What it’s like now
Speaking generally, inhabitants of Malaysia spend much of their lives in ugliness. The hostile architecture of its cities raised under polluted skies, choked roadways running between awkward messes of steel and glass. Those who could afford it would wisely retreat to the sanctity of the suburbs and beyond, where it’s just crumbling shophouses and left-for-dead public infrastructure.
And the racism. Gods, the racism. The city is every bit as ugly as the people. Here the monstrous cities reflect the people living inside it. Here it’s “Mandarin speaker preferred;” or “No Indians allowed.” “No Negroes, no foreigners.” “Rohingyas can drown.”
These environments are a constant reminder that Malaysia today is a mess (and by extension, the modern world in general). We should conduct swiftly whatever business we have and go home and hide.
But if we’re lucky, on some rare occasions we see something beautiful. We might chance upon the poster children of Ali, Ah Kao dan Muthu playing ball. We might break fast one Saturday morning at some old kopitiam so old the name has faded from the storefront. There we see the definition of racial harmony: a multiracial trio of elderly men eating and complaining together.
Sometimes we end up somewhere beautiful. We roll open the blinds in our office pantry and peek out at the vista before us. There is a kind of beauty to the concrete jungle no matter how twisted. Azure skies expand forever into the horizon, and for a moment we get to pretend as if we were never expelled from paradise. Nobody was sick or in pain or dying.
We feast on whatever scraps of beauty we find that late-stage capitalism hasn’t destroyed or figured out how to commodify. These seem like the most exquisite things we had ever seen since we were children. It feels like the good old days were just yesterday. And in our troubled times, getting lost in the past is a comforting habit when there isn’t much hope for the future.
As it happens, one of the best ways to describe this habit came to me from Fallout: New Vegas:
There is an expression in the Wasteland: “Old World Blues”. It refers to those so obsessed with the past they can’t see the present, much less the future, for what it is.
What can we make of our “Old World Blues”? It might be that we have realised a genuine mistake of not appreciating how good we once had it. But it’s even more likely that we are suffering from the characteristic vertigo experienced by our introduction to a future we didn’t consent to: nostalgia.
How it was back then
In the 20th century, Malaysia emerged from its troubled history (then again, whose history isn’t?). One which transformed old settled ways of life, dismembered communities and threw them together into faceless cities. Which dislocated the loyalties and certainties once offered by religion.
In search of ways to soften our confusion, Malaysians began to imagine what a better world might look like. For some, the search turned towards the past: to the everdistant mirage of the ‘good old days’. While its adults went to work in sectors pre-ordained for their skin colour, and their children sequestered into different schools (also by their colour, but by their class too). These circles celebrated the simple, innocent communities that they alleged had existed in earlier decades.
Marketing executives and governments everywhere cashed in on this nostalgia. Billboards and posters depicted handsome men and women in traditional dress happy and together. Cheerful young citizens waved the flag, and benevolent politicians ministered to loyal subjects. There seemed to be no fear, envy, mistrust, or cruelty. No one minded not having as much as their neighbour, or left the country because they didn’t. It had, it was alleged, been very much easier back then, in simpler houses and spartan, yet pious temples.
Or was it?
But such a past never existed, or if it did, it might not have been as idyllic as we make them out to be. Psychologists call it the fading-affect bias, where over time, our memory of past events change so that we are more likely to remember the positive aspects than the negative ones.
Mahathir once told his readers: Melayu mudah lupa. I disagree. Manusia mudah lupa, I say. Owning up to our collective amnesia, we can be certain that some rather profound horrors must have existed in the past. Why else would we have changed otherwise?
The specific reasons for our dissatisfaction tend to dissipate outside of immediate urgency. We edit out the casual racism, the institutional violence against the poor, and the frustration of failing a rigged game. But we would never have needed to act if things were remotely as gratifying as we are now nostalgically assuming they were.
At the heart of our misguided nostalgia is a disregard for why things ever changed – and might have needed to change. Nostalgia encourages us to have excessive faith in quasi-historical solutions, to believe that the past has answered much more than they ever did – which has in turn, in certain quarters, bred a furious reactionary tendency.
This is not to say nothing good existed in the past, but that it offered no proper solution to our emergent (but no less valid) needs in response to a loveless status quo.
There is an annoying saying that goes: Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. But that’s suggesting that the only thing history is full of is mistakes. It might be more accurate to say: Those who don’t know history won’t be able to improve the present. The past shouldn’t be treated like an artifact, to be kept pristine and unchallenged. Rather, we should treat it as a storehouse to be raided for good ideas, but also to keep the bad ones around for perspective. In doing so, we might remember that we are as complicated and as difficult to satisfy as we used to be – and that the way forward is to accept our complexities rather than play pretend at a caricature of simplicity we could never live up to.
Our sense of ourselves as people who could be satisfied with how things were is as untrue to our own nature as is the fantasy of a modern urban dweller who dreams they might find enduring happiness in a kampung house. The solution to Malaysia’s problems is not to hallucinate that they weren’t previously there. It is to tally them up and settle them.
Lessons may be learned in hindsight, but life can only be lived looking forwards — with foresight. Getting over our “Old World Blues” doesn’t suggest forgetting the past entirely, but seeing the past as a contribution to, but never the replacement for, the painful work inevitable to improve our lives and that of others. We shouldn’t settle for being tourists of a rosy past that never was. We should fight so that a rosier future comes about. Getting over the past means having the bravery to let go of what once was, and the courage to dream of what might once again be.
Written by Brandon Quek