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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 August 2005, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK
Malaysia's clash of cultures

By Jonathan Kent
BBC, Kuala Lumpur

When it comes to interpreting Islam, many Malaysians are torn between their own culture, Western influence and a growing trend towards copying all things Arabic.

A few days ago I visited P Ramlee's old house in Kuala Lumpur.

Kuala Lumpur skyline
Modernisation has been rapid

Unless you are from this part of the world you probably will not have heard of him.

But in Malaysia, more than 30 years after his death, he is still an icon.

In life he was Malaysia's Elvis and Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Irving Berlin all rolled into one. His modest bungalow is now a museum.

But when I visited I was alone, apart from an attendant who seemed to be hiding under his counter.

So I wandered around looking at photos from P Ramlee's films and listening to his wonderful singing voice.

'Gentle and sensual'

One of the reasons I look forward to the holidays here is because the local TV stations always screen a good selection of his movies.

P Ramlee
P Ramlee was an actor, singer, comedian, songwriter, screenwriter and film director

My favourite is the comedy Madu Tiga - or Three Honies - made in 1964.

P Ramlee plays a married man who decides to take a second and then a third bride, all with the collusion of his first wife's mischievous father.

But despite his best efforts to keep the three from finding out about one another, inevitably they meet, become friends and finally gang up on him.

It is a cautionary tale.

But what is most striking about P Ramlee's films from the 1950s and 1960s is their depiction of Malay life.

His movies are gentle and sensual, the people relaxed, fun-loving and charming. There are even jokes about gin.

Shadow puppetry

One can still catch glimpses of a Malaysia P Ramlee would have recognised, in backwaters like the east coast state of Kelantan.

Processional carving representing the head of Garuda
Hindu influence can be seen in carvings

I had travelled deep into its countryside looking for Dollah Baju Merah-Abdullah, who wears a red shirt. He is the last performer of the local brand of Wayang Kulit: shadow puppetry.

"I can't speak well," he told me, when he came out onto the porch of his little wooden house to greet me and he tapped his chest.

"I've been ill," he said.

He was not up to giving a demonstration but half-heartedly pulled out a couple of puppets from a box to show me.

I could see instantly why his is a dying art. The puppets depict heroes and gods from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The local government in Kelantan put a stop to Dollah's performances. Likewise traditional dance.

They are considered un-Islamic.

Foreign endorsement

Elsewhere in Kelantan I met up with Nik Rashidee, the custodian of an astonishing collection of Malay woodcarvings assembled by his late brother Nik Rashidin, the greatest carver of his age.

Among the antique pieces the Hindu influence is obvious: carvings of Garuda (a Hindu deity and king of the birds) and dagger handles in the shape of Shiva's head.

Traditional Terengganu Malay wooden houses
Traditional carving is a dying art in Malaysia

They were not even exhibited in Malaysia until they had already been shown at the British Museum.

It took the endorsement of a foreign institution before locals even started to wake up to their beauty.

All these crafts are being destined to oblivion, not just by conservative Muslims who dress in the Arabic style and frown on their own culture, but also by Malaysia's rapid modernisation.

Malay people seem to love the new and shiny, not the old.

Whirlwind of change

At the same time they have been consumed by a wave of Islamicisation that swept across the world from the 1970s, a wave ridden by Malay politicians who after the Iranian revolution decided it was that, or be drowned by it.

"Now we understand what it is to be proper Muslims," people tell me, and in this rapidly developing country many have found in their faith a still centre in a whirlwind of change.

But it is not just traditional arts that are under pressure.

Looking at posters from P Ramlee's movies, I realise that films like these could not be made today.

"All we can do these days is tut tut at one another," a Malay friend tells me.

Across the country one sees the evidence of a culture of disapproval.

Young Malay women wear headscarves drawn tight around their faces; something their grandmothers never did.

Nightclubs are raided by the religious police, couples are prosecuted for holding hands and Muslims are sentenced to be whipped for drinking beer.

This is not policy. This comes from the conservative grassroots.

Behind closed doors

The federal government seems unsure how to respond.

Those who raise their voices against the new breed of religious teacher, schooled in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, are shouted down. "Kaffir," they scream.

And jokes about gin are just not seen as funny.

But the saddest encounter I had in Kelantan was with a criminal lawyer.

"What keeps you busy?" I asked.

"Rape," he said. "It's all rape."

Incest, drugs and rape afflict the Malay community far worse than Malaysia's large Chinese and Indian minorities.

Piety in public. Acts that lead to self-loathing behind closed doors.

There is a sense that the Malays are a people increasingly adrift, and as at ill at ease with themselves now, as their grandparents' generation appeared content.

It would have broken P Ramlee's heart.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 August, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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