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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 July, 2004, 00:21 GMT 01:21 UK
Letter: Preserving Malaysia's past
Malaysian historian Dr Farish A Noor remembers a woodcarver who dedicated his life to preserving the nation's culture.

I am standing at the foot of the grave of my friend, Nik Rashidin Nik Hussein. The grave is located in front of his house, in the small village of Kota Kandis, Bachok, on the coastline of the north-eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan.

Pas leader Abdul Hadi Awang
Pas leader Abdul Hadi Awang is an advocate for Malaysia to be an Islamic state
This is where I do most of my fieldwork and research.

It also happens to be the bastion of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Pas) and as such has been the most hotly-contested battleground in Malaysia's convoluted politics.

For nearly half a century Kelantan, the bedrock of Malay cultural identity and history, has been an open arena between the nationalist party that rules the country and the Islamist party.

Nik was a woodcarver, but he was no mere hammer-and-saw artisan. He began his apprenticeship in his teens and he had travelled all over South-East Asia in search of mentors and teachers who taught him the art of woodcarving, following the old schools that had been around for thousands of years since the Hindu-Buddhist era.

Cultural threat

As he witnessed the changes that were taking place around him - firstly due to rapid modernisation between the 1960s and 70s, and later due to conservative Islamisation during the 1980s - he grew increasingly worried that the knowledge and skills of the past he was guarding would be lost altogether.

He was undoubtedly the greatest living artisan in Malaysia during his time, and his works have been presented as gifts to foreign heads of state including the president of the United States and the emperor of Japan.

Nik's choice of residence was no accident.

After living in the town of Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan, for several years, he packed his things and made his way to the village where he spent the remaining years of his short but meaningful life.

I don't understand what's wrong with our people today. Have they no respect for the past?
Nik Rashidin
City life appalled him. He would brood for months on end, shutting himself off from the rest of humanity.

Nik kept to himself for the simple reason that he could not find an audience who could understand him or would heed his warnings for the future.

He would rant against the officials of the Department of Tourism who consulted him about the prospects of woodcarving being promoted for tourism and commercial interests.

Contaminated art

Wood was sacred to Nik. He believed that trees, like all living things, had an innate energy or force - called "semangat" - that deserved respect and even reverence.

If and when the officials commissioned a piece from him, it was often for the sake of presenting a gift to some foreign visitor.

When Malaysia was swept by the wave of conservative Islamism in the 1980s Nik found his circle of friends and associates shrinking even further, as more and more people began to think that his works of art and sculpture were "contaminated" by pre-Islamic forms and motifs that harked back to the Hindu and Buddhist past.

As a traditional woodcarver of the old school, Nik was well versed in the subtle hidden meanings that could be found in Malay woodcarving.

He spoke the lost language of the ancient woodcarvers and recognised the oblique references to the Hindu era and the pagan deities and spirits of antiquity.

We don't need to keep to the ways of the past. There is nothing to learn from our pre-Islamic ancestors
Religious teacher
Yet he was a devout Muslim himself, and found no difficulty in reconciling the Islamic present with the pre-Islamic past.

Needless to say, he found it difficult to understand why others could not be as open-minded as he was.

"I don't understand what's wrong with our people today," he would often complain to me, as we chatted till dawn on the verandah of his wooden house. "Have they no respect for the past?"

He would complain about how the politicians and religious leaders would talk endlessly about our future and our destiny. But he believed that we have lost our historical compass.

Asian miracle

I have been studying Malaysia and the other countries of South-East Asia for several years now, and in all these countries I have seen similar patterns of development and social evolution.

In the years following the post-colonial era, Asian societies raced forward in the mad rush for rapid modernisation and economic development.

This was referred to as the so-called "Asian miracle", a dubious term to say the least.

Kuala Lumpur's Petronas Twin Towers symbolise 1990s boom
Former premier Mahathir Mohamad oversaw Malaysia's transformation
In the course of this race for prosperity and modernity the ways of the past were summarily labelled "backward" and conveniently dumped into the dustbin of history.

Asian leaders have often spoken about "Asian values" and an Asian identity which they claimed was unique to Asia.

I have often wondered what the premises of these Asian values might be. For a start, democracy and human rights don't seem to be a part of them, as the human rights records of most South-East Asian countries is appalling.

Detention without trial, restrictive controls on the press and routine harassment of opposition parties seem to be the norm and these problems persist till today.

By the 1980s most of the countries in the region were clearly in turmoil. Mass migration to the cities had left the countryside bereft of young people who could keep alive the traditional ways of farming and the arts and culture associated with that pastoral existence.

The gap between the haves and the have-nots grew so obvious that crime and social unrest visibly increased.

Islamic alternative

In time, in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, Islam came to the fore as the only alternative for a people who had run out of options.

Islam was always part of the cultural and social fabric of Kelantan. But by the 1980s a new, rigorous and highly politicised Islam was taking root.

For traditionalists like Nik, the contest between the development-oriented government and the conservative Islamist opposition was a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale.

Within a decade, the world he had tried his best to protect and promote, was beating a hasty retreat as it was besieged on both fronts.

Why should we go back to the old days? We Malays were backward people then, walking barefoot and wearing sarongs. We had no cars, no offices, no air-conditioning, no shops. We were poor and the whites looked down on us.
A young ruling party ideologue

He fled the city of Kota Bharu were he produced his best work, but it was also there that he developed the first stages of cancer that would later waste his body and take his life.

Today, as I conduct interviews with conservative Islamist teachers and leaders in Nik's state, I receive replies to my questions that would have made his hair stand on end.

"We don't need to keep to the ways of the past. There is nothing to learn from our pre-Islamic ancestors," said one religious school teacher to me, as we sat on the steps of his "madrasah" or religious seminary.

Emulate the Arab world

The boys - some as young as six-years-old - are dressed in long robes and turbans, totally alien to the traditional dress of the Malays.

In their classes they are taught that the ways of the past were wicked, corrupt and redundant, and that the culture of the West is likewise dangerous.

Malay boys praying
A wave of conservative Islamism spread in the 1980s
Thirsting for some form of basic religious knowledge, they came to these schools to be taught the Koran and Islamic history.

Instead they have been told that Malaysia should emulate the countries of the Arab world, and look to Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as models.

Like the religious conservatives, the modern bureaucrats too share a virulent contempt for the past.

"Why should we go back to the old days? We Malays were backward people then, walking barefoot and wearing sarongs.

"We had no cars, no offices, no air-conditioning, no shops. We were poor and the whites looked down on us," a young ruling party ideologue told me.

Yet neither the secular ruling elite nor the conservative Islamists seem to have an inkling of the past that they denounce with their poisonous accusations.

Had Nik been present with me he would have pointed out that between the 16th and 19th Centuries Kelantan was a major cultural and trading centre that enjoyed diplomatic and economic relations with China, India, Siam, Cham and the rest of the Malay archipelago.

"We sat smack in the middle of the Chinese and Indian oceans, and everything you see, eat, hear and buy around you here today is related to the past when ours was a cosmopolitan society that interacted with the rest of the world.

"And you still refer to our ancestors as backward peasants?", he would tell his critics.

This month marks the second anniversary of his death, and ironically it was only after his passing that people in the country learned of who he was and what he was trying to do.

Who will listen?

When it was known that he was dying of cancer, his friends tried their best to salvage what was left of his life and work.

For now the legacy of Nik Rashidin and his work remains hostage to the whims of politics.

Across the developing world the march of progress has trampled on the past with heavy boots.

Nik Rashidin walked the earth - literally - with steps that were soft yet deliberate in his search for knowledge and history.

The echo of his footsteps are lost today in the cacophony of cries for progress and development, the modernists and religious conservatives alike drowning themselves in the idle chatter that Nik tried so hard to hide himself from.

As I stand at the foot of his grave whispering my respects for him, I long to hear him speak once more, even for just a fleeting moment.

But in the midst of this madding crowd, who would listen?

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist. He is the secretary general of the International Movement for a Just World and has studied the phenomenom of Islamist political movements in South-East Asia.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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