Taking the Malay out of the kampong

Raja Petra Kamarudin

You can take the Malay out of the kampong, but you can’t take the kampong out of the Malay, at least not that easily. Malays are very attached to their roots. Even if they were born in the big city they would still treasure their roots, in this case it could be their parents’ or grand parents’ place of birth.

There is nothing wrong in being sentimental about your roots, and neither does it make you a country bumpkin. The Americans too treasure their roots. There was in fact a ‘roots revolution’ three decades ago in 1976 when Alex Haley, an African American writer, published his best-seller book, Roots, which was subsequently made into a twelve-episode hit miniseries the following year. I still remember the trials and tribulations of Kunta Kinte, the ‘hero’ of the story, which attracted one of the largest dramatic television viewers in American history.

I spent my most impressionable years, age seven to thirteen, in the kampong (after which I was packed off to the Malay College Kuala Kangsar). This was when our family lived in Bukit Kuda, Kelang. Invariably, I grew up in kampong surroundings where I picked up many ‘values’ and beliefs that come with a kampong environment.

Looking back now, I can see how naïve and misguided we were in our beliefs. Many were steeped in superstition, most were prejudices, and all were the result of what the elders taught us, passed down through the generations by word of mouth. British writers and historians have addressed this issue of Malay customs and beliefs at great length and it is certainly not complimentary to the Malays at all. We would of course not expect our colonial masters to look up to us. But then, though we cannot deny that the British, being our colonial masters, would look down on the Malays — as all colonial masters would on the subjects they have subjugated — we also cannot dismiss totally what they wrote.

One of our childhood beliefs was that fireflies are souls of dead Chinese wandering about. We would catch these fireflies and place them in bottles. A bottle-full of fireflies would light up the night and could be used as torch-lights in the days when Eveready was not yet available. But we were warned not to bring these bottles into our bedroom or else it would become haunted if the dead souls of these Chinese were to escape.

During the month of Ramadan, even we kids would fast though it was not compulsory for those below the age of puberty. We fasted not so much to train ourselves for when we reached the age when fasting would be mandatory — which the elders would encourage us to do to — but so that we could sit and break fast with the seniors, a feast not usually seen in ‘normal’ months and certainly something no kid would want to miss. Of course, sometimes we cheated. We would secretly eat, away from the prying eyes of the elders, and feign hunger by sleeping the whole afternoon. The younger the kid, the more VIP treatment he or she would get come break fast time, much to the envy of the older kids who knew we were faking it.

One of the cardinal rules of fasting, the older kids would teach us, is that we must not swallow our saliva. To do so would nullify our fasting, so we would constantly spit all day long until our throats became so dry. But we must not spit indiscriminately. If we did, and if a non-Muslim were to step over (langkah) our spit, our fast would batal (nullify). So, whenever we wanted to spit, which was all the time, we would look for a drain where there was running water to ensure that our spit got washed away and there would be no danger of an Indian or Chinese langkah our spit.

Hindu temples were something very frightening to us kids. The various patung (statues) of the Gods were actually devils, we were warned. Hindus, we were told, are devil worshipers. So, if we ajuk (made fun of or mimic) the statues, we would die and our faces would become just like that statues. Horror stories were related how one unfortunate soul who made fun of such statues became sick, his face transformed into one of those statues, and he died. To ensure we did not suffer this same fate, we would always turn our face away from a Hindu temple if we were ever forced to walk pass one.

Chinese cemeteries are another thing we were told to be very careful of. Muslim cemeteries are okay. In some places in the East Coast, houses are actually built on top of graves. Though not very common, it would not be odd, until today, to see a wooden house on stilts with graves beneath it. There is no danger though. Your house would not become haunted. But be wary of Chinese graves. Just crossing a Chinese cemetery is enough for you to become possessed by the spirits and you would get sick and die. We took this warning very seriously.

These are but some of our many ‘teachings’. There are certainly more but I can’t remember them all. Anyway, this is not the issue. What I want to demonstrate here is that Malay kids in the kampong were groomed from a very early and impressionable age to believe in all sorts of hogwash that eventually cultivated deep-rooted prejudices against all those who are non-Malay. But the objective of these ‘teachings’ was not so much to make Malay kids despise or fear non-Malays. They were to ensure that kids behaved themselves and would not stray too far from home.

But not all ‘teachings’ were racial in nature. For example, we were told that unmarried people should not eat the necks of chickens lest our head would senget (lop to one side) when we bersanding (marriage ceremony where the bride and groom sit on the pelamin or stage). Also, we should not play outside when dusk arrives, especially if we hear the azan or call for prayer. When the azan sounds, all the devils would run helter-skelter and in their panic to run for cover may accidentally bump into us and we would get sick and die. Undoubtedly, this ‘teaching’ was aimed at ensuring kids stayed indoors at night and not go wandering into the dark forest surrounding the kampong, where all the devils resided.

Nevertheless, though the intention may not have been to turn Malay kids into bigots, the fact that non-Malays, or their religions, are used as the object of fear, this would invariably inculcate anti-non-Malay and anti-non-Islam values. Like it or not, this would be the end result.

Malays, then, were also very confused about what represented religion and what represented culture; and what were old wives’ tales and what was fact. Of course today it is not that bad as Malays have become wiser compared to the old days. But some prejudices still remain. Nevertheless, Malays are not the only bigoted lot. I used to have many Indian and Chinese friends in my schooldays and I had to put up with a lot crap from them as well. For instance, my Chinese friend would always tell me, “Mo tiu Malayan”. This can be directly translated to ‘no fuck the Malays’, which means ‘to hell with the Malays’. I would just grin and bear it. Well, what could I say to that? To our Indian friend, the Chinese friend would say, “If you see an Indian and a snake, kill the Indian first.” He too would just smile.

Being kids — whether Malay, Chinese or Indian — we would just laugh it all off and not take it to heart. But you cannot run away from the fact that it would leave you with a feeling that maybe the Chinese and Indians are not really friends to the Malays after all. When I visited one of my Chinese friend’s home, his father took out some pork from the fridge and asked me whether I wanted to taste some. “This is pork,” he said. “You want to try it?”

I told my friend’s father that Muslims can’t eat pork. “Why?” he asked. “Hindus don’t eat beef because the cow is their God. Is the pig your God?” I was at a loss as to how to respond and I could detect the embarrassment on my friend’s face. But then Asian kids are taught to never go against their parents, so he just sat there and wished the floor would open up and swallow him.

Prejudices and intolerances are planted in our hearts at that most impressionable age. Once we reach our teens, whatever we have been taught to believe will be carried to our graves. If kids grow up to become bigots, it is because the parents or elders teach them to be so. I was more fortunate. I had a Welsh mother who thought all Malay ‘values’ were ridiculous. She did not believe in charms and bomohs (witch doctors). She resented it when my father’s Malay relatives said she had ‘masuk Melayu’ (become Malay), which means she had converted to Islam. “I am Welsh,” said my proud mother who resented even being called ‘English’. Yes, the Welsh are very nationalistic, just like the Irish and Scots.

I suppose you could say my mother ‘poisoned’ my mind to reject all Malay customs and traditions as hogwash. This is quite unfortunate because I am sure there are some good values I could have picked up. My mother stayed British right to the very end and it upset my father’s relatives quite a bit. For example, if they dropped by without an appointment during dinnertime, they would be asked to sit in the living room while our family enjoyed our dinner. ‘Proper’ Malays would have invited the visitors to join them for dinner even if there was not enough food and though they had dropped by uninvited.

I suppose I am what I am today because of my mother’s didikan (nurturing). Your father is not always there except for a few hours during dinnertime, and even then not every night. So the upbringing one receives is usually from one’s mother. Many say I am a strange animal. Well, what do you expect from a Bugis-Welsh half-breed who is torn between being an ‘Anak Raja Melayu’ and a ‘Mat Salleh’? One minute I am an elite Malay Raja and the next a Welsh nationalist. Would this not fry the brain of any sane person?

Actually, if you look at the recent poll conducted by Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, things have not changed much since I was a growing kid 50 years ago. Then too we harboured the belief that Malays are lazy, Chinese are greedy and Indians can’t be trusted. How far have we come in 50 years in eliminating our prejudices? Not far I’m afraid. Oh, one thing that has changed though, I no longer spit when I’m fasting. I suppose there is some progress after all.