(Asalnya diterbitkan Mac 2013 di dalam Majalah Clive)
One of my favourite haunts on the Internet at the moment is vintage-kl.tumblr.com. As the name implies, it is basically a collection of scans of old photographs of Kuala Lumpur and its surrounding areas. It is hard to imagine Jalan Bukit Bintang as a sleepy backwater area with dusty roads lined with coconut trees, but this wealth of a site gives photographical evidence that this was the case before. Now compare that with the current rows of overly-lit shopping malls, filled with tourist eager to express their consumer needs with the streets heavily congested with both local and imported cars and you will get a sense of how far we have come to be where we are right now.
You don’t have to go back that far in time to see how things have changed. Development has changed many things. I still remember eating at the row of dilapated outdoor hawkers (back before dining al fresco was in) before the whole Uptown Damansara development took over. I barely remember a wildly rowdy night partying at a high fashion boutique launch in the hallowed halls of Bukit Bintang Girls’ School before they placed a huge monolith later known as Pavilion there. I also fondly remember taking gaudy, pink minibuses and evenings spent talking over a glass of iced tea at Hameed in Central Market before they turned it into Malaysiana tourist trap. Granted that some developments in the name of progress should have given more thought to preserving cultural heritage and history (the aforementioned Bukit Bintang Girls’ School would be a great example), but in general we’ve done a commendable job for a fairly young nation.
Just by looking around, one could see the progress that we have made physically, but what’s more interesting to me is the progress that we have made as people. And by people I mean how we live and the lifestyle choices that we make. Socially, we are not an entirely secular nation, but depending on where you are, the average Malaysian is now a pretty much tolerant (and moderate) lot. A young adult living in any major urbanized city in Malaysia is pretty much free to do whatever he or she wants, whether it’s for creative expression, or a personal lifestyle choice. Take a walk around Bangsar at any time and you will be able to see a myriad of people, proudly standing by the decisions that they have made in life.
If you play your cards right and surround yourself with the right people, your life here wouldn’t be much different than how it would be in New York, Tokyo or London. Maybe the weather’s a bit different, and your audience would be significantly lesser, but it definitely won’t make you less creative and appreciated than as how you would be in those cities. That might sound as an extravagant claim, but you don’t need to look hard to be able to see all the exciting things happening around you. Of course, this is assuming that, a) you are not some narrow-minded zealot, b) neither are you a militantly-religious fanatic and c) you are based in Malaysia, but if you are picking up and reading this in Clive I am assuming you are part of the target demographic.
Truth be told, there has never been a better time than right now if you are a young-blooded young (and not-so-young) adult itching to express yourself creatively. Our people’s perception here has progressively matured enough through the ages to be able to see things more objectively. The freedom of creative expression now is somehow similar to how things were back in the mid-60s, when Malaysians were obviously more free-spirited and open minded. Simply pick up and flip a local magazine from that era and you will see what I mean.
So what actually happened?
The Iranian Revolution of 1979 predominantly changed global attitudes towards secularism to a more conservative stance. Malaysia then, as we are currently, began to look at the Arab League nations for everything from policies and law, down to even fashion and food. They are perceived as more Islamic, although my opinion is that it is not Islamic per se, just ‘Arabic’. Perhaps this is because on the international stage, it is probably more acceptable for us as an Islamic country to be seen aping Arabian counterparts rather than Western ones.
The Iranian Revolution was of course the final blow to the coffin to any ideas of secularism in most Muslim-populated countries, including Malaysia. Policies and laws became tighter, and with that came strict enforcement that ultimately affected our own attitudes and mindsets towards tolerance and moderation. It meant that not only did we have to contend with the politicians and lawmakers who made these policies, but this time also the ulamas and authoritarian voices with what was deemed religious righteousness. This is when religion became politicized.
Although this might work in the Middle East, we are realistically a multi-racial, multi-cultural nation. We have multi-racial people living in multi-racial houses working in multi-racial offices and eating in multi-racial food courts.
Which is why I had a little epiphany during recent trips to Tokyo and Bangkok. Being there made me realize how proud they are of their culture and language. I also found these two cities disturbingly similar to each other, albeit with different languages, but there is a certain sense of ‘politeness’ that emanates from these two vastly different cultures. I realized then that this is probably because that they are populated predominantly by one major race speaking one major language. The people in these cities (and countries) all share the same culture, the same heritage, even the same genetic pool by virtue of being the same race. Eerily enough, both countries has been through major political upheavals in the past decade, both involving highly-publicized national leadership issues. To a certain extent you can pool the politically-charged Koreans in this same pool, as evident by their free-for-all cabinet sessions on Youtube.
But as these countries prove, regardless of what happens to their government, their country and its people move on. Japan was pretty much business-as-usual regardless of their constant change of Prime Ministers every two months. Bangkok came to a standstill until their beloved King told them to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps being predominantly populated by one race played a big role. It’s like being in a small club with your own brothers, you argue, have a little fisticuff, and later being able to genuinely be sorry and easily shake hands and make up your differences. I am pretty sure you’ve seen a disgraced or in-the-wrong Japanese or Thai political/business figure making a public apology on the 8 o’clock news.
But we multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-lingual Malaysians are different. We are a sensitive lot. Even if there’s no official law on what you can or cannot say in public, the common sense in us will usually avoid racially-sensitive jibes at each other. When we argue, we argue between Malays, Chinese, Indians and Dan Lain-lains. That’s four-fold when you calculate the amount of sensitive souls we have to upkeep and make happy. Things get exponentially complicated when you factor in religion-sensitive issues.
So all these years of watching what we speak and write in public should somehow progressively evolve into second nature to us. We get desensitized of being sensitive. We stop being suspicious when someone of a difference race speaks in a language we don’t understand, we stop making ridiculous demands on what we think is entitled to us, we understand why certain things need to be done a certain way by a certain group of people. We understand each other and we become tolerant people. This is when we started becoming Malaysians.
Which is why I mentioned earlier that now is a good time to be creative. Progressive Malaysians become more subjective in their thinking and choices, and through tolerance and moderate views more and more people are able to weigh and analyze what was previously deemed challenging subject matters. Of course this is not just limited to creative output, but also lifestyle choices and how you bring yourself. Whether you’re a musician, DJ, photographer, fashion designer, writer, or anyone with a desire to express their creativity, the chances of the result of your blood, sweat and tears being appreciated is better now than ever.
Where else can you find a Chinese punk bands singing profane Malay lyrics, devout fathers and family men rapping on stages in nightclubs, avant garde fashion critics with law degrees, punk visionaries running radio and tv stations, Djs spinning in outdoor fashion festivals in front of thousands and free-spirited creatives shooting international fashion spreads? You don’t need to be in a foreign creative mecca to do all this, as this is all happening right here, right now. Freedom of creative expression has not been at this level for a very long time.
And just like how Jalan Bukit Bintang and all the other developments we see around us has flourished, so too has people’s attitudes and mindsets. And just as how most of us agree how there should be stronger policies to preserving heritage buildings before tearing them down for shopping malls, for better or for worse our current attitudes and mindsets were shaped by policies and laws both good and bad made by our leaders.
Trivial achievements such as our buildings, bridges and record-breakers are not a true measure of our progress, progressive mindsets and attitudes are. And we got there by being tolerant and moderate, by being sensitive to the multi-cultural demands of our multi-racial people, by being responsible Malaysians.
(Maaf jika kurang faham Bahasa Inggeris.)