Malaysian author explores complicated legacy of Malayan Emergency


  • Books
  • Wednesday, 06 May 2020

‘The history of Malaysia is more than what we have been fed, but we just have to look for it. There is more than one Malaysian story, ” says Tham. Photo: Handout

Author William Tham Wai Liang always wanted to write a novel which took place during the Malayan Emergency.

It was a desire born out of escapism and there was a lot about that time frame in Malaysian history that intrigued him.

For a while, however, the story stayed unwritten.

Much historical fiction had already been set in that time and place, and Tham believed there was nothing new to say.

Things changed when he discovered The Meursaut Investigation by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud. That critically-acclaimed novel retells The Stranger, a novel by Albert Camus, but from an Arab perspective. It proved to be just what he needed.

Tham decided to change the approach of his recently released novel The Last Days.

Instead of being set during the Malayan Emergency (which happened between 1948 and 1960), Tham moved the time frame in The Last Days to 1981 instead.

“The Malayan Emergency and colonial period has been tackled so many times before, so I went with an approach that tracked the lasting legacies of that time period and the ongoing trauma, ” says Tham, 28.

In the book, the original idea was to show how similar 1981 was to 2020 Malaysia.

“However, things have changed fast so that comparison doesn’t quite hold any longer, ” he adds.

The Last Days offers a complex web of narratives. An ageing communist revolutionary arrives in Kuala Lumpur during a period of political turmoil. He agrees to let a mysterious woman called “H” document his story.

H, however, has a history closely tied to the Emergency. At the same time, a silent assassin is on the prowl, and Dain, a journalist, becomes interested in the story of a detained activist, who was once involved in a controversial publication.

The Last Days, published by Clarity Publishing, serves up a fascinating examination of history and memory, and explores how stories disappear and (later) become realigned in unexpected and shattering ways.

In a sense, Tham himself is someone who is re-engaging with his roots in Malaysia.

Born in Kuala Lumpur, Tham moved to Canada to study in 2011. He lived in Vancouver until returning to KL last year.

He writes both fiction and non-fiction, and has been published by Ethos Books, Penang Monthly and Looseleaf magazine. He previously served as senior editor of Vancouver-based magazine Ricepaper. His short stories have appeared in local anthologies such as Love In Penang, PJ Confidential and 2020: An Anthology (all published by Fixi Novo).

In 2017, his debut novel Kings Of Petaling Street was published. Set in Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur, Tham’s story revolved around a triad family, criminal legacies, sinister politics and existential crisis.

The Last Days retains a lot of Tham’s edgy energy. The reason he set his novel in 1981, Tham says, is mostly due to a lucky accident.

“I volunteered with a magazine for a few years. Once, I came across old copies of the Far Eastern Economic Review stashed away, which tracked, one issue at a time, the dramatic changes across Asia (in the early 1980s). Suddenly, the uncertain period right before Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure (in July 1981) as Malaysian Prime Minister sprang to life. It seemed to mark a turning point and as such, I tried to be as true to the facts as possible, ” says Tham.

Tham reveals that he also read material such as Chin Peng’s autobiography My Side Of History, Cheah Boon Kheng’s Red Star Over Malaya and Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied’s Radicals: Resistance And Protest In Colonial Malaya before embarking on The Last Days.

The biggest inspiration, however, came from Chinese-born author Han Suyin’s And The Rain My Drink, a 1956 novel detailing the suffering caused by British suppression of the Malayan Emergency.

“Even though the late Dr Han had a nuanced view of the situation, in which she saw life during the Emergency through the eyes of characters on both sides of the divide, she was still always an outsider looking in. So because of that, echoes from her novel appear in mine. Which is why the last part of my book is explicitly a homage to her work, and to her own extraordinary life, ” he says.

Readers might notice also a motif of things happening in fours all through Tham’s book.

He adds this was no accident. While writing, he had been reading Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s book Perburuan, which led him to a Mouly Surya film Marlina Si Pembunuh Dalam Empat Babak (2017).

Both of these Indonesian works were structured as tightly wound, intricate four-act narratives, and this format made its way into Tham’s novel.

“The trick was making sure that my plot still flowed smoothly, and the four-act structure did not turn into a gimmick, ” he assures.

It took him about two-and-a-half years to finish The Last Days, from conception to publishing. The actual writing, however, didn’t take very long.

“Elements of the story had already been brewing for a long time, taking shape over long train journeys and commutes, so it became a matter of assembling the pieces, ” he points out.

Many of Tham’s previous works have been crime thrillers, and involved assassins, kingpins or men caught up in violent lives, and this novel continues his streak.

“I always found the grey spaces in which they operated – somewhere just out of reach of society and the law – very interesting. I started writing pulp fiction for the Fixi Novo anthologies, and so it seemed natural to populate my stories with such characters.

“Plus, they are striking figures in popular culture... just like the anti-heroes of Sergio Leone’s Westerns, they are statements in themselves. I also found myself developing characters based on films such as The Godfather, Bunohan and Tokyo Drifter. But I may need a break from them, at least for the time being, ” says Tham with a laugh.

Indeed, while staying home during this movement control order (MCO), Tham is thinking of a change of scenery for his next novel.

“It could play out as an Agatha Christie mystery set in an abandoned hill station near the borderlands.”

Before that of course, there is still The Last Days to be launched. Once the MCO is lifted, Tham hopes to work out a few book meet sessions, where he is more than keen to discuss about the many unheard voices from the nation’s pre-Merdeka history.

“There is a deeper, alternative history that has been buried away. In this case the story of the Malaysian political left, especially that of the socialists and progressives who had been pushed out of the national narrative and silenced by decades of propaganda, ” says Tham.

“The history of Malaysia is more than what we have been fed, but we just have to look for it. As Dain says in the novel: ‘The past can always be rewritten. We just need to search for it’. There is more than one Malaysian story, ” he concludes.

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