Returning from so far away is bound to be a complex process. First the flight from Kota Bharu to Kuala Lumpur on the 7th and a stay overnight in the room we had occupied, then, early next morning, the hop to Singapore, some ten or eleven hours at Changi Airport, then the long flight to England, arriving in the early morning on a freezing cold day some 30 C below that which we had left. Then the early morning rail and tube connections, the messing about with meal times and grabbing snacks, finally arriving home only to dash out again to pick up Lily from the cattery, the heating of the house, the warm bed and a vague sense of feeling one's way round the clock in an internal darkness.
This is the next day and now the day after and that internal disorientation persists though to a lesser degree.
It is too early and rather overweening to assess our experiences of Singapore and Malaysia, on such brief acquaintance while taking into account the intensity of each occasion as it passed but maybe this can be a beginning.
Singapore is hypermodern in appearance and in much of its practice. It's like a large soap bubble. Under the rainbow colours you sense the tension holding the bubble in place. It has been an enormous sacrifice to get so far, to blow the bubble to this size, the price paid in long hours of manic, all-consuming work, devotion to good manners and orderliness, and a willingness to avoid criminal deviance, all under the paternal eye of an unchanging, if flexibly authoritarian administration.
A bubble is a kind of machine. Everything in the Singapore bubble works. It is like the Flower Dome we visited in the Gardens by the Bay: plants from everywhere sustained in a delicately adjusted environment, a cocktail bar, a jazz band, Christmas decorations, photo opportunities and above it all an ambitious pleasing architectural structure. It is a miracle of rare device, a sunny, stately pleasure dome. Everything functions.
Singapore is safe, efficient, civic and polite. It offers the possibility of human happiness in terms of stability, material well-being, pride of achievement and work satisfaction. But something in the machine is slightly out of step, moving to a different rhythm. It is the spectre of anxiety and melancholy. Under the loveliness, sweetness, kindness and intelligence: melancholy. Under the glitter, the proficiency, the ruthless stabilising process: melancholy, the rich melancholy of something not quite recognised and possibly lost, or at least diminished. It is the melancholy that saves.
I myself am an urban child of the modern age, one of Eliot's rootless cosmopolitans. I understand the melancholy. I understand and appreciate the sweetness and spirituality of rootlessness. I understand the nature of the bubble and have felt it with my own hands, appreciating its flexibility while in full knowledge of its potential to burst at any time. Maybe being Singaporean is a form of rootlessness, a kind of floating within a rare device.
No one floats for ever. Nor is anyone so sure of their roots that they can take them for granted. Malaya was a single country once. How come its two old constituents, Singapore and modern-day Malaysia are so different? You find the same ethnic mix in both though in different proportions. In Singapore Chinese outnumber Malays: in Malaysia it is the other way round. But I wouldn't reduce this to an ethnic issue or even an ethnic inclination. Temperament has something to do with it but history has more.
What Alvin Pang was to us in Singapore, Eddin Khoo and Pauline Fan were in Malaysia. There is no great divide in spirit between them - they are as brothers and sisters as all human beings can be, as indeed we are to them. 'We are all cultural bastards,' as Eddin, who is part Chinese, part Sri Lankan, and a Hindu scholar of Islam, said in an interview some three years ago. When asked about his identity as a Malaysian he answered that he hates the word 'identity'. "I think Malay culture is – this is pre-1981, -1982, when changes were happening but they were not yet so apparent – so naturally cosmopolitan that I think Malays [have an instinctive] openness and acceptance." If Singapore is a bubble, Malaysia is a stew.
I wrote at some stage that Malaysia was more raffish than Singapore. It is less safe, less tidy, more bruising and unreliable if one goes by Kuala Lumpur. But our visit wasn't primarily about KL, it was about the north of the country, Kelantan and, beyond Kota Bharu, the kampungs where the rooted are truly rooted and the songs they sing, the drums they beat and the shadowplays they perform are direct links to the distant past. These practices and communities have a flow, a charm, a magic and resonance that the modern urban world cannot offer. The roots are not exclusive or purely tribal. Wayang Kulit exists in other parts of South East Asia: what we saw was its local adaptation. The full moon, the luminous screen and the companionship of music, food and cigarettes is a rare stew for an outsider.
And of course we were outsiders. We were exotic guests. We took each other's photos. We were exotic to each other. How could one resist moonlight and the evocation of stories and stories within stories?
We have tropes adapted from anthropology and literature. We talk of Lévi-Strauss's distinction between the raw and the cooked or Philip Rahv's between Redskins and Palefaces.
When my parents were young their lives were raw: history would have eaten them raw, its rawness exposing their own rawness. It almost killed them as it did their families and friends. It left them fearing the raw, a rawness they retained in secret and rarely if ever alluded to. They brought me up cooked as best they could. Not perfectly, thank heaven, but dangerously close. Cooking was civilisation at an uncivilised time to them.
Singapore as the cooked - pressure-cooked even - and Malaysia as the raw? The Malays of the kampungs as the Redskins, the educated Chinese of Singapore as the Palefaces?
Binaries are useful, necessary even in a scientic study, but less helpful in everyday matters of human contact, human habit, human happiness. Here we are, as Eddin put it, proud to be 'cultural bastards'. Now, gods, stand up for bastards! cries the wicked Edmund in Lear. Why bastard? Wherefore base? No such thing as pure Paleface. No such thing as pure Redskin either. Our Malaysian Redskins wore Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts, used mobile phones, rode motorbikes, are mostly on Facebook and are threatened by a form of intolerant puritan Islam. The singing boys could be out sniffing glue or committing petty crimes. Our Singaporean Palefaces yearn now for the harsh ironies and verities of poetry, now for the familial warmth of shared fate, and are threatened by a corporatist blandness that Eddin might call geekishness as supported by an authoritarian state that wants to keep a lid on things, to keep the pressure cooker boiling.
Redskin and Paleface / raw and cooked realities evolved out of compacts made with the powers that were and are, that offered this or that, that addressed this or that condition.
We understand what it is to be bastards. Being bastards is what joins us.
Next time just photos and labels.