Something Else

Sreedhevi Iyer
Apr 1st, 2014

MH370 and what it says about Malaysia

‘Were we always like this?’ my friend asked. ‘Or have we just forgotten?’

Our Skype chat had only been about MH370. She had called from Kuala Lumpur to see how I was doing, but like the rest of the world, we could speak of nothing else. Our conversation was a microcosm of the relentless global coverage – it could have been hijacked. It could not have been terrorists. But the pilot was a supporter of the opposition party. The party leader, Anwar Ibrahim, had been arrested the day before. His third sodomy charge. Maybe it was a fire. Maybe it landed somewhere else. Maybe it could still be found. It was nobody’s fault. It was everybody’s fault.

I saw her hurt, her confusion, and swallowed my reactions. I understood. We had been roommates in college, by which I mean sharing a bunk bed in a dingy hostel that was really a converted parking lot. We had giggled our way through KL in the 90s, through FRIENDS and Oprah and Dead Poets Society and Reality Bites and Dangerous Minds. We were the English elite, and we only listened to Boyz II Men, Mariah Carey, Nirvana and The Cranberries. We never considered watching anything local. It was cool to not see yourself reflected back to you.

Malaysia today is a little like the MH370 itself – somewhere in the deep. In this interconnected world, it boasts infrastructure and economy, but maintains race-based government policies that privilege its Malay Muslim majority. Racial and religious anxieties of different communal groups has further increased Islamic conservatism. The natural pluralism endemic in the Malaysian ethos is no longer desirable.

I was last in Penang, Malaysia, in 2013, during the month of Ramadan. Everyone still reeled from national elections. I had followed it closely, live on social media, from my Brisbane apartment. I was logged on through my fingertips to the highly anticipated, first ever change in government. Every seat, every count, meant the world. The ruling party, in power since independence in 1957, won again. Again. Although the opposition clearly had the popular vote, it could never win, we all realised. ‘Gerrymandering’ entered our popular vocabulary. There would not be a change of government even if the opposition gained 70% of the popular vote.

The morning after the sleepless election night, I sat outside on my balcony. I stared at the impossible orderliness of Australian suburbia, and inhaled the choking silence. I finished a packet of tissues in forty-five minutes, taking care not to sob too much.

In Penang, everything was too loud during Ramadan. Four mosques in my neighbourhood blared evening prayers for three and a half hours every day. Communities who may find this disruptive simply did not exist. Things came up in the news that did not fit with my memory of the place. Non-Muslim children in a primary school were told to spend their break time in the school toilet so their food would not tempt the fasting Muslim majority. Christians could not use the term ‘Allah’ in their Malay-language bibles because it would be too confusing for everyone. Muslims of the Shia sect, including children, were arrested for being, well, Shia.

These Malaysian realities do not exist to the outside world except in the realm of Facebook links to local online websites, trying to exercise free speech. They are turbulent waves in a pond visible nowhere else. Perhaps, then, it was inevitable that CNN and the BBC and FOX covered the disappearance of MH370 in a way some see as inaccurate, sensational and downright disrespectful. Perhaps they had to make do with what they knew, if ministers were answering press conference questions with sentences like ‘It’s only confusion if you want it to be seen to be confusion.’

No, we had not always been like this, I wanted to tell my friend. Not always closed to strangeness, inquiry, mystery. While in Malaysia, my aging father and I had gone on a road trip to Ipoh, Perak, for some quality time. Margaret Thatcher had just passed away, and he was telling me of the time she visited our hometown, in the 70s. He said she had to be ferried out in a helicopter to make it in time for her next appointment. The roads then were not to be trusted.

We reached the outskirts of Ipoh around lunchtime, and decided on street food before proceeding to our hotel. We parked nearby, next to an old school. ‘St Michael’s Institution,’ said my father. ‘A famous one in those days.’ We climbed out, and I caught him staring at the school gates, the emblem on the walls. ‘Raymond used to go here,’ he said. ‘He was always great with the girls. The girls’ school was Main Convent School. He always had their attention – especially the Malay ones.’

‘The Malay ones?’

‘Oh yes, they were so pretty. And there was always one or two of them getting up to hanky-panky behind the schoolyard. In those days they were so fashionable. Bee-hive buns. Tight dresses with such long slits on the side. They were the sexy ones – the ones we wanted. Not the Indian girls, who were like sisters, or the Chinese girls, who were too smart for us. But the Malay girls,’ he sighed a little, his eyes downcast. ‘They were something else.’

Sreedhevi Iyer


Sreedhevi Iyer
Last blog date: Oct 4th, 2014


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