Thursday, August 30, 2012

Memories of Merdeka

ADIBAH AMIN looks at how far we have come as a nation after Merdeka in this particularly striking essay from her bestselling book, Glimpses: Cameos of Malaysian Life

AN OLD SCHOOLTEACHER looks back over the years. Where did it all begin? In truth, he says, the fight for Merdeka started centuries ago, from the moment freedom was lost.

Names have come up out of the past. More often, the uprisings are recounted in folklore but the freedom fighters are forgotten. “Never mind,” says the cikgu. “I’ll just talk of beginnings that I remember, some sixty years ago.”

Mention Merdeka and he is a young trainee again at the teachers’ training college in Tanjong Malim, talking into the night with like-minded friends. They spoke about imperialism and the plight of the colonised, about human dignity and the right to be free.

They read Muhammad Yamin and other Indonesian poets who, still with gentle voices, pledged undying devotion to the motherland. When the young teachers graduated and were sent to schools to carry out the colonial policy of “making farmers’ sons better farmers, and fishermen’s sons better fishermen,” they went a little further.

To the set syllabus they added readings of Indonesian poets, whose voices were growing less gentle by the day. These poems, and Pak Sako’s anti-imperial satire, made more exciting classroom fare than tales of the mousedeer or of Pak Pandir the Fool.

Discovery was a matter of time. Rumours reached the colonial masters. If any warning was given, it went unheeded. The need to awaken the young was too compelling. One after another, the more active of the teachers just disappeared. “Later, we’d hear they’d been transferred without notice, to areas we came to call ‘Siberia.’ ”

The new generation grew up, aware and impatient. One of them, who later specialised in history, recalls, “When the Japanese came, the twin myths of British power and protection collapsed. And when in turn the Japanese were toppled, imperialism itself was seen as innately impermanent, a moribund monster.

“Indonesia had won her war of independence. I remember stomping around with other youths, sporting Indonesian accents and yelling ‘Merdeka!’

They staged tableaux of fighters in fierce stances and declaimed Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar’s Aku (I), seeing it as a cry for freedom from the shackles of colonialism.

A local poet, Usman Awang, wrote of his people’s “slave-minds” and called for a total change of outlook. Kindred spirits from different communities had the poem translated into several languages. Through poems, stories and plays, writers cried out against social injustice as well as colonial oppression. Together with teachers, journalists and young people from other fields, they wanted a society that would be united, just and free.

Among them was a girl fresh from Chinese school who, to this day, has not forgotten the dream and the oneness of the dreamers. “We didn’t think of ourselves as Chinese, Malays, Indians ... And we were sure it would always be that way.”

Their ideas about a fairer social order got them dubbed “dangerous.” Many were questioned, harassed, threatened, detained. “My fiancé was locked up. The British were after my brother. He vanished.”

One wonders, says another survivor of those days, how many fighters for independence languished in detention or exile, having been conveniently called “communists” by colonial powers-that-be. Accepted versions of the Merdeka story make scant mention of the many patriots, young and old, who quietly risked all they had.

“Let me hasten to say that I’m not one of those unsung heroes,” says the cikgu. “I was fervent enough, but not to the point of sacrifice.” If he lost anything, he muses, it was the old shining faith in one country, one nation.

He and his family had never thought in terms of being anything but children of the peninsula that had been their home for generations. Then something happened to jolt him into awareness of a different point of view.

Many who speak of Merdeka remember this episode with pain. Dato’ Onn Ja’afar, leader of UMNO, wanted to open the party’s doors to all communities. Ethnic barriers, he felt, must be transcended; the call for freedom must be made with one voice.

Dato’ Onn’s idea was rejected. For him, compromise was out of the question. There was nothing for it but to resign. Analysts said later, “He was too far ahead of his time.” Other voices sigh today, “Will there ever be the right time?”

A doctor, who was still at school then, says, “My mother took me to the historic meeting at Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. I can never forget Dato’ Onn’s last speech.” Though barely fifteen, she felt the poignancy of it all. “Only a few years before, this man had been hailed as a hero for daring to lead the fight against the British over the Malayan Union. Suddenly, all that was forgotten.”

The man who was persuaded to take his place, Tunku Abdul Rahman, did not at first inspire great confidence. Dato’ Onn had been politically conscious even as a young man. When Tunku was getting up to high jinks as a student in England, young Onn was already drawing cartoons that poked subtle fun at the British.

Readers of the Lembaga Malaya (Malayan Image) magazine chuckled over exchanges between a cheeky boy called Awang and the Big White Tuan (Sir). A typical one goes: The Tuan lectures the boy on cleanliness. To this the urchin replies, “When I take a bath, I scrub off the dirt and pour water on myself to wash it away. When Tuan has a bath, he soaks himself and his dirt in the tub.” Seemingly innocent, Onn’s cartoons eroded the awesome aura of the Orang Putih (White Man).

As a leader, Dato’ Onn was brilliant, intense and dynamic. He had scintillating wit and was a fine orator. Tunku’s laid-back, genial manner made him seem a less formidable force. He spoke well but without rhetoric, and his humour was gentle.

An observer comments, “Even as we smiled at Tunku’s special way of saying mudah-mudahan (‘hopefully’: he always pronounced it mudahan-mudahan, and the stage comic Ismail Bontak had audiences in stitches when he stressed this in his imitations of Tunku), we found ourselves disarmed into trust and affectionate respect for the man he was.”

The raceless oneness felt by the young people who had dreamt together of a brave new world was the exception rather than the rule. The majority of the people were only too conscious of ethnic differences. Kept largely separate by British policy and natural inclination, the various communities had been tolerant enough of one another’s ways, viewed from a comfortable distance.

Then the Merdeka movement demanded their solidarity as a future nation. Ironically, it was this very movement that sharpened their awareness of different and conflicting interests. Distrust was the order of the day. There were whispers that the leaders would “sell” the rights of their people in the name of Merdeka.

“To say that Tunku and his friends in the other communities managed to gain total trust would be naive,” the observer adds. “Still, they did win it to a workable extent; good enough for attaining independence.”

Before that, the rakyat (masses) had to be reached and infused with the spirit of the movement. In remote villages along the upper reaches of the rivers, deep in rubber estates, around mines and in new settlements, in slum areas where they lived in wretched hovels, most had not even thought of Merdeka. The only struggle, the only freedom they knew was the daily struggle for freedom from hunger and disease.

An engineer who grew up in a rubber estate remembers, “I was ten at the time. My friends and I sometimes joined the crowds that gathered to hear the speakers from town. They spoke in different languages. Even when they spoke Tamil, we didn’t really understand them. We just enjoyed the excitement.

“But one woman moved us. She did not speak. She sang. The only word we understood was ‘anakku’ (‘my child’). Her face and voice, the way she sang and looked at us, made us feel she was our mother, our motherland, that we must free ourselves from bondage.”

Such were the moments that roused the people into a new awareness, of needs beyond the mundane, of a dream of freedom and dignity they must all help to realise. There were, of course, sceptics among them, with doubts as deep as those of their more sophisticated compatriots. Yet many decided to suspend disbelief and rallied behind the leaders.

Some have since scoffed at our fight for freedom. “What fight? It was bloodless. Merdeka was handed to us on a platter. What freedom? We were free only in name. Economically, even politically, we were still chained to Britain.” Comparisons have been made with Indonesia, where lives were sacrificed for the cause, and where Dutch influence was ruthlessly uprooted.

When we pushed for independence, cynics have said, the British were already resigned to losing their colonies. It could even be argued that they were eager to get rid of us. Certainly, the British backbenchers whose support Tunku sought were of that view. There was also the communist threat. Once Britain was assured that we would not kill one another and ruin their economic interests here, and that we would remain in their Commonwealth, they were more than happy to give us independence.

Yet such belittling has not tarnished the memory of the first moments of Merdeka in the minds of many Malayans, now Malaysians. It cannot dim the splendour of the split second after midnight when our flag took its rightful place over our independent land. Nor can such remarks mute the resonance of the first exultant shouts of “Merdeka!

What, then, has turned that joyous vitality into listlessness for some of us? One is a sense of failure as we recall the old dream of a people united in fairness and freedom. We had hoped to be one at heart while retaining our rich diversity and initiative. We had thought we could grow ever closer while living and letting live.

What is the reality today? We live in peace and work side by side. We are polite to one another and exchange greetings during festivals. We avoid sensitive topics so much so that self-censorship has become second nature to us.

If truth be told, we are drifting further apart. It feels increasingly right to move within our own ethnic and economic circles. We see this happening even more in schools and universities, a preview of things to come. Once in a while, someone sounds a warning, and attempts are made to stop the malaise. With what success? The roots may lie too deep for quick-fix measures to reach.

There was a time when you could hold firmly to your creed and yet mix freely with friends of different faiths. And was it so long ago that buddies could exchange ethnic insults in public without anyone turning a hair?

The social gap between rich and poor, bridged by the common cause of Merdeka, is now very much in evidence. It’s a moot point whether this gap is even wider than the ethnic one. Homes, cars, leisure activities, holiday destinations, dress and speech styles set the two groups worlds apart.

Try telling a schoolboy to make friends across the divide and he will say, “Then the guy will lose his friends and I will lose mine. Anyway, leceh-lah.” (Leceh means “awkward and troublesome” and “probably pointless.”)

And how do you convince a schoolgirl we are all Malaysians together, when observation and intuition tell her that certain classmates will have better opportunities by virtue of parentage, community and connections?

I ask a Fifth Form boy what Merdeka Day means to him. He is silent for a while, then says, “Do you want the school version?” When I do not reply, he begins to recite: “Malaysians celebrate August 31 joyfully because on that day in 1957 we gained our independence from British colonial rule.”

He breaks off, grins and says, “Sorry, I know you don’t want that. Okay, let me think. What does Merdeka Day, or National Day, mean to me? Parade. Fireworks. Fun with friends. A holiday, I guess.”

Oddly, his answer fills me with hope, not despair. The new generation knows the difference between what one is supposed to say and what one really feels. The sentiment, or lack thereof, may be disturbing, but the honesty refreshes and reassures.

Perhaps it is time for all of us to stop the numbing, distancing over-politeness and speak candidly to one another about the way we feel. It will not be easy, but with fair minds and humble hearts we can do it. And then we will sing in harmony a great new Merdeka song.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Monday, August 13, 2012

Love, Loss and Longing

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH is spellbound by the magic of old Terengganu in DINA ZAMAN’s maiden story collection, King of the Sea

Photographs by AHMAD ZURIN NOH

CLIMBING TREES. Hanging out in the homes of strangers. Cats. These images colour Dina Zaman’s memories of growing up in her beloved Terengganu.

“I think my childhood years in Terengganu were among the happiest in my life,” she recalls. “I used to go in and out of the neighbours’ houses and sometimes even the homes of people I didn’t even know. They never minded, even if they didn’t know who I was.”

As Dina thinks back to those years, a smile of sweet nostalgia lights up her face. Then, just as abruptly, her expression reflects a shadow of melancholy. “That was about twenty, thirty years ago. It is not the Terengganu you see now,” she says, with an almost imperceptible shake of her head. “I go there for [Hari] Raya and there is none of that community spirit anymore—no sense of romanticism.”

She may mourn the Terengganu of her childhood but she should take heart that all is not lost. It appears that—in a way—her abiding love for old Terengganu has kept it from vanishing forever.

King of the Sea is Dina’s captivating collection of short stories set in the picturesque state on the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The stories revolve around a group of people living in a peaceful seaside village. Although she says she never set out to recapture the idyllic era of her childhood, almost every tale resonates with the simplicity and uncomplicated lifestyle commonly associated with a bygone era—no doubt inspired by the Terengganu in her memories.

Each story in King of the Sea radiates distinct undercurrents of whimsy and magic but is rooted in the very real themes of love, loss and longing. Dina expertly crafts her stories to keep them hovering in that no-man’s-land between reality and fantasy. Literary types would call it magic realism but you don’t have to be a scholar to appreciate the power and beauty of each tale as it transports you to a delightful world where men marry jungle spirits and women literally disappear into movie screens.

It is a testament to her remarkable talent as a writer that, despite the eccentric storylines, you’ll find yourself wanting to believe everything she has to say. Every one of her characters is relatable and oddly memorable—they stay with you long after you’ve put the book down.

So, it’s no surprise that Dina received the incredible honour of being longlisted for the prestigious Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award for King of the Sea. Winning would mean joining the esteemed ranks of such authors as Haruki Murakami, Yiyun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri and Miranda July, four previous winners of the award that, this year, comes with a €25,000 bounty.

Although she would be forgiven for going on and on about this achievement as many other writers in her position would do, when asked to elaborate how she feels about this honour, Dina states simply: “For me being longlisted is good enough.”

This reticence is just one of the many clues that point towards her humble nature. In fact, her deep sense of modesty appears to spring from a tendency to be a bit reclusive. “I tend to socialise only with good friends. I’m scared of crowds!” she confesses. This bit of insight into her true character might come as a surprise to some people. “I’m sometimes seen attending events like glamorous fashion shows but that’s only because I know a friend who is a fashion designer,” she says. “I’m actually just sitting there to warm up the seats!” she adds, with a laugh.

Dina says her preference to keep to herself probably came from her nomadic past. “My father was a diplomat and we moved around a lot when I was small,” she says. Although having to start over at a new school every now and then was a bit of a challenge, she does not regret any of it, especially the fact that she regularly ended up at her grandparents’ house in Terengganu. “I stayed with them during school holidays or sometimes for extended periods when my dad was travelling.”

Her father’s profession is also one of the reasons behind her deep appreciation for stories—both verbal and written. “Before my younger sisters came along, I had no one to play with, so I used to hang out with the adults and listen to all their stories.” This habit became more entrenched when she spent time at her grandparents’ home. “Dekat kampung [in the village], all the orang-orang tua [old folks] would meet in somebody’s kitchen and sit and talk,” she remembers. “I used to sit with them when they were frying curry puffs for tea and ‘pretend’ to help but I was really only interested in their stories,” she confesses, with a grin.

Dina may not have learned much about making curry puffs but the stories that swirled around her left a lasting impression. “I realised ... eh, telling stories is so much fun!” This early attraction to storytelling blossomed and evolved into a full-blown love for the written word although for the longest time, it seemed young Dina would never be much of a reader.

“My father’s constant travels meant that there were times when I didn’t really attend school, so my reading skills were all over the place,” she recalls. “But my parents were very strict and they made sure I learned to read.” When the meaningless squiggles on the page finally began to make sense, there was no tearing her away from books. “I read all the Enid Blyton books—those were my favourites. Of course, there was also Mary Poppins and The Wind in the Willows and all the other classics,” she says with visible excitement.

She is now the proud owner of an immense, ever-growing collection of books. Her addiction to buying books is due, in part, to the fact that she was never allowed to purchase them as a child. “My parents encouraged me to borrow books but because we were travelling so much it wasn’t practical to own them. That’s why now it’s like buy, buy, buy!”

As an avid reader and gifted writer, Dina understands the deep pleasure of losing herself in the pages of a book and she hopes King of the Sea will offer the same to her readers. “I had this one reader who asked me all these intellectual questions and I told her she was reading too much into it,” she says. “I wrote the book because I wanted to write it. You do whatever you do because you love doing it.”


1. She painstakingly writes her stories by hand and then types each one on the computer.
2. Growing up, she never wanted to be a writer. She wanted to be a veterinarian or an actress.
3. She started out in public relations before moving on to full-time writing and editing. She currently writes for a Malaysian news portal.
4. All her works of fiction are handwritten in red-covered notebooks. Non-fiction is written in notebooks with black covers.
5. It took her more than a decade to write King of the Sea. She started the first story thirteen years ago and then added to the collection over the years.
6. She strongly believes that many aspects of Malaysian culture and arts are in danger of being lost forever if better funding and support aren’t put into place.
7. She has an overweight cat named Handsome.
8. The stunning black-and-white photos of Terengganu featured in King of the Sea were taken by the late Sultan of Terengganu, Almarhum Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah, who was an avid photographer. She obtained them from a friend, YAM Raja Ihsan, who was happy to provide his grandfather’s pictures.
9. She believes blogging, the Internet and reality TV have ruined true art because everyone wants to be an instant star.
10. She is dating an environmentalist who was the inspiration for “Man in the Jungle,” one of the stories in King of the Sea.

Reproduced from the July-September 2012 issue of Quill magazine

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

August 2012 Highlights

1. The Liars’ Gospel (Viking, 2012) / Naomi Alderman
2. What the Family Needed (Harvill Secker, 2012) / Steven Amsterdam
3. Toby’s Room (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) / Pat Barker
4. Vengeance (Henry Holt/Mantle, 2012) / Benjamin Black
5. The Night Swimmer (Scribner, 2012) / Matt Bondurant
6. The Wrath of Angels (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) / John Connolly
7. England’s Lane (Quercus, 2012) / Joseph Connolly
8. The Crime of Julian Wells (Mysterious Press, 2012) / Thomas H. Cook
9. The Mirrored World (Harper, 2012) / Debra Dean
10. The Bartender’s Tale (Riverhead, 2012) / Ivan Doig

11. The Zenith (trans. from the Vietnamese by Stephen B. Young
and Hoa Pham Young) (Viking, 2012) / Duong Thu Huong
12. The Lost Prince (Dutton Adult, 2012) / Selden Edwards
13. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin, 2012) / Jonathan Evison
14. Safe House (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Chris Ewan
15. Goodbye For Now (Doubleday, 2012) / Laurie Frankel
16. Boneland (Fourth Estate, 2012) / Alan Garner
17. The Kingmaker’s Daughter (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Philippa Gregory
18. Alone in the Classroom (MacLehose Press, 2012) / Elizabeth Hay
19. Requiem (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) / Frances Itani
20. Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, 2012) / Howard Jacobson

21. The Illicit Happiness of Other People (John Murray, 2012) / Manu Joseph
22. The Fall of the Stone City (trans. from the French by John Hodgson) (Canongate Books, 2012) / Ismail Kadare
23. Mo Said She Was Quirky (Hamish Hamilton, 2012) / James Kelman
24. In Praise of Hatred (trans. from the Arabic by Leri Price) (Doubleday, 2012) / Khaled Khalifa
25. The Devil I Know (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Claire Kilroy
26. The Dinner (trans. from the Dutch by Sam Garrett) (Atlantic Books, 2012) / Herman Koch
27. The Prophet (Little, Brown, 2012) / Michael Koryta
28. The Lewis Man (Quercus, 2012) / Peter May
29. Sweet Tooth (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Ian McEwan
30. The Heart Broke In (Canongate, 2012) / James Meek

31. Close Your Eyes (Jonathan Cape, 2012) / Ewan Morrison
32. Three Strong Women (trans. from the French, Trois femmes puissantes, by John Fletcher) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Marie NDiaye
33. The Beautiful Mystery (Minotaur Books, 2012) / Louise Penny
34. The Emperor of Paris (Doubleday Canada, 2012) / C.S. Richardson
35. Watching the Dark (Hodder & Stoughton, 2012) / Peter Robinson
36. Umbrella (Bloomsbury, 2012) / Will Self
37. Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Little, Brown, 2012) / Maria Semple
38. Dead Stars (Blue Rider Press, 2012) / Bruce Wagner
39. Hostage (trans. from the French by Catherine Temerson) (Knopf, 2012) / Elie Wiesel
40. The Girl on the Stairs (John Murray, 2012) / Louise Welsh

41. The Daylight Gate (Hammer, 2012) / Jeanette Winterson

First Novels
1. The Guilty One (Piatkus, 2012) / Lisa Ballantyne
2. The Woman Who Dived Into the Heart of the World (published in the US as Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World) (trans. from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman) (Henry Holt/Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Sabina Berman
3. The Orchardist (Harper, 2012) / Amanda Coplin
4. City of Women (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, 2012) / David R. Gillham
5. Penelope (Vintage, 2012) / Rebecca Harrington
6. The Dog Stars (Alfred A. Knopf, 2012) / Peter Heller
7. The Last Word (Salt Publishing, 2012) / Mark Illis
8. Hold It ’Til It Hurts (Coffee House Press, 2012) / T. Geronimo Johnson
9. A Killing in the Hills (Minotaur Books, 2012) / Julia Keller
10. Gone to the Forest (Free Press, 2012) / Katie Kitamura

11. The Headmaster’s Wager (Hogarth, 2012) / Vincent Lam
12. The Lighthouse (Salt Publishing, 2012) / Alison Moore
13. Cascade (Viking, 2012) / Maryanne O’Hara
14. The Twelve Rooms of the Nile (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Enid Shomer
15. The Black Isle (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) / Sandi Tan
16. The Twenty-Year Death (Hard Case Crime, 2012) / Ariel S. Winter

1. Four New Messages (Graywolf Press, 2012) / Joshua Cohen
2. Tea at the Midland and Other Stories (Comma Press, 2012) / David Constantine
3. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (Oxford University Press, 2012) / Joyce Carol Oates
4. Summer Lies (Pantheon, 2012) / Bernhard Schlink
5. We’re Flying (trans. from the German by Michael Hofmann) (Other Press, 2012) / Peter Stamm
6. Battleborn (Riverhead, 2012) / Claire Vaye Watkins
7. Diving Belles (Mariner Books, 2012) / Lucy Wood

1. Place (Carcanet Press, 2012) / Jorie Graham
2. Bevel (Carcanet Press, 2012) / William Letford
3. As Far As I Know (Viking, 2012) / Roger McGough
4. 81 Austerities (Faber & Faber, 2012) / Sam Riviere
5. Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012) / Natasha Trethewey

1. On the Shoreline of Knowledge: Irish Wanderings (University of Iowa Press, 2012) / Chris Arthur
2. Winter Journal (Henry Holt, 2012) / Paul Auster
3. The Way the World Works (Simon & Schuster, 2012) / Nicholson Baker
4. The Brontës: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of Three Sisters (Pegasus, 2012) / Juliet Barker
5. Books to Die For (Hodder, 2012) / John Connolly & Declan Burke (eds.)
6. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010 (eds. Kevin Young & Michael S. Glaser) (BOA Editions, 2012) / Lucille Clifton
7. Borges, Between History and Eternity (Continuum, 2012) / Hernan Diaz
8. Saints, Sacrilege and Sedition: Religion and Conflict in the Tudor Reformations (Continuum, 2012) / Eamon Duffy
9. Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2012) / Michael Gorra
10. The Distance Between Us: A Memoir (Atria Books, 2012) / Reyna Grande

11. What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World (Ecco, 2012) / Robert Haas
12. The Silk Road: A New History (Oxford University Press, 2012) / Valerie Hansen
13. Robert Duncan: The Ambassador of Venus (University of California Press, 2012) / Lisa Jarnot
14. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Jane Ridley
15. The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People (Henry Holt, 2012) / John Kelly
16. Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (Viking, 2012) / D.T. Max
17. From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012 / Pankaj Mishra
18. Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power (Allen Lane, 2012) / David Priestland
19. Diaries (ed. Peter Davison) (Liveright, 2012) / George Orwell
20. Bertie: A Life of Edward VII (Chatto & Windus, 2012) / Jane Ridley