By Leo Khaw

“For Sudhir, a young Singaporean, to describe himself as ‘Malayan’ piqued my curiosity because I also consider myself one. This lively book is more than just an enjoyable travelogue: it is a series of thoughtful — sometimes provocative — observations on the history, culture, politics, religion and other aspects of our diverse lives in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. In an increasingly globalised future, it seems more and more likely that our destinies will remain intertwined. It is the same Malayan breeze on which we float.”

George Yeo, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Singapore

For George Yeo to consider himself as 'Malayan' as well, we have to look back in the pages of history.

Between the 18th and the 20th centuries a set of states on the Malay Peninsula and the Island of Singapore were brought under British control and came to be known as British Malaya. Thus born the Malayans.

However, Sudhir has a more poignant story on the title and why he calls himself a 'Malayan'. Simply put, it has reference to history but closer to heart, most second generation people of this region have family and friends on both sides of that old umbilical cord of a bridge that separates our two countries. Paraphrasing his words, travelling across the causeway has everything to do with meeting our loved ones, family and friends. It is this bond that we call ourselves 'Malayans'.

It was initially a 30 day adventure but Sudhir and his cycling mate, Sumana Rajarethnam, soon realised that they have just grazed the tip of the iceberg.

Knowing they have stumbled onto something profound, their passion and curiosity carried them forth.

Five years with a lot of personal sacrifices followed where they cycled along the east coast of the peninsula and into the mountainous regions of Thailand meeting up with the Malayan Communist Party and their descendants eking out a simplistic livelihood. Though not condoning their actions which can be described as terrorism but their ideals were to be admired, which had a very pertinent part in shaping the history of today where Malaysia and Singapore stands as it is.

'Floating on a Malayan Breeze'

Sudhir described it as the emotional toil of not knowing where to sleep for the night while cycling the region, at times within the permission of a household, at times at a police station where they sought shelter and refuge for the night. At times at places of worship, they would get their night's rest where they could. In their tents if need be.

Their emotional psychedelic journey themed the title but within the travelogue lies more seething issues that spanned since 2004 to date of both Malaysia and Singapore.

What happens after a country breaks apart? Forty-seven years ago Singapore separated from Malaysia. Since then, the two countries have developed along their own paths. Malaysia has given preference to the Malay Muslim majority. Singapore, meanwhile, has tried to build a meritocracy — ostensibly colour-blind — yet perhaps more encouraging to some than others.

How have these policies affected ordinary people? How do these two divergent nations now see each other and the world around them?

Seeking answers to these questions, two Singaporeans first spent 30 days cycling through every state in Peninsular Malaysia on a daily budget of RM10 (US$3) each, then many years interviewing hundreds more people. What they found are two countries that have developed economically but are still struggling to find their souls.

Some issues that the book touches on:

– Malaya is witnessing two relatively quiet, largely peaceful political revolutions. When research for this book began in 2004, Malaysians and Singaporeans alike appeared relatively content with their respective ruling parties, and were happy to live their lives quietly, under the democratic radar. Since then, a combination of forces—including policy missteps by the ruling parties, the emergence of more credible opposition candidates, and the widening of political space through the Internet—has blown the lid off these hitherto politically apathetic countries. In both Malaysia and Singapore, authoritarian states are slowly making way for more democratic societies. Ordinary people are only just finding out that their voices and votes do actually make a difference. Civil society is being forced to develop at warp speed. Private and public actors are having to adapt to new ways of communicating on a multitude of new platforms.

– But ruling parties and entrenched institutions will not easily loosen their grip. In terms of guiding philosophies, Malaysia and Singapore are unique. They are probably the only two Asian countries where the original post-colonial movements still exert considerable influence over politics and broader societal mindsets. Almost every other Asian country has seen some revolution that has effectively replaced the post-colonial philosophies with newer ones. In Malaya, post-colonialist ideas and fervour still hold great sway over society. Malaysia’s current prime minister is the son of the country’s second prime minister. Singapore’s current prime minister is the son of the country’s first prime minister. All that is, no doubt, largely a reflection of how economically and politically successful this generation has been.

But it also points to a worrying fact — Malaysia and Singapore have never had to go through that process of broad political renewal and a reimagination of societal norms. As the Malayan post-colonial generation nears its end, the coming changes could be turbulent. Political players, mindsets and institutions have become entrenched, and there is strong resistance to change.

– Some 50 years after independence, Malaysian and Singaporean identity is still in flux. Malaysia’s constitution guarantees preeminence to Islam and Malays. What that means in practice is still a matter of great debate. Malaysians are torn between running a Malay country and a country for all Malaysians. Singaporean identity, meanwhile, appears even more nebulous. Singaporean identity was formed partly around the belief that a race-neutral, one-party system would be able to deliver economic growth and prosperity indefinitely. Cracks are appearing in that philosophy. Today there is little consensus on what exactly it means “to be Singaporean”.

– As the two countries embrace more egalitarian systems, they may need to become more like each other. For most of its history, Malaysia has been guided by the desire for “equality of outcomes”. It has been trying to redistribute the fruits of growth in a more equitable fashion by giving some people—the bumiputeras—more opportunities than others. Singapore has been guided by the desire for “equality of opportunities”, with little concern for outcomes. Both countries have pursued their philosophies with determination; now both see the systems faltering.

Malaysia’s pursuit of “equality of outcomes” has created some serious problems, not least the ethnic tensions in society today. Singapore’s desire only for “equality of opportunities”, not outcomes, has partly led to gross inequality in the country. As Malaysia and Singapore embark on their next stage of development, they face pressures to become a bit more like each other because Malaysians want more “equality of opportunities” and Singaporeans want more “equality of outcomes”. This fundamental shift will dramatically change the way people think about themselves and each other. It will shape the hearts, minds and souls of all Malayans. In many ways, this long transition has only just begun.


About the author

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, the Singapore-born son of a Malaysia-born father, is a senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), part of The Economist Group. He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist and The Straits Times. After mandatory military service he left for college in the US, spending six years at Berkeley and Harvard. He returned home in 2005, where he lives with his wife and two cats. Floating on a Malayan Breeze is Sudhir’s first book; to be followed, hopefully, by narratives on Asia’s other great societies.

His book is available at all bookstores.

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