I take pride in knowing my streets and its history. When I drive in the city, I generally go around without any navigation aid. When I am in a rideshare vehicle, I sometimes override the driver who is totally reliant on his or her not-so-smart smartphone. “No, no, no… please turn left instead. I know a better route.”
But yesterday was one of those little humbling moments. I have never had any reason to visit Pandan before. But Mahathir was speaking there last night. I wanted to see and feel how it was like to be in such a crowd during the campaigning week. I am in some ways a protest junkie. I enjoy witnessing people converging for political purposes. In order to not get lost in Pandan in the dark, I needed direction.
Kuala Lumpur was wet last night. It drizzled but that did not stop any political event. Mahathir, Muhyiddin, Wan Azizah and the local candidate spoke. Mat Sabu arrived later close to midnight, having to crisscross the city to speak at multiple venues. Earlier in Bangsar where I was, a loud multiracial crowd had their colorful umbrellas opened against the orange streetlight. A stranger shared her umbrella with me by the road. Even the poorly attended Umno rally filled with demotivated bored men (no women) talking something about the NEP went on.
Both Pandan and Keramat along with the more famous Kampung Baru are in the same parliamentary district of Titiwangsa, where I have been voting since 2008. The Pandan local economy is more integrated with the one in Pudu, which means it should have been part of the Cheras seat within the geographical context of Kuala Lumpur. But the electoral map in Malaysia is contorted to take into account other considerations to benefit the ruling party in an unfair fight, not so much what makes sense on the ground.
Pandan is an urban Malay kampong in the same way Kampung Baru and Datuk Keramat are. Tall buildings rise outside Pandan. The Exchange 106 in the new business district that symbolizes the corruption 1MDB stands tall close by, making it impossible for local residents to miss it. While trying to keep rallygoers occupied, somebody on the stage pointed out that if the trees were removed, we all could see the Towers from here. This is a complete contrast to the experience of the other two kampongs: the Petronas Towers loom large while the ugly menacing Barad-dûr-like monolith glass tower is far on the horizon.
The candidacy of Mahathir for prime minister is about attracting Malay votes away from Umno and Barisan Nasional. Mahathir was there within a collection of Pandan low-cost flats to tell the Malays there that it was okay to vote for change. Mahathir has been telling all Malays to make cultural and economic change for ages, but it is only in the past two or three years that he has developed the courage and the appetite for political change.
I had expected a largely Malay crowd. I was wrong. Instead the crowd was quite multiracial, almost as diverse as the one in Bangsar except bigger. The Chinese of Pudu and Cheras must have come here to listen to Mahathir together with the locals. I myself, who is now living on the other side of the city, took a 45-minute drive to get to Pandan to listen to Mahathir. It would be a shorter ride from Pudu.
But I wonder…
I have this theory that it was really only in the 1990s that we had something that we called Malaysia. It is not Malaysia per se, but an idea of Malaysianness as the primary identity. It is the Malaysian nation, the bangsa Malaysia. It is something I have been writing for the past two years and hoping to finish in the next two.
But in short, before or after the 1990s, there was none of that sort. Bangsa Malaysia has always been unnatural to Malaysia. Malaysia is not a nation-state from the very beginning. The nations that exist in Malaysia in the modern post-1963 sense of the word, are not Malaysians, but Malays, Chinese, Indians, and many others. British colonialism has made this land diverse in a spectacular way, both as a blessing and a curse.
The Malays before the 1970s, and even before Malaya became part of Malaysia, felt economically marginalized compared to other communities. So marginalized were the Malays that they refused to be called Malayans despite Malaya was named after them. To them, the Malayans were the others, the Chinese, the Indians, the Eurasians, the immigrants.
When Malaysia was established, the Malay identity did not go away because the economic marginalization did not disappear. Merdeka and Malaysia were largely a political change. It was less an economic one. That made the Malays disillusioned, and angry at Tunku Abdul Rahman.
And the others, the Chinese especially, after 1969 racial riots felt they were politically marginalized. The government in response to the riots became very interventionist and began to integrate the Malays into the modern economy better. The New Economic Policy sought to redress economic imbalance that existed between ethnic groups.
It was a redistributionist policy: there were winners and there were losers. The winners would call it justice and the losers injustice. In the meantime while pushing Malayness as the foremost Malaysian identity, topics regarding Chinese schools and language were fiercely fought at the parliament. The assimilation policy was pursued doggedly by the government led by the Malays, and the Chinese were deeply bitter about it. Some, even up to these days.
The twin-marginalization — it does not matter whether it was an actual marginalization as what is important is what the group itself feels — discouraged the creation of a bigger nation that goes beyond ethnicities. The marginalization strengthened group consciousness and identity. Unity across races was impossible, unless you were of a certain class.
And then came the 1990s, that decade of great economic growth. The 1990s and the 1980s were a period of Malaysia’s own industrial revolution.
The Malays began to feel less marginalized economically. With less marginalization, came confidence for political concessions: for instance, Mahathir unbanned the lion dance in the 1980s. The Chinese meanwhile starting to feel less of the redistributionist policy because economic growth made the pie bigger for almost every group. Mahathir himself liberalized the NEP to enable rapid industrialization through exports-driven model.
Economic growth lessened the marginalization each group felt, allowing all to come together as one. The Malays felt they were Malaysians, the other felt they were Malaysians too. There was, perhaps, for the first time, a Malaysian nation. The song Saya Anak Malaysia finally meant something.
But that nascent Malaysianness fell apart in the late 1990s. The political and economic crises Malaysia experienced beginning 1997 undid the progress for bangsa Malaysia. The regression was partly Mahathir’s doing.
I am still trying to understand, prove and explain many factors relating to this. But I wonder, were the non-Malays coming to listen to Mahathir, to support him, in the middle of a very Malay Pandan was looking back, longing for that decade of bangsa Malaysia?
Later in the night, when everybody was exhausted, tired of standing for more than two hours, the organizer played a video of Mahathir explaining why he was doing what he was doing. Mahathir claimed he did wrongs and he wanted to right those wrongs. He had very little time left.
I spotted an old Chinese couple nearby me. Their eyes were fixed on the screen. I thought I spotted tears on their cheeks.