View from below
A Singaporean writer gets up close and personal with life in Malaysia
By Daryl Lim Wei Jie
Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore
In the recent Malaysian general elections, the Chinese component of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), lost more than half its seats (holding seven out of 15) from the 2008 elections. In 2008, the MCA had also lost more than half its seats (holding 15 out of 31) from the election before that. In both these elections, the main beneficiary of the MCA's collapse was the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which increased its number of seats in the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) from 12 to 28 in 2008 and then to 38 in 2013. Prime Minister Naijb Razak publicly blamed a 'Chinese tsunami' for the BN's poor performance. That race is, troublingly, a reinvigorated issue was proven by the headline of the Malay-language daily, the Utusan Malaysia (owned by the main, Malay component party of BN, the United Malays' National Organisation or UMNO), the day after the election: 'Apa lagi Cina mahu?' (What more do the Chinese want?). There is a lot more to be said about this, but let us focus on the DAP. Its party symbol, a red rocket splitting a bangle of blue, will no doubt be oddly familiar to Singaporeans: it is indeed a variant of the People's Action Party's famous lightning and circle. The similarity of their names provides the other clue. This is no coincidence: the DAP is the political progeny of the PAP.
In the complex settlement that saw Singapore become part of Malaysia in 1963, the PAP was the ruling party of the Singapore government, but was also federally represented in the Malaysian House of Representatives. In 1964, it decided to contest the Malaysian general election, a move which caused immense ill-will and quickened Singapore's expulsion from the Federation, which occurred in 1965. The PAP did not do well, despite its hopes, winning just one seat. The main difference between the PAP and the incumbent Federal government came to be one between a 'Malaysian Malaysia' and a communally based system: the alliance of UMNO, MCA and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). After Singapore's separation, the Malaysian PAP became the DAP. If we look at every election since 1964, the DAP has been there, wrestling incessantly with the BN (called the Alliance in its early years). In 1999, Mr Lim Kit Siang, leader of the DAP, revived this call for a 'Malaysian Malaysia'. The DAP, after the 2013 elections, is now the largest opposition party in Malaysia, and the second-largest overall. The communal coalition of UMNO-MCA-MIC that has governed Malaysia since its first general election in 1955 is very close to becoming undone. To put it starkly: nearly half a century after the PAP's failed foray into the Malaysian general elections in 1964, the DAP has proven the viability of the Malaysian Malaysia vision. Scenes from a play which began in 1963/4 are still being played out, and the actors haven't changed all that much. It does not make me gleeful to say this; this is not meant to eulogise the PAP and Mr Lee Kuan Yew. (In fact, it was Dr Toh Chin Chye, Mr Ong Pang Boon and Mr S. Rajaratnam who were most insistent on the PAP's role in Malaysia.) Rather, I bring this up to endorse the driving thrust of Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh's book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. Why 'Malayan'? "Because I grew up thinking of the two countries as one", says Vadaketh. Two twins separated at birth, our histories and fates are intertwined still.
Vadaketh worked for the Economist Intelligence Unit, but is now a freelance author. The core of this book is a remarkable travelogue: in 2004, Vadaketh and his best friend, Sumana Rajarethnam, both Singaporeans, spent a month cycling around peninsular Malaysia on a daily budget of RM10 (S$4) each, often sleeping rough or pitching tents, but even more often relying on the charity of Malaysians all over the eleven states of West Malaysia. The travelogue recounts parts of their journey and their encounters with Malaysians throughout the peninsula. Inevitably, many of these conversations turn to the topic of Singapore, the differences between the two countries and, more importantly, how these differences are perceived and misperceived. Vadaketh then, in eleven chapters, welds these anecdotes to analyses of Malaysian and Singaporean politics and society, juxtaposing and comparing the two.
The travelogue is a triumph: Vadaketh compellingly sets scenes up, has a good eye for detail and has some wonderful quotations, many of which ought to make the reader shake with laughter – and for the Singaporean reader, these stories achieve Vadaketh's aim of making us feel much closer to our neighbours up north. Too much shouldn't be given away. But to tantalise: a hilarious account of Malays' supposed inability to keep secrets in Johor; an encounter with the young girls of Puteri UMNO, the women's youth wing of UMNO, in the opposition-held (by the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia or PAS) state of Kelantan; and, especially in the light of the recent general election, a frank and worrying discussion about race with an Indian Malaysian in a Catholic church in Kuantan; an interview with an unenthused interviewee, a Malay policeman in Pontian, that, like so many of the conversations in this book, gradually becomes more candid and honest; a deeper look at the seemingly tranquil town of Nenasi in Pahang, where much more lies beneath the surface of a rural idyll. These aren't simply good stories: they often draw out important comparisons between Singapore and Malaysia, subtly demonstrating Vadaketh's thesis that the two countries should be considered together.
One wishes that Vadaketh would then follow the novelist's dictum: 'Show, don't tell', to let these stories speak for themselves. Rather, he has chosen to have entire sections of political and social analysis alongside these stories. These are a mixed bag, and are often unflattering counterweights to the stories. A lot of it is generally sound, though not particularly radical or groundbreaking. Sometimes, the insights are good. His discussions of race and religion, in the chapters 'Colour matters' and 'The influx of God and migrants', are valuable in themselves because of the paucity of such frank (but not malicious) discussions in Singapore. But his statements can be light and insubstantial, and assertions such as: 'A veneer of religious harmony exists in Singapore ... Yet we probably would achieve a healthier balance if we encouraged more public dialogue' are anodyne. His analysis of Singaporean politics and society is alternately interesting and frustrating. Vadaketh's location of the PAP's particular historical situation – that if it succeeds in renewing its ranks and adapting to changes, it will go down as an extraordinary political success; but that if it fails, it will simply be a powerful governing machine that had a specific role at one point in history – is well-articulated. However, Vadaketh has the tendency to perpetuate stereotypes: for example, drawing too sharp a contrast between Singaporean work obsession and Malaysians' supposedly more relaxed attitude to life. In this vein, he seems to not give Singaporeans the same nuanced treatment he is able to afford Malaysians, often seeing 'Singaporeans' as a mass with a single mindset – after all, he has many personal stories of Malaysians, but very few of Singaporeans. This seems to partly undermine the avowed purpose of his book. Its organisation is also sometimes is haphazard. His discussion of the Singaporean economy, in the chapter 'Some are more equal than others', shifts from our supposed lack of creativity to money-laundering, income inequality, expatriates, the lack of policy debate, and our low-wage, low-productivity problem, often becoming a disorderly pile of anecdote and rumour. More importantly, the economistic slant given to this discussion seems to be in contradiction to an earlier point, which is more defensible: that Singaporeans may have many ends, many "things that matter", and that these need to come to the fore. If Vadaketh is right, then why fetishise the sort of creativity that leads to economic success? Has he asked Singaporeans if we would prefer more poets or more dotcoms? Lastly, while his prose is generally serviceable, some constructions lead him to flirtations with gibberish. Comparing the 2009 takeover of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a Singapore non-governmental organisation, to a 'Machiavellian revolution' makes little sense and does credit to neither Machiavelli nor revolutions. Unless Vadaketh is being ironic, describing meet-the-people sessions, where members of Parliament meet constituents, as "a poignant demonstration of Singaporean efficiency" seems to misconstrue the meaning of 'poignant'.
Despite these problems, Vadaketh has done an admirable job chronicling a Singaporean's encounter with Malaysia, and the questions, dilemmas and problems this encounter generates. As he notes, too often our encounters with Malaysia are merely nostalgic. Singapore was always more prone to nostalgia than most other nations. There is no need to lay out, in clean academese, the explanations that social scientists love to construct, but in two words: political economy. A swiftly modernising country, with no rural repository of timeless values, trying to achieve in 40 years what took other nations centuries, had its eyes firmly fixed on the future, which had come, was coming and was somehow still yet to come. It was constantly revolutionising its façade, its very borders and its ways of life. Its population, duly immunised against tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox, was left defenceless against the pitiless ravages of nostalgia.
Nostalgia partly stems from a noble impulse: the awareness that much has been destroyed, and that we should act to prevent more from being irretrievably lost. Yet nostalgia enervates our sense of history; it saturates our horizons with sepia; it falsifies our encounter with the past by casting it in terms of the personal instead of the national, if not the global. We enter this mood as a refuge from the merciless present and, when sufficiently calmed, we re-emerge and forge ahead just as unthinkingly. It provokes a pleasurable ache that sublimates the necessary crisis a genuine encounter with the past must stimulate. Nostalgia, as Mark Twain once memorably put it, is 'mental and moral masturbation'. Floating on a Malayan Breeze seems to overcome this view of Malaysia as simply an invitation to nostalgia, convincingly demonstrating the presence and relevance of the past, and the unsettling effect this presence must have on our unexamined views of Singapore and the world. Two famous quotations about history sum up Vadaketh's book. We are reminded that "the past is never dead. It's not even past". The past may be a "foreign country". But that foreign country, in our case, is Malaysia. The past is not past; and neither is the foreign country that foreign.QLRS Vol. 12 No. 4 Oct 2013