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Sunday June 28, 2009

Catching a mood

A columnist looks back on the March 8 General Election, and its consequences, in a new book.

KARIM Raslan didn’t think anything special would happen on March 8 last year.

“I was actually lying on my sofa thinking that this is going to be such a boring election,” he says when we meet in his Damansara apartment recently.

Then a friend from Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, called.

Karim Raslam has released his third book, a compilation of his popular Ceritalah column. –SAM THAM / The Star

“And she screamed down the line, ‘Shahrizat lost!’ I knew that if she lost then there’d be a big wave,” he says.

(Current Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil lost her Lembah Pantai Parliamentary seat to PKR candidate Nurul Izzah Anwar then.)

In fact, Karim was so certain that nothing would change that, in his Feb 18, 2008, Ceritalah column in The Star (Expectations of young voters, Nation), he predicted that the 12th General Election “would not be an epochal contest”.

“I had a researcher who said that it was all going to change. I said, ‘Look, I’ve covered more elections than you have, don’t tell me. This is no big deal’. Of course, I was wrong. That was really funny,” he chuckled. “That night he called me and said, ‘ I told you!’”

Karim then decided to stay put in Malaysia to figure out what happened instead of returning to Jakarta, where he is mostly based nowadays, like he originally planned. That’s when he hit the ground and started meeting people in the Opposition parties and was “perplexed about this whole world I didn’t know about”.

Karim’s columns about March 8, and the events leading to and from it (spanning 2003-end 2008) – from (then) Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s departure and (then) Datuk Seri (now Tun) Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s tenure as Prime Minister to after the 12th General Election – are now collected in Ceritalah 3: Malaysia A Dream Deferred.

(He had previously compiled his columns in Ceritalah: Malaysia in Transition and Journeys Through Southeast Asia: Ceritalah 2.)

He confessed that calling the election wrongly was not one of his high points as a columnist, but although he was dumbfounded by March 8, he was also excited about the possibilities back then.

Fast forward a year and three months later, and Karim’s enthusiasm is more than a little squelched.

“I’m less hopeful of Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand – they’re in a state of arrested development. We need to break out of that,” he says.

In Ceritalah 3, his 2004 columns are more optimistic as the nation had pinned their hopes for reform on Abdullah. However, as the years went by, the tone of the columns shifts to one of disappointment as the expected reforms do not emerge, and then excitement when March 8 happens – and then disappointment again as Malaysians endured the political shenanigans of 2008 and this year.

“I love my home. I’m just exasperated by it,” says Karim at one point.

“One of the reasons why the book is called A Dream Deferred is because we’re still going through (a bad patch) and we need to decide where the country goes from here,” he says.

Malaysia needs to move forward but is stuck in a paradigm that will not take her very far forward economically or politically, he says. To move, Malaysia has to reassess the nature of race and the issue of equality, and to have a more open and responsive governance.

As those familiar with his column would know, Ceritalah 3 is filled with ordinary yet interesting folk, and one his favourites in the book is an Indian gentleman he calls Teacher Theva.

“In 2002 he was frustrated about the level of education among young Tamil boys. But he got married, got a new car, was studying, and he felt that he was on the up and up. He was experiencing the Malaysian dream,” he says.

But things were different when he met Theva in 2008 at his mother’s low cost flat.

“He was very angry, he could hardly look me in the eye,” says Karim.

What happened?

The Hindraf (Hindu Rights Action Force) movement, answers Karim. And the sense that his people has been belittled.

“Dignity is very important. People who have been treated with dignity can tolerate a lot, and I think he felt that his dignity has been insulted,” he says.

Karim, who has been spending a lot of time in Jakarta since 2000, is looking forward to writing about Indonesia next. For the past few months, he has been travelling all over the Indonesian archipelago following candidates for the Indonesian presidential elections next month.

“The more time one spends in Indonesia, the more one gets a different perspective on Malaysia,” he says, adding that Indonesia is a kind of mirror image to Malaysia.

“It’s been through a really bad patch since 1998 but you see that a lot has improved there. There is greater openness, and a desire for direct elections for different levels of government,” he says.

It is something that he hopes will be replicated in Malaysia one day.

How he writes

KARIM Raslan has a wicked writer’s pad.

His apartment has a gorgeous view of the Petaling Jaya, Selangor, skyline, and is generously decorated with tasteful furniture and art pieces – some of which lean towards the more morbid side....

(Two huge paintings – North Korea Nuclear Test No 3 and No 14 by Indonesian artist R.E. Hartanto – of two women with shocked expressions dominate one wall. They are stunned because they have just witnessed a nuclear explosion, Karim explains. Another painting of a bound man with a plastic bag over his head – Indon artist Eko Nugroho’s Monument of 98 – dominates another wall.)

This is the space in which he writes his weekly column, Ceritalah, for The Star’s main paper (when he is in town – Karim now spends most of his time in Indonesia).

Since its first appearance in another daily in 1994, the column, full of Karim’s sharp observations of Malaysian politics, have struck a chord with people.

Ceritalah is also published (translated) in Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily, and Bahasa Malaysia newspaper Sinar Harian; a different version, called The Thinker, appears in Indonesian English language newspaper The Jakarta Globe. Karim hopes to get it published in Tamil one day.

Sounds like a mad schedule, but luckily, Karim is one of those disciplined writers with a highly organised system: he writes notes for his columns in his notebooks, then wakes up the next day – at 4am or 5am – to write Ceritalah ... on his Blackberry!

“The wonderful thing about writing on a Blackberry is, you can lie down and write,” he says, beaming.

Karim is a graduate in English and Law from Cambridge University’s St John’s College in Britain and has always been involved in writing in some form or the other. He edited Cambridge University’s Stoppress With Varsity in the early 1980s and wrote leader editorials for The Times. He returned to Kuala Lumpur in 1987 to practise law, later branching out into writing for numerous publications including The New Straits Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Singapore’s The Business Times; he was also the editor of the Men’s Review magazine in 1993 and 1994.

But he worries that time may be running out for print media writers like him. He talks about friends in London and New York who have lost their jobs in the media.

“There’s not much of a printed media left. It’s crumbling,” he says sadly.

“I’m fairly certain it will happen (in Malaysia). Writers, journalists, columnists, and storytellers – where do we go? I’m not sure. Where will be our forum? Difficult to tell,” he adds.

For now, things seem to be just fine for Karim. He’s just released Ceritalah 3: Malaysia A Dream Deferred and is now travelling around Indonesia charting the country’s exciting political progress and talking to people on the ground.

“I like being on the ground, I like to be in places where things are a bit in a flux and aren’t organised,” he says.

His columns often highlight the story of the ordinary man or woman – be it a fisherman, hawker or yuppie – and they often have something illuminating to say.

It’s exhausting work, finding these people, as it sometimes entails a lot of travelling in places with less-than-ideal road conditions. But Karim loves it.

“I’m a great believer in story-telling. I love using words and language. I like to try my best to represent and convey the personalities of people I talk to. That’s what I like to do. I do find ordinary people more interesting talk to. I come from such a privileged background, for me to be able to sit and listen (to ordinary folk) is very interesting,” he says.

(Karim’s father is the late Mohamed Raslan Datuk Abdullah, the first chairman of Bank Bumiputra; he was killed in a car accident in 1971 when Karim was seven. Karim moved with his Welsh mother, Dorothy, youngest brother Kam, and older brother Johan, to Britain, where all three boys spent most of their childhood.)

He must be looking forward to Malaysia’s 2013 General Election, then.

“I’ll be 50 by then. I’m not sure if I’m up to doing the rounds the same way!” he says with a laugh.