ONLINE media followers might recognise Fahmi Fadzil as the host of PopTeeVee‘s The Fairly Current Show on “quirky and current affairs in Malaysia”, uploaded every Thursday. Apart from this, Fahmi is also an award-winning performer, writer and design studio operator. An active member of Five Arts Centre, he was named Most Promising Artist at the 5th Annual Boh Cameronian Arts Awards in 2007.
In this exclusive interview in Kuala Lumpur on 12 May 2010, Fahmi talks to The Nut Graph about being Malaysian in a changing Malaysia.
TNG: Where and when were you born?
Fahmi Fadzil: I was born in Assunta Hospital, Petaling Jaya, on 4 Feb 1981. This was the year AIDS was first documented, (Tun) Dr Mahathir (Mohamad) came to power, and Bill Gates incorporated Microsoft.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in PJ Old Town, Damansara Utama (DU) and Bukit Damansara. My family used to be based in DU, and my late grandmother had a house in PJ Old Town near Ivy Josiah‘s place now. It was known unofficially as “kawasan Melayu”. When I was nine, we moved to Bukit Damansara.
What are your strongest memories of these places you grew up in?
In PJ, it was running in the streets in the afternoons. My mother used to leave me at my grandmother’s house for her to look after me when I was three or four years old.
I remember very strongly in DU, I went to Tadika Chim where I got first place in the whole kindergarten, which is where I learnt to read and speak Mandarin. I don’t read and speak it anymore, though. It’s a shame.
But at that time, during Chinese New Year, my mum would urge me to sing the Gong Xi Gong Xi Gong Xi Ni anthem to get ang pow whenever we visited my parents’ friends.
Can you trace your ancestry?
My father comes from Kuala Pilah, Negeri Sembilan. So he is of Minangkabau descent. My father’s maternal grandfather was from Kampar, Sumatera. His paternal grandfather was probably also from Sumatera. But my father was closer to his mother, and because Minangkabaus are matrilineal, it’s easier to trace his lineage on his mother’s side. He is from suku Sri Melenggang.
My mother was born in Kuala Kangsar, so she’s orang Perak, but her family came from Langkat, Sumatera. My mother would be fourth generation Malaysian. I am fifth generation.
So dad’s from Kuala Pilah, mum’s from Kuala Kangsar and I’m kind of Kuala Lumpur. So, my family has three kualas.
Are there any stories that you hold onto from your parents or grandparents?
My maternal grandparents were very strong Umno people, very Umno lama, not the Umno that celebrated its [64th] birthday [on 11 May]. They moved from Perak to PJ because my late grandfather was an agricultural officer. He subsequently helped set up either the PJ division or Selangor Umno, I’m unsure. Apparently my grandmother was also a big figure in the Kaum Ibu and used to get the women together to baca marhaban, berzanji, berzikir, and baca Yasin on Thursdays. She was a devout Muslim, and taught me to read the Quran. She was a religious teacher and was so active that when my mother was growing up, she’d rarely be at home.
My paternal grandfather was a [school head], and my grandmother was a homemaker. What is interesting is that both sets of grandparents really highlighted the importance of education.
My mother and her sisters were all sent to Assunta School, and this was in the 1950s and 1960s when they’d still recite Our Father every morning. Sister Enda (Ryan) was the [school head] then. My mother was fine, and so were my grandparents. It did not menjejaskan her religion.
My paternal grandfather urged my father to go to King George V school, and then sent him to Universiti Malaya (UM) where he eventually met my mother. My parents went to UM at almost the height of student power in Malaysia, when (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim and Hishamuddin Rais were there. UM was held in high regard.
After graduating, my father worked in Felda, but nearing 2008, he also started feeling anti-establishment. He had previously been pro-Barisan Nasional (BN) and Mahathirist. But I remember on election day in March 2008, he said he wanted to ride around town on his motorbike with the DAP flag. I told him, “Eh, cannot! You’re not supposed to be campaigning anymore!” During the (April 2010) Hulu Selangor by-election, my father asked me, “When you go, can I tag along?”
My mother always had a soft spot for Anwar’s family, because they’d known each other since university.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
I draw strength from these stories, knowing that I’m extending that narrative. I draw strength when people try to belittle this spirit I resonate with. For example, when Umno Baru [leaders and supporters] say, “Mereka Melayu liberal.” They use this label to discredit anyone who doesn’t conform, even the late Yasmin Ahmad.
I come from a good family, so what are they trying to dismiss? If my grandparents were alive today, do you know how disgusted they’d feel with Umno? My grandparents who sent their daughters to a missionary school, were they “liberals”? They were also party stalwarts. But that Umno died in 1987.
The fact that I’m fifth generation Malaysian also makes obsolete the notion of ketuanan Melayu.
Is there any aspect of your identity as a Malaysian that you struggle with?
I don’t really struggle with anything in that sense. I draw strength from people like (Datuk) Zaid Ibrahim who are not hypocritical.
We oftentimes forget that this climate of hypocrisy was mediated by personality clashes in Umno‘s dominant politics, for example between Mahathir and all of his deputies. These clashes created different camps that facilitated these hypocritical tendencies.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you want for yourself and for future generations.
(Silence) I don’t know where to begin. I think we need Malaysians to be able to dream again about the possibilities for this country. We must be able to dream about all the different Malaysias that must be allowed to exist within the frame of the Federal Constitution.
I want a Malaysia that is cognisant of its youth, meaning both its age as a nation and its population. There’s a lot of balancing that needs to be done before we can dream again. I think I long for a Malaysia that we’d be proud to call home and that all my friends would want to come back to.
Read other Found in Malaysia interviews
The Nut Graph needs your support