I’m sitting at the Al Fariz Maju restaurant in Kelana Jaya, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, and I’ve ordered my roti canai and teh tarik kurang manis. I’m having breakfast with my mother, having returned to Malaysia after a 20-hour flight from New Orleans. It’s five days before the election.
There is a long table in the restaurant and my mother and I occupy the far end. After a short while an elderly Malay uncle arrives and sits at the same table. He has brought his two granddaughters out for breakfast and they are fussing over what to order. They must be eight or nine years old, around the same age as my own daughter.
“Always changing their minds,” the uncle tells me and my mother, and we all chuckle.
Gazing at his granddaughters, I’m reminded that I have come home by myself and that my own children are still in school in the United States. My brother is in Australia — he is not returning to vote. My uncle is also with him there. My cousins are in England or Ireland or New Zealand or Bahrain or Singapore. Our family has lost its place in this country and has spread across the globe in search of new belongings. I have clung to my citizenship with a stubborn hope.
This return to Malaysia, however, is not like my other returns. There is something in the air that seems to say that this time it will be different. There is another Malaysia that has always beaten its pulse beneath all the schisms, suspicions, derisions and hatreds. A gentle, lemah lembut form of life that has already been conceived but is not yet born.
This new way of living is both known and unknown. Perhaps it is captured in the ancient injunction from the famous sūrat l-ḥujurāt in the Qur’an (49:13): “O People, Truly We created you from male and female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.”
How easy that sounds. And how difficult. There are so many questions that arise when we ponder this imperative. How do we begin to do this in a political and economic order that does not have time for such pleasantries? Don’t we see with the whites of our eyes how such noble intentions run aground in the heat of defending our superiority, in the anger of our victimhood, in the passion of clinging to our property, power and privileges? Who has the freedom to believe in such things, in this hard world where others threaten us by their strange differences? They speak differently, they believe differently, they pray differently, they enjoy differently, they make love differently. How could we even consider coming to know them?
Who would we be if we truly yearned to know one another in our hearts. Would we still be the same people?
I tell the uncle that his granddaughters are very beautiful and that he is blessed by God. I almost say “Allah” but decide that it is not worth the risk. And yet, noticing his religious demeanour — he is wearing a kopiah — I feel that saying this would speak to his heart.
“Thank you for the compliment,” he says, and we begin to talk. I tell him that I have just returned home in order to vote. He asks me about Donald Trump and wonders how somebody like him could have won an election in the US.
“He is not a leader that unites the people,” I say. “He knows how to make people suspicious of each other by saying things like, ‘There, look at that Muslim, he is a terrorist! There, look at that Black person, he is a criminal!’”
“When he is able to make people afraid, then he can claim that he is their champion. That’s how he wins.”
The uncle silently considers my words for a moment and starts to nod his head. He tells me that he has been retired for some 18 years. He used to work in customs. He was a civil servant, like my late father, and my mother, who was a teacher in the neighbourhood schools.
“That is why you look familiar!” the uncle exclaims to my mother. His daughter also works as a teacher in the Kelana Jaya primary school where my mother taught for decades.
We finish our breakfast and are about to leave. The uncle has already risen to pay but, as he is about to exit, he turns back to me and says, “Okay, Mohan, wish you all the best!”
I quickly rise from my chair to shake his hand and thank him. Then, suddenly, right in the middle of the restaurant, he commands his granddaughters to do something that makes me tremble.
The Malay uncle gestures towards his granddaughters with his wizened brown hands and calls them to come close.
“Sampaikan salam kepada uncle,” he says in a kind voice.
The granddaughters do not hesitate. They quickly and gracefully seek my Tamil-black hand, kiss it and touch their foreheads while bowing.
Mohan Ambikaipaker is the author of Political Blackness in Multiracial Britain (2018)