Tuesday February 5, 2013
Telling Malaysiaís tales
Ceritalah by KARIM RASLAN
In the run-up to the general election, this storyteller is racing across the country to capture the spirit of Malaysia for a TV series.
ITíS 7am and Iím perched precariously on a half-rotten wooden jetty in Kuala Kedah. Five hours later and Iím on a small eight metre-long fibreglass boat in the middle of the Straits of Malacca learning how to reel in the fishing net.
As I puff on a hand-rolled cigarette, my soft-spoken host assures me that he wouldnít want his son to follow in his footsteps.
A day later and Iím with an orange-haired, George Town car mechanic trying to check the carburetor fluid of our vehicle.
Driving me across the island, he tells me about his previous life of car-racing, of adrenalin, danger, death and subsequent redemption.
A week after that I find myself sitting through a Bahasa Malaysia Catholic wedding ceremony in Keningau. I listen carefully to the service, as the language of my father is used in celebrating another religion.
Am I threatened? Is my faith imperiled? I donít think so.
Kota Belud to the north is next. Its age-old tamu (or market) remains a superb introduction to Sabahís diversity: Dusun, Iranun, Bajau, Bugis and Orang Sungai.
Going stall by stall, trying the cooked foods and other produce, I end up almost passing out after foolishly trying to chew a thumbnail-sized pull of tobacco offered to me by an elderly Dusun lady market trader!
Finally, some 48 or so kilometres outside of Sibu and feeling slightly worse for wear, Iím sitting on the covered veranda of an incredible 35-door longhouse as the sun begins to set.
With the shadows lengthening, Iím all too aware that for this community without an asphalted road, running water or electricity, the night is a truly an impenetrable and primordial darkness.
In this part of Sarawak the past remains dominant. Thereís no present, no future.
All this and more because Iíve been shooting a 13-part TV series in the run-up to the Malaysian general election, trying to convert my columns, the black-and-white youíre reading now into a moving, visual feast.
Since the production is a race against time (though these polls have been delayed more than any in our history), thereís a ragged and slightly crazy feel to our entire endeavour.
Even so, I carry in my head one simple question: does our grand Malaysian narrative Ė aristocratic, top-down and Malay-centric Ė have relevance to all the different worlds Iíve encountered?
The entire process has been quite stressful since storytelling on TV demands a very different approach than what Iím used to.
When Iím travelling alone with my notebooks, I tend to do a lot more sitting and thinking. I haunt coffeeshops and warungs. I reflect and watch life go by, absorbing the atmosphere and ďfeelingĒ the mood.
With TV, thereís no such luxury. Everything needs to be stage-managed, sound-checked, scripted and then shot. Mere suggestion is not enough.
Itís utterly exhausting and physically draining, so much so that I spent much of my 10 days in Sabah and Sarawak clutching my very sore belly. Nonetheless, I plough on resolutely. As I said last week, Iím a slogger and the show must go on.
I still have another four episodes to shoot as I try to bring my material towards some form of conclusion. Does Malaysia make sense? Are we a united polity, one held together by shared values and an over-arching sense of direction?
Or are we merely tribes, each quite separate, going about our lives, meeting in markets and the workplace but rarely, if ever, at home?
Is this what we wanted for ourselves Ė for our Malaysia?
I know that I, for one, am disappointed by the increasing narrowness and intolerance that we have come to display at every turn: forever offended, forever sensitive but then again maybe my critics are right, maybe Iím just a wishy-washy liberal bemoaning the disappearance of a dream that never could have been Ė shrinking from the tough political realities?
As the storyteller, the tukang cerita, I present the stories as Iíve encountered them, leaving the conclusions to my readers and now viewers.