One evening at Silverfish Books in Bangsar, I joined a small crowd to hear Rehman Rashid speak. He was there to promote his latest book, Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia.
Silverfish owner Raman Krishnan said that Rehman would not disappoint, and he was right. For two hours, the veteran journalist and author regaled the assembled with a tale of Malaysia, his sweeping arms cutting the air thickened by his baritone and coloured with his accent. He could go on forever and the audience wouldn't have minded.
But towards the end, I suspect some of us had begun feeling peckish, thanks in part to the aroma of the pizzas from Domino's, courtesy of some guests who also brought snacks and refreshments for the event. And Rehman did say he could go on and on if left alone, so...
I'm not ashamed to be so effusive when talking about this event. More than 20 years had passed since Rehman wrote A Malaysian Journey, and his fans have long been agitating for a sequel. After all, so much has happened since then.
I vaguely recall being at some local authors' hi-tea event at MPH, 1 Utama, in 2007. Rehman was there and he spoke about A Malaysian Journey. As I watched and heard him speak I thought, "G*d, what a self-satisfied diva this guy is."
Now, I'm telling you to get a copy of Peninsula and maybe A Malaysian Journey as well because I can't say anything else other than "You should have been at his book talks because, god, he is still a self-satisfied diva and he's awesome."
Funny, how time changes people.
Talking about Peninsula is almost impossible without that preamble above, because the book, a collection of write-ups that tell "a story of Malaysia", is but one of many narratives spun by Malaysians over the course of our lives.
The book begins with a chapter on former PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who he feels has opened up the sphere of discourse in this country, among other things, until his tenure ended. We learn how Rehman was fired from his job and how Pak Lah gave him another. We also get a bit about Rehman's youth and his time in Bermuda and New York.
Each chapter runs the gamut of the aspects of Malaysia that we can recognise. They segue from one to another in one smooth narrative, yet each is still sufficiently self-contained to be read on its own.
Among these, "Heartlands" is an exploration into parts of Kelantan, Pahang and Terengganu and the political party PAS; "Boomiputras" features the New Economic Policy (NEP) and some of the entrepreneurs it enabled; "The Third-Generation Curse" addresses the pendatang question; Swarnabumi highlights the Indian community; Vox Pop covers blogs and social media; Lost Tribes speak of the Orang Asli; and Small Town introduces us to Rehman's 'hood of Kuala Kubu Baru.
"Future Stock" spotlights the more recent migrants to Malaysia who Rehman suggests might as well be citizens considering how much they like it here. "This country is paradise, brother... paradise!" a Bangladeshi migrant gushed to him. "Your people don't know it." Well, some of us do.
Sabah and Sarawak have their own chapter, which outlines their history and his thoughts about them and not much else, because "I do not know enough to write about Sabah and Sarawak as if I did." Neither of these states, he "very strongly" felt, "was to be trifled with."
Rehman also wrote and spoke fondly of the Malaysian diaspora, and marvels at how strong they keep the country close to their hearts. In the Silverfish talk, he posited that, despite criticisms of how the country is managed, Malaysia's multicultural experiment is a success. No other melting pot in the world is like ours and, when abroad, Malaysians seem to fit in well.
Arguably, the most poignant bits in the book involve his late wife Rosemarie Chen, whom he eulogised in a much-talked-about Facebook post and the book's final chapter. As I understand it, she encouraged Rehman to return to Malaysia and write A Malaysian Journey. Their relationship — "Tweety Bird and Sylvester on some days, Fay Wray and King Kong on others" — struck a chord with me. They sound like an ideal pair.
His writing style, which I find less irksome now, hasn't changed much. One imagines a master painter shaping grandiose vistas with broad sweeping brushstrokes as on a huge canvas, striving to convey his feelings and insights to an audience that may or may not be able to comprehend or empathise with all he had experienced. A taste:
Aeolian limestone cliffs fell to a sea of such pellucid turquoise as I had never so much imagined, let alone seen, lapping on beaches of pink sand. Pink! Seriously pink, not a trick of the light in certain atmospheric conditions. It came from the shells of foraminifera, oceanic plankton so tiny, hundreds could fit in the space of their name.
According to Rehman, a good journalist must be interested in people. He also claimed his books are so successful because it's about Malaysians, and Malaysians (like people in general) love reading about themselves.
After a brief but failed flirtation with journalism, I can say he's right on both counts. Also, I sort of get where Rehman's coming from now, and I suppose he has earned the right to be a self-satisfied diva — something he carries with aplomb, I grudgingly admit.
Nevertheless, an undercurrent of sadness and fatigue was palpable during his book talk that Sunday evening. After telling two Malaysian stories, he doesn't appear keen on writing a third, though another book is being planned. One feels as if a torch was being passed.
"We tried", he said of his generation's attempts to bring about change (also in the chapter "Gen Two"), and now it was up to the next. The end of that era's youthful idealism is captured in his description of the shift from a global to a provincial mindset, as well as the crackdowns against student activists, among whom were Syed Husin Ali, Ibrahim Ali (yes, that one) and lifelong rebel Hishamuddin Rais, who's still at it and might be going to jail.
"In 1973 we'd gone out there to beat the world," Rehman lamented in the book, "in 1974 it beat us back, by 1975 it was over..."
His admission of failure borders on self-flagellation: "I was there to see it happen because it happened with my generation. It was us. We dropped the ball. We lost the plot. We changed the agenda. Not the politicians, not the institutions, not even the citizenry at large. All were relying on us, just a bunch of students. What did we know."
So, at Silverfish, he exhorted us to write, to express ourselves, to tell our own Malaysian stories. Because after decades of being a family, we barely know each other, evidenced further by some reactions from the Semenanjung to BN's victory in the recent Sarawak state elections.
In Peninsula, Rehman wrote of "two breaths" as a way to belong to a place: the first is drawn from one's birthplace, and the last released where one dies. The juxtaposition of these two breaths underscores the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, our lives are brief and unimportant.
So, too, are our bugbears and complaints, which this veteran journalist has come to accept is part of this country's evolution. Malaysia will still be around long after we and our descendants are long gone.
But: "It is remarkable, too, what lives on after any life," Rehman notes in the foreword, offering a smidgen of hope to those hankering to make their mark in the course of their lives. "We are all etched in our collective histories; all notes on staves and letters on pages; each a bit of nonsense in itself, together a story, an epic tale, music."
Peninsula: A Story of Malaysia
Because we know so little of each other, it is incumbent on all of us to tell our own stories, so that we may know and understand each other better, so that the world knows and understands us better, and leave no gaps for those with an agenda to fill with their own interpretations of who we are, where we come from, and where we hope to go from here. And it's up to us to preserve these stories, too.
Hence, even the extremist, garish voices calling for the supremacy of one group above the others must be heard, said Rehman. Their stories are also Malaysian ones and without the voices from the fringes, how are we to get the whole picture?
And without the whole picture, how can we determine the kind of Malaysia we would want to breathe our last in?