RONNIE Khoo, 31-year-old composer and Furniture frontperson, once had his photograph taken with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. In the photo, a prepubescent Khoo, smiling broadly, has his hands in his pockets and looks directly at the camera. The former prime minister, also smiling, clutches the young boy’s shoulders paternally.
“This picture was taken in Club Med Cherating around the mid-1980s,” Khoo says. “We spotted the prime minister and requested to have a photo taken.” The premier obliged, although not without some consternation from attendant bodyguards.
Like many who grew up during the Mahathir years, Khoo finds his history and identity to be difficult entities, and is resolved to make his own connections.
TNG: We are all pendatang. Where are you from? What family lore can you share?
Ronnie Khoo: My paternal great-great-grandfather came to Malaysia from the southern part of China. That makes me a fifth-generation Malaysian.
My maternal grandfather was a migrant. I believe he looked at Malaysia as a land of opportunity, but he was also old enough to consider China his home. He was maybe in his twenties or thirties at the time, and he left his first wife behind.
He had some plan to make his money here and retire to China. He invested in land and all that, but then the communists took over.
What happened to him? Did he ever go back?
No. He was doing quite well here. He owned several coffee shops. I think he died of a stomach ulcer.
A lot of my family stories are set against the backdrop of war. My maternal grandmother was married at a young age to my grandfather, becoming his second wife. During the Japanese occupation, many young girls were being married so they wouldn’t get harassed by soldiers.
There was a lot of poverty and death in the family. My parents were directly affected by all that. They’ve become very pragmatic people.
I don’t know any specifics because I received these stories from my parents. We don’t talk much about the past, and I rarely ask. I don’t really feel a connection when it comes to my family history.
You are the frontperson for avant-pop band Furniture, and member of the avant-garde, Puteri Umno uniform-wearing Ciplak. What does it mean to be a musician like that, in this country?
For the kind of music we do, there isn’t a local heritage to draw upon. People say, “You are just copying foreign bands!” How do we respond? The sort of music I make didn’t start in Malaysia; it came from some subculture, brewing somewhere else.
Making music “local” is an open question. Take the Icelandic bands, for example. When you listen to Sigur Ros‘s music, you hear glaciers. It’s not that they use specifically Scandinavian instruments, or anything, but their sounds are still so much their own.
So what is your strategy for sounding Malaysian, then? Do you think a strategy is important?
When you start to do it too consciously, it defeats your purposes. There’s no point trying to fake a sound that is not honestly part of your world. There are some things about this country that I am not privy to. Many people make up Malaysia, after all.
I just make music. Just because you don’t use typical Malaysian sounds, does that make you any less Malaysian?
Do you feel Malaysian? Do you feel a connection?
I struggle with identity — as I think Malaysia, as a country, does. There are Malaysians who set out to drape the Jalur Gemilang on the Great Wall of China as an apparent expression of patriotism. And there are Malaysians who say that doing such a thing is really pointless and embarrassing.
There are many things you can be connected to, today. You could go online and play World of Warcraft, if you wanted to feel as if you belonged to a larger group.
I don’t think of Kuala Lumpur as unique. Most big cities are the same: they are a country upon themselves, spread across the world. I’ve never been to the US, for example, but I know so much about its culture.
So one picks and chooses, from participating in massive multiplayer games, to being, say, Chinese Malaysian?
That said, as long as you are old enough to experience living here, wherever you go you won’t get that Malaysian-ness out of you. I wouldn’t consider myself really familiar with Malaysia. I may not feel like I understand this country. But I still relate to Malaysia as the place I am from.
I guess people identify a place as home. I see a parallel, now, with my grandfather, and him wanting to go back to China. We talk about moving to some place where the currency is stronger, where things are better for raising a family; but I talk about coming back to Malaysia to retire.
What sort of country would you want Malaysia to be, for your hypothetical kids?
A friend once told me that you don’t need anyone’s permission to feel like you’re Malaysian. I would like to see a country that is more inclusive to all sorts of diversity, and not just pay lip service to the term. A Malaysia where people won’t feel like they have to do something, or be someone else, to feel more Malaysian.