At the time of writing this column, I was three-quarters of the way through Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming. I have read many biographies, including on personalities like Gandhi, Datuk Onn Jaafar, Tun Abdul Razak, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe, Siddharta Gautama, Muhammad and a few others. This was the second biography of a woman that I have read, the previous one being Enid Blyton's, my childhood and teen years’ favourite author.
I want to share with Malaysians the loss of wisdom that can be gained from reading books that our students, university graduates, doctoral candidates and academics alike are experiencing today. With this loss, I am afraid our nation will never go through a meaningful “becoming” to blossom into a new entity that is more confident, mature and accommodating.
By the time I graduated with my first degree and then with my masters in Architecture from the University of Wisconsin, I had read over 20 books. One third was about architecture, another third was about other faiths and religions, and the last third was about Islam. What I am now is what I read then.
While my friends travelled the length and breadth of the United States, I sat holed up in my room reading about “new worlds” and “constructs”. I discovered the true world of architecture, which has a serious relationship with politics, values of religions and a perspective on history. I learned how Hinduism explains the ego and the struggles with the eternal soul in all of us through a meticulous discourse of wants, needs and desires over rational thinking and pragmatic thoughts. I discovered the eternal messages of the Tao Te Ching and dwelled many nights on its teachings until today. I discovered that Islam has an intimate relationship with Christianity and Judaism, the now popular "sworn enemies” of my faith. I discovered that the Prophet Muhammad’s behaviour and pronounced sayings contradict 80% of what many Muslims say or do about social and political issues.
Reading books opened up many views, perspectives and thoughts that confused, enlightened and challenged my mind with the endless possibilities of looking at a problem and defining a direction in life. All my inherited baggage of cultural norms, religious practices and political perspectives melted under the scrutiny and bombardment of questions after my readings.
The two books by Abul A’la Maududi titled Towards Understanding Islam and Fundamentals Of Islam (translated from Urdu) were references that seemed to place me at the foot of the scholar-ulamak-politician way out there in India. Frank Lloyd Wright’s In The Cause of Architecture and Louis Sullivan’s Kindergarten Chats and Le Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture (translated from French) freed my mind from the objectification of form and building and made me look to a reconstructed idea of Malaysian and Islamic architecture with the values of democracy, multi-culturalism and universal spirituality. Although Wright and Sullivan were redefining American architecture, I was able to use their discourses to redefine other architectural identities.
During my primary school years, I used to dream about bedtime stories and Disney comic characters from the floor of Sekolah Rendah St’Marks. When I was a teenager, I would sit in the balcony of our police barracks flat with a plate of roti-sapu-marjerin (bread and margarine) and a glass of iced Milo made by my mum and imagine myself adventuring with the characters from Blyton’s Adventure Series, the Mystery Series and the Sea Adventures Series. I had never been outside of Butterworth in Penang or Taiping in Perak but my reading took me to the landscapes and foods of the British, or orang puteh, people. I could also imagine being in the dormitories of her School Series. These books taught me the fundamental values of a good person and to appreciate the many different cultures I would encounter in my future life and career.
Recently, my heart weighed heavy in my chest as I watched a video on WhatsApp of my grandson in Primary Three receiving a stack of school books. He was writing his name on all of the 12 or so “Work Books” and the bored, unenthusiastic expression was clear on his face. I remember how excited I always was when I got new books and I would start thumbing through them right away. An extra treasure was when I found my brother’s Readers’ Book – the stories in those books were some of the best I have ever read. My brother went through an all-English curriculum while I went through the partial English curriculum. I never saw a single work book in my time.
There seems to be no more reading of books in school anymore. There seems to be no more encouragement of reading books beyond textbooks at universities either. By not reading books, we deprive ourselves of being in another person’s shoes and experiencing that person’s perspectives on things, that person’s value system and that person’s ways of handling the challenges in life. In Becoming, I was able to experience Michelle Obama’s life and challenges as a coloured child and student, as one of the few young black professional women in her field when she began, as a wife to a husband who had big ideas about changing society, and as a mother protecting her children from the painful scrutiny of growing up as the First Family. This behind-the-scenes look gave me new perspectives on the women in my life and in my own society.
Our nation can become better simply by requiring and providing all our children and students with story books about cultures other than ours. We all must “become” different individuals within our 40 ethnic groups before we can become One Malaysia. If I had my way, I would burn all the work books and just give students interesting books to read about different cultures, environments and lifestyles and the many different types of art and heritage of civilisations.
Until our own Becoming is about appreciating the many, we will never become one.
Prof Dr Mohd Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at UCSI University. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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