Monthly Archives: August 2012

An Open Letter to my Malay Friends and Anyone Who Cares Where Malaysia is Going

August 31 is Malaysia’s Independence (Merdeka) Day. On this day fifty five years ago, the Union Jack was lowered for the last time and a new country was born.

Malaysia (then called Malaya). 

She was to be a powerful narrative for multiculturalism. A place where many races – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Orang Asli (native indigenous people) – would live together, work together, as one, to move the country beyond the shadow of colonisation.

Malaysia remains a powerful idea. It’s one I believe in. But it has gone badly wrong. That’s why today, I’m writing this open letter to my Malay family and friends. I believe Malaysia is fast reaching a crossroad; where it goes next will be determined by you, my dear Malay friends. And where Malaysia goes is important to the world – because it remains one of the more tolerant Muslim countries.

First though, I want to say a big thank you. On this Merdeka day, I want to thank you, my Malay family and friends, and all fellow-Malaysians of Malay descent, for your historic generosity. Your ancestors welcomed mine when they arrived. You have shared the land with us, and this in turn, gave us opportunities we wouldn’t have had on mainland China. You provided us safe refuge from the turmoil of China. When I learn what happened there in the past century, I am so grateful my ancestors left. And that they found shelter in the beautiful land now called Malaysia.

My Malay friends, your own ancestors came from other places. They knew what it was like to be strangers in a new country. They treated my ancestors with that gracious hospitality which I myself have experienced countless times. All this I acknowledge, and thank you for.

But now I need to move on to something else: why I left Malaysia, and why I won’t be returning any time soon.

You may already know that 2 out of 10 Malaysian graduates live outside Malaysia. This is an astonishing fact for a middle-income country like Malaysia. It was revealed in a detailed study on Malaysia’s brain drain, carried out by the World Bank.

My Malay family and friends, do you not care about this exodus of talent? This isn’t just an abstract number: in our family, half those of my generation live abroad. We are the graduates this World Bank report identifies. We compete happily in the world economy and have no need to return.

Perhaps, my Malay friends, you think the brain drain irrelevant, since most of the people who have left are of Chinese and Indian descent? Certainly, this is what many Malays think, as Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, has alluded to. (If you haven’t heard her speak, I recommend you watch this youtube clip. The opening is in Malay; the rest in English). 

“For me,” she says, “one Malaysian regardless of race, who has left the country…is a loss to us. They should be here celebrating, to improve the economy. I detest many people trying to singularly find out whether they are Malays, Chinese or Indians.”

My sentiments entirely. This fixation on race, race, race, in Malaysia is strangling the country. Yes, 88% of the one million Malaysians estimated to be living abroad are of Chinese and Indian descent. So what? My Malay friends, I ask you: does our race matter more than the fact that we have taken our talents elsewhere?

Yet, should I expect anything else? How could any Malaysian not be fixated on race, when you, my Malay family and friends, are accorded ‘special’ rights solely because of your race and religion?

Imagine if the United States had given ‘special’ privileges to the Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers and their descendants. Special rights to land, schools, gold mines and everything else – all because they sailed first; yes, just imagine! This is exactly what your special rights equate to. If the US had adopted such a policy, do you think it would have turned into a magnet for talent and skills?

Tell anyone about a Malaysian university reserved for people with ‘special’ privileges based on race, and you will see the reaction. What? People stare in disbelief. You must be kidding!

I’m not. And there have been demonstrations against opening the institute up to other Malaysians. Yet, Malaysians are so used to these oddities that we don’t bat an eyelid. We no longer notice the strange ideas plaguing our country.

Your ‘special’ rights, my Malay family and friends, alienate me. They make me feel unwelcome, unwanted and second-class. They are why I left. They are also why I won’t be back. Rights are a zero-sum game: for you to have more rights, others must necessarily have fewer. TalentCorp (the agency set up to attract Malaysians back) completely misses the point.

And when I see the culture of entitlement your ‘special’ privileges have led to, and the increasingly racist rhetoric this culture generates, I fear for Malaysia. Outrageous remarks are now commonplace, as former US ambassador John R. Malott outlined in his Feb 8 2011 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Malaysia has once again been called Tanah Melayu (Malay Land). Malay Land was given airtime by none other than Mahathir Mohamed, former Prime Minister and rabble-rouser extraordinaire, who is himself from a family with Indian immigrants. Malay Land is more than just a name. His is a supremacist concept: a land for Malays, where Malays will be Lords, everyone else their subjects.

Some people say Mahathir no longer matters, but actually he does. I feel less welcome now in Malaysia than at any time in the past. The attitudes of Malay Land are creeping in, and Malay Land is completely the opposite of Malaysia. Malay Land excludes, while Malaysia embraces and includes – a country for all races.

My Malay family and friends, which is it you want: Malay Land, or Malaysia? You cannot have both; you must choose.

On this Merdeka Day, I urge you to think about that choice. Because you, my dear Malay friends, are the only people who can truly change the direction Malaysia takes. Know that we, your fellow-Malaysians who have voted with our feet, are rooting for Malaysia. We are no traitors. 68% of the Malaysians abroad who were surveyed by the World Bank expressed a strong sense of patriotism/attachment to Malaysia. I am among this 68%. I may have been away for thirty three years, but Malaysia continues to be in my dreams. I left with regret, and I stay away with sadness. I hope Malaysia will prevail. Assalamualaikum.

The above blog-post was published in its entirety, but without video or links, on Malaysia Kini on August 31 2012 (http://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/207623).

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Tan Twan Eng, the Garden of Evening Mists and Memories of War

I’m always on the lookout for writers and artists from Malaysia. I get a particular thrill when a piece of literary or artistic work reflects Malaysians as we are, in the places we know and love. It is rare to come across such work outside Malaysia. So when it happens, and the work then goes on to achieve international recognition, I’m doubly excited!

This is what has happened with Malaysia-born Tan Twan Eng. (Surname: Tan, name: Twan Eng. See my blog-post What’s in a Chinese Name?). His two novels have both been long-listed for the prestigious Man Booker Prize – a remarkable feat. I first heard of him in 2007 when his début novel The Gift of Rain was published in the UK. A former banking colleague had recommended I read it. “It’s beautiful,” he told me. He was right. The Gift of Rain is set on the magical island of Penang, home of sandy beaches and swaying palms. The story in it unfolds in lyrical prose as light as stardust.

Yet, Tan Twan Eng is not especially known in Malaysia. This is a shame – because his work ripples with themes Malaysians would find interesting.

To begin with, both novels are about the War and its aftermath. For Malaysians, there is but one War: the Second World War – when Malaya was occupied by Japanese forces. This occurred between 1941 and 1945. Roughly seventy years may have passed, but we continue to be affected by the events which took place then. They changed Malaya irrevocably, in ways we are only beginning to explore and understand.

I know I was obsessed with stories from the War era as a child. Whenever my now-dead maternal Grandmother visited, I would beg her to tell me what the War was like. She would sit, as calm as a lake on a still night, and in her deep voice, would tell me things I simply could not imagine. Soldiers rapping on doors and windows, looking for girls and women; men being rounded up, forced to stand in 30+ degree Celsius heat with no water; the screams that could be heard from one of the hospitals in Ipoh, where the Japanese had set up a torture chamber; heads on spikes, on full display at the front gates of Ipoh’s Central Market as a warning to the headstrong.

I thought I knew much about the War. Yet, both The Gift of Rain and Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng’s latest novel, taught me new things.

For example, I grew up believing that the British Colonial administration had done its very best to defend our country. Not so, according to The Gift of Rain, and my own research confirmed this. Much has been made of the Malayan Campaign. But if we cut through it all, here is the bald fact: Britain largely abandoned us to the Japanese. Japanese forces attacked the north-eastern coast of Malaya first, before swiftly marching across the country: westwards and southwards, over mountains and across jungle our Colonial rulers had said was impenetrable. Yes there were battles – mainly in support of retreat – unlike in Europe, where the British army fought for every inch of ground, to the death. In Malaya, the Colonial troops retreated…and retreated…until they reached the island of Singapore and there was nowhere else to go. At that point, some hopped onto ships bound for Australia, following their women and children. Those who didn’t leave on time were captured when Singapore fell.

I was sorely disappointed by what I learnt. It still rankles today. The only thing I can do with my feelings is to write about what happened.

I imagine Tan Twan Eng must have been similarly affected, though he has worked wonders to weave history into his stories easily. His writing doesn’t feel dense, nor is there any rancour. Amazingly, each novel incorporates a Japanese central character. In Garden of Evening Mists, this happens to be the Emperor’s gardener; in The Gift of Rain, it is an aikido master. Tan himself has first-dan ranking in aikido, and has obviously studied Japanese thinking. He manages to convey some of its Zen-like mystery and beauty through slow, deliberately measured prose, so that even the positioning of stones within a garden becomes pure poetry.

Garden of Evening Mists tells the story of a young Malaysian-Chinese woman, Yun Ling, who goes on to become a lawyer, but who cannot forget the War. After graduating from Cambridge, she takes leave to learn the art of creating a Japanese garden from a man who was the Emperor’s gardener. This fictional garden is located high up in the Malaysian hills, in Cameron Highlands, a dreamy place once shrouded in jungle and mist. It was developed because it reminded British Colonialists of their home. Yun Ling hopes the creation of a garden will be cathartic; instead, it adds layers of intrigue and pain she only comprehends years later. 

Japanese themes also echo in The Gift of Rain. A Eurasian boy, Philip (Note: By Eurasian, I don’t mean someone from that piece of land known as Eurasia, but a person with one European parent and one Asian parent), who lives in Penang, is befriended by a Japanese man, Endo, before the War. Philip is taught aikido by Endo. Perhaps I read too much into it, but what develops within Philip is a depth of feeling which struck me as homo-erotic. (Though I stress this isn’t a ‘gay’ novel.) Philip learns not only aikido, but also the Japanese language. Then, the Japanese arrive, en masse. You will have to read the book to find out what happens to him, his family and Penang.

Incidentally, there is an explicitly gay character in Garden of Evening Mists. I mention this because it shows me that Tan Twan Eng isn’t afraid of tackling a subject we in Asia prefer to avoid.

Like a good story-teller, Tan Twan Eng folds his own experiences seamlessly into his writing. Having lived in Cape Town for the past few years, he inserted an Afrikaner into his latest book. There are therefore plenty of lekker braais (delicious barbecues) alongside descriptions of Cape Dutch houses and flora. And these are all made to fit into Cameron Highlands!

Reading Tan Twan Eng has inevitably made me reflect on my own work. My current novel deals with an equally dramatic period for Malaya – the years after colonisation but before the War. It was a time of great change: cars and airplanes came to Malaya then, Malayans started to learn English and many families became westernised. There was also a Japanese community in Malaya, whom we later learnt were spies. Many were photographers; one of them features in my novel towards the end, just before the eve of the Japanese invasion, when the matriarch in my story dies.

I had always intended my novel to be the first in a trilogy, with the second in the series focusing on the impact of the War years on a particular family in Ipoh. Reading Garden of Evening Mists has made me realise how much is left to explore…What an incredible life this is.

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Filed under Malaysia, Novel, Research, Writing