APRIL 11, 2004 SUN

Our correspondent discovers aspects of Malaysia that she never knew when she returns to the land of her birth to cover the recent general election

One country, two worlds

By Cheong Suk-Wai

ON A day when it seemed nothing could go wrong - with a too-blue sky, an achingly gentle wind and the South China Sea a rippling film of jade - I was livid.

Fishermen in Kelantan checking out Barisan Nasional election posters in Pantai Chap, Bachok. Earning about $130 a month, residents of the Poor Belt account for 1.25 million of the nation's million-strong population today. -- UTUSAN MALAYSIA
It was my first trip to Kelantan to report on Malaysia's 11th general election, and the calm body of water I was gazing at angrily had churned waves big enough to wipe out the entire coastal village of Kampung Kemerok, which is a 15-minute drive away from Kota Baru. A toddler's red sandal, warped plywood and frayed sarongs littering the sea-eaten beach were the only testaments that 300 households had once called it home.
This debris was the fallout from a maddening eight-year tussle between the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) state government and the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government as to whose job it was to build a seawall to stop the sea from swallowing the shoreline.
The Malays have a saying for this. It goes: Gajah sama gajah berjuang, pelanduk mati di tengah-tengah (When elephants duel, the mousedeer caught in the middle die).
In an attempt, perhaps, to fish for votes, BN finally began building the seawall about a month before Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - known fondly as Pak Lah - dissolved Parliament on March 4.
In Malaysia's sun-parched Poor Belt - comprising the northern states of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu - smokers are so poor they can afford to buy only two cigarettes a day at 50 sen (22 Singapore cents) a stick. 'I puff to forget,' said one villager, when I asked why he was burning hard-earned ringgit on smokes.
But I'm not sure he could forget that the Chinese shopkeeper selling him his daily tobacco fix had a freshly painted brick-and-mortar outhouse while his family of eight lived in an attap hut which was falling about them.
Growing up in Kedah in the early 1980s, my schoolmates and I wrote essays on the burning issue of the day: implications of the exodus of village folk to cities.
But today, kampung youths seem to be dancing to the beat of a different drum. Many whom I spoke to said that, given the crime and vice in the cities, they now thought it better to stay put in tanah tumpah darahku, an emotionally charged Malay phrase which translates literally into 'the land where blood was spilt'.
As Kelantanese fisherman Nik Ruzallaili Nik Yusof, 24, put it matter-of-factly: 'I was born here, I live here, I will die here.'
So, in hardscrabble hamlets they remain, their necks, armpits and thighs dusted liberally with talcum powder to beat the heat and humidity. As they told me sheepishly, bathing more than once a day chalks up water bills they cannot pay. Earning an average of RM300 a month, folks like them number 1.25 million out of Malaysia's 25 million-strong population today.
They are why Pak Lah declared two days after BN's landslide victory that nixing poverty is the No. 1 item on his agenda.
Malaysian thinker Noordin Sopiee, who is au fait with economic progress Pak Lah-style, told The Sunday Times that the Premier will soon unleash a sweeping rural development programme to spread Malaysia's wealth more evenly among town and country mice - or mousedeer, as the case may be.
If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, Muhammad will just have to go to the mountain.
It's about time. Fired by desires yet wracked by poverty, Malaysian society is imploding horrifically, driving crime rates up like never before.
Women are robbed, raped and killed by people like bus drivers, cleaners and petrol pump attendants. Students gang up to bash classmates to death. Preschoolers are being raped all too often by kith and kin.
And in wet markets like Penang's Pulau Tikus every day, young scallywags filch broccoli, asparagus and other pricey greens which their parents cannot afford to buy.
This is the ugly, other Malaysia I never knew - and mind you, I was no cloistered silver spoon baby.
As social activist and respected former opposition MP Lee Lam Thye puts it: 'Pak Lah has read the pulse of the people correctly when he says there is an urgent need to re-instil moral values to fight social ills today.'
But how much will change? How much can Pak Lah & Company change?
These questions haunted me as I shadowed the Premier - whom I've always admired since my schooldays - on his campaign trail, which had me traversing the highways and byways of eight states between Feb 20 and March 17.
With my base being the glitzy Kuala Lumpur city centre, I found myself vacillating between two worlds every other day - one whose skyscraper-choked landscape seemed a paean to some crazed Edifice Rex, and the other whose skyline mirrored Jurong in the 1960s.
In the Jurong-like world, as it were, thousands of farmers, fishermen and factory hands chewed chickpeas, swigged bottled water and shooed flies away in scorching afternoon heat as they listened patiently to Pak Lah's litany of how-tos, coaxing them to take Fate into their hands and make the most of themselves so that their children might lead better lives.
The French love Malaysian starfruit, mangoes and guava, he said. Bottle your fruit and tie ribbons around the bottlenecks, like the Australians do, so you can command higher prices for your produce, he told them.
Think of the many RM100 walking sticks and RM600 wood-carvings you could fashion out of the driftwood and fallen coconut trunks littering your backyards, he added.
But somehow, his sunburnt audiences didn't look as though light bulbs had flashed in their minds.
So the road seems to be steep.
Still, like many others, I heaved a sigh of relief to learn that the Malay heartland had, by giving Pak Lah a landslide mandate, wised up to PAS' thinking.
But PAS got one thing right. Malaysia's 'no-issue' election campaign this year, as political pundits dubbed it, saw a veritable whitewash of endemic social issues like poverty and crime by the feel-good Badawi Buzz, as some Malaysians call Pak Lah's popularity.
That was why I was surprised that BN got as big a mandate as it did on March 21. Nobody doubted it would win comfortably, but to bag 198 out of 219 parliamentary seats from a no-issue campaign? The Premier was smiling until his jaw ached.
Still, for the record, Pak Lah is the genuine article, a sweet, kind, God-fearing man and astute - and not vociferous - leader.
The one time he became my unwitting shadow was on March 14 - Nomination Day - when I jogged from his childhood home in Kepala Batas to the nomination centre 2km away to stay ahead of him as he walked the same distance with his 37-year-old son Kamaluddin.
Standing almost shoulder to shoulder with me at the centre minutes later, he asked me how I was and then quipped: 'You and I are sweating a lot today, hah?'
It was then, as they say, that the ice was well and truly broken.
So when I asked him for a telephone interview on the eve of Polling Day, he kindly obliged without much ado and chatted with me for 15 minutes.
But beyond the huzzah and headlines, I am beginning to wonder how his Islam Hadhari, or progressive Islamic governance, programme is really going to pan out nationwide.
That's because fissures between the country's races remain.
Till today, the fastest conversation killer in Malaysia is to ask anyone there what he thinks of May 13, 1969, when the country's bloodiest race riots broke out.
So I had to wonder when, as the election results were being reported at Kuala Lumpur's Putra World Trade Centre on March 21, the Umno supporters assembled there cheered lustily whenever a Malay BN candidate won, but kept resolutely silent whenever a Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan one was declared victorious.
Then, surfing TV channels at noon with my father two Thursdays ago, I was bemused to find that all but one of Malaysia's five free-to-air channels were broadcasting either Islamic talk shows or Quranic chants.
I still love my country and its people; I'm just not so sure I know them anymore.
My best friend Millie, who is Malay and a devout Muslim, says that just comes from my having been away for too long.
Still, like most Malaysians, I am looking to Pak Lah - one-man tsunami of hope that he is - to be, as he puts it, 'the Prime Minister for all Malaysians'.
And I hope work on the seawall will not stop just because Kelantan has eluded BN's grip again.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"