Category Archives: Cultural Identity

Power, Remorse & Redemption Act III: Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s Own Fifty Shades

Najib Razak became Prime Minister six years after Mahathir retired. You may have heard of Najib: he’s being investigated in at least ten countries in the scandal known as 1MDB. With his rise and recent fall, Malaysian history turned a full circle. Najib’s father was none other than Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister on May 13 1969.

Najib’s father had a reputation for caring deeply about Malaysia, but this sense of duty seems to have eluded the son. After being thrown out of office on May 9, Malaysian police found 72 suitcases stashed with over £21 million in cash in Najib’s residences. It’s a staggering amount, but a drop in the ocean compared to the £200 million loot that was subsequently discovered and the total sum he is alleged to have siphoned off.

Admittedly, we don’t yet know the whole truth. But from information already in the public domain, there are obvious irregularities. Najib wakes up with several hundred million dollars in his personal bank account. He claims that the money is a donation from a Saudi national. The head of Malaysia’s anticorruption commission who investigates has his life threatened. This official is forced into early retirement; members of his staff are arrested; the head of the police force is hastily replaced. (Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned Hollywood, the Wolf of Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, he’s caught in the net too.)

With all this happening in real life, who needs drama? You can understand why I spent a lot of time this past May glued to Malaysian news channels. The actions above, if proven, amount to official tampering in an investigation. The precedents, of course, were set before Najib ascended the throne. Official interference did not start with him. Najib merely took Mahathir’s playbook and enhanced it.

The Case of Anwar Ibrahim: Fifty Shades of Grey

Recall, from Act II, Mahathir’s allergic reactions to criticism. We saw what he did to protesting judges, so it’s no surprise that when a potential political rival emerged, such a man would be given short shrift. The 1997 Asian financial crisis provided the backdrop for their showdown.

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister at the time was Anwar Ibrahim, an Islamic scholar who had been courted and brought into UMNO by Mahathir. You’re likely to have heard of Anwar: he’s the guy who has been jailed for sodomy. Here’s the story as I see it, and you can judge for yourself.

By the time the Asian crisis struck, Mahathir was already unhappy with Anwar’s reformist credentials. As Malaysian companies collapsed, the two men disagreed on policy. Anwar favoured a free-market approach, mixing austerity with trade and investment. Mahathir, on the other hand, was loath to cancel his pet megaprojects. Instead of doing the soul-searching work of asking where Malaysia had gone wrong, he preferred blaming currency traders like George Soros, who’s Jewish, and for Mahathir’s views on Jews, read on.

Reformist zeal aside, Mahathir could not have taken kindly to Anwar’s outspoken comments about nepotism and cronyism within UMNO. Anwar made no secret of his ambitions to reform Malaysia. His standing in Western political and financial circles soared.

When it emerged that Newsweek magazine was set to name Anwar Ibrahim its ‘Asian of the Year’, rumours began to circulate. In Malaysia – as in 36 other Commonwealth countries – homosexuality between consenting males remains illegal. A ‘book’ quickly appeared stating 50 reasons why Anwar was unfit to be Prime Minister – Malaysia’s own Fifty Shades. Among them were claims of sodomy, sedition and the obstruction of justice. The relationship between Anwar and Mahathir became untenable. Anwar was summarily sacked and ousted from UMNO. Three weeks later he was arrested and charged with corruption and sodomy.

None of the above dimmed Anwar’s reformist ambitions. While awaiting trial he initiated the movement for democratic reform in Malaysia. From this Reformasi movement a new multi-racial political party sprang up which would become the People’s Justice Party. Anwar Ibrahim is its de facto head, the first Malay to lead a multi-racial political party in Malaysia.

This is an important point. Anwar Ibrahim was born a bumiputera, a person with special rights in Malaysia. He did not need to form an inclusive, multi-racial political party: he chose to do so. Fundamental reform in Malaysia will require the buy-in of all its races.

To stop Anwar’s political ambitions and silence his calls for reform, he was convicted of sodomy and jailed, not once but twice – in 1999 and then again in 2015, the second time under Najib’s watch. Having already been detained during his student years, Anwar is rather familiar with Malaysia’s prisons. Throughout, he has not wavered in his hopes of securing lasting democratic reform in Malaysia. In early May, he replied to one of my tweets of support with the single word, ‘Reformasi’. The man has grit.

It was during his most recent prison stint that the mother of all scandals broke. This time the figures were too large to be covered up, even by a government adept at malfeasance. Around US$700 million had been found in Najib Razak’s personal bank account. Najib denied wrongdoing, but with allegations swirling the US Department of Justice ordered its largest ever seizure of assets. Switzerland, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates joined the global investigation. Malaysia was in the news again.

In this simmering stew, UMNO members overwhelmingly chose silence. To his credit Mahathir quit in disgust, forming a new political party (though bumiputera-only).

Change was coming. A few months later Mahathir reached out to Anwar, the man he had once jailed, and they met for the first time in 18 years. Their rapprochement was not something Malaysians would ever have imagined. Nor was it easy for Anwar Ibrahim and his family to put the past behind: they’ve spoken publicly about how hard it was for them to forgive Mahathir. I like to think that Mahathir, too, as he watched from the sidelines, felt some remorse at the harm his own actions had caused. Malaysia could not go on as it had. All of us knew this. Our country’s soul was at stake.

History was about to be made. Since its founding, Anwar’s Justice Party had often contested elections in alliance with the DAP; after his rapprochement with Mahathir, it made sense for all three parties to team up. With Anwar still in jail, Mahathir was chosen to lead the new opposition coalition. (NB to Malaysians: Though there are other parties in the coalition, they’re not relevant for this narrative.)

I was initially among the sceptics. I could not imagine voting for a man who had once declared Malaysia a fundamentalist ‘Islamic state’ – news to many of us. He had also, in The Malay Dilemma, written: ‘…the Jews for example are not merely hook-nosed, but understand money instinctively’.

Hmm. How much change could we expect from such a man?

In the run-up to May 9, when I watched Mahathir on youtube telling Malay voters not to fear the DAP, I was stunned. Here was the politician who had once branded the DAP chauvinistic – a point he mentioned – and while some of his remarks show how far Malaysia is from being a meritocracy, their context is still a leap forward. In return, DAP stalwarts took to the airwaves to exhort Malaysians to support Mahathir. I knew then that I had to fly home. A new Malaysia was taking shape.

Like many Malaysians, I stayed up all night on May 9. Our phones pinged every few minutes. If you haven’t visited Malaysia, you might be surprised by how modern it is, and efficient when it wants to be. Malaysia issued biometric passports years before the UK. Our verification system employs both facial recognition and digitised thumb prints. We had been expecting election results shortly after midnight; when, by 5 a.m., opposition wins remained stuck at just below the required threshold, wild rumours began circulating. The entire sleep-deprived country speculated on what UMNO was up to. On What’sApp, friends shared images of tanks in Malaysia’s administrative capital. I was exhausted, yet absolutely ready for battle.

In the end UMNO capitulated. Sort of. If you need proof of how utterly shameless Najib Razak is, all you need do is listen to his so-called ‘concession speech’ in Malay. In my view Najib did not concede; not even once did he use the word ‘defeat’. Instead, he tried to worm his way out and then proceeded to justify his own dubious track record. True statesmen are gracious when they’ve lost; on this front, as on many others, he failed miserably.

The important point, though, was that the people had spoken. If we were denied our result, there would have been blood on the streets. Truly.

We now know that this was not needed.

At last, we Malaysians had done it. We did it by uniting, and it was Anwar Ibrahim and Mahathir Mohamad who’d led the way – they set the nation an example. If Mahathir could reach out to his old nemesis and if Anwar could reconcile with the man who had first jailed him, then the rest of us could come together too.

I had to stifle a tear as I watched Mahathir being sworn in as Prime Minister. A day later he named a woman as his Deputy – the first woman to hold this office. She is Dr. Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, who held the political mantle during his years in jail. Mahathir named a Chinese man, Lim Guan Eng, as his new Finance Minister, the first time in 44 years that a non-Malay was named to this post. It was something I never imagined seeing again. The fact that the appointment was made by Mahathir, a man who had once called us names and who had put Lim in jail, made the moment especially poignant.

The challenges facing Malaysia are immense, not least in the repairs that must be made to our institutions. It’s up to Malaysians to hold this new government to account, ensure that requisite checks and balances are put in place. This must be done quickly, for the powers of state are tempting.

There will be Malaysians reading the paragraphs above who will say, ‘But Dr. Wan Azizah, she…’ – for there’s already plenty of criticism of the new government, much of it justified. There’s little doubt that political development will take time: there’s so much to be done. But there’s also no question of the change that has taken place. It’s a change both of government and in mindset, crucial if we are to move forward as a nation. For the first time in years I felt welcome in my own country. I was perceived as Malaysian, not a Chinese interloper or ‘newcomer’. This gives me hope, something I did not have before.

On this Merdeka (Independence) Day, we Malaysians should hold our heads high. Let’s reach out to one another and remember that nothing is impossible. We can and will build the country we want.

Anwar Ibrahim is now a free man, and it was Mahathir who secured him a royal pardon. But it was we, the people, who put them both where they are today. In acknowledging his debt to the millions of Malaysians who voted for the opposition, Anwar gave voice to the thoughts and feelings of an entire nation.

I will never forget until the end of my days.

 

 

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Power, Remorse & Redemption Act II: The Malay Dilemma, 1970

I first heard of Dr. Mahathir in 1973 from Malaysian newspapers. He had published a controversial non-fiction book, The Malay Dilemma, which contained racial stereotyping so inflammatory that it was immediately banned. Even when he was a rising political star, the book remained banned in Malaysia. Newspapers, however, were free to quote snippets. Through these I learnt that I, a Malaysian citizen, was merely a ‘guest’ (the word the paper deployed) in Malaysia. I had thought of Malaysia as home; now I found out I was able to live there only because the Malays ‘consent to this’.

I was upset, of course, and confused at the same time. I began reading newspapers avidly, which only cemented my burgeoning sense of exclusion. The newspapers told me that Malaysians were not created equal. There is a breed of Malaysian who deserves ‘special’ rights, not by dint of merit or economic need but because their ancestors supposedly arrived before mine.

The logic is so spurious that a new term had to be invented: bumiputera, a Malay compound word made up of bumi, earth, and putera or prince(s). Taken together, they become ‘prince(s) of the earth’ (or ‘sons of the soil’). The special rights accorded to this superior Malaysian, the bumiputera, span an eye-watering gamut. They include:

  • Reserved universities – and I don’t mean university places, but entire universities;
  • Discounted prices and reserved allocations in new housing developments;
  • Entitlement to 30% of the equity of any publicly listed company in Malaysia.

When you grow up within a system, you become inured to its inequities; it takes leaving Malaysia before many Malaysians realise that a form of apartheid is practised there. The seeds for its rationale were planted by none other than Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in his book, The Malay Dilemma. Full of half-baked social theories and sweeping racial generalisations, the work would have been amusing, had rafts of laws not arisen from its crucible.

Malays, apparently, are ‘tolerant and easy-going’ while non-Malays, especially the Chinese, are ‘materialistic, aggressive and have an appetite for work’. We also have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’. These differences, according to Mahathir, explained the glaring economic and educational disparities which existed in 1970 between Malaysia’s Malays and ethnic Chinese.

The only solution was a full-throttled boost for Malays. These special Malaysians, with their bumiputera status, would fly first-class, the rest of us second-class. May 13 provided the perfect excuse. We were told that new race-based laws were needed to achieve national harmony. At the same time we were cautioned against speaking about ‘race’ openly.

The new laws had a grand name: the New Economic Policy. Mahathir was still in the political wilderness at the time; the man who actually put the laws in place was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, Abdul Razak Hussein.

A grand name needs grandiose ideology. The New Economic Policy was dressed up as positive discrimination. But then, why should its beneficiaries depend on race?

The simple answer is that the New Economic Policy was a smokescreen for racial discrimination in favour of Malays. UMNO knew that it could not say so explicitly, therefore, it pretended that the Policy was needed to ‘prevent another May 13’. Those of us who didn’t like the Policy should leave, since Malays were the ‘rightful owners’ of the land.

The problem with this logic is that Malays are not natives of Malaysia. Even the Malay language recognises this; in Malay the indigenous peoples are called Orang Asli, or original people. In primary school, I was taught that Malays originated from Yunnan in southern China. The American economist, Thomas Sowell, has written:

Some groups in some countries imagine themselves entitled to preferences and quotas just because they are indigenous ‘sons of the soil’, even when they are in fact not indigenous, as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the Malays in Malaysia are not.

(Affirmative Action Around the World, Yale University Press 2004)

The term bumiputera has been useful for UMNO. Bumiputera has a whiff of romanticism and at the same time is meaningless, a malleable concept that can absorb many things. UMNO thus also labelled Malaysia’s real indigenous peoples as bumiputera. Problem solved. There weren’t many indigenous peoples, and unlike the Chinese, they were not a threat. In this way, entitlement could be conferred on the real beneficiaries – Malays – under the guise of affirmative action. No one could legitimately object.

Bumiputera has the extra beauty of containing the word ‘soil’, which has been used time and again to remind Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indians that the land we were in was not ours. In The Malay Dilemma, Mahathir even calls ethnic Chinese who arrived in Malaysia in the 15th century ‘newcomers’! Never mind that some of his own ancestors hailed from India.

By the time he ascended to Malaysia’s highest office in 1981, I had already left Malaysia for Britain, where I went to boarding school. My parents packed me off with huge regret. They were patriots. Despite speaking little Malay themselves – they were educated in the colonial era – they wanted their children to learn the Malay language. After May 13, when many of their Chinese friends departed for Singapore, they stayed, insisting that the incident was the result of a few rotten apples.

As the 1970s progressed it became clear that the New Economic Policy would systematically exclude non-Malays. They no longer saw a future in Malaysia. Reluctantly, they made sacrifices to send me away, counselling me to remain abroad.

In 1981 Mahathir gave an interview to the New York Times in which he described The Malay Dilemma as a harmless book. He was being disingenuous.

Mahathir: Friend or Foe?

Democracy is like good cheese: it needs time to mature. Holding elections is not enough. We have seen this in a swathe of Commonwealth countries. Real democracy only happens if citizens are able to speak freely without fear of being arrested or killed, if elections are free and fair and the police cannot be bribed. The above is not achievable without a robust system of checks and balances. Democracy needs an independent judiciary and a free press. It needs constant surveillance. It must have official bodies whose leaders are not beholden to any individuals, political party or coalition and whose processes are transparent. Power corrupts, but safeguards go a long way to ensuring that government is accountable.

Malaysia once had many of the above; otherwise UMNO’s power would not have been curtailed in the 1969 General Elections. Alas, those results taught UMNO an unwelcome lesson. In a real democracy politicians sometimes lose. And UMNO did not like losing.

Over the next five decades Malaysia went from a country with relatively strong democratic institutions to one in which institutions were weakened by political interference. Corruption crept in, inevitably. Malaysia should be a case study for other countries, especially those that are intent on race-based politics.

Mahathir remained in office for twenty-two years. Over that period Malaysia’s wealth increased many-fold, especially the wealth of that special breed of Malaysian, the bumiputera. He must be given credit for these achievements.

At the same time there’s little question that he displayed ruthless and authoritarian tendencies. A few years into office Mahathir found himself embroiled in an internal power struggle within UMNO. In the midst of battle his opponents initiated litigation. To ensure that judgments would not go against him, Mahathir tampered with Malaysia’s judiciary, first diluting the powers of Malaysia’s High Courts and then sacking the head of the Supreme Court who dared to protest. For good measure, Mahathir also booted out the judges who sided with their Supreme Court head.

In so doing, he set a precedent. A precedent, once set, is hard to undo. This is how rot starts. Along with judicial interference came the muffling of dissent. Mahathir stifled dissent in two ways: first, by wielding an iron fist over the media (which at the time did not include the Internet), and secondly by clamping down on opponents. In 1987 he presided over the biggest crackdown Malaysia had ever seen, when 119 opposition activists and Members of Parliament were arrested and detained. Those held included Lim Kit Siang, who was then leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), and his son Lim Guan Eng, at the time a Member of Parliament.

Mahathir and UMNO held a special aversion towards the DAP, which had long been a thorn in their side. Unlike UMNO, the DAP has always been multi-racial and was one of the parties to field winning Malay candidates in Malaysia’s 1969 General Elections. As noted in my previous blog-post (Act I), those election results showed that another Malaysia was possible. In that other Malaysia, people would not vote according to race but on political merit. In such a Malaysia there would be no call for UMNO.

It was easier for Mahathir and UMNO to invent an imaginary enemy than to change. Over the years, they told Malay voters that unless Malays voted for UMNO, Malaysia would fall into the hands of the Chinese (who, remember, have ‘unlimited acquisitiveness’). Mahathir and UMNO took to branding the DAP a ‘chauvinist’ Chinese party. If Malaysia fell into DAP hands, so they said, the special privileges which Malays enjoyed would be at risk.

This illustrates how democracy can be co-opted. Malays form the majority in Malaysia, which means that special rights are dished out to the majority of the Malaysian electorate. Their political acquiescence is thereby purchased. Why bite the hand that feeds you? The result is a fundamental distortion of the democratic process, as I argued in an article which the UK’s Independent invited me to write.

For many years, not enough Malaysians cared about the rot that was corroding our political system. So long as putrefaction was hidden, most Malaysians preferred not to know. Perhaps they were in a stupor, either from the gains of corruption or the drug of special rights, often both. It would take a brazen man to wake them up. This man was Najib Razak.

(to be continued)

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Power, Remorse & Redemption: in Three Acts

This Friday, August 31, will mark the 61st anniversary of Malaysia’s freedom from colonisation. For the first time in years, there is a revival of hope in my homeland.

It was inevitable that I spent part of this summer reflecting on what happened on May 9, when Malaysia went to the polls. We now know that Malaysians made history that day (see What Malaysia Means). UMNO, which stands for United Malays National Organisation, the political party that had ruled the country for 61 years, was finally booted out of office. The opposition coalition, led by former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, won against all odds. His age – 93 years – is what Western journalists have focused on, but this is the least of it. What happened was astonishing, a rare victory for democracy and justice in today’s world.

As with many things Malaysian, the full story is dramatic and complicated. It began long before 2018. The tale is worth telling, though, for it bears the hallmarks of great fiction: power, intrigue, grit and remorse, forgiveness and possibly, just possibly, redemption.

But how to tell it to non-Malaysians in such a way that they will understand and enjoy? This article is my attempt.  Between now and August 31, I will lay out Power, Remorse & Redemption in Three Acts here on my blog.

To understand the stunning firsts and reversals that took place on May 9, we must go back to another May, to a day that’s etched in the psyche of every Malaysian. May 13, 1969. On that day, the Malaysia of my childhood fell apart. Thus begins Act I.

May 13: Spontaneous Combustion or Arson?

I was only four when my father rushed home one afternoon. I remember his ashen face and gruff voice. He told my mother to switch on the radio, muttering a word I’d not heard till then: curfew. The broadcaster confirmed that a curfew had been declared. There were riots and fighting on Kuala Lumpur’s streets. My father’s descriptions were more graphic. He said that Malay men with sword-like knives had set fire to Chinese shop-houses.

Over the next few days fear permeated our house. It was the first time that I learnt to be suspicious of other races. Until then I’d thought of our Malay and Indian neighbours as people like us except that they wore interesting clothes and ate spicy food. May 13 destroyed this innocence. The crying shame is that many Malaysians have mixed lineage. Multiculturalism should have been a pillar of our country’s richness; instead, for the next 49 years, it became a political weapon.

To understand why Malaysia is naturally multiracial, you only have to look at a map. To the west of Peninsula Malaysia lies a narrow and sheltered stretch of water: the Straits of Malacca. In the days when pirates roamed the seas, seasonal winds brought adventurers from East and North, West and South. Ships invariably ended up docking in Malaysia.

File:My-map.png

They came from everywhere. From neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Thailand and from farther afield too: China, India, even Arabia and Armenia. Some of these traders settled. Malaysia is a paradise: peaceful, sunny and well-fed by rain, its very air exuding the promise of an easy life. Surrounding waters teem with fish; a seed only has to drop for it to grow.

European powers eventually arrived, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. It was the latter who recognised Malaysia’s potential. After gaining control of the country in the 19th century, Britain began developing the tin mines and rubber estates which would make the mother country rich. In a letter published in the London Review of Books on March 6 2014, Robert Lemkin, an Oxford-based filmmaker, wrote this about Malaysia:

‘In 1946 the colony’s rubber and tin industries brought the UK Treasury $118 million; the rest of the empire altogether yielded only a further $37 million. Without Malaya, the post-war British welfare state would have been unthinkable.’

Malaysia, then called Malaya, was the British Empire’s crown jewel. To develop their new industries, the colonials needed labour. They set about importing vast numbers of Chinese and Indian indentured labourers. Chinese and Indian populations had already settled naturally, but British policies changed Malaysia’s demographics overnight. The result is a rainbow country today with three main races: Malay (67%), Chinese (25%) and Indian (7%).

Many people confuse ‘Malaysian’ with ‘Malay’. Malaysian is the nationality, Malay the race. You can be Malaysian without being Malay, just as you can be British without being English.

For Malaysians of mixed heritage like me, of whom there are many, the crude classification above cannot properly reflect our roots. I fall under ‘Chinese’, but my great-grandmother had Malay lineage. And the many Malays I know with Chinese mothers or grandmothers are categorised merely as ‘Malay’. In reality Malaysians are a potpourri of Malay, Chinese, Indian and lots more. There were also indigenous tribes already in situ – the Orang Asli or ‘original people’ – the true natives of Malaysia, who are aggregated as ‘Malay’ in the above statistics.

Race is a lightning rod in Malaysia. It has been easy to use race to keep Malaysians apart because our political parties have traditionally been run along communal lines. What’s astonishing is that many still are – in 2018. You must be Malay to join UMNO, which is why it’s called the United Malays National Organisation. I would not be allowed into UMNO, though I’m eligible to join the Malaysian Chinese Association, MCA. Indians can join the Malaysian Indian Congress, MIC. This system of apartheid is crazy, but when you grow up with it you don’t see this. It’s such an accepted fact in Malaysia that even some of the newest political parties are race-based.

As a consequence of May 13, race ignited in the Malaysian consciousness – for all the wrong reasons. When race is used as a weapon, it’s a sign that someone’s power is being threatened. This was precisely the case in Malaysia.

On May 10 1969, a general election had been held – Malaysia’s third. The political line-up included three non-racial parties that were all part of the opposition. Anyone could join those parties, but their members were mainly ethnic Chinese and Indians, their supporters people like my parents, who were delighted by the results. The ruling alliance led by UMNO retained power but garnered only 44% of the vote, and lost its majority in three of Malaysia’s wealthiest states (as well as one on the east coast). Crucially, UMNO lost the two-thirds parliamentary majority that had allowed it to change Malaysia’s constitution at will.

But even more than the above, it was the lessons on race that terrified UMNO. In 1969, two of the multi-racial parties in the opposition fielded Malay candidates who were elected into office. This was a first; until then politics in Malaysia had been solidly communal. The results showed that a substantial minority of Malaysians were already prepared – in 1969 – to herald in a less racist country. It was equally clear that Malaysians wanted a real opposition, not toothless puppets. There was the promise of stronger democracy. Foreign correspondents praised Malaysia’s democratic process, predicting more efficient governance in future.

What happened next would change the above premise. It was a watershed moment.

The official explanation for the May 13 riots is that they were a ‘spontaneous’ outburst, the result of simmering tensions in a multiracial society. But a cursory glance at Malaysia’s 1969 election results will tell you that UMNO’s hegemony was being challenged.

Unsurprisingly, May 13 has not been properly discussed within Malaysia. No one has been called to account. There has been neither truth nor reconciliation, only avoidance. Official documents remained classified for 30 years. When I was growing up May 13 was the spectre we were not allowed to mention publicly, lest racial riots ‘flare up again’. It took this article for me to understand the significance of Malaysia’s 1969 elections.

A Malaysian social scientist, Kua Kia Soong, after a painstaking analysis of declassified documents, concluded that May 13 was no spontaneous outburst. ‘There was a plan to unleash this racial violence’. He adds:

Nor does it necessarily follow that there will be conflict when different ethnic communities coexist, as is implied in pluralist analyses. The role of the state has to be analysed in the particular historical conjuncture.

(May 13, published by Suaram Komunikasi in 2007)

His analysis makes sense in light of what happened next. The UMNO-led government initiated policies that would seal UMNO’s position in the Malaysian political landscape. UMNO would rein in Malaysian democracy. Malaysia lost; UMNO gained.

It’s worth remembering that UMNO was formed first and foremost as a freedom movement. Its initial raison d’être was to rid the country of British rule. In this it was ferociously effective. But freedom movements don’t necessarily make good governments, as we have seen across the Commonwealth.

UMNO’s internal politics paved the way for the rise of the man known as Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who would muzzle the press and dismantle institutional checks and balances. In so doing, he systematically destroyed Malaysia’s fabric, whether or not he intended to.

The fact that millions of Malaysians young and old came together 49 years later, also in the month of May, to support the same Dr. Mahathir and his new allies, is remarkable. I was among the many doing so, something I never imagined would happen.

(to be continued)

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Ruminations on Food 6: The Food Hawker & Her Overseas Son

At the start of this series when I wrote about the Malaysian obsession with food, I mentioned that some street food vendors have been able to send their children overseas to study. This happens in my debut novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds. In reviews of the book, at least one American reader has expressed scepticism over such an outcome.

But in Malaysia it is perfectly possible for street vendors to become wealthy. To understand why, you have to appreciate the role of food for us. It serves as balm and salve, feeding not only our bodies but also our minds, and possibly even our souls.

The above is not an understatement. Food is everywhere in Malaysia, permeating culture and consciousness in ways I’ve not seen in any of the other 60 countries I’ve been to. Part of this probably has to do with Malaysia being tropical. Colours and tastes seem somehow more vivid in the open-air than in a cold climate and you end up smelling food pretty much all the time. Walk down any street, something is sure to be frying. Avoiding food is impossible, and we all know what heavenly aromas do to our stomachs.

Oyster Omelette – Can’t You Smell It?

Another part of the phenomenon has to do with the melting pot that is Malaysia. There are three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian – each with its own distinctive cuisine. Food hawkers have therefore long had lots of competition; they’ve had to compete not just with each other but also with vendors of the other types of cuisine. Only the very best survive. The bar was raised from the outset; even foreign chains have to work harder. When I was a child, Kentucky Fried Chicken tasted very different in Malaysia than in the UK, for the simple reason that to entice customers, the Colonel’s chefs had to mix in local spices. The result was jazzed-up chicken that arrived crisp in baskets (instead of boxes).

This led to great food overall and to a plethora of choice. The sheer scale of choice can be mind-boggling, as I mentioned in Ruminations on Food 2: A Malaysian Food Court.

But Malaysia is also dotted with the other extreme: whole coffee shops dedicated to a single dish. Many of the most successful food hawkers specialise in this way.

There’s a good example opposite my old school in Ipoh. The coffee shop is called Yee Fatt, it’s been going since 1955 and it’s famous for curry noodles. Yes, you read right.  The place is known for curry noodles – not exactly a fancy dish. But the dish is so popular in Malaysia that it even has its own Wikipedia entry (as curry mee, which is what it’s also called).

All That They Sell – and Going Since 1955

The boss at Yee Fatt is the middle-aged Chinese man in the picture below. What he’s doing behind the counter is blanching noodles and bean sprouts in hot water, lifting them on to plates, sprinkling barbecued pork over the top and then dousing it all in a thick curry sauce. He does this hour after hour, day in and day out, which may not sound like much of a life to some.

The Big Boss

But here’s the thing: the guy is his own boss. He opens early for breakfast, serves lunch and then closes his shop around three in the afternoon. That’s him done for the day! Afterwards he goes on a strenuous walk up Kledang Hill, one of many beautiful hills around Ipoh. We know because by the time we arrive at five, he’s well into his descent.

Note Yee Fatt’s longevity. How many small eating places do you know that have been going since 1955? Non-Malaysians may also find it amazing that Yee Fatt sells only two dishes: curry noodles and glutinous rice with pork (the mound on the bottom-right in the second photograph above). The curry noodles come in two versions: either dry – with noodles on a plate and spoonfuls of curry sauce heaped over – or wet, where the noodles are dunked in a bowl with curry soup. If you like, you can order extra bean sprouts and pieces of deep-fried bean curd as accompaniments.

My Favourite Dry Curry Mee

I love Yee Fatt’s noodles – soft but not over-cooked – which I guess would be called al dente in the West. Also, their bean sprouts are perfectly crunchy. Of course, it helps that they use Ipoh’s bean sprouts, which I think are the best in the world. I’ve told this to the Guardian newspaper, National Geographic Traveller UK and anyone who cares to listen! I can just imagine a celebrity chef like Anthony Bourdain declaiming the contrasts in this dish: the crunchiness of Ipoh‘s bean sprouts against the softness of just-right noodles. Smeared on top of it all is Yee Fatt’s irresistible curry sauce. I’m salivating as I write this and groaning a little too, since I won’t be having a bite anytime soon.

I’m not alone in being a fan, as this feature article in the Malay Mail (a Malaysian English language daily) a few years ago shows. And while polishing up this blog-post I found 7 other blogs praising Yee Fatt! (Here’s one link and another: I told you we were food-obsessed!)

Where, you may ask, does wealth come into the picture? Let’s just say that the boss, who looks as unassuming as his coffee shop, is said to be doing very well. I know you wouldn’t think this by looking at the photos. From a Malaysian perspective, however, the shop’s modest décor is actually comforting. It tells us that the food must be good – you certainly aren’t going for anything else. By keeping overheads low, the boss is making sure that he’ll be serving the town lots more curry noodles.

Unassuming and Brilliant

The man at the Yee Fatt coffee shop is not the only food hawker who has done well; there are others like him. Their success, though, may be peculiar to Malaysia, where people care more about taste than décor and will drive miles through pouring rain for a hawker’s food.

Readers love asking me how much of my stories are fact and how much fiction. One answer is that the historical events are real, but the characters are made up. Chye Hoon in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds was inspired by my own great-grandmother, who I never met. I know, though, that she earned a successful living as a food hawker, enough to send one of her sons to Britain for further education. So I can assure doubting readers that it’s possible for a food vendor in Malaysia to do this: it happened in my own family.

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Ruminations on Food 5: When Fish Looks Like Fish

Ahead of Donald Trump’s much trumpeted trip to Asia last year, his aides told CNN that he was going to avoid “whole fish with heads still on”.

He did not know what he was missing. The best fish is served whole.

What Trump Missed

Years ago when I was an investment banker, my American bank sent me to New York for a month of training. Those were party days and one evening I ventured into New York’s Chinatown with two Italian co-trainees. They had little idea what dishes to order and thought they were in for a treat.

They were – though it was perhaps not the treat they had in mind. The restaurant into which we stumbled would best be described as ‘authentic’. My nose had led us there, you see, and my nose told me to enter. It wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall, but this was long before New York’s Chinatown became gentrified. Although my colleagues looked doubtful, they bravely followed. It had been their idea after all: they’d given me carte blanche to make decisions. Once inside they seemed comforted by the sight of so many Asians eating together. When I decreed that we sit, they told me to order.

The highlight came in the form of a fish that had been steamed whole, complete with head, fins and tail. It looked pretty much like the specimen below. Our waiter must have had a sixth sense – he positioned the dish so that the fish’s mouth peered directly up at my Italian friends. They went pale; neither said a word. Needless to say, I ended up eating rather a lot of fish that night.

Ahoy!

When you grow up with something, you don’t really think about it. In Southeast Asia, we like our fish to look like fish. Because I’d been staring into the gaping mouths of fish since I was a child, it had not occurred to me that anyone could object.

Our penchant for authenticity is not limited to fish. We like our prawns whole, too, still in their shells with tails and juicy heads perfect for sucking.

Prawns As Real As They Come

Quite often, you actually pull your seafood out of the water. Many Chinese restaurants have tanks showcasing the fish, prawns and crabs you can have for your meal. Here’s our waiter pulling large crustaceans out. See the white cards on the side of the tank? The cards reveal the names of customers and what they’ve ordered. At first glance the impression is surreal: the sign with ‘Mr. Chin’ – my uncle’s surname – on the vitrine made it look as if Mr. Chin himself were swimming in the water!

Waiter Fishing

Below is a dish of roast duck. Notice the pains the chef has taken to remind diners that this is duck. So real you can almost hear quacking on the plate. The photo was taken at the  swanky Chinese restaurant known as Yuk Sou Hin inside the WEIL Hotel, which many say serves the best roast duck in Ipoh. In Malaysia and Singapore, even Chinese haute cuisine isn’t for the squeamish. As an aside, I will vouch for this roast duck!

Authentic Duck

The above dishes should qualify as ‘real food’. According to a blog I found, ‘real food’ – a growing movement in the West – is food that is

  • Old and traditional
  • Whole, complete and intact
  • Diverse (as opposed to processed)

You couldn’t get more ‘whole, complete and intact’ unless you strung your poultry up whole. Which of course, many Chinese restaurants worldwide do, too. They hang the already roasted or steamed poultry up and hack them into pieces as customers’ orders come through. It turns out that we’ve been eating real food in Malaysia for a long time – we just didn’t know it.

As if whole fowl dangling pendulously from metal hooks were insufficient, Malaysian coffee shops sometimes have gigantic images on their walls. This must be their attempts at creating the ‘before’ and ‘after’: at the front whole chickens, already cooked, unceremoniously strung up; on one wall, covering pretty much the entire surface area, what those lovely chickens once looked like when they still had feathers.

In Case You Forgot What You Came to Eat

On a serious note, if you belong to the ‘real food movement’ I’d love to know whether the movement embraces an ethos of no wastage, the way we do. What I mean is that we eat every part of the animal. It wouldn’t do to discard the eyes of a fish when you could eat them, would it? This is why there are folks who are fans of fishes’ eyes – I promise it’s true, there are a few in my family – while many others adore fish head curry. The latter is such a popular Malaysian speciality that it even has its own Wikipedia entry.

As for panel signs, we like ours to look as real as our food. The one below was taken inside a Malaysian food court.  It’s not enough to tell customers not to spit. The warning must come in at least two languages with an explicit picture.

Watch That Tongue!

Now spit if you dare. And you probably would dare. Because the sign says nothing about a penalty, does it? In neighbouring Singapore, it would be made clear that you’d be fined for spitting. And you would – because you’d be caught.

But this is Malaysia, a land with laws aplenty and equally plentiful discretionary enforcement. Apa-apa pun boleh, you see. Anything goes.

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Ruminations on Food 4: …And Now for Durians

I’d planned to write this blog-post in time for the first day of the Chinese New Year, which fell on February 16th this year. Alas, I succumbed to flu a few days before the Year of the Earth Dog commenced. This year’s viruses seem especially virulent. I was told that ‘Australian flu’ was doing the rounds in London. I love this. No doubt when my friends down under get really sick, they blame it on ‘Pommy flu’.

At last, the effects of the virus are receding and I can start thinking again about food! I ended 2017 on a petai note, so it seems only right to begin 2018 with that other potent Malaysian product: the durian. Without doubt, this is the king of Malaysia’s fruits.

Here’s a picture of durians below. Each fruit is covered by a hard, spiky, olive green husk that gives it an almost prehistoric appearance. Durians are not innocuous-looking. Even T Rex wouldn’t want to mess with them.

Unopened Durians

Each fruit contains six to twelve or more seeds, and each seed is covered by soft flesh. It’s this gooey flesh that is coveted by durian connoisseurs. The flesh is yellow to off-white in colour and turns to pulp in your fingers. ‘Durian’ could refer either to the whole fruit or to each of the individual flesh-covered seeds inside. If you know your durians, you can tell by looking at the colour and texture of the flesh whether it’s your favourite type or not. I like durians with dry, bright yellow flesh (see picture below) because they tend to be the sweetest. Others prefer the slightly wet, somewhat bitter variety of durians.

An Opened Durian

Once the green durian husk has been split open, there is no getting away from its pervasive aroma. In this respect, durians are a lot more potent than petai.

If you haven’t eaten durians, you’re probably wondering what they smell like. The thing to remember is that I’m Malaysian; I grew up with durians and I like their aroma. Many foreigners, on the other hand, describe durians as smelling of feet, gym socks or worse. The chef Anthony Bourdain has apparently said that after eating durians, your breath smells as if you’d indulged in ‘French-kissing your dead grandmother.’

Comparing durians to kissing a corpse? I think that’s rather unfair. It’s akin to saying that France’s famous Reblochon cheese has the stench of milk gone very bad – which it has – or to early Japanese perceptions that Westerners all smelt of cow. A few years ago I discovered that I was lactose-intolerant, since when I’ve avoided dairy products, and having stopped eating dairy, I can assure you that animal milk smells terrible, even when it’s supposedly fresh! In fact, there is an untranslatable Chinese word to describe the smell of milk. This Chinese word, which is cow-related, conjures up a food that is both bad-smelling and unsavoury.

In bygone days, you were forced to buy durians still in their husks from roadside vendors. These had to transported home in the boot of your car. Everyone would be salivating during the journey because there was no way of escaping their delicious aroma. And then, when you finally reached home, you still had the work of breaking the durians open. Now durians are sold peeled and ready-to-eat, in white plastic containers. See how easy life has become?

Ready-to-Eat Durians in Bowl

While I was on a visit to Malaysia last year, my uncle bought several containers of durians and we stashed them away in the boot, taking care to wrap the containers inside not one but two plastic bags. In spite of these precautions, we could still smell the durians from inside the car! This is why hotels across Southeast Asia have signs reminding people that durians are prohibited inside.

Despite this, there is more hope of durians finding their way into world cuisine than petai. Durians have long been used in cakes (a type of Malaysian delicacy aptly called durian cake), as well as in ice cream and ice lollies. Recently durians even made an appearance in coffee! Here they are, on packets advertising the white coffee for which my hometown, Ipoh, is famous. Just in case you doubted our language abilities, the coffee is marketed in French, okay? Durian café blanc.

Durian Cafe Blanc

I have to mention the type of durian used to flavour this coffee: it’s the famous Malaysian variety known as ‘Musang King’. (In Malay, musang is a civet cat.) In 2014, when the Loon Fung supermarket on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown started selling Musang King durians, this was such an event that even the Guardian newspaper reported it. And last year, the first Musang King Durian Festival was organised in Malaysia. The festival may yet become an annual event. So beware folks, the Musang King might soon be coming to a place near you!

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Ruminations On Food 3: An Ode to Petai…

I hope you’re all enjoying the festive season. To celebrate, I bought a copy of the National Geographic Food magazine and was browsing through it when the words ‘butterfly pea’ caught my eye. This distinctively blue flower is used in Southeast Asian cuisine, but it isn’t exactly a household staple. What was butterfly pea doing in the National Geographic?

Colouring tea, it seems. Butterfly pea tea? You bet, and in bags too!

Butterfly Pea Tea in National Geographic Food

#bluetea is apparently gaining in popularity. To date, the hashtag has garnered 9,211 posts on Instagram. National Geographic Food helpfully tells us that adding lemon to the blue-coloured tea turns it pink. If only they had shown a cup of pink tea!

The butterfly pea flower is mentioned in my novel, The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds, where the protagonist, who is a chef, uses it to colour one of her cakes. Here’s an interesting fact: the butterfly pea has a scientific name, which alas is clitoria ternatea. You can see why I don’t say this in my book! National Geographic doesn’t mention it, either. Instead, the magazine highlights the butterfly pea’s antioxidant properties.

Which begs an intriguing question: if a plant as innocuous as the butterfly (or blue) pea can have useful health properties, what future might there be in world cuisine for Malaysia’s more potent plants and vegetables?

And there is an incredible variety of these, starting with my favourite legume, called petai in Malay, stinking bean in Chinese. This vegetable looks harmless, though its effects are anything but. Here’s a link to an image of petai uncooked, but do not be deceived. This is not just another broad bean; it’s a natural chemical weapon, transforming those who consume it into human stink bombs.

Unlike strong-smelling cheeses (reblochon being an example), petai doesn’t smell in its raw state (when inside the pod). It’s only after it’s cooked that the bean starts to become interesting. And then, when petai has been eaten and properly digested, its full force is unleashed. What goes in must come out, and petai re-emerges as a unique aroma oozing out of your every pore and orifice. For the next few days, people around you will smell petai on your skin and on your breath and elsewhere too. I describe this in The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds:

Normally stir-fried in a sambal paste, petai is best known for the pungent aroma it leaves in the room – and in latrines afterwards.”

Below is what a dish of petai in a sambal looks like. If you’re not familiar with sambal, this is a delicious spicy sauce, and it’s beloved in Southeast Asia (here’s the Wikipedia entry).

Petai in Sambal

A plant as powerful as petai must surely have significant nutritional value. Searching on Google led me to the plant’s scientific name – parkia speciosa – and a flood of speculation. Petai is apparently high in antioxidants, potassium, carbohydrates and fibre and is said to be helpful for depression, pre-menstrual syndrome, anaemia, blood pressure, brain power, hangovers and loads more besides. Really? Could any single food possibly cure so many ills? Universal panaceas make me nervous, even though my intuition tells me that petai probably does have much unharnessed nutritional value.

The actual smell of petai is difficult to describe. I don’t think of it as pleasant or unpleasant, but it is peculiar. If you come across a distinctive smell that you can’t place and it’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled before, it may be petai!

Last week someone at a book talk I gave asked whether I had any food cravings, and I’d forgotten about petai. This is truly the only Malaysian food I suffer cravings for. Every few weeks I need a fix. For obvious reasons I must time my intake carefully, and this has led me to make a few rules.

  1. Don’t eat petai unless you’re going home afterwards (or to a Malaysian house).
  2. Never eat petai before flying.
  3. Abstain fully during a PR campaign!

The one person who has to put up with my petai obsession is my long-suffering partner. Once, I stir-fried petai in a garlic and sambal sauce without warning her beforehand. I thought it would be enough if I took extra care by closing the kitchen doors while I cooked and giving the kitchen a good airing afterwards. Alas, where Malaysia’s most potent foods is concerned, such efforts are for nought. As soon as my partner stepped inside the house she gave me an odd look, muttered ‘Oh my God, it’s petai’ and flew around opening every window!

Despite such perils, I know of 3 Malaysian restaurants in London that serve petai. For hard core aficionados, the C&R Café in Soho would be the place. There, they serve the petai beans whole (instead of halving them) in a cuttlefish sambal. If you eat petai here, everyone will know what you’ve been up to – this is the Real McCoy. Don’t expect much service, though; you come here for food. I also like Satay House in Paddington – the oldest Malaysian restaurant in London and still going strong. However, the portions here are smaller: there’s a lot less petai for your pound, and the beans are smaller too. But it’s worth a visit just for the smiles. When I’m really desperate, I end up at Rasa Sayang in Soho. Here you don’t get much petai, and the beans are halved and as small as those in Satay House. If you want to try petai this may be a good choice: for some reason the petai here is less smelly. Perhaps they soak them in water beforehand.

If you asked why I like petai so much, I couldn’t really tell you. My craving has something to do with the bean’s texture, its pungency and its utterly inimitable taste. There must be an emotional aspect, too, in the way the taste reminds me of my Malaysian childhood.

Gotta Have ‘Em Juicy Petai!

What’s clear is that when I haven’t eaten petai for a while – as is the case at this very moment – I start to miss it. At the risk of sounding like a crazed addict, I will confess that I can already feel myself approaching a tipping point, after which I’m bound to go a little cranky. As I write this I’m in Florida, where there’s no petai to be found. So I know exactly what I’ll be eating when I land in London! With that delightful prospect in mind, here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year! And please do share your food cravings with me!

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