Case study of a bipolar Malaysian

Thor Kah Hoong

Schoolchildren waving the national flag at the 60th National Day celebrations at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur today. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, August 31, 2017.

PATIENT: Thor Kah Hoong

Sub-classification: Banana. Culturally yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Common syndrome for his generation, born just after the war.

Symptoms: Good in a foreign language, English. Passable in spoken Cantonese, the dialect common to his parents (his father was Hokkien, his mother Hakka); passable also in the national language.

Note: His lingual confusion was contributory to the fragmentation of his Self.

Recording of patient: Look at the national language, whatever it is called now. I started with the Malay language and then it became… Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa baku, Bahasa Melayu. I can’t keep track of the order.

They can’t even decide on what to call the national language; how to get the whole nation to talk to each other?

I got involved in drama, theatre, in my first year (1970) at the University of Malaya (UM). By my second year, I was involved in ‘sandiwara’, and I had to learn a lot of Indonesian words to understand my Malay lecturers, who, seemingly overnight, spoke like they were from Java or Sumatra, and who, besides having us study the novels of Samad Said and Adibah Amin, also had us reading Pramoedya, Rendra, etc.

Now, ‘babi’ is also ‘haram’ as a word! Replaced by the wimpy ‘khinzir’. I am Chinese. Go on, say ‘khinzir’ to my face. I will die laughing.

I grew up in the 1950s in the 100 quarters in Brickfields, Jalan Rozario, a hive of 100 families of (a few) Morris-Minor civil servants – about two dozen Chinese families, about a half-dozen Malay, three Eurasian and the rest Indian.

At the end of Jalan Rozario, where there are apartments now, next to the church, were the ‘coolie lines’, several rows of low, dark hovels, the sludge of raw sewage in the earthen lanes, teeming with large Indian families; the mothers and fathers sweeping the streets of the town before dawn, some of them picking up big buckets filled with human waste from the back of the 100 quarters about 5.30am.

While my best friend was my neighbour and classmate Jeyatharan (cousin of Citizen Nades), we kids knew, even before the warnings of our parents, that the Indians of the ‘coolie lines’ were not Indians you wanted to mess with.

The gang there regularly fought with the Scott Road gang at the Lido cinema. One of them lost his arm in a parang attack and was sentenced to jail for contempt because when asked by the magistrate why he did not cooperate with police in apprehending his assailants, he replied: “In Brickfields, we settle things our own way.”

Hey, I was a member of the Jalan Rozario Secret Seven gang (the actual number varied from 11 to 16 members, depending on who we didn’t want to be friends with from week to week), but that’s hardcore.

From there, too, regularly, on Saturday nights and Sundays, various residents, sozzled on ‘samsu’ and toddy (amazingly, the toddy shop is still there behind my old school), would spurt out onto the streets and into raucous song.

One day, my mother asked me why I was moving my head and hands. Was I becoming an Indian boy?

Huh? Maybe it was some kind of osmosis, whatever, because the Secret Seven secret clubhouse was under the floorboards of this wooden building on brick stilts in the Vivekananda ashram grounds, and every weekend, while members held meetings, which mainly consisted of smoking cigarettes stolen from parents, dance guru Gopal Shetty would get ‘mamees’ and ‘tangachis’ stomping on the floorboards, raining dust down on us, while he went ‘takati-takatum’…

A child with Malaysian flag stickers on her face celebrating National Day at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur today. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, August 31, 2017.

In the first seven months of Standard One, every Monday morning, I stood in front of the school and sang God Save the Queen while the Union Jack was raised. Then in September, God couldn’t save the queen from losing another colony, and we sang Negaraku.

Merdeka. Unity in diversity. We believed in it so much. Not long after, we enlarged the national family by marrying three neighbouring ‘S’ like the Soong sisters: Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah. We flirted with Brunei, but she preferred rich spinsterhood.

Then, there was a quickie divorce with Singapore. They think they can do better. Go, lah. See what you can do on your own – tiny pimple, no land, not enough water, no natural resources, not enough people. Just remember, once we ‘talaq’ and ‘tolak’, no coming back, ‘padan muka’.

My dad took me to matches from the first Merdeka tournament. When India and Hong Kong first made their appearance, when their teams made a good move, some Indians and Chinese would cheer and be rained with jeers of “Balik la India, balik la China” (though the smart Chinese money would have been on Mokhtar Dahari).

But there was never any aggravation. Those occasions always ended with everyone having a laugh, back to the game and cursing the referee for being ‘buta’, bribed by the bookies.

There was no racial antagonism in school, primary and secondary. Enmities were personal, not racial, and mostly transient.

Recently, my secondary schoolmates had another annual reunion that brought together close to a hundred, including wives, a few teachers and a headmaster, and the insults traded referred to loss of hair and gain of girth.

The spirit of my generation is best summarised by a member of royalty I met in my bookshop a few years ago. He had returned after nearly three decades in England to tend to an ailing mother. Besides being disgusted with a few of his mates from St John’s who felt obliged to disguise their alcoholic drinks at the Long Bar, he couldn’t understand what had happened to racial sensitivities.

He said: “We called each other ‘Cina’-this and ‘Melayu’-that and ‘India-ini’, and nobody got offended. We just ‘taruh’ back. Good friends can do that. Now say slightest thing, want to fight.”

That explains my puzzlement in the May of my Upper Six, after mid-morning recess when the teacher told us school was out for the day, no reason given. Knowing we were wont to loiter at the Cathay and Rex cinemas when we had an early parole from school, she firmly told us to go straight home.

That night, my parents and I watched Tunku tear up on television as he described the nation being torn apart. Blood was oozing from the fissure dividing the races.

Attending physician’s note: Barely a year after the country was roiled by racial riots in 1969, patient enrolled in the English department of UM at a time when the student population was splitting into racial, religious/moral and political camps. This was at a time when Malay student leaders, including Anwar Ibrahim, were demanding the de-colonisation of university curricula – removal of Western content and the English language as a medium of instruction.

Interim diagnosis: This troubling time contributed to the patient’s growing uncertainty of identity, manifested in an inability to make decisions, first making plans to apply to do a master’s in Malaysian theatre in the US, then aborting the plans to stay back to do a thesis on two American poets.

Attending physician’s note: Patient’s focus on artists who kill themselves require further, separate therapy. What’s telling is the first few chapter of his thesis – a tracing of the evolution of the concept of the Self and its splitting into two, from early mythology and theology, Adam and Eve and yin-yang, to the literary Romanticism of Goethe and Wordsworth, to Nietszche’s Superman and the existentialist void of Kierkegaard and Sartre. That’s the real heart of his thesis. That was him trying to understand his loss of certainty.

Recording of patient: The first job after UM was lecturing English at Taylor’s College for four years. Every year, the size of the classes grew. In my fourth year, I walked into a class that had grown to 47 students, from 33 in my first.

In the late 1970s, your choice of a local university was UM or UKM. Now, of course, we have progressed tremendously – after 60 years, we have at least two or three not-so-world-class universities and colleges in every neighbourhood.

People arriving early in the morning at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur today to take part in National Day celebrations. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Hasnoor Hussain, August 31, 2017.

Thanks to the diversity part of our national bedrock, I had many students from Chinese schools who failed in Bahasa and who struggled with English. Taylor’s was their only outlet to get to Australia and Canada.

After four years of trudging through thousands of muddled thoughts and mangled essays, I became a leader writer at the New Straits Times. Only to be told I had joined at a bad time. The country’s leading English newspaper was struggling; daily circulation was about 180,000 to 190,000; the Sunday Times 210,000 to 230,000.

The biggest shock to me was when the country’s illustrious leader, who had turned us into Asian tigers, confessed that Malays had a dilemma. They, too? The master race? We were screwed.

Sure enough. Semangat 46 fractured off from the Umno continent, then fragments drifted back. Then, with racial warming, another big chunk, Reformasi, split off and flooded the streets of the city.

Now, deja vu. There is a new coalition promising unity in diversity, many from the former ruling party and its new theological friend. And already, one of them is falling apart internally, in public.

I am confused. My race has been called ‘pendatang’. My grandmother landed in the port of George Town in 1908, an unaccompanied 12-year-old, to marry a man she had never met. My grandmother was the first of five wives and 18 concubines. I have 21 uncles and 22 aunts. All of them from five grandmothers. (The KL concubines and their offspring – grandpa also having a tin concession in Kampar, besides Kepong – stayed in several houses in Tong Shin Terrace, down the road from grandpa, unknown to and unseen by me). I have cousins I have never met in my life. The spread of my roots in this country is extensive.

Who can I trust? What can I trust in my country today? The government sounds like US President Donald Trump is writing their tweets and speeches for them: it is fake news. Don’t believe what you read. Soon, we will have new regulations to ensure you will only get to read registered truth.

Recommendation: Patient needs a few more sessions to be convinced that there is nothing wrong with him. He is a typical ABC, nasi campur, rojak Malaysian.

Attending physician: Dr Semen Farid. – August 31, 2017.


* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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