There has been dismaying news about Terengganu recently: plans to publicly shame those who don’t attend Friday prayers, and a new dress code for tourists (subsequently denied). Like many parts of the country, Terengganu has changed since Merdeka, but Memories of Turtle Land by Tengku Halimah Tengku Mohamad Salim published last year reveals the extent of that change in a very down-to-earth way.
Refreshingly, there is no political agenda behind these recollections. Although human interactions form the core of her narrative, the physical landscape is given generous attention, enhanced by glimpses into the cultural, socio-economic and political environment of Terengganu in the fifties and sixties.
These include bathing using a tempayan “which would be filled with water by the servant”, going to the dukun (traditional village doctor) after falling off a bicycle and “the Adat Semangat ceremony, in which one sat on the dais and was given pulut kuning”. The characters in her real life story include a nanny who claimed to be a gundek (concubine), a midwife who raised a polong (an evil spirit enslaved by a human master) and an Ethiopian maid said to be a slave of Sultan Muhammad II.
Even then, it was a time of rapid change: though her grandmother did the pilgrimage in the holy land by camel, in Batu Burok there was an establishment called the Cosmo Club where youngsters would dance the cha-cha, rumba, foxtrot and quickstep, and “when the Beatles and Rolling Stones reached us, we had beach parties”! (And when they made the long trip to Kuala Lumpur they could choose between Rendezvous, Oasis, the Green Grove or Maxims.) Despite this, the bequeathing of certain values endured: “Mak told us to always compare ourselves with people who were below us rather than measure ourselves with people who had more than us.”
A different writer might have omitted such references in an attempt to sanitise a past that was complex and contradictory; a less sympathetic observer might say it was depraved and hypocritical. Today’s puritans refer to that time as “zaman jahiliyah” – an era of ignorance – when people were outwardly insufficiently religious (exemplified by the class photograph of the free-haired, skirt-clad girls at Tunku Kurshiah College in 1966). And yet, many people who lived through that era insist that institutions were more honest and trustworthy.
Indeed, Tengku Halimah’s story is an exciting post-Merdeka one: there was uncertainty, but also optimism and a pervading sense that people ought to push themselves to contribute something useful to the nation. You can almost believe the idea that people could trust a majority of politicians and bureaucrats to be their partners in fulfilling that promise.
It is true that the author’s life experiences might seem alien to most Malaysians: growing up in Terengganu in the fifties is already an unimaginable concept for most, never mind the palaces. But then again, there are millions of Malaysians who have had lives that might seem incomprehensible to their fellow citizens: from the Bajau communities of Sabah, to the Kristang people of Malacca, to the Orang Kalur nobat musicians, to the veteran soldiers of the Emergency who aren’t thanked enough, to the third culture kids of our diplomats. Each of these narratives is a legitimate part of the Malaysian story, and each deserves to be heard.
Yet, there is also a strange paradox in that there were strong commonalities across communities. Tengku Halimah recalls how people of all ethnic backgrounds interacted closely in daily life, and “of course the Chinese spoke with a Terengganu dialect”. Indeed, one effect of political centralisation has been the loss of state identities that once cut across ethnic lines: whereas a Hakka could easily have regarded himself as a full “Orang Ganu” in the past, over time his identity has shifted to become “a Malaysian Chinese in Terengganu”. Strong state identities could once have been a bulwark against today’s racial extremism of provocateurs abetted by patrons at the federal centre, but such sentiments have already been weakened after decades of centrally-managed notions of identity. (It’s pertinent to note that many Sarawakians attribute their reputation for racial harmony and religious tolerance precisely to a strong sense of state identity.)
Because this book is so candidly written, there are parts which seem repetitive and some typographical and factual errors that have crept in, but these are manageable in a book that otherwise successfully evokes so many images of the peninsula’s most romantic state. Since its launch, some relatives have contested some of the book’s assertions. Their memories may be imperfect, but it is nonetheless certain that the Terengganu they remember has been utterly obliterated.
Memories of Turtle Land is independently published and may be ordered from www.memoriesofturtleland.com
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS