Contrary to what Malaysians have been taught, cuisine can raise political consciousness (© Nimalan Tharmalingam / sxc.hu)THE best fried fish I’ve ever had was in a longhouse in Sebauh, an hour’s drive from downtown Bintulu on a tyre-munching gravel road (save for the last 10-minute stretch that was tarred during an election) that caused us to blow a tire and spill a bottle of tuak beneath the driver’s seat.
What struck me most was that despite being surrounded by a plethora of dishes (both halal and non-halal), this simple fried fish dish (cooked only with salt and oil, apparently) stuck in my mind and on my taste buds the most. I’ve yet to encounter something that even comes close.
I’d been invited over to a close friend’s longhouse for the Gawai festival back in 2006. Boy, do they know how to feast. That great Malaysian “hospitality” so flaunted to death in tourism ads was laid out for me in all sincerity, magnified 100 times more than what I’m usually accustomed to in the suburban cleavages of the Klang Valley. Smoke signals from ubiquitous barbeque pits greeted my entourage as children splashed and dove into the nearby river next to elders who were having a quieter bath. (Incidentally, the Valley has its share of “longhouses” too, but these are often associated with impoverishment and construction sites rather than ethnic heritage.)
A visit to downtown Bintulu during the Gawai festival was telling of what I miss about growing up in Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s: dead streets and closed shops. That’s how holidays should be.
Although I’ve only visited Sarawak, I think KL-ites can and should learn a thing or two (or a lot) from the East. Of course, these are strictly observations from a Klang Valley-born and -bred Malay who is fed up with the categorical precision with which ethnicity and culture has been demarcated for consumptive convenience and political mileage.
(© Charles Taylor / 123rf)It’s inaccurate, really, for me to generalise about the “two Malaysias” by pitting one as the “West” and the other as “East”. But Klang Valley natives like yours truly often forget that the formation of Malaysia would not have happened without the annexation of Sabah and Sarawak.
Part of the bargain included “protection” for East Malaysia in terms of immigration, in which West Malaysians were given a limited access for temporary stay. This is brilliant: the reason why Sabah and Sarawak have been able to maintain their cultural histories and identities, and maintain the fluidity of inter-ethnic marriages that make ethnic pigeon-holing redundant.
In Sarawak, for example, it’s not uncommon to find someone with a “bin” or “binti” in his or her name who isn’t a Muslim. Culture and religion exist in separate spheres and are not made into serious points of contention.
Mind you, my Sarawakian and Sabahan friends (and friends from Kuala Lumpur who have lived in East Malaysia) think Malaysians from the peninsula should be approached with skepticism, a suspicion probably rooted in the exploitation of resources stemming from West Malaysian hegemony.
At times during my Gawai stay, I felt like a diplomat on a goodwill mission to clear the air about the seeming bad behavior of West Malaysians. A lot of the bad rep that cropped up had to do with the hidung tinggi attitude of peninsular Malaysians who not only fancy themselves as purveyors of modern life, but who also perceive Sarawak as “backward” and “traditional”.
In truth, Sabah and Sarawak are “partners” in the forming of Malaysia, not merely two states out of 14, because if they had not agreed to the union, there could not have been a “Malaysia”.
Negative perceptions and failed marriages
Apparently, a West Malaysian Malay Muslim, such as myself, carries an even more negative connotation. From what I can gather, this stems from some failed inter-marriages between peninsular Malays and Ibans.
In some cases, Iban men and women who marry a Malay Muslim not only have to contend with their loss of cultural and religious identity (compulsory conversion, name change and so on), but also the loss of family and communal ties, an intrinsic aspect of Iban culture and way of life.
For some Ibans, romance with peninsular Malays often end in heartache (© Alex Hilton / sxc.hu)
I was told of an Iban man who was prohibited by his Malay wife’s family from visiting his own family. Some Malay in-laws have purportedly condescended to bringing their own kitchenware (even food, notably Maggi instant noodles) for fear of touching non-halal utensils, despite their Iban in-laws’ assurance and efforts to provide separate cutlery and specially prepared dishes (even using halal produce).
In another sad account, an Iban lady’s Malay husband ran off with her family land title (and presumably sold it) after a couple of years of marriage. He disappeared, leaving her, her children and her extended family with nothing. I was perplexed at how the Ibans’ hospitality and generosity had been greeted with such conceit.
By virtue of the diversity of native tribes and ethnic groups in East Malaysia, there also seems to be less of a tendency to enquire a person about their race: “Sorry to ask ah, but what are you?”
Although this sort of enquiry is considered very “Malaysian”, I now beg to differ and believe it is truly a West Malaysian complex.
I suspect it also stems from the free market’s tendency to make sense of things through labels and products that have slowly but surely slipped into our KL-dominated psyche.
Back to my friend’s 58-room longhouse: I came to understand that their water supply is sourced from a natural waterfall nearby, and that it isn’t uncommon to find tiny shrimp on the bathroom floor after you’ve bathed.
But this, too, will soon come to an end: I was told that the earth from the encroaching illegal land clearings is beginning to pollute the water source, making it shallow and clogging up pipes. Little wonder that my search for shrimp was in vain.
The cocktail of uncontrolled development, party politics and economics has inebriated our collective common sense and judgments. My Gawai epiphany was that this affects cultures as a way of life, and shapes our present state of ambivalence.
So we need to close the imaginary gap not only between the East and West (which to me have come to represent “culture” and “commerce” respectively), but also within ourselves.
It’s time to challenge party politics and bring everyday politics to the fore so that better understanding can be fostered. Throw official policies to the dogs, we don’t need it.
The holy trinity of culture, community and family is still strong among the Ibans (and East Malaysians generally), but they, too, are not free from West-bound ambivalences: the younger generation is moving out of their communities for greener pastures, leaving the longhouses to family elders.
The huge contrast in my perception between the day I arrived at the longhouse and my final ride out onto the gravel road became apparent as the week unfolded. From the shores of tradition, it’s a one-way ticket to the circus of modernity.
(© Greg Biggs / 123rf)The dust had settled. No more barbeques. The river was hush; the children gone home; the cars departed; the elders reminiscing; the fried fish long gone.
And I think to this day: if a humble fried fish could taste so good, think of its humble way of life and the river it had come from.
In the immortal words of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad: “Look East.”
Azmyl Yunor is a folker who teaches for a living and lives to learn. He believes in idling and wandering as important educational tools.