Our Malaysia of the 70s

by Azly Rahman
Jan 25, 2013

With the state of racial and religious things entire in our beloved Malaysia today – rumours of a festival of Bible-burning, continuing humiliation of the Malaysian Indians especially, the death of critical sensibility in our public universities, the devastating revelations of the ‘Sabah IC-gate’ plot, the issue of ‘stateless Indians’ and the criminalisation of children not able to be schooled because they were born ‘stateless’ and a host of other issues Malaysian-ly unbecoming.

I have decided to travel down the path of nostalgia. I am quite sure many of you reading this column would agree that the late sixties and early seventies presented a good frame of reference of what it means to be Malaysian and what ‘national identity’ could be about. Names upon names came back to me as I conjure fond memories.

There was a certain kind of magic, innocence, and sincerity to foster a Malaysian identity, back then. It didn’t matter what race you were one could love to one’s heart’s content folks like these: P Ramlee, AR Tompel, Aziz Sattar, Saloma, Siput Sarawak, Ayappan, Lim Goh Poh, Andre Goh, Kartina Dahari, Orchid Abdullah, soccer players like V Arumugam the ‘Spider Man’, Soh Chin Aun ‘The Towkay’, Shaharuddin Abdullah the cool guy, Mokhtar Dahari ‘Super Mokh’, Santokh Singh, and many other great names that helped make Malaysian Malaysia proud.

One could laugh at the comedian-ventriloquist Jamali Shadat’s jokes, remember names such a V Sambanthan, Khir Johari, the great statesman Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tan Siew Sin, Temenggung Jugah (the man with a really cool haircut I so wanted one… ), Aishah Ghani, and of course the reluctant but down-to-earth and benevolent multiculturalist-statesman Tunku Abdul Rahman (right) with his famous uncontrollable blurting of Malay curse words and his philosophy of “oil and water can never mix”. A simple, yet profound life was back then…

Those were the days before today… when hell is breaking loose. What happened to the ethos of that genre, I wonder.

Growing up in the early 70s, different words to describe reality, practices, and possibilities were dancing happily around me.

Perhaps those street names tune us to calmness… Jalan/Lorong Aman, Sentosa, Bahagia, Rahmat, Syukur, Ne’mat, and Merdeka…

All these shaped the child’s mind, such as that of mine growing up with a fascination of names, as if living is about being taught names and being able to “read the self and the word” in order to be liberated.

There were also words related to spirituality; words such as ‘sembah-Hyang’, marhaban, berzanji, kenduri, berkhatan, and bersugi gigi…

There were also cool words related to Malay magic such as jampi serapah, tangkal, kemenyan, dukun, pawang, and of course the “mambang laut-mambang darat-mambang udara” trinity/trio”…

Smooth-sailing seventies

Back in the day of the smooth-sailing seventies people were happy wearing what ought to be simple fashion and accessories… kebaya, baju kurong (not a straitjacket mind you), baju Melayu Telok Blangah, terompah, selipar chapal, selipar Jepun… manik koran, and all kinds of Malay, Chinese, and Indian ‘bling bling’ to adorn oneself with cultural niceties

Growing up in the kampong, I was not attuned to hearing totally foreign words, imported from elsewhere to denote and connote the self, spirituality, and salvation, and “saving the soul of others”; words such as solat, dakwah, ushrah, tarbiyyah jihad, muzakarah, jubah, serban, hijab, purdah, burqah, niqab, Arqam, tabligh, Ayatollah, muktamaar, buah tamar, or even Daulah Islamiyah…

Not that I knew or had even heard of… until the beginning of the eighties when these words like Karl Marx would became technologies of the “body, mind, and spirit” that changed the social relations of production and the ideological landscape of the country and the consciousness of a segment of Malay people…

And I never heard anyone wanting to burn the Bible nor shout “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) when scoring goals in a friendly kampong football match.

And the beauty of living back in the day was how the self was constructed out of the early introduction to pluralism/ multiculturalism such that in me, every time the Chinese spirit of Bruce Lee possesses me, I could just go out and beat up my best friend Fook Shiang for example. We could then walk to town and overdose on the Indian food tosei and capati. Along the way we would stop by breezy Lido beach to grab a bite of the Javanesse soul food tauhu (tofu) sumbat.

Next, we could stop by at our teacher’s house and listen to his stories of Malay spiritual powers and magic called ‘Ilmu Budi Suci’ where the energy within possibly called the ‘chi’ can be harnessed so that one could kick like Bruce Lee without even touching your enemy!

Then, back in the day, we could go home after that to watch Joe Bugner got punched out into outer space by the ‘Black Superman’ named Muhammad Ali. I could still remember the words of the announcer … “Annnddd in thissss corneerrr… weighing 220 pounds… from Louisville Kentucky… the undisputed world champion… Moooo hammaaaad… Aaaa Liiii… Aaaa Liiiii… Aaaa Liiii…” to the sounds of the audience gone berserk.

I could go on and one with this nostalgic; a trip down memory lane of the seventies especially, just by recalling words and words that were synonymous with a world that was about to enter globalisation but was dealing with a strange brew of modernisation and uneven development – a Malaysia before Mahathirism.

That was true multiculturalism without any strand of today’s idiocy. That was our Malaysia with a lot of sense and sensibility.

DR AZLY RAHMAN, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Baru, holds a Columbia University (New York) doctorate in International Education Development and Master’s degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has taught more than 40 courses in six different departments and has written more than 300 analyses on Malaysia. His teaching experience spans Malaysia and the United States, over a wide range of subjects from elementary to graduate education. He currently resides in the United States.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 4:07 am

    The strong racial cohesion of the 60s and 70s was ruined during the era of Mahathirism where irresponsible leader(s) practiced “divide and rule” tactics, racial segregation and brought in the BTN program which taught Bumiputras to hate pendatang.

  2. #2 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 5:19 am

    This write-up brings out my memory of my old kampong where most of my friends were Malay boys and we all cycled to a school some 15 km away near a small town. When there was a ‘war’, it had always been based on which kampong you are from, not what race you were! We all backed our kampong football team, no matter how bad it was! As the Beatles sang ” Those were the days……” After the 80s, we had so much DISTORTION being taught to our children that simply resulted in today’s scenario. To this, we had to admit, the Mamak was the main director and we were all blinded by his piratization schemes that eventually sent us to the Black Hole of Calcutta!

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 6:54 am

    ///a Malaysia before Mahathirism/// – Dr Azly Rahman. So the tipping point is before and after “Mahathirism”. What happened during [English jettisoned, NEP, Islamisation, Privatisation, manacling of judiciary and press influx of foreigners etc] is well known and need no repeat. It has however brought about such structural and irrevocable transformation in the entire political system of governance, socio-economic and cultural life for the worse that many like Azly would and could only reminisce in nostalgia of what it was before. Except for LKS, whose voice was one in wilderness, there were no watch dogs with sensitive noses to worsening trends, and strong character to protest, much less resist, at personal peril, the rotting brew. When he was in power, he could by sheer force of will and personality keep a lid over the brew that he concocted. After his exit, no successor was strong enough to contain its spilling out and the stank in all directions. So we are where we are now, with racial and religious polarization at levels never before reached, brain drain with influx of foreigners/semi skilled, with surging socio-economic problems of rising crime wave, human trafficking, children abduction, abuse of power and custodial deaths (Kugan TBH etc) and lately in the open streets (Sugumar). Its sanguine to just say change the system by voting “wisely” as if were that easy with foreigners in hundreds of thousands being given ICs to vote quid pro quo for the system (per revelations of RCIII to date). Apart from BERSIH’s complaints, the amendment during his time to section 9A of Election Act (a gazetted roll is considered final and cannot be questioned or appealed by any courts) plugs any legal loophole that may be resorted to vitiate any electoral irregularity during elections.

  4. #4 by sotong on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 6:57 am

    Decades of narrow, divisive and damaging politics of race and religion had destroyed the country.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 7:13 am

    Perhaps from historical perspectives one can liken the situation and place as if a destructive hurricane storm like Katrina has struck leaving a trail of houses and power and communication lines destroyed, vehicles overturned and trees uprooted, where the flood waters have not yet receded, and reconstruction obstructed by the lack of competent officials to administer, with able people relocating elsewhere and trouble makers to roam free and unhindered to bully intimidate and loot.

  6. #6 by john on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 9:43 am

    One’s mind and thoughts occassionally slumber down memories invoking nostalgia feelings (cocoon in warm embience or resulting in heart wrenching moment).
    After when we somehow drag ourselves out of the slumber or being jolted back into reality, the trip down memory lane does give kind of soul cleansing effect.
    The aftermath, our sense of perspective refresh, sharper, in focus being re-energise somehow giving renew hope, inspiration to face life challenges (in particular, UMNO/bn ) again.
    I do believe we are an awesome in-built mechanism beyond our own human able comprehension.
    Now refreshed, ABU !!
    MMK has to be make fully accountable for all wrongdoings and injustices he had commited during his regime days. His latest reference (utterly rubbish !) on Tunku showed what evil/vile/filth has been taking shape, forming, in- store in his psychopath mind (ever more vinditive, evil in form) ever more devilish awaiting to harm the nation more. What kind of a ‘leader’ after stepping down got such ‘mind’ to say “ho, i ‘picked’ the no.2 to take over, time being -but, “cat is out of the bag” all because of the crooked bridge and HIS GREED !” and what desperado indeed.
    As we need to diagnose the cause not the symptom and to know our history well in order to ( correct and lesson learnt) chart ahead we need to delve into MMK past wrongdoings to learn, unlearn and foresaken, not, not one MMK again or any of his form whatsoever.
    Well, do take a trip down memory lane. ABU !

  7. #7 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 10:08 am

    I appreciate reformist like Azly and others but I feel they miss the real point of those who fought back against these injustices – injustices and the fighting back started from the beginning – long ago – just that its gathering momentum because the degree is very high now.

    What does it really mean really? Just as the tolerance, no, really forebearance, has been very long, the wrong has been very long also.. Meaning, that what is happening is simply a case of the end of opportunism of the wrong itself.

    In other words, what the Malays should look at the current state of revolt against the wrong – is an OPPORTUNITY FOR CHANGE FOR THEM..Its not about taking anything from them or losing something. Its about moving forward for them, its about inevitable change that must be embraced for better OR change will embrace them for the worst. Its about not taking things for granted, not making assumptions, that ultimately will be their detriment..

  8. #8 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 10:45 am

    Oh yeah and today everything is just plain umno-centric.

    So just LISTEN to umno.

  9. #9 by good coolie on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 10:58 am

    Can Pakatan Rakyat bring back those days? There is a hurdle in PAS, which would discourage close interaction with adherents of other religions. PAS, on the other hand has shown more tolerance of other religions than the government has.
    Would a PAS leader join in Thaipusam celebrations (to have tea or lunch with Hindus in Batu Caves)? Perhaps the other Muslim party, Keadilan would have no problem with this?
    what does Anwar say?
    I wonder what happened to Rahim . I mean that 4-year old who amazed all of us (no older than him) with his prowess –

  10. #10 by john on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 12:44 pm

    ok, summ

  11. #11 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 2:36 pm

    Times then surely were better. No. Much better. Much much safer than it is today, for sure. And no mad man like the monsterO’mamak and ibrahim bin perkasa and greedy idiots like Joe bin Umno.

    After 55 yrs of independence and development, we today could at least expect to feel like singapore of late 80’s and early 90’s. I think we look and feel more like yangon and bangla and pakistan. Then again at the same time we have fat mama with handbags and jewelleries worth millions and some Joe bin Umno with ferraris and horses and private jets.

  12. #12 by Ray9393 on Saturday, 26 January 2013 - 6:44 pm

    Don’t fall onto the trap of race and religion. It is the positive universal values and cultures that drive a great nation. Focus on those values and cultures. Ramp them up now to all especially the intellect here.

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