KARIM Raslan‘s father was Raslan Abdullah, who founded Bank Bumiputra Malaysia Bhd in the 1960s. Karim describes his father as a “typical product” of the New Economic Policy. The late Raslan, who died in a car crash when Karim was seven, was close friends with then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and other Umno elites.
Being born into a privileged Malay Malaysian world thus shaped, in a large way, Karim’s sense of being Malaysian. Now, as a political analyst and travelling columnist, Karim continues to explore what being Malaysian means in an on-going journey that parallels the country’s own search for identity.
The lawyer and consultant, who turns 46 this year, is best known as a writer, observing politics and society in Malaysia and Indonesia.
On 8 June, Karim launched his new book Ceritalah 3: Malaysia A Dream Deferred — a compilation of his columns which have appeared in various publications, including The Star, Sin Chew Daily and Sinar Harian. The columns are from late 2003, when Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister, until October 2008 when the Umno division elections began. He also recently started a new column in the Jakarta Globe.
Karim’s Malaysian story is essentially about learning to be Malaysian through the hearing and re-telling of the stories of other Malaysians. And in a sense, that’s not so different from everything else, is it? We are all born as one thing or another, but we have to learn how to be that thing. The value of Karim’s story, where one’s worldview may initially be one-dimensional, is that we can absorb and define on our own terms what being Malaysian is.
TNG: Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Karim: Born in Assunta [Hospital], grew up PJ [Petaling Jaya], then Kenny Hills, then over to England. England for 16 years, back and forth, holidays and university. Then a year in Bar school, then came back in 1987. That was 22 years ago. Now, I still travel a lot. I think there’s a kind of wanderer in me. I have all these notebooks I carry with me. So as long as I have my notebook, I’m at home — I can sit in a coffee shop anywhere, notebook in hand.
Your work and travels as a political analyst, how does that relate to your sense of Malaysian identity?
I’m very interested in the concept of Malay identity in Indonesia. Because in Indonesia, Malays are considered to be just one of the many ethnic groups and only three per cent of the population. The Malay Riau province is very Melayu and the local civil service prefers to only have people of darah Melayu Riau to be civil servants. Not even people from Minangkabau. And I find that fascinating. It’s reminiscent of what we have across the straits [in Malaysia]. I like these stories, and exploring my own identity through them.
What is your ancestry?
My father’s Malay [Malaysian], my mother’s English. They met in London when they were both studying there in the 50s, and met at a student dance. My father is Perak Malay from Kuala Kangsar, he comes from [a line of] Orang Kaya Besar and bangsawan. We’ve got family graves in Kuala Kangsar that [go] back [for] generations. So there is that sense of rootedness but Kuala Kangsar is not my home. It was my father’s kampung but it’s not mine.
What are some of the stories you hold to as told by your parents, relatives or elders?
My father died when I was very young, so most of the stories were told by my mother about my father. About going back to the village, stories about kampung life, which in Kuala Kangsar is very tied to the palace and its intrigues … it was much more rich and dense than life in England. Also, stories of the early 1950s, of tin miners, of people driving away with so much tin in the car that the car chassis would come down, and stories of the sixties. About people who came and gambled at our house in Kuala Lumpur, played cards … I can still remember Tunku [Abdul Rahman] and Tun Razak coming, it seemed as if the whole world revolved around our house.
Which of these stories shape who you are today?
I think they all did to a certain degree. They all placed me in society. I cannot deny that I come from a society that’s very Malay [Malaysian], traditional, and elite. Father’s friends were all very prominent people.
You’ve spoken about coming from a traditional, elite Malay Malaysian background. What influence did your mother’s Englishness have on you?
She was an only child, and when she moved to Malaysia she lost touch [with her family]. And when we moved back … she’s Welsh, we didn’t move to Wales, we moved to live in the southeast of London. So we never had close connections with her family. And she always wanted us to go live in Malaysia, anyhow. It was never her idea to bring up little Englishmen. She was always stressing, that’s your world, and you must belong to that. You’re only here for awhile, to get your education, then you go back.
What was it like for you growing up as a mixed race kid?
I always felt a bit strange and unusual but then that may also have been the fact that I was very, very bookish and serious. I was going to write a novel at the age of six, that kind of thing. I was a rather boring little boy.
Have you ever experienced any sort of discrimination?
Not really. You’re not going to find hard stories with me, that’s the problem. That’s why I’ve had to go out and listen to others. Because I think my own stories are … (shrugs) ok. I tell other people’s stories now. It’s time to hear what others have to say about their world, the prejudices they’ve experienced. Like I was in Solo talking to a Chinese [Indonesian] about the riots in 1998 with Suharto’s fall. Talking to different people about how they feel about being Chinese in Indonesia. They’ve suffered. I can’t say I’ve suffered, not anything like that. But I seek to communicate that, to make it real for the readers. I feel I owe it to my readers, to balance out the comfort zone that I exist in.
Did you struggle with Malay identity?
Oh yeah, and in a way, it wasn’t until I really started spending a lot of time in Indonesia that things became clear. That Malays in Indonesia only constitute three per cent of the population was an exciting thought. I love the Malay language now and it’s the use of it in Indonesia that makes me love it. Everyone uses it across the archipelago, from eastern Indonesia to the tip of Aceh. The language is so, flexible, so rich and dense, and yet so malleable that other words and languages can come in. I think we have lost out in Malaysia, with our use of Bahasa Melayu. We’ve made it too much a language of control.
Now, what aspects of your identity do you struggle with?
I’m 45 now, so the past shadows have been laid to rest, and if they hadn’t been, I’d be a very sad person. The main struggle, if anything, is with my identity as a writer. I’m still churning out these weekly columns, whereas I would like to write something more substantial; longer pieces, bringing in the history, and exploring in more depth. Certain things I’d also like to write in the fiction sense as well.
What do you think makes you Malaysian?
Hmmm. Difficult to say. I suppose it’s just that sense of arriving back in KL and feeling at home. Everything is comfortable … knowing things. And yet, as I’m increasingly in Indonesia, I feel the same as well.
As you write about politics, does the way the country is going affect your sense of being Malaysian?
Oh yeah, very frustrated, very saddened by it. We have to move forward, there’s no way we can stay in this present environment. But I don’t feel anyone listens to me. They say, especially in government circles, oh Karim, he’s always very liberal. I feel frustrated, but I feel I’m saying the right things. We’ve got to come to terms with racial equality, an identity which is more open, a Malaysia which can belong to everyone. But if you don’t see that, I think you are wrong, not me.
What is Malaysia’s biggest problem today in moving forward?
It’s harnessing the full energies of our population. I think we’ve got to have a greater sense of equality. There’s such a sense of uncertainty and anxiety in the Malay [Malaysian] community. People deliberately ramp up that sense of inadequacy. It creates an environment where people feel distrustful.
How do we overcome this insecurity?
I don’t know. It’s about leadership.
What do you think of 1Malaysia?
It doesn’t really make sense, does it? We must all be equal in the eyes of the law, totally. Everyone should feel they have an equal purchase in this amazing country.
We say we want everyone to be equal but we’re not about to touch certain things in the constitution …
The social contract that everyone talks about, it’s not alive for the young people. It doesn’t make any sense, what is it? And all the older politicians say, oh you have to abide by this contract, yeah, but what the hell is it? Why should I abide by something which was contracted before my time?
In Ceritalah 3, in the column titled The fall of Umno, you describe yourself as an “Umno supporter all your life”. Are you still?
Yeah, I come from that background lah. I think what I realise now, is that whoever can bring change, so be it. As I saw with the PAS contest, and I always tell my friends in PAS, your view of the world is not my view of the world. You guys come to power, I think I’ll check out lah. Umno at least, allows a broader identity of what is Malay and Islam. With PAS it’s much narrower. They may be cleaner, more transparent, less corrupt, and may offer more space to many non-Malay [Malaysians]. But for the Malay [Malaysian] liberal, they offer nothing. Zero.
How much better is Umno?
With Umno, it’s all negotiable. There’s no ideology. You can create and maintain space. With PAS there is no space. There is only one way. PKR [Parti Keadilan Rakyat]‘s been too quiet on religion and social policies, and allowed them to be taken over by PAS. They have to assert themselves and to come up with some kind of middle path.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you’d like for yourself and the future.
A Malaysia where everyone can express themselves, have flexibility and freedom. A place where people can fulfil their potential and live with dignity. There’s this Indian [Malaysian] guy I interviewed in Ceritalah 3 and I felt so pained about him. Theva, I called him, not his real name. Interviewed him in 2003 and he personally had done pretty well, he was a teacher who was doing a degree course and was going up the ladder.
But when I saw him just before the [2008 general] election, he was so angry and bitter. He could barely look at me. He said, the Malay [Malaysians], they don’t see us, they want us to get off the bus now. We’re not part of the arrangement. He was so angry. And I remember thinking to myself, how could we have come to this, how could we have betrayed such a decent, solid chap? There is a lot of chauvinism and conservatism in the Malay [Malaysian] community. There really is. But you need leaders who can lead in an enlightened way. Not leaders who ramp up the sense of fear and anxiety in the community.