Our lives revolve around locating ourselves within the unfamiliar, and coming to terms with all the differences that we chance upon in our surroundings. There are seemingly only two options for us to choose from: to throw ourselves into the herd and become one with the others; or to step out, acknowledge and embrace the dissimilarities.
As a young boy living in 1990s Labok, a small Malay village – said to be named after an Orang Asli’s Tok Batin – just outside of Machang, Kelantan, my life had always been a steady push and pull between the two. The game was either to conform to the state-defined standard – to be a devout, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS)-supporting Kelantanese, or to deviate from it.
Defiance usually comes with a hefty price tag. Growing up in the Malay-majority state, ruled by a conservative Islamic political party for more than 20 years, one does not expect much change to happen. Thus, many young Kelantanese travel, looking for liberty, opportunities and promise. Some would later wish to go home, while the rest choose to continue building their lives elsewhere.
But I lived with my parents, and was stuck in a place that I struggled to call home. Despite having lived in Labok for more than two decades, it remained just another temporary place for my parents, who served the government. Home, for a young boy like me, was a place where I could find some sort of neutrality, and where I could embrace the kampung spirit in me. Labok, unfortunately, was not that kind of place.
For that matter, I would say Kuchelong, a farmer-majority village where my grandmother lived, was the home and place that shaped me into who I am today. My companions were the typical elements of kampung life: muddy rivers, colourful fighting fish, the jungle, the birds that served as an alarm clock, and certainly the paddy fields. There, during the harvesting season, I would join the village folk in flying kites.
But these are not the stories we usually hear about Kelantan. The mass media are particularly more interested in feeding audiences stories of the ruling government and the political parties.
Many social-scientific writing, on the other hand, describe Kelantan and its people as peasants, planting paddy, vegetables and occasionally tobacco for trade or daily consumption. In the nineteenth century, Kelantan attracted students from other places in the archipelago to study religion in its many religious schools, or sekolah pondok; hence, like Aceh, Kelantan was also called Serambi Makkah, or Annex of Mecca.
Photo: Sergi Reboredo/123RF.COM.
However, Munshi Abdullah, a nineteenth-century Malay writer, in his Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah ke Kelantan (An Account of His Trip for the Government to Kelantan), criticised the backwardness of the Malays and their negative attitude in rejecting progress – an observation that some Kelantanese would refute.
And for that, I have to carry the baggage of the Kelantanese stereotype. People would assume that we are all puritans, preferring Islamic teachings over tradition and cultural heritage, when in fact, these can easily go hand in hand.
The Consequence of Politics
My excess energy as a child was often spent practicing with a dikir barat troupe; the stories and melody of the dikir barat became my lullabies at night. When I was lucky enough, I would get to watch wayang kulit during the election period – a method championed by Umno to attract the Malay crowd. These joys, however, were often clouded by recurring questions I asked myself: Was I looking for happiness in the wrong places?.
Kelantan in the 1990s underwent a period of intense Arabisation, replete with the wearing of the robes and fishnet-patterned keffiyeh or skullcap, and code-mixing the local language with Arabic. While the batik lepas was popular among folks, some donned the white Arabic jubbah – a statement to differentiate themselves from others. Naturally, the state government supported these segments of the population as it was seeking to emphasise its credential of being an Islamic party.
The contest was heated up at the national level between the two versions of Islam – the one propagated by Umno, and the one propagated by PAS. Soon after winning the 1990 state election, PAS decreed a dress code for Muslims and non-Muslims, while traditional games and cultural performances deemed indecent from the Islamic point of view were banned.
Religion ties people together, but it can also divide. The PAS-Umno political rivalry was so intense that people held prayers in different mosques separated according to the parties.
It even changed the look of agriculture in Kelantan. Tobacco used to be one of the state’s main economic contributors until former chief minister and respected ulama, the late Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, declared tobacco consumption to be un-Islamic; he then called all tobacco growers to shift to planting kenaf, which is cultivated for its fibre.
Growing up with a strong sense of cultural heritage, at the same time witnessing its demise, affected me as a child. Dikir barat, main puteri, mak yong and wayang kulit were part of the village folks’ everyday lives; but new rules and restrictions pushed many cultural performances to border towns such as Tumpat and Pasir Mas.
Some Kelantanese chose Besut in Terengganu to seek shelter under BN, which offerred more freedom, while the younger generation moved to big cities like KL and Johor, and tried to preserve their cultural heritage there.
Many cultural performances have erased the influence of Hinduism, making them more tourists-friendly without the jampi.
But the Islam that I grew up with was nothing like that. The Islam that I grew up to believe in was a syncretic one, combining elements of different beliefs while blending the practices of various schools of thoughts. It complements rather than replaces local traditions. This was the belief that helped me to make sense of life, and was not merely a tool of control. It taught me not to judge, but to understand.
And for that, I wish the narrative would revert to that found in the good old kampung days, when children got excited over the sounds of the lagu bertabuh – and played in the river, no matter how muddy it got.
Izzuddin Ramli is a Kelantanese-born analyst at Penang Institute. He is a writer who seeks refuge in Penang, and agrees with Rumi that the Earth is not our home, we are just passing through.