MALAY(SIA): A MEMOIR (1)

 

(Mulutkecoh blog. The Internet.)

1.

In June 2017, I wrote this. I can’t remember if I contributed this to The Malaysian Insider; I know that it’s in a folder titled TMI.

In 1998, the then Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim was arrested for sodomy.

I was working for ASTRO, then a fledgling broadcasting station. Being in the Commissioning Department and Production, we worked odd hours. One early morning, I was walking to the studios from the car park, and I had this odd sense that everything was going to change. For the worse.

I was not even political then. I was like many young women in KL – we just wanted to earn good money and get married to men from the same family and economic backgrounds. I had applied for the British High Commissioner Chevening Scholarship for an MA in Creative Writing, with a dream of writing the Great Malaysian Novel. (I wrote I Am Muslim in 2007, instead.)

I was waiting to hear if my application was successful at that time. At the studio that day, I picked up the Malay newspapers, to read the headlines blaring, Anwar Liwat!

We didn’t have the internet nor mobile phones yet, but we did have an intranet and email, so I shot off an innocent email to a friend, Liwat tu apa?

As I drove home that afternoon, I noticed that a lot of drivers in the Seri Kembangan area looking up. It was a wonder I didn’t hit the car in front of me. I too looked up and saw helicopters. There were quite a number of them, and the whirring of the blades could be heard. It was menacing and me being me, I entertained the frightening idea of a heli crashing onto my then car.

My family and I lived a few roads behind Anwar Ibrahim’s home in Damansara Heights then. I panicked as I inched back home, as swarms of people and their cars had blocked all access, and there were placards shouting for his release. I managed to park my car near someone’s house and ran back home, pushing my way through the crowd, up the hill.

At home, my parents were up in arms. My mother was on the phone (remember, this was a phone that had a landline and came in coloured plastic. Ours was orange and had TELEKOM plastered on it), rehashing the news with her sisters. My sisters were shouting, Bah, Bah, what is liwat? My mother then hanging up on the phone and asking my father, What was going on? How can the papers write Liwat on the front page? We are Malays, we do not use such words. There were students, young people reading newspapers.

My father, who is by nature, a calm and quiet man, shouted back at us. If you mention that word again, I will cane you. That is a bad word!

He rolled up the papers and banged them on the dining table. Our cats ran off, and the maids retreated into their rooms at the back.

He then sat down on the sofa, and held cradled his head with his hands.

Today is the day we Malays have lost our moral compass.

He looked at us after a time. Your mother and I lived through the Japanese Occupation, May 13 and our Independence. And now this. I cannot believe this has happened.

I am reminded of that time after hearing of the late Rehman Rashid’s death, and whenever I look back at the focus group discussions we had conducted for IMAN. The young Malaysians we met had expressed that they felt disempowered. Where did this all come from? How did we get here?

Dr Mahathir Mohamad became our Prime Minister in 1981. He spearheaded many economic drives, wanting to create Bumi millionaires and advance the Malay commercial class. 1990s Malaysia was not like now: women taking to the hijab were shunned and thought of as backwards. This was a time when many Malays, the privileged Malays, danced at Tin Mine (the old KL Hilton at Jalan Sultan Ismail) and Scandals, owned by nightlife impresario, Rhona Drury. The younger set, many who benefited from the Malaysian Government’s scholarships and support, danced the night away at Faces, 11 LA, Betelnut, Hard Rock Cafe, and went to work the next day nursing a hangover.

We were all taken by our country’s success. Daim Zainuddin mentored the pack of Malay ultra-millionaires like Halim Saad. He was also a man shrouded in mystery, but who cared. He was a Bumi billionaire!

Proton was a car everyone wanted to own, even though after a year, it croaked on the roads.The word recalcitrant was used by our bosses when we erred. (My friends and I just swore at each other.)

The heady days 80s of Mahathirism and Anwar’s arrest in the 90s influenced and created the Reformasi Movement, and today when my friends and I discuss that time, that era, we surmise that this could be seen as a backlash from the grassroots who have already entered and are part of the current middle class. Fed up of the hedonism and free-wheeling ways of our corporate titans and elites, the grassroots who also benefited from scholarships decided to reign in the corruption of their country and push for an Islam Malaysia needs. Success is synonymous with religiosity, they shouted. Their children, who by then were already studying abroad, were telling them of a brand of Islam that was inclusive and popular among American Muslims, and that this would be so good for Malaysia.

This sentiment is echoed by Dato Sopian Ahmad on my Facebook wall, “It was different then because ‘Orang Kampong’ were not involved yet. Soon after that era “Orang Kampong” came out to towns. They were “certified” people [Thanks to official education policies and initiatives] but lived by the “old conservative and traditional” values. Perhaps they called such “values” religion or “Islamic. This phenomenal ” Physical transmigration” from “kampong to urban” coupled with a ” rejuvenation or a resurgence” of Islamic “kesedaran” challenged your great parties in Central Markets – this gave way to “angst” against “Melayu Secular or Liberal!”

Anwar’s arrest and the first Reformasi movement reflowered Islamic revivalism in Malaysia, which had already poked its head in the form of Al Arqam 10 years back before it was outlawed. The 1990s Islamic consciousness was really a by-product of what Kaum Muda promoted in the early 20th century.

To be rid of the infidels (and elites), to have an Independent Tanah Melayu, you must have Islam, these teachers told our forefathers.

From thereon, Islam became a tool at the hands of its people who police this country and citizens who were fed up of all things wrong. Today, our faith has become a capitalist tool as well, and that generation of Malay Muslims who chanted Reformasi and demanded a revamp of how we governed, now have children who promote and want a more inclusive and syariah compliant brand of their faith.