Books, Malaysia, Singapore (Singapura)

Interview: Floating on a Malayan Breeze by Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh


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A few months ago, while browsing through Kinokuniya’s Travel Literature section, I chanced upon Floating on a Malayan Breeze, a travelogue that offers insights into the lives of Singaporeans and Malaysians. The book cover caught my eye because it was something I could relate to—durians (I shun them), rambutans and mangosteens—and the blurb piqued my interest, so I eventually bought a copy. It was such an interesting and insightful read, I found myself wanting to know more about the author and his perspective when I had finished the book. And so, I approached Sudhir and he kindly agreed to be interviewed. If you have read the book, this interview would give it more dimension. If you haven’t, then perhaps the interview will intrigue you enough to get a copy of his book. Considering how rarely I underline books that I read for leisure (probably only English majors would get this), this book has something special.

Floating on a Malayan Breeze

Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore is a travelogue that also discusses serious topics such as politics, economics and social issues. The author, Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, spent a month in 2004 travelling around Malaysia on a bicycle and on a daily budget of about US$3. He recently released his second book, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which is co-authored with Donald Low, and with contributions by Linda Lim and PJ Thum.

1. When did you decide to travel around Malaysia, and why a month-long trip on a bicycle?

There were actually two of us on the bicycle trip. My best friend Sumana Rajarethnam was with me, and he ultimately served as contributing editor for the book.

The main reason for the trip is that we wanted to find out more about Malaysia from the ground up. For most of our histories, everything we hear about our countries and each other comes from our governments. There is very little dialogue at a grassroots level. To this day, we cannot buy each other’s newspapers in our countries, e.g. no Star in Singapore and no The Straits Times in Malaysia.

This is a shame, as we are essentially the same country and people, separated by politics. As the Singapore-born son of a Malaysia-born father, I have much affection for both places. Hence the main motivation for the trip was discovery—to find out what ordinary Malaysians think about themselves, Singapore, and the wider world around them.

Bicycle: We wanted to go very simply so that we could get access to people. We initially thought of walking, but realised it would take too long. It is very different when you cycle, as opposed to driving. When you cycle into a kampung, everybody wants to say hello, talk to you. It gives you a lot of access. That was crucial for our trip, our efforts to get to know ordinary Malaysians.

 2. How did you prepare for the trip?

To prepare our minds, we brushed up on language skills. We had both studied Malay as a second language, but were out of practice.

To prepare our bodies, we cycled a lot around Singapore.

The other major dilemma revolved around our pre-trip dietary plans. I was fairly convinced by the “protein diet” craze that had swept the US, and so decided to cut down on carbohydrates. The aim was to slowly reduce my food intake and therefore shrink my stomach to prepare for our journey where we would be eating much less than normal.

Sumana, being a student of the camel school of consumption, had decided that the only way to prepare for reduced consumption was to eat as much as possible and thus fatten himself up to pre-empt the effects of weight loss. We took to our diets with dogged determination, intent on proving the other wrong. The result of all this waffly nutritional science is that Sumana often felt hungry and I weak.

3. What were some of the greatest challenges you faced, travelling on a bicycle and living on a budget of RM10 (about US$3) per day? And what are your best memories of the trip?

The biggest challenges were not physical but mental and emotional. Your body soon gets used to the cycling. But it becomes extremely tiresome having to look for a place to sleep every night.

One of the greatest comforts in life, which we all take for granted, is a guaranteed place to sleep. In Malaysia, Sumana and I did not have that. Every evening, we would have to cycle around looking, asking, even begging. That daily process slowly wears you out.

Other limitations because of bicycle and budget: First, it takes too long sometimes when you’re trying to get somewhere fast. Second, not as easy to lock up as a motorbike or car. We were occasionally worried that somebody would steal the bike, so we kept it very close at all times.

The other challenge because of the budget was showering. After a while, we realised what the most reliable “shower” would be—Petronas station. So most of our showers were in these stations, squatting by knee-high water faucets in the toilets, sprinkling water on ourselves.

On several occasions, in some of Malaysia’s more rural towns, I opened the toilet door only to be greeted by a wall of bugs, grasshoppers and spiders, flying right at my face, as if to thank me for freeing them from their aviary.

Best memories: Staying in the Felda Estate in Endau, where a bomoh somehow healed Sumana’s injured knee; meeting the former guerillas from the Communist Party of Malaya in Betong, Thailand; passing our first “racial test”, thereby being accepted on board an all-Indian houseboat off Pulau Banding in Perak; and having old Malay uncles invite us in for durians from their backyard; old Malay aunties stuffing us silly with nasi campur and rambutans.

4. Which came first: the idea for the trip, or the idea for the book?

I knew I wanted to write some kind of book, but didn’t quite know what. So I decided to go on this trip and then think about the narrative after.

The book has evolved a lot. Initially it was going to be a simple chronological travelogue of a bicycle trip in one country—Malaysia. Eventually I decided to write a socio-economic narrative told through a travelogue on two countries—Malaysia and Singapore.

So I had to conduct a lot of extra research. For instance, I was on the ground for the Pengkalan Pasir by-election in 2005, talking to people. We travelled across the whole of Malaysia for the 2008 GE. From 2006-2012, I travelled to KL with my company 3-4 times a year, and gathered information through conversations and meetings. And of course, I go on holiday to Malaysia at least 5 times a year. All this extra information finds its way into the book.

At the same time, of course, I was conducting extensive research in Singapore as well.

The whole project took 8 years, but the main writing took about four years, from 2008 to 2012. We had to trash a lot of our initial writing from 2004 to 2008, because it was too academic. Now, in the final product, you will find writing that is much more accessible.

5. Floating on a Malayan Breeze is an interesting mix of travelogue and academic discussions. Why did you choose this writing style?

I have purposefully wrapped serious issues around a light-hearted travelogue in order to make this book accessible to all readers, especially those who might not want to read a very heavy or academic book.

My writing style is still a work-in-progress, i.e. I don’t think I’ve really found my voice yet as a writer. Perhaps after a couple more books.

As such, one of the critiques of this book is that the prose can be schizophrenic and at times repetitive.

It is something I’m working on improving.

Floating on a Malayan Breeze

6. You touched on sensitive issues in the book. Did that, in any way, affect the way you approached the writing?

Throughout the book I wanted to talk about important issues in a direct but sensitive way. For instance, the most difficult topic to write about was Race, Chapter 8. Race/ethnicity is a taboo subject in both our countries.

However, at a larger level, I think self-censorship is wired into all Singaporeans.

I can only hope that my thirteen years of liberal learning—six years of studying in the US followed by seven years working at The Economist Group—has helped to temper my natural Singaporean self-censorship, even if just a bit.

Thus, even though I think I managed to strike a decent balance in my writing, I am aware that in certain instances self-censorship may have gotten the better of me.

On a related note, a couple of lawyers read my draft and provided very useful feedback, most notably Kevin Tan of NUS.

He advised me to tweak the crafting of particular sentences so that the reader gets the same message without me causing undue—and possibly libelous—offence to anybody.

7. There must have been so many things that you wanted to write about, but had to leave out. How did you decide on what to expand on and what to leave out?

Deciding what to leave out is the writer’s hardest job. Sometimes I include something because it adds to the whole picture, sometimes because it’s a compelling vignette on its own.

There is no fixed formula, and arguably no end to the deliberation. I still occasionally wonder about the stories left out. One just has to move on.

8. What is the main take-away for the readers, and for yourself?

For readers, I only hope for one take-away: that they see the need to question widely-accepted ideas about Malaya more.

For me, at a personal artistic level, the book has given me enough confidence to try and make it as a writer, i.e. the take-away is that I should give writing my best shot.

Hence, my decision to leave my full-time job last year.

9. Any advice for adventurous travellers and/or travel writers who are interested in embarking on a similar journey?

First, if you are going to be a writer—or any kind of artist—in Singapore, be prepared for the lack of social acceptance. Many people will urge you to do something with more immediate financial return. Have conviction; ignore them.

Second, identify those friends and people who are supportive of such projects—thankfully, this species is growing—and constantly bounce ideas off them. Eventually you’ll find something interesting that can work from a conceptual and budgetary standpoint.

Third, be adaptive. You may have to modify certain elements of your journey as you go along.

Finally, stay focussed, especially during the writing. This is a marathon—motivation is high at the beginning and end, but there is a long, often lonely middle that you must plough through.

10. You recently had your second book launch. Tell us more about the book and the other projects you’re working on. What can readers look forward to?

I recently co-authored a collection of essays, Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. The book seeks to debunk a lot of the assumptions and myths that often pass for gospel in Singapore’s policy fraternity.

I am currently working on a book about China and India. It will be a social commentary on modern Chinese and Indian society, told loosely through the lens of martial arts. See here for more:

http://sudhirtv.com/next-book-from-kerala-to-shaolin/

Readers can look forward to a story about these two countries written from an Asian perspective, incorporating perspectives from Singapore, with its long history of intermingling between the two peoples.

Again, there will be personal elements, given that I am Indian and my wife is Chinese.