Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Book Review – Floating on a Malayan Breeze by Sudhir Vadaketh

By Renyin

“Floating on a Malayan Breeze” does not lend itself to simplification. It is at once a travelogue, a commentary on current affairs, and an earnest chronicle of our socio-political development. But at the heart of the story is a young Singaporean man’s eight-year journey to understand our beginnings.

Vadaketh’s quest starts with, in his own words, dreamy hope, idealism and bravado. Fresh out of college, he decides to spend a month with his best friend cycling around peninsular Malaysia, on a budget of 10 ringgit a day, with only their 24-speed Giants and daypacks slung over the rear racks.

With their fresh clothes, new bikes and shiny helmets, they attract attention from a group of errant youths in Johor early in their trip. They keep their distance, fearing bike thieves, securing their precious vehicles with reams of rope and multiple locks. Only after encountering the same reaction elsewhere do they realise that these boys’ eyes were “filled not with jealous, evil desire, but adulation and wonder. We should have offered a ride … instead, we acted like the richer neighbour, afraid of getting robbed.”

Woven into the narrative of his travels are personal interviews with ordinary citizens, civil society, academics and politicians, embellished with solid research and shrewd analysis. Over eleven thematic chapters, spanning from our shared histories as British Malaya to religion, race, and the rapidly changing political climate, Vadaketh spins a tale that tells us as much about our sameness as it does of our differences. Even as we have embarked on separate paths of nationhood, our shared histories, cultures and languages continue to twin our destinies.

The narrative works best when Vadaketh shares his personal story: we grow with him as he describes how he confronted and re-evaluated his own prejudices and preconceived notions about Malaysia. We share his euphoria as he describes his mountainous crossing from Kelantan into Perak, flying between two trucks while cycling downhill, each going in a different direction—“it feels like a vacuum, sound just dries up and gets sucked out. All you hear is a burst … like when you pour Coke into a glassful of ice”. A pity then, that this spark of original prose fizzles out when he turns his attention to modern politics, reverting to cliches such as “the end of dominance” of UMNO and the PAP.

Malaya was once a symbol of the British empire, memorialised in fiction by writers like W. Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene. Vadaketh presents a new Malaya—not a colonial construct, but a breath of fresh air sweeping through the peninsula, billowing with the aspirations of a new generation of citizens who have only known independence. In time, he writes, “Malaysian and Singaporean identity will become stronger and more defined … Perhaps (then), we might discover that there is really very little between us.” Rather than two fractious neighbours split at birth, our fates are like the two serpents on Hermes’ staff—separate and distinct, yet forever entwined.

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