Yudistra Darma Dorai’s impressions of Rehman Rashid’s latest book.
When Rehman Rashid’s A Malaysian Journey first hit us, we were smitten. No one had written about Malaysia like that before. Reading it as know-it-all, pseudo sophisticate school leaver, and being a patriot at the time, which only those of that age can be, I loved it. Read again, longingly, in my own years of exile, urging non Malaysians to read it to “understand my homeland”. Reading it today, we have a different take. Still, it remains the best book on a Malaysia on the cusp of her short-lived finest hour.
Mr. Rashid’s new book, Peninsula, talks of what happened since. Well, sort of. It’s a travelogue plus plus. 19th century Selangor is stated to be a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”. It still is.
This is a descriptive book. There’s the po faced description of how his own return to the New Straits Times was a political appointment by Badawi. There’s the confident gospel that Malaysia today was built by Umnoputras like Halim Saad, and that what went wrong was due to the financial crisis, and not their fault. Of course, Halim Saad and many such were Mr. Rashid’s mates at school.
A lot of the history here is pat. Almost like it’s taken off a Form 5 textbook. There’s the superficial argument that the NEP was a good thing, until it was effed up by latter leaders, that Tun Razak and Tun Ismail meant well and were merely trying to redress the balance and reacting to May 1969. Well, perhaps, but we’ve heard that before. More, please. There’s the view that Templer’s New Village programme was a case of hit the communists hard, treat the non-commie Chinese well. That’s it? Really? Uncles today who lived through those times would tell you how New Villages changed the Chinese in Malaysia forever.
Then, there’s the three consecutive chapters on each of three biggest races, titled Boomiputras (Halim Saad and his ilk), DAPenang (his friend, Lim Guan Eng), and Swarnabumi (Indians are either high-flying professionals, or thugs. No stereotyping there Mr. Rashid).
There’s the condescending put-down of the Low Yat 2 affair and Red Shirt rally. Oh these Malays, come on guys, the Chinese work hard for their money (yup, no superficial lazy analysis there Mr. Rashid).
He does slightly better with our Orang Asal. There’s a bit of good history and social analysis there. With the story of him being approached in his flat by two Orang Asal teenage girls asking to learn English. Nice.
Mr. Rashid does, however, seem to know the next generation. The chapter on the mixed race, middle class, international/overseas school educated next gen Malaysians was excellent. He names them the “Fourth Constituency”. His chapter on our overseas diaspora was just as good. That lot is unique, our diaspora is different from Sino émigrés, Bollywood Silicon Valley types, Ceylon tamils, and refugees. A former lawyer of Raja, Darryl & Loh gets a mention.
He is at his best in his travelogue moments. Writing fondly of cycling around KKB, and driving around the Malay heartlands speaking to traders. Beautiful writing.
This isn’t an indepth book. It’s touch and go stuff. He says the future of UMNO is Zahid Hamidi, seems to hint at this offering us hope, but then only writes four paragraphs on him.
Still, there is no better Malaysian writer. Our very own Paul Theroux; and Thoreau. I can’t give higher praise than that. His books remain the best writing on Malaysia, in a milieu where most such books are truncated academic treatises, with their 2.6 billion footnotes and indexes.
10/10 for readability.