Merantau: An essay for a 60th Merdeka

In Melaka

“The only thing wrong with Malaysia is the way Malaysia sees itself.” – Rehman Rashid

In Hindsight

I started out wanting to compile a list of my sixty favourite Malaysian books, seeing that it is a momentous anniversary. But upon realizing that this would include practically all the books I had ever read on Malaysia, I decided against the idea. I really should have read more books than I currently have. Even though the general public perception is that Malaysians do not read or write or have an interest in doing so, the fact remains that written work in contemporary Malaysia flourishes with new ideas and experiments, raising fresh questions for a post-truth world.

For the most part of the past few years I have not been in Malaysia at all. It has only been a distant homeland seen in hindsight, a place that still remains nominally home. Because as much as I like to think that I’ve adjusted to life on the Pacific Northwest, Malaysia remains the only place that I feel I really understand and have a sense of belonging to. It is there: the mountainous spine of the Titiwangsa range cutting southwards, the rolling paddy fields of the north, morning train journeys filled with cigarette smoke and drowsy overnight travellers, and of course the confluence of the Klang and Gombak Rivers, muddy waters lapping at the base of Masjid Jamek. But beyond that news from home feels like it comes from a distant planet of questionable politicians and revised histories.

A Voyage

I only began to read about Malaysia after leaving it. Funnily enough I had started on this journey when I was busy learning about Indonesia, before realizing it was time to pay a bit more attention to its smaller northern neighbour.

The library at university housed a well-stocked collection of Malaysian books. In addition to the novels of Tash Aw and Tan Twan Eng (I hoarded Five Star Billionaire for months on end, continuously renewing my loan just so I could keep reading it), other books lay waiting in the underground stacks. They were patient friends awaiting their chance to tell their stories. I brought back one of Munshi Abdullah’s books. Regarded as the first modern Malay writer, cutting his teeth as Stamford Raffles’ assistant, I embarked on a voyage to the northeast of the peninsula with the critical Munshi and a group of colonial officers in tow, a place that I had last seen while waiting for the long-distance Transnasional at the chaotic central station on a morning in Kota Bharu. After that I progressed to Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Bernice Chauly, leaving heavier political books for another day. It was only years later that I eventually came across multiple copies of The Malay Dilemma, defaced with angry comments and rebuttals. Knowing fully well that it was important to keep a discourse going, I scribbled my own notes in the margins, but not enough blank space was available to talk about Malaysia’s complex political, historical, cultural, and religious divisions that made the book so reductionist and condescending. So I just referenced Syed Hussein Alatas and left it at that.

Meanwhile, the big chain bookstores of the Klang Valley carry self-help books and study guides.


I was asked about Malaysia many times. I found myself being described in someone’s journal as being a Malay-Chinese based in Vancouver. So I felt it was important to make a distinction that I was Malaysian Chinese. This meant that I had to explain what the difference was between being Malay and Malaysian. And if I was Chinese, what was I doing in Malaysia in the first place? The more I tried to explain the less it made sense. So therefore I would stick to being just Malaysian in the future. It made things just so much easier but it was troubling just how vehemently some of the people I met abroad asserted that they were Chinese, first and foremost, declaring affinity to a distant motherland they had never lived in and certainly had nothing in common with. How do you relate to a country which had undergone violent abdications, revolutions, massacres, and a state-sponsored destruction of its own heritage in your family’s absence?

I was also asked about Malaysian literature. When I mentioned that I wrote stories I was automatically taken as being famous, which I found flattering. I admitted that I did not know much—The Malay press was flourishing with love stories and the English publishers were in undergoing a renaissance of sorts. But I knew practically nothing of Chinese literature, of which there was a tremendous amount of output, and Tamil writing, which I knew nothing at all. So it struck me vividly how divided Malaysia remains. These divisions run so deeply that sixty years have done little to repair but have in fact deepened.

Fuelled by the realization that I needed to know more, I returned to the heavier material that I had left for a future date. There was just so much to read: The Myth of the Lazy Native, the articles that K. Das wrote for the Far Eastern Economic Review, Farish Noor’s excellent dissections of culture and history…those formed part of a reconstructed Malaysia that now existed in my head. Therefore, this meant that when I eventually got back after four years I was in for some rude awakenings. I would not even know which language to use.

I’m not quite done with my readings. So many unread books remain. In addition to the vast variety of English-language books dealing with contemporary topics, it is impossible to ignore classics like Putera Gunung Tahan and Tulang-tulang Berserakan. And of course let’s not forget the very readable pulp fiction available…

Patriotic Activity

The last time I left Malaysia was on the morning of Merdeka Day. Five helicopters of the RMAF flew across Petaling Jaya in the direction of the Dataran, which we saw on television screens at the local mamak not long afterwards. Being a public holiday, the roads were drained of traffic, people sleeping longer than usual and pleased to be able to avoid work.

Back when I was in primary school the whole month was full of feverish patriotic activity and songs, and I remember very clearly the photocopied stacks of papers bearing the portraits of the four Prime Ministers that the teachers handed out. The fourth one I remember most clearly-the firebrand doctor from up north who challenged the status quo, wrote a controversial book that still remains the simplified yet accepted guide to race and politics, the man in whose shadow I grew up in and who retained a tremendous hold on my imagination. Whom we had criticised in our last days of being teenagers, full of inflated ideas of reform and political tsunamis, who I had eventually seen in the flesh speaking slowly and softly at the launch of his latest book, bent over by age yet still blazing with the same disdain for authority that had first propelled him to power, being the subject of frenzied selfies with amused policemen standing close to his Bufori. In the distance his glass-and-concrete skyline of Kuala Lumpur shimmered.

Untuk Ibu Pertiwi Merdeka Abadi

For a while I’ve been getting the lyrics to the patriotic song Inilah Barisan Kita stuck in my head. It is very catchy. Happily, I stumbled upon the poem Pesnanku, by Usman Awang, penned in the early post-war days when it became clear that colonial power was corroding in Southeast Asia as the Indonesian revolution went underway and radical groups agitated for Independence. The lyrics to Inilah Barisan Kita bear more than a few similarities to Usman Awang’s poem, which reflected the determination of those early days:  

Andainya aku tidak juga kembali,
Air-mata jangan dibuang lagi,
Hanya harapan yang telah kupesankan,
Taburkanlah bunga di pusaraku,
Dengan doa, aku pergi untukmu,
Untuk ibu pertiwi merdeka abadi.

Ten readings for the next sixty years

1.       The Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas
2.       The Malay Dilemma by Mahathir Mohamad
3.       K. Das and the Tunku Tapes, edited by Kua Kia Soong
4.       Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
5.       Salina by A Samad Said
6.       The Voyage of Abdullah by Munshi Abdullah
7.       A Malaysian Journey by Rehman Rashid
8.       What Your Teacher Didn’t Tell You by Farish Noor
9.       Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History by Chin Peng
10.   Radicals: Resistance and Protest in Colonial Malaya by Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied