Friday, August 15, 2014

Global Citizen

author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze
SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH shoots the breeze with SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH, who chronicled a 2,000-kilometre bicycle journey around Peninsular Malaysia he and a friend embarked upon in 2004

Coordinated by ERIC FORBES

SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH thinks of himself as a citizen of the world. “Can’t think of a less clichéd way of putting it,” he says.

While “citizen of the world” may not be original, it accurately describes the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze (NUS Press & HK University Press)—at least, as far as his passion for travel is concerned. “I have never felt truly comfortable, at home, in any one place, and I’m not sure I ever will.”

Home for Vadaketh is Singapore but the Harvard and Berkeley graduate still feels a strong connection to his family’s native India. “Whenever I am in India, I feel a deep bond with the place and people,” he says. “My mother comes from a family of strict Hindu vegetarians who are Marwadis, now mostly in Indore, while my father comes from a family of whisky-sipping Christian carnivores who are Malayalee Syrian Christians, mostly in Kuala Lumpur and Kerala. I have great affection for both sides of the family and try to visit them once every two years.”

Floating on a Malayan Breeze chronicles Vadaketh’s journey through Peninsular Malaysia with his best friend Sumana Rajarethnam. The two made the journey on bicycles, armed with not much more than a tent, two changes of clothes and a daily budget of about RM10. Why would an Ivy League scholar and senior editor at Singapore’s Economist Intelligence Unit take on such an endeavour?

The answer can be traced back to when Vadaketh and Rajarethnam were studying in the United States. “I was completing my Masters in Public Policy at Harvard. Sumana was doing the same degree at the University of Michigan. The idea for the book emerged while we were in policy school,” explains Vadaketh. “We thought we should do something ‘different’ that might ultimately help to ‘better relations’ between Malaysia and Singapore. It was a bit naïve and idealistic, but that’s what we were thinking back then.”

Idealistic? Perhaps, but Vadaketh’s intentions were undeniably pure. “We wanted to find out more about Malaysia from the ground up. For most of our histories, everything we hear about our countries and each other comes from our governments. There is very little dialogue at the grass-roots level.” As the Singapore-born son of a Malaysian father, Vadaketh has a unique perspective of the two countries. “I have much affection for both places. Hence the main motivation for the trip was discovery—to find out what ordinary Malaysians think about themselves, Singapore, and the wider world around them.”

It might seem strange that Vadaketh and his friend would choose to brave Malaysia’s unforgiving heat and unpredictable tropical storms by opting for the bicycle as opposed to some other mode of transportation but as it turns out, cycling was actually a second choice. “We initially thought of walking, but realised it would take too long.” Trains, planes and other types of automobiles were avoided mainly because they were intent on creating opportunities to speak to Malaysians they met during the journey. “We wanted to go very simply so that we could get access to people,” he explains. “It is very different when you cycle, as opposed to driving. When you cycle into a kampung (village), everybody wants to say hello and talk to you. It gives you a lot of access. That was crucial for our trip and our efforts to get to know ordinary Malaysians.”

The RM10 budget might sound improbable but the two friends made it work. “Most days, we would eat roti prata or nasi lemak. Lots of carbohydrates, some vegetables but not much meat because meat is expensive. We rarely had to buy water, as people would often gladly fill up our water bottles for us,” he recalls.

As it turned out, packing a tent was a great move. “We pitched the tent probably half the time—especially on the beautiful sandy beaches of the East Coast. The rest of the time we stayed in people’s houses or shacks.” Vadaketh and his friend sometimes ended up spending the night at religious institutions and can count one mosque, one church and two Sikh temples as “rooms for the night” during their trip. They even stayed at a police station—twice!

Surprisingly, it wasn’t really food or shelter that proved to be the biggest conundrum during their 2,000-kilometre journey. “We realised what the most reliable ‘showers’ we could take would have to be at petrol stations. So most of our ‘showers’ were in these stations, squatting by knee-high water faucets in the toilets, sprinkling water on ourselves.”

Other than petrol station toilets with questionable hygiene levels, Vadaketh says there were no major challenges. “Everything was—ahem—a breeze!”

However, there are a number of things that he would like to have done differently. “I would like to have been more open and friendly with all the young guys in the kampungs who asked us about our bikes,” he says. “They were just interested in us and our journey, and some might never have seen a 24-speed bike before. But we acted like anxious richer neighbours—scared of getting robbed. So we didn’t chat as openly with them. I regret that.”

Vadaketh hopes that Floating on a Malayan Breeze will prove appealing to everyone with an interest in social, political and economic issues in Malaysia and Singapore. “I have purposefully wrapped serious issues around a light-hearted travelogue in order to make this book accessible to all readers, especially those who might not want to read a very heavy or academic book,” he explains. “I only want one ‘takeaway’—that the reader starts to question aspects of his or her environment and understanding of Malaysia and Singapore.”

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh on the Similarities and
Differences Between Malaysia and Singapore

“We met a few old Malay men around Malaysia, and they were convinced that all the differences between Malaysia and Singapore could be summed up in a neat parable:
Orang Melayu, bini dulu, baru cari harta. Orang Cina, cari harta, baru bini.
“The idea here is that the Malay philosophy has influenced Malaysians more, and the Chinese philosophy has influenced Singaporeans more. Stereotypes have their limitations, of course, but I’ve heard similar sentiments from many people.

“Before we cycled through Malaysia, we had a feeling that Malaysia’s system is inherently unfair. What we did not expect, however, was for several Malaysians to complain about Singapore’s system. Many of them believe that our exacting meritocracy is inherently unfair, because it allows the rich to get richer, and the poor to get poorer.

“We think Malaysia’s system is unfair, and Malaysians think our system is unfair. At the time, we felt Malaysians were wrong, but in a sense they were very perceptive—income inequality is now a big problem in Singapore.

“In short, our socio-economic systems are very different but they are also similar. Today—some 50 years after both countries gained independence—both systems have led to certain segments of the population being disenfranchised.

“Meanwhile, I think one of the big differences between the countries is that Singapore is a pure urban jungle, albeit with lots of greenery around. Hence the sense of urban estrangement is heightened. People are usually in a rush, bogged down by their numerous endeavours. There are no rural areas, where the pace of life slows, and everybody knows your name.

“So, while big city dwellers in most countries will have an opportunity to live amongst their countrymen in less stressful environs, Singaporeans do not. Every other Singaporean we meet is living in the same metropolitan pressure cooker. Many people who live in Kuala Lumpur actually come from much smaller, more rural areas of Malaysia. Hence, there is a diversity to life that is missing in Singapore, which is much more homogenous.

“In terms of identity, one might argue that Malaysians, despite greater ethnic and religious strife, have a stronger sense of identity. Singapore has tried to position itself as the Asian jack-of-all-trades, a developed world hodge-podge that is both all of Asia and yet not Asia at all. While this may work economically, from an identity standpoint, contradictions abound. So, yes, as a result of being pulled this way and that, you might say that Singaporeans have a higher likelihood of forgetting their own culture.”


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