at first, and then all at once, nature reasserts itself as if rebuffing our crude attempts to resist her. Our skyscrapers dwarf beside the limestone mountains carved by aeons and the hand of God, these sentinels of granite and time that in silent standing refute any idea that we have any real victory in taming the wild. As it pours out of the city into the countryside, the massive highway narrows into four lanes and scrabbles-cuts across the hills, a tiny thread of civilisation pulling itself winding about the mountains snaking between islands of habitation, each a little more obscure than the last. You zoom past these places – little more than names on a map, exits on a highway. You know intellectually that there are whole lives in these sordid little hamlets: lives with every bit of the drama and glory and desolation as yours. In the city these thoughts must wash away. There are too many people for any of them to truly make sense. It is only in crowds where one can feel true solitude; and true loneliness. But here, alone as you are cutting across the endless jungled hills, the concrete monkey returns to the trees of his forefathers and looks around seeking a tribe, longing to understand another. To imagine, haltingly and falteringly as you do, that there is someone else amidst the endless ancestral savannah with whom to share your thoughts. The alternative is the abject terror of being truly alone in the universe; and the second, more devastating wound of being conscious enough to realise it.

 

Slough off your preconceptions, as the years and as progress wash away as the blur pushed past your windows changes from grey to green. Remove arrogant suppositions about what you imagine about where you are going and who will be there: that you have gone down from the city is admission that you know nothing. Remove even more arrogant assumptions about what they think of you in turn: here you know less than nothing. Make your mind as blank as the nature around you should be. You remember a game you played on long road trips to Penang when you were younger. Four-and-a-half hours is a lifetime to a child, and the fanciful flights we take to pass such time can often burn themselves into memory; our first true attempts at creating something bounded and ordered in our minds. In your mind’s eye, the streetlamps with their metal arms branching out in pale imitation of the welcoming eaves of tree branches fade away. So too do the steel girders that bound the road, barriers against nature as much to keep it out as to keep us in, carefully within the narrow strip of civilisation racing across the land. The harsh blue and green of the road signs, artificial and garish in their screams to stand out as you race by at a hundred miles an hour; they too begin to disappear, eaten up and consumed by the calm pale celeste of the sky, and the verdant rainforest baize of the hills. There is no need for nature to scream her colours. They are so pure and essential as to not deign to compete for our notice at all. We are primally and forever drawn to them, supplicants before the feet of something at which we can only pantomime. Billboards too, these paltry flags of consumerism, those disappear from view: there is no new high-rise, no organic face cream, no multi-level marketing scheme that will save you and all your friends, enquire within; nothing so grand that they can peddle as to be a greater advertisement than the horizon itself, meandering before you with eternity.

 

Finally, the endless road straightens. You see the mirages of false-water in the tropical heat, shimmering bands in your windscreen dotting the black strip that stretches before you. This too, at last, scrapes itself from your imagination – only the vast expanse of nature now, as the child you once were imagines a world before man, before building, before time: of great ancient beasts and savage dinosaurs, perhaps. Inside the car, the audiobook you play begins to fade out of earshot. Only the subtle hum of vulcanised rubber against tarmac rings in your ears. You stare straight ahead, straight at the vista and majesty, as inside you an instinct from before memory awakens. Subtly at first, and then consumingly; your hands grip the steering wheel, you race ahead. Chasing, seeking, you are hunting now, hunting as your forefathers did on the plains and in the trees, and as they were looking for prey you look for answers. Maybe they can be found over the horizon – ancestors and answers alike – so the hum of the engine kicks up and you surge ahead, palms full of sweat and gripped determination. For five seconds and for forever, all other thoughts subside. There is a purity in the liminal, an earnestness in forgetting the trappings of your imagined civilisation for a solitary, sacred moment.

 

There is release.

 

Bliss.

 

And then all at once you return to yourself, and the audiobook plays again in your ears, and you ease up gently on the pedal and reclaim your place in the world. You are chimeric, half-this and half-another, savage and saviour all at once; you must be to survive even a moment in this world of imminent contradiction. You have left in search of answers, but when you have found them, will you still think yourself worthy to return to the city? Or will your newfound knowledge attaint that which you held so dear; will you scorn whence you came, decry it as bacchanalian and indolent?

 

Merge into the slow lane, wipe down your hands, still your racing heart. The answers will come, one way or another.

 

II – The House Your Father Built

It is early in the morning, at least for a weekend. You turn in off the coastal highway that cuts across the bottom of Johor Bahru and of the peninsula, up a narrow hilly road to reach the gates of a nondescript grey residential tower. There is no pretension in the architecture here: this is a concrete cuboid filled with homes and discretion. Two guardhouses flank the entrance. You wind down your windscreen and motion for one of the guards to come near. He moves lethargically at first, or perhaps sceptically; you are, after all, an unfamiliar face.

 

“Pickup flat Dato’,” you say, as you were instructed. This trick wouldn’t work back in Kuala Lumpur – there were bound to be at least a handful living in any decent luxury condominium. But here, even across the strait as you are from the globalised hustle of Singapore, things are sleepier. Time moves glacially to your still metropolitan senses, the world meanders by as a flowing river and not a surging torrent. The uniformed guards perk up when you say the words: now suddenly all straight backs and smiles and salutes as you drive in.  One of them leaves his post as you attempt to park near the lobby, he motions for you to follow him around the back to a parking spot. As he is beginning to unhook the chains, your friend appears: sleep and mischief alike in his clearly still-opening eyes. A brief pause for greetings and chat, then puzzling out where we might catch his father’s campaign. We speed down the hill, and again you go down from the city.

 

The first stop is one of two visits to orang asli settlements: the Dato’ – his father – is already there, smiles and waves, wearing a sash over the polo shirt embroidered with his name and crowned with a headdress of woven leaves. He is halfway through triumphantly declaring his stump speech to an enthralled crowd beneath a bright blue awning. You get out of the car and walk over in time to hear the closing. He reminds them to vote, to do so early in the day, to make it a priority. He tells them to remember the good old days. As he says this, a small crowd gathers around your friend. They salam in the traditional manner, and he dips his head as if to kiss hands with each of them as is appropriate to an elder. You cannot but mark carefully and notice that despite this, they are the ones that are bowing at the waist and placing their hands upon their hearts. After each hand, he moves on to the next hand in sequence. Your scruffy, in-the-process-of-waking-up friend metamorphoses in front of your eyes. Without pause or transition he is a different person, walking in different shoes in this place so outside of your everyday. Your eyes scan the landscape: a muddy river, single-storey houses with zinc roofs. You squint your eyes up, up against the rays of the sun to see a hawk circling overhead. A few of the villagers look up too, and point at the creature, saying something to one another out of earshot. A good omen, perhaps? Or is this your own infantilising, presumptuous urban arrogance again. Maybe they just think it’s a nice-looking bird.

 

You stand nearby, notebook open and begin to jot down what you can hear of the remainder of the Dato’s speech. You will hear the same points again and again throughout the day: stability, a serious government, ‘don’t you remember the good old days when I was here to help?’. Some of the crowd looks at you with bemusement, scribbling away as you are in your book. Your friend calls you over. He is speaking with someone he tells you is the village chief. You shake the chief’s hand and return his smile, and bow ever so slightly at the neck– you have always felt slightly awkward attempting the salam as your companion does. There is something foreign about the gesture, even as you have seen it done a thousand times around you. Even the children here know how place a palm against the forehead – you were taught to grip firmly, shake twice, and look people in the eye. If the chief takes any offense to your lack of cultural astuteness, he gives no sign of it. The chief beckons us to follow him. We slip behind the tent, past the modest crowd, take a turn behind the village hall and arrive facing a narrow, poorly paved road stretching up a gentle slope. To either side of the path, ugly squat buildings painted in fading pastel colours sprout, their shuttered glass windows dusty and at odd angles. Plastic bottles and carrier bags and crushed tin cans – the detritus of post-industrial society, omnipresent even in what your concrete monkey brain childishly identifies as ‘the wilderness’ – are littered in the concrete storm drains. It is a scene you might see in an advertisement for Oxfam or some other charity in the West. You have seen this street before, plastered on a London bus stop, the background against which a sad looking child from a depraved third world country looked on pleadingly for donations. A Hollywood producer might well think it an excellent setting for Nondescript Tropical Country at Civil War, with a bit of added rubble and CGI fire.

 

‘Your grandfather built these houses,’ says the chief to your companion, motioning to the structures you had only just dismissed as set-dressing for a blockbuster action film. ‘He made sure that our rights were protected as native people.’ The self-importance in your gaze melts away as you re-examine the buildings. On the banks of this river, amidst fields of wild grass and jungle vines, men with strained breath and sweaty brow dug trenches and laid foundations. They with their labour made walls and roofs where none had been. So what if nature in her cruelty, with jesting nonchalance threw storms at the windows? They stubbornly still stood, still kept the inside warm and dry against wind and rain.  Men made a road from a dirt path, and a dirt path from nothing at all. What have you made? What have you drawn from the ground, made into being with your will? Genesis tells us that ‘cursed is the ground for thy sake; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.’ These men, even knowing this; still in defiance chose to defy decay, and entropy, and the eventual ruin of all things. You imagine those men, your friend’s grandfather included; standing here all those long decades ago, amidst brush and jungle. You think that they would have had to play your childhood game in reverse – where you wiped out mankind’s fingerprints to return what you saw to primordial harmony, they gazed upon the seething chaos and with their minds fashioned order. They looked at the wilderness and saw civilisation, however small and meagre. Destruction is cleansing, but creation is an altogether more difficult thing entirely. The chief is not an altogether old man: by the looks of it he would have been a boy barely out of smallclothes when these houses were built. He has a straight back, a confident stride, and kind eyes; and speaks to us in raspy, lisping Malay. He tells us he used to smoke ten packs of cigarettes in a day, before one day he decided to quit because they were bad for him and he never smoked another cigarette again. You believe him: there is a quiet iron to his stance that suggests that he could break open coconuts with sheer determination. For him to remember the man who built these houses speaks volumes about the megalithic stature of that accomplishment. These are no mere hovels. These are light-houses of progress, blazing forth into the ever-encroaching dark, screaming: ‘We are here! We exist! We will not be snuffed out!’ The chief tells us that he recently studied native land title in Australia and New Zealand, and used the lessons he learned to gain better protection for his land. Your ears perk up at this: these are topics you debated and studied in law school. You catch yourself being surprised that this native chief would know about native land titles, before the realisation shatters another pillar in the temple of your hubris. Of course he would know about it! – he whose wellbeing and livelihood might well depend on the knowing, as compared to your dispassionate gazing from afar, seeking legal curiosity. What appalling superiority to imagine even for a second that you have some special claim to this understanding; that you are anointed by virtue of secret knowledge and a scroll from England declaring you have sufficiently studied the letters of law.

 

Interrupting your spiral of self-loathing, the chief points up to a battered electricity meter affixed to one of the houses. ‘And your father put the power in for us, as well as the plumbing,’ he continues, before turning to your friend. ‘So now we just have to wait for what the next generation will do for us,’ he says with a toothy grin and a gentle chuckle. The both of you laugh along, and your friend says that it will be a few years at least. You do not know if he feels it, gathering around him. Perhaps he is used to it by now. But you can see the swirling expectation of legacy, the subtle ancestral hope for continuity and stability. You wonder if you would remember the MP in the city that managed to pave a road for you half a century later. You wonder if this makes you less grateful, less grounded, less true than the chief and his people. Is this place where gratitude is a function of generations, not electoral cycles, a more essential, honest, straightforward form of being?

 

Some children have spotted you and your companion talking to the chief. They shyly walk up to the both of you, diadems of woven leaves in their hands. You take it in turns to genuflect on the ground and allow the children to crown you with grass and vine. In Ancient Rome, the crown of grass was only awarded to a victorious general by proclamation of the whole army after he had saved his legion. The crown was made of the grasses and flowers of the battlefield where his glory had been found. It was a singularly rare honour, presented only to a saviour by those whom he had saved. Your headdress now is not this, to be sure. But in this place of memory and legacy, of generation and ancestry; you cannot but help feel unfairly honoured with an act of even unknowing historical magnitude. You are no saviour – if anything you have come here to save yourself. Some graciousness, then. Before you rise, you reach out your giant, bear-like paw and shake the tiny hands of the children. “Thank you very much,” you rumble in your baritone Received Pronunciation. The children giggle at this – amused perhaps by your funny language, or the funnier way by which you speak it. Their task done, they scamper off; immune to or ignorant of your internal monologue. Perhaps it does not matter which. Perhaps they need no saviours.

 

Applause emerges from under the tent. The speech is finished, and the Dato’ is now shaking hands and kissing babies. You walk over with your friend and shake his hand, greeting him as he rattles off a cuttingly sardonic reply with a twinkle in his eyes. You laugh and thank him for letting you tag along; he tells you he hopes you have the stamina for it. Suddenly a cry of delight erupts from a group of children: someone from the campaign crew has produced a loudspeaker and is carrying it aloft his shoulder as it blares a rather unsubtle tune. The children dance about repeating the lyrics as they walk towards the tent to a reception of bemused adult laughter: ‘Kita undi BN,’ they sing, over and again. Wonderful, you think to yourself. The voters of tomorrow, making their decisions today by virtue of a mediocre pop anthem. Cynicism can emerge unbidden even amidst the air of revelation that permeates your thoughts. You let the Dato’ get back to the important work of campaigning and slip into the entourage. Together, you all meander to a wooden jetty on stilts jutting out into the sea, for a bit of rest and a photo opportunity with the village leaders. Fishing boats trawl in the distance under the midday sun. The bright blue campaign flags that dot the houses and pathways blur and fade against the pale of the sky and the deep of the sea. The stillness descends again as you collect your thoughts. A pang of guilt, perhaps, at your bitter thoughts towards the innocence of childhood dancing around music. On the next pier over, some children strip off their shirts and begin to jump into the water, splashing and screaming with delight. Between the man toying with his ponderings, scrabbling to make sense of the world around him; and the boys delighting in their childhood joys with divebombs and star jumps: which of the two seem more at peace, more certain of themselves and where they stand in the world? Are your musings so sophisticated, so evolved as to render the thoughts and concerns of others small, invalid, surplus to requirements? You let your thoughts drown out in the wind. The waves lap the shore, the gulls call; the blue is everlasting, uninterrupted, unsullied. You move on to the next village.

 



III – Orang Kita

As you get back into your car, bottles of water with blue labels and white scales in hand, you join the convoy of cars pealing out of the village. The children wave and chase behind you as you drive off. You wonder if you will ever see any of them again, whether perhaps by chance one of the faces you glanced at today might one day do something great and wonderful so as to make them famous and renowned. You judge this a strange impulse: there are a thousand anonymous faces in the city that you pass by every day without pause for thought. You have never given these people the consideration you now grant these children. Is it the bias of generosity most will grant to youth? Is it the personal, intimate closeness that human interaction takes on amidst the rural vastness; the profundity lost amidst massed humanity? The convoy moves with speed and purpose: too fast for continued pondering, your focus is on the car ahead of you and keeping in formation. You engender more than a few angry horns as the train of vehicles snakes through the roughshod back roads of rural Johor. As you near the next stop, a group of youths on motorcycles is waiting bearing yet more of the omnipresent blue flags and banners. The lead cars horn jauntily, and the motorcyclists rev their engines in response before streaming off ahead of us, whooping as they go.

 

‘It’s just a basic form of power politics,’ answers your friend when you ask him about them. You ask him if they just round up the local rempits and hand them flags and cartons of cigarettes. He laughs and tells you that no, they are arranged by the campaign team.

 

‘Like a Roman Triumph,’ you opine. The two cracked lanes of tarmac turn into a single dirt trail; we are a column of steel and petrol, rumbling through these jungled paths as tiny faces pop up past our windows, drawn to and observing the commotion. A Triumphal procession indeed: you have crossed a Rubicon to come here, and now cross over a river in truth as you continue towards the next village. Do they bear the treasures of Germania and Gaul, golden coins to be thrown by centurions to the cheering crowds? Are you then become Vercingetorix, the captured foreigner on display to the Roman masses as an object of the inevitable conquest of their Imperial culture? You can only hope Caesar does not strangle you in front of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, as he did your unfortunate predecessor.

 

You get to hear the first half of the stump speech this time. You are ushered by obliging campaign staff along with your friend to waiting seats near the front. You are not a small creature by Malaysian standards at the best of times – amongst the villagers here you might as well be a different species. You bashfully take your seat, trying as much as possible to slink down and crouch so as not to block the view of the five rows of the audience seated behind you. The Dato’ speaks passionately and forthrightly, with a touch of humour and a tinge of nostalgia. Underneath another blue tent, with the same spread of rice and curried chicken and bright green and red syrup off to the side; he asks the gathered crowd if they remember when he used to come and visit bringing aid and supplies. They nod along appreciatively, eyes focused and intent. They are earnest, honest gazes: free of the cynicism you would expect were you to look at yourself at a political rally in a mirror. There is the temptation to imagine this as another form of innocence, but you are far enough away from the city to understand that there is nothing infantilising about being honest about what you need in this world. It is not your place to judge whether a bag of rice is truly worth a vote simply because it would not get yours. Moral indignation and learned debate ring empty to emptier stomachs. The Dato’ says that he came to visit even when he wasn’t their MP. An elderly woman sat near you pipes up, announcing that she remembered when the Dato’s father visited them as well, all those years ago. The Dato’ responds with a quick joke, that the grandmother was too young and couldn’t have been born then; to great laughter from the entire assembly.

 

The Dato’ then makes a point that his opponent is not ‘Orang kita,’ – ‘Our People’. You pause for a second on the phrase. You remember as child, the difference between kami: us, but excluding the listener; and kita: us, inclusive of the listener; gave you a great deal of trouble in primary school. Grammatical concepts of language can often be difficult to explain even for people who use them instinctively; even more so when the feature is something missing from the language of another. You have always noticed the difference as a consequence of having to mentally translate ‘we’ or ‘us’ into Malay one way or another. ‘Kita’ is the domain of the politician, the leader, the teacher. ‘Kita’ beckons and welcomes like a friendly smile. The Dato’ repeats the point again and again, pointing at different members of his entourage: he is Our People, as is he, as is he. He points at your friend, announcing that he too is Our People – this is his son, he tells the crowd, as they applaud in turn.

 

‘He might be a city person, but he is still Our People. He is my son, and I’ve brought him here to see you all.’

 

And then suddenly time stands still, and the world around you seems an inch and a thousand yards away all at once. The Dato’ points at you, and with the tiniest of grins declares to the crowd: ‘But this guy! This guy is a Rocket Guy! No, he’s not Our People,’ he chuckles. ‘But no, don’t worry, he is my son’s friend. He came here to see how you are too, to see the problems of Our People.’ The crowd laughs, and you give a tiny wave as appreciative and non-hostile as you can make it. Your friend is barely containing his own laughter next to you. You remind him that you enjoy not getting stabbed whilst on holiday.

 

After the village, the next stop you make is at an UMNO building named after your friend’s grandfather. A monochromatic blue image of his face serves as the logo: it is on mugs, on doors, on notepads and envelopes. There is a fine portrait of this man hanging in KL at your friend’s house – there the artist has found his grandfather vivid, larger than life, in soft warm tones. His eyes are narrow with focus and determination, his mouth curled mid-sentence, his finger raised in fervent gesture. He is an image of righteousness, of political power, of will. But this could not have been all that he was. As surely as your friend slipped from one pair of shoes into another at the village, this grand old statesman was also father and grandfather. You could not tell it from the painting, not from this brush-made snapshot redolent with symbolism and gravitas. He is both less and more than a man there – two-dimensional but eternal in that stasis. You look at the same man’s face on the mug of tea that was brought for you. Here he is even less real, the image flattened into deep blue and negative space. If you unfocus your eyes, the lines and shapes that make up the curves of the man’s face and features begin to look like squiggles in the sand, hastily thrown together by a careless child. It is un-facelike in the manner the faces on money are. So omnipresent and repeated by virtue of their importance, they cyclically find themselves mundane and almost unnoticeable again. Sharpen your gaze, what do you see? The visage is patriarchal, stoic, perhaps a bit grim. It stares forever into the middle distance with its almost-eyes; never aging even as the man who once wore that face now takes his eternal rest. When our cities fall, when our nations crumble; when all we have built around us falls unto nothing more than a thinly strewn layer of debris sandwiched between the petrified stone of the ages – perhaps some future archaeologist will uncover a potsherd with this face on it. Will that be the last gasp of this great man’s legacy? What will they think of him – dictator or celebrity, prophet or prince?

 

You wonder how he would have wanted to be remembered. As he was in the painting, perhaps: eternally in a moment of triumph. Perhaps as he was on the mug, foundational and the progenitor of a great legacy. Or perhaps – and here you admit to slipping into misty-eyed sentimentality – at the end he wished to be remembered as the man, who suffered and triumphed and loved and cried in the equal measure as all men do. Which of those men was the real one, if any? Can man truly be all of these things at once, can one be more real than others?

 

You consider your nation, consider what it is and what it could be. You know, sitting here in this place, you hold a different idea of what the nation should be than the people around you. You dream of a secular, diverse nation; a vision of a Malaysia fundamentally at odds with the one these men and women are trying to build. You dream of a country where there will be no need for Orang Kita – we will all be us, we will all be Kita and never again Kami. It is naïve, optimistic perhaps. You do not think this means it is any less worth the fighting for.

 

You are convinced, you remain convinced even now as you write this, that you are right and they are wrong – essentially wrong, in an almost Platonic sense. You are convinced that your way would not only benefit yourself but in the long run everyone else as well. It has taken you three hundred kilometres to discover the simple, essential truth that they believe the same thing too. It is an almost embarrassing realisation to stumble upon.  In the midst of the city, you believe you see clearly. You stand from the top of dozens of floors of steel rebar and poured concrete and gaze across the Klang Valley. You see the dazzle and play of the lights, you see the illuminations in the distance. You pick out landmarks, each more fantastic than the last; and think this is the universe. This is the totality of creation. But that is only one image: another is the narrow road with the houses his grandfather built. The zinc roofs and tarpaulin sheets and the open drains. Which is real? Can both be at once? We are vast, we contain multitudes; but you doubt if Whitman ever contemplated such enormity, such variety.

 

The Dato’ bursts into the room with aplomb and we rise to greet him again. He asks you why you have come to follow along on his campaign; you tell him you are writing about the Malay-Islam dichotomy in modern Malay identity, and whether Malay-ness and Muslim-ness are competing forces to Malay voters in this election. He looks at you for half a second, and then turns to one of his companions with an almost annoyed smirk: ‘You see lah what young people nowadays are talking about. Come along, we are going for lunch.’ You are not sure if he is impressed, bemused, or concerned – perhaps all three, all at once. You finish your tea and head out to join the convoy. You were not lying, not at the time at least: and perhaps those thoughts will find their way to page one day as well. But there are more important questions to ask here, even if they are only asked silently.

 

You arrive at a nondescript Malay eatery surrounded by a bare carpark. Under a five-foot walkway, tables and chairs have been set up opposite a stall selling what seems like every variety of curry and fried fish ever conceived. Tables have been cleared out for you, your friend motions to come along to have a look at the food on offer. You notice immediately that you are the only non-Malay in the establishment – and perhaps more jarringly in your mind, you notice exactly how subtly lost you appear to be. You admit with some awkwardness that you have not often been a patron at restaurants like these. In a Chinese restaurant, for one; there is no way the prices would be straightforwardly listed honestly on the wall – no opportunity to play favourites with customers that way. You have to bashfully ask for a fork and spoon, as a child would. You politely query what lurks within the wonderful smelling, steaming banana leaf packages. After you eat, you will go to the counter and pick up a pack of bright pink kuih. As you motion to your back pocket to pay, the kindly uncle will wave you off and tell you to just take it to your table: the bill will be settled later. No doubt this is mostly because you are eating with the Dato’, but the trust implicit in the action astounds you. This would never happen in the city – money upfront thank you very much. It is a strange form of chaos, impenetrable and ineffable to you; but inhabitable and natural to everyone else. You try to bring your surroundings to order, to understand what is happening through your lenses of comprehension; but this is a falteringly applicable exercise at best. It is arrogant at the outset to assume this chaos, as opposed to a different form of order. Surely there are rules – even if you do not understand them. But how are you to reconcile these two diametric conceptions of order – how can two people look at a thing, one seeing order and another chaos, and yet both be right?

 

Your friend asks you what you would like to eat. You point at the fried chicken – a safe option under all the circumstances. Your tender, thoroughly colonised stomach is far more used to cheese than chili. As you eat together, he munches on bunches of raw ulam. It’s not something you have ever really gotten around to appreciating as much as you should. You still do prefer vegetables roasted, or stir fried in oyster sauce and salted fish. You remark to your friend how odd it is to be here; how you can tell you are definitely not orang kita here. You say it is perhaps strange to imagine that you are as out of place here as one of these folk might be in a Chinese kopitiam, all roast pork and char siu pao. These parallel worlds we inhabit, adjacent but with a chasm in between. The little differences in the way we live our lives, the subtle impressions they must make on the way we think. Our basic assumptions, our fundamental truths. We are a nation of imminent contradiction and yet we have been forced by the hand of history to make do, to make something – anything. To do anything less would be to admit defeat, to give into the chaos. The house your father built will not stand without a nation beneath it. Can you ever reconcile kari ikan and soy sauce steamed-tilapia?

 

Fish head curry, maybe. Maybe that is what the nation must be, strange and exotic and staring ever upwards, ever ahead. Perhaps there is a better image, one that doesn’t invoke thoughts of gasping for air, or of decapitation. If one exists, it does not spring to your mind now. You are not nearly as good a writer as you would like to think. You thank the Dato’ for the food; and move onwards with the campaign.



IV – His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him

The following hours of the campaign are a blur of handshakes and smiles and the same speech. Stability, governance, remember the past. At one point you follow the Dato’ into a large hall filled with women baking cakes. The almost schoolgirlish excitement that bubbles from the room as he makes his entrance is amusing to watch. From the reactions, you would have thought a Hollywood star or sex icon had deigned to make an appearance at this community outreach baking centre. You agree with your friend that the cakes smell incredible. His powers of influence, however, do not extend to getting you slices of baked goods. The lamentable limits of nepotism linger in your mind in the exact opposite way that the taste of delicious, buttery sponge fails to linger in your mouth.

 

Later in the evening, with the sun having long set behind the horizon, you gather for a small event in what could charitably be described as a carpark. It is a patch of rough tarmac in between storm drains off the highway. An entrepreneurial sort has set up a stall selling sirap bandung and nasi kukus. A few awnings have been set up and tables and chairs are strewn about for patrons. There are twenty, maybe thirty people gathered here. Everyone present bar yourself is Malay – it is an event organised by a Malay NGO working in conjunction with the campaign. It is a modest turnout, not unsurprising given that it is late in the evening. The Dato’s Hilux pulls up to the cleared centre of the asphalt plot, his image draped across the back, all smiles and raised thumbs. A speaker and microphone are set up in the back of the truck. He hops onto the back, rubber slippers doing him no favours with slipping. He steadies himself and begins his speech. It proceeds much as has done since the morning: stability, remember the good old days, go out and vote. There are some titters of laughter, some gentle applause. An entirely benign, moderately successful ceramah, as far as these things go.

 

And then he makes the orang roket joke again. This time the reaction is different: in the daylight and in the villages; the remark was met with a few jocular boos and general laughter. You would laugh and wave a bit, and look at the ground in feigned embarrassment. This time, however, the crowd goes quiet. Suddenly and all at once, you feel sixty eyes all searching for you, scanning the crowd to see who exactly is not orang kita. You are being hunted now, subtly and quietly. Our darker impulses emerge with the sunset: the evening is a time for secret plotting and the unearthing of hidden resentments. You wonder, for a moment, exactly what form of bogeyman each person might be imagining. You know intellectually that the rhetoric many of these people are exposed to renders your identification as a Rocket Man a veritable mark of the beast. There is blood on your hands. You are as Cain, marked by God for committing your primordial sin. ‘And now thou art cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.’ You wonder, morbidly, if any of the silent gazing eyes had relations who suffered during the Communist Emergency. Thank you, Ustaz Hadi, for that particular infective racist brain-worm.

 

The silence lingers for a moment longer than it should. The Dato’ breaks the tension, announces you are a friend of his son’s, that you are here with him and that they shouldn’t worry. You breathe a bit easier again – after all, even the Emperor needs a Court Jew. You glance at your friend who this time is smiling silently straight at the floor. All things considered, that might have gone a lot worse. The speech ends, and you are ushered together with your friend to shake hands with the organisers and smile for some photographs. You slink away from the latter: under the circumstances, perhaps a record of your presence would not be entirely appreciated in retrospect. You are brought to a long trestle table. Chairs have been laid out only on one side of its length. Plates of noodles and small cups of strong black tea are being handed out. The Dato’ sits in the centre as his entourage take seats beside him. You are seated at the end of the table with your friend. It occurs to you that Leonardo himself could not have framed a re-enactment of his Last Supper any finer. We are all seated and facing out together, the Messiah in the centre breaking bread with his disciples. You realise in this tortured metaphor; you are seated as Judas – the outsider furtively consumed in his own thoughts. You suppose that thirty pieces of silver would not go entirely unappreciated, given the piercing awkwardness of the situation in which you have found yourself. The noodles are spicy, the tea is sweet, the night is humid.

 

As you eat, men – and it is invariably only men – walk up and wander about the other side of the table to where you are all seated. Some go up to the Dato’ to thank him, shake his hand, take photographs. Some mingle and eat standing up from plates of their own. On occasion, you notice someone looking at you – not intently, perhaps, but with curiosity and uncertainty. When this happens and you move your head up to catch their eye, they invariably break into a small smile and nod their head in polite acknowledgement. You return the gesture, trying as best you can to put the people around you at ease. Perhaps you misjudged confusion as hostility. You know you stick out strangely amidst this crowd: as they look at you they see an unknown quantity, an unresolved mystery. You are two tribes of concrete monkeys noticing the strange smells and unusual howls from the other. You realise they do not trust you, not in any malicious sense, but in that one cannot trust what one does not understand. You are chaos now, amidst their order. Impossible to penetrate, to comprehend, to contextualise. Beyond their experience and so beyond their understanding; but in a way that speaks not of their ignorance but your own strange, dispossessed existence. Do you belong here – at this table, in this place, in this nation? Can a nation stand secure if it is ever-ready to excise a part of itself; ever-eager to slice away all that it deems impure until nothing remains? You want to trust the man staring curiously at you, as much as you want him to trust you. The tiny spark of enlightenment within you longs to imagine that you share more in common with him than differences, that your hopes and fears are not so far removed. Yet after today, you are not so sure if that is true. Different monkeys, different tribes, different lives, different truths. And from this we must build a nation?

 

The final stop of the day is at an Indian community centre. It is tucked away off the main road, surrounded on all sides by the dense public housing high-rises inhabited by the urban poor. The Dato’ is welcomed into a moderately sized room packed with chairs; he is lain with a garland of blossoms and a shawl of woven cloth. He gratefully accepts both, keeping them on throughout his speech. And yet, despite this; and perhaps for the first time today; he is as much an outsider here as you are. This is not entirely friendly territory. Here, the blue of the hastily hung flags is unbidden and jarring underneath the harsh artificial white glare of the fluorescent lights. The rumble of highway traffic, punctuated by horns and zooming motorcycles; blends into the chatter of children and the gossiping of women and the hum of the struggling air conditioning. This is not as captive an audience as the Dato’ has been used to today. His jokes fall a little flatter. Applause and cheers only really come from the first few rows. A child begins to cry – her brother has taken the phone on which they were watching YouTube together and has decided to play a game instead. We learn of the unjust cruelties of reality at far too young an age.

 

The Dato’ speaks of Prime Ministerial candidates. This part of the speech in particular, you note, receives a cool response. There is a moment when he makes a remark about an opposing candidate for PM: he pauses for a laugh for a heartbeat longer than he should have, and the rumbling judgment of tepid quiet lingers. He recovers quickly, of course, but you cannot help but wonder if he feels as you did under the tent eating noodles. If you cannot trust what you cannot understand, can outsiders in this nation ever really understand the position we are made to inhabit? The tale since Merdeka has been that the harmony of this nation relies on our peculiar social contract. Our gratitude must be generational, then and now and forever into eternity. We were not an integral part of this nation, so the story goes, not princes of the soil; and so that Providence deigned to grant us inclusion into this new project of Malaysia at all should be prize enough. Be content, inconspicuous, obsequious. This is the house our – kami – forefathers built, sayeth the great voice of history, that we have thought fit in which to let you stay. Are we not generous?

 

But what of your forefathers? Won they no glory, built they no kingdoms? Did they not too bring forth order from the chaos here, as theirs did? A strange order of contrast and contradiction and compromise. Was that not the dream, the city on the hill? Wherefore has it gone? Was it real in the first place, or were we labouring under illusions of post-colonial ecstasy, so bound up were we in the defeat of our oppressors that we had not considered whether we would co-opt their tools for ourselves?

 

The speech ends, photos are taken, hands are shaken. You bid the Dato’ good-bye: he will continue on to a late-night strategy meeting for the next day of campaigning before retiring for the evening. He was right: you do not have the stamina for this. Right now, the only thing you truly desire is a stiff drink to warm the soul and belly to long-awaited rest. You and your friend get into the car and you begin the drive back. On the way, you talk a bit about the day and your thoughts. Your friend says that his father feels fundamentally betrayed by his electorate. That having sacrificed a successful career in business and spending the better part of his adult life in public service – having missed birthdays and concerts and anniversaries to bring bags of rice to the village; that the voters would still decide to throw him out of his father’s seat.

 

A day ago you might have burst into friendly but serious refutation of his ideas. But you know now how little we can see from within our own cities, magnificent as they might be. You have had the luxury of leaving the city, of descending from Xanadu unto the steppe and the plain to seek the truth. You have crossed the threshold by happenstance and good fortune. But can the Lord truly ever leave the castle? You do the Dato’ the courtesy of at least considering how shattering, on a human level, it must have been to have been so thoroughly rejected by the democratic process within which your family had participated for half a century. Bright blue flags billow beneath the glow of the streetlamps as you race down the highway. You point out the window. You tell your friend that throughout the day the speeches have been about stability – and yet the reality is that people understand that these very same blue flags represent the people that, in one way or another, caused the instability that plagues this nation. That it is difficult to talk about trust when that party to this day continues to defend a convicted felon. That it is a struggle to look back with nostalgia on the past when the past, present, and future all blur into an uninterrupted, uninspiring melange of stagnation and infighting. You tell him you know his father is not personally responsible for any of this, that you still think he is a good and honourable man. But just as his grandfather is made a symbol, in paintings and on buildings and on mugs, so too his father has and must become one. That is the job, unfortunate and plain and simple as it is.  

 

‘You cannot blame the voters for listening to you when you say you are a party man, and then deciding that that party no longer works for them,’ you say.

 

When he tells you that his father feels betrayed despite his hard work, it is as with many things today fundamentally a question of trust. His father trusted that by doing real work: elbows in the mud, boots on the ground work; he would be rewarded with the right to continue doing that work. His voters trusted that he would represent their views. Both failed the other in a simple, subtle way. They failed despite doing what they were meant to do, what they thought was right and good. They failed despite both trying to bring order to the chaos; and in their failure their trust faded. Can you build a nation on anything but trust? You do not sign contracts with people you trust: if you trust someone in the true, essential meaning of the phrase; a handshake and their word should be enough. You put ink to paper for certainty, for security. Physicality serves in place of trust of spirit.

 

What then is a constitution to a nation? Perhaps it is fundamentally an admission that this many concrete monkeys cannot truly trust one another. We write using our faltering human tongues our dreams, our aspirations, our principles. We record for posterity those values and thoughts which we hold sacred and true, even if we do so knowing we may not live up to these grand ideals. We trust in these precepts and hold fast to them, that we might all find a point of singular, shared sanity amidst the maelstrom. But what happens when suspicion and doubt, when the fundamental lack of trust is assumed and written into such a secularly sacred text? Almost a century ago, and against the protestations of the Tunku and their Highnesses the Malay Rulers, Lord Reid hung around the neck of a new-born nation a millstone of ethnic mistrust – all in the name of perceived equity and justice. He did not have the chance to go down from the City. He did not see the order amidst the chaos that stood before him, and in imposing his own form of order he sparked a blaze of chaos that this patchwork nation has had to struggle with for now fifteen struggled attempts at democracy. If the sacred scrolls tell us that trust is beyond conception, beyond reason, beyond compromise; if they tell us that we are essentially different and separate, incapable of shared truth by virtue of blood itself: who are we to argue?

 

You bid your friend a good-night and turn towards your hotel. You have found something here on your trip, to be sure. Not revelation exactly, but perhaps the revelation of revelation to come.

 



 

V – Rage Against the Dying of the Light

The implicit suppositions of language bely our particular unspoken arrogances. You go down from a city: you abandon the rarefied air, descend from the enlightened mount unto the hinterlands and savagery. You go back up to the city: you leave behind provinciality and backwardness and assume yourself again the axis mundi, the centre of the world around which the chaos must revolve. As you leave Johor and begin the long drive north, you consider what you have learned. In truth, they are not particularly insightful lessons: people think differently to you, people have different priorities and goals to you, people have a different conception of what they want this nation to be than you. You speed back towards civilisation, casting off chaos and returning unto order at a hundred-and-fifty kilometres an hour. Cities exist as order amidst chaos: defiant and proud, from the heavens they blaze at night with brilliant light amidst a sea of shadow. They are perpetually and eternally in co-dependent conflict with the rural countryside: they are the opportunity over the hill and the collapse of hearth and home, benevolent patriarch and dictatorial fist, saviour and savage all at once; as you are – as all are. They are screams of indignant refusal to go gentle into that good night, of the unconquerable human desire to defy entropy and decay. So long as two stones stand stacked, laid in place by human hands, nature will have no final victory. We were here. We thrived. We are here. We will go on.

 

This conflict, primal and ancient, is a tale as old as story itself. Only the wild man Enkidu could spur the God-King Gilgamesh to embark on his epic journey. But when the pair of friends – nature and mankind as comrades-in-arms – slay the Bull of Heaven and defeat the monster Humbaba; the cost of their victory is the death of Enkidu. Though the two fought at first; order and chaos in cosmic, metaphysical conflict; their triumph is only won with the fall of the noble savage. Are we become Gilgamesh, glorious and conquering but forever besotted by the loss of our truest companion – he who was our opposite and equal? Will we only mourn Enkidu when he is gone?

 

The concrete jungle reappears in view. You feel urban coldness and dispassion, temporarily buried and subsumed beyond the city, re-emerge in the corners of your mind. You chuckle to yourself: despite pseudo-spiritual revelation, the concrete monkey ever lurks. Back in its natural habitat, it reasserts itself with the pheromone-dominance of the primate. Pink slate roofs melt into tall concrete slabs, which in turn fade into the mirror-facades of the skyscrapers, reflecting the city endlessly back onto its inhabitants. The centre of the world can only gaze at itself. In the distance, you see a hundred-and-eighteen floors of plate glass and steel rise like a monolith from the horizon. It is jarring and comforting all at once. Your metropolitan arrogance creeps back for a second, smiling slightly at the almost provincial stature of what they call skyscrapers in Johor. A good reminder, perhaps, that you have not returned to the city nearly as enlightened as you would have hoped.

 

The tower is stark and proud, erupting from the urban sprawl like Yggdrasil the World-Tree wrought in iron. In the distance, it does not so much reflect the light as it does absorb it. Focused on the road as you are, it looms in the periphery; almost featureless and flat in the background. It is not so much as a structure as a looming void, a great shape that dominates with harsh, artificial lines in contempt and dissent of the curving order of nature that it imposes itself upon. In the corner of your eye, it is almost as if someone has jaggedly sliced out a sliver of the sky; as if creation itself had been cut by the cosmic craft scissors of an infant god making a collage from cut-out pieces of old magazines. Amidst the landscapes you had seen on the drive to and from Johor, it would be an aberration, a monstrosity beyond countenance; a spear of bleeding chaos planted amidst the untouched verdant green. But here, in the city? Here it gleams as a great sentinel, a light-house calling near and far. It crowns the city from which it emerges, gigantic and incomprehensible and breath-taking all at once. It is a pillar of brilliant bleached alabaster midnight, a world axis of order throwing back the darkness, back the chaos, back the wilderness and the rot. It is neither. It is both.

 

You try one last time to play the childhood game, to erase the monolith from view. Even imagination fails you here: it is too vast, too real. ‘Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.’ Will this titan not too crumble, despite – or because – of its immensity? What is the point of the struggle, if we are bound by nature and time to failure? The impossibility of a dream does not in and of itself render it unworthy. The tower was impossible – in many ways it still is. And yet there it stands, defiant against gravity. It knocks on the door of heaven. The city too, is impossible. It is an amalgam, a mongrel creature of a thousand thousand dreams and hopes and tragedies. It cannot contain them all, not in truth, not when the hope of one will dash a hundred others. But it manages, it struggles on, it thrives despite itself. It lives and grows and is – to be, what glory it is simply to be. It is glorious because it is defiant and rebellious, it refutes the chaos and imbibes it, moulding it into a perverse, transient new order. It is the impossible dream, the vision of paramount contradiction, it is nature and time screaming ‘No’ and spitting in the face of it all and simply continuing to be.

 

That succumbing to the chaos is easy, that the low road beckons, that the goal is impossible: these do not tarnish the dream. When sins have been cleansed in the purest water, when a thing is worthy and noble: the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

 

Back up to the city. To dream once again, of things impossible.

 


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