In Malaysia

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I am writing from the country of my childhood and adolescence, the place that inspires everything I write, the place that invigorates and exhausts and devastates me like no other place on earth.  I am trying to pin down — as I do on every visit — why I am so tired, apart from the obvious reasons (the heat, the jetlag, the obligation to see all the family and friends I only get to see once or twice a year).  Everyone knows that the obvious reasons are never the real reasons.

I know that the effort to pin down the what and the why, the running internal analysis of my relationship to this place, is part of what exhausts me: I cannot sum up any of it, most certainly not in a conversation or an essay, and yet I feel I must try.  I write fiction because fiction is a way of explaining without trying to summarise, but it is a fact universally acknowledged by writers that the people who most need to read fiction do not read it.  I would like, somehow, to reach those people, to speak in neat, coherent paragraphs that will convey this reality to the rest of the world, to have answers ready when they ask me questions about Malaysia.

Never do elegant paragraphs seem as impossible as they do when I am right here in this place, my head a jumble of unprocessed information and encounters.  What I experience most of all is a constant sense of disorientation and incredulity: Do these people really believe these things?  Is this really happening?  Did I just read that in a national newspaper?  But I’m not talking about a wide-eyed Alice-in-Wonderland state of being, not the perverse fascination one might feel when one visits, for the first time, a country where everyone thinks and behaves differently from oneself.  My disorientation is much more unsettling, because I came from this place.  I am one of these people.  What am I saying about the condition of exile has been said many times before: once you leave, you can never go back home again.  Expatriation changes people.  But the gap between who we used to be and who we are now is much larger for those of us who come from a place like Malaysia and go on to a life that teaches us to question everything: political and religious authority, religion itself, unscientific thinking, cultural norms, convention.  There are not many of us here who question everything.  I am looking, always looking for others, always hopeful, and when I find them I feel something much greater than relief.  I keep a mental list of these others.  The ones I’m lucky enough to know in person are the only people unrelated to me whom I make an effort to see every time I come home.

I can’t give you topic sentences and transitions today; I can’t spin each fragment out into observation, analysis and conclusion.  All I have for you is a handful of moments, and all I can manage is to hold them out to you and say: This, this is what exhausts me.  This is what fuels my work.

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar, the chairman of the 1Malaysia Foundation — a government organisation whose goal is supposedly to “preserve and enhance unity in diversity” — says during a seminar that the concept of a Malaysian Malaysia (equal rights for all races) “goes against the principles of moderation.”  The Malaysian Malaysia concept, he says, denies “the basic rights of Malays.”

After my husband polishes off a plate of rice, two different chicken curries, two vegetable dishes, and two pieces of fried fish (all this only an hour and a half after a dim sum breakfast), my mother asks me: What does Rob really like to eat? since obviously (and I think she truly believes this) he does not like anything she serves; he’s hardly eating.

In one of the two national English-language dailies I read an article about Focus on the Family’s abstinence workshops for teenagers in Malaysia.  The article is not an op-ed or a letter to the editor.  It is a feature article, and it contains the sentence: “It is distressing that pre-marital sex is becoming more common in Malaysia.”  The sentence is not a quote from anyone interviewed for the article.

This week’s Vasthu Sastra column in the same national newspaper includes a detailed sample floor plan for those who wish to ensure optimum energy flow in their house.  Children’s bedroom, kitchen, toilet, and maid’s room in the northwest corner; master bedroom and storage room in the southwest corner.  Toilets, bathrooms, and staircases in the southwest corner to be avoided at all costs.

The Youth Chief of the most prominent opposition party in Malaysia (a party supposedly in favour of more rights for minorities) “challenges” the current government to amend the constitution to ensure that only Malays can serve as Prime Minister.  (Although the constitution does not currently limit the position to Malays, there has never been a non-Malay Prime Minister in the 54 years since independence from the British.)

I argue with my mother — as I do on every visit home — about why it’s rude to tell people they look old or haggard.  It’s not rude here, she says.  Nobody here minds being told they look old.  But they do mind, I say.  They mind horribly but they don’t say anything, because that, too, is Asian culture: it’s cringing inwardly and smiling outwardly.  It’s mumbling polite replies when somebody says: Wah, you put on weight huh? or So much white hair already! or When you getting married? or Why no babies yet?  If we don’t mind looking old, I say, then why are our shops full of the same anti-aging creams sold in the West?  My mother sighs and shakes her head.  Nobody ever taught me all this in school, she says.  You’re too sophisticated for me.

The Peaceful Assembly Law, limiting public gatherings to designated areas and requiring organisers of planned assemblies to obtain police permission 10 days in advance, is passed.  “People cannot simply demonstrate anywhere,” explains Nazri Aziz, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.  “What if there is a counter-demonstration?”  In response to a question about “designated areas,” the Prime Minister himself says: “They will be designated.  That is what we mean by designated areas.”  Asked if the rules will apply to street demonstrations, he says: “We say no to street demonstrations… because what is the point of disrupting the peace and affecting the livelihood of others?”  The day after the law is passed, police declare the Walk for Freedom protesting the new law illegal because the organisers did not apply for a police permit.

My parents and I are talking about the Indonesian maid situation in Malaysia — the Indonesian government’s demands that Indonesian maids be accorded some basic rights (such as a minimum wage) and the outraged reaction of most Malaysians, including women of my generation, women I went to school with (sample Facebook updates: My poor son is so bored! What am I supposed to do without a maid?  Angry with the Indonesian govt.  How can they be so demanding?).  My father, vehemently on the side of the Indonesian maids and government, says: You know what these Chinamen, how they treat their servants. The Indonesian government is just trying to protect the poor women.  My father comes home from the market and says: At the fish stall the Chinese women simply push push push and take what they want.  My father says: The Malay fler.  The Chinaman the Chinaman the Chinaman.  Two Indian buggers.  The Naatukaran, the Bhayyi, the Panam Kottai.  No human being enters my father’s consciousness or conversation without a racial qualifier, and in this he is a typical Malaysian, conditioned by more than fifty years of racial politics.

We are discussing a relative who buys salt every Friday and stores it in a special container to ensure her family’s prosperity.  How do educated people bring themselves to believe such nonsense? I say out loud.  Well, it works for her, my mother says.  Look how well they’re doing.

After the Seksualiti Merdeka festival — the country’s only LGBT-rights festival — is banned during what would have been its fourth year, a photograph circulates of a demonstration by people opposed to the festival.  One placard reads: Respect OUR basic human rights as Muslims in this country.

An acquaintance who is pregnant reveals that she is consuming lots of soybean drink and milk with saffron to ensure that her baby will have fair skin.

Someone in America once asked me, when I was about to leave on a trip to Malaysia, if I was planning to do research for my next novel.  Are you hoping to meet useful characters? they asked me.  Are you hoping you’ll have some inspiring conversations?  Every character is a useful character, I said.  Every conversation is an inspiring conversation.  All these moments, I swallow them and feel them burn my stomach, and then one day long after I’ve digested them, they reappear, their barely-recognisable incarnations surprising me.  I do often wish that a miracle would give us all back the Malaysia that was once possible; in theory, I whole-heartedly support my activist friends who are working against all odds for real change in Malaysia.  But while I believe deeply (and unfashionably, perhaps) in the power of literature to effect real change, I think that working to change reality in tangible ways and writing about that reality are two different ways of being in this world.  Certainly some people manage to do both, but each of these pursuits must exist in its own sphere; the writer sitting at her keyboard to tell a story should not start out with the aim of setting right a specific injustice, but only have faith that the telling of the story in and of itself will tip the balance towards justice in some way beyond her own control.  And so when I am here in Malaysia, despairing that my country will ever progress towards equal rights for all, freedom of speech, real journalism, the separation of state and religion, and rational, critical thinking, I find myself echoing Sharon Olds’s wrenching words: Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

[Images: Malaysia December 2010 on flickr by Herve Boinay; Alice in Wonderland by Nicholas Jones on flickr; Malaysia Kita by algenta101 on flickr; Official Emblem for International Anti-Apartheid Year by United Nations Photo on flickr]

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