If there was a phrase to aptly describe Peninsula, the latest book by former journalist and columnist Rehman Rashid, it would probably be “long awaited”. The book, after all, marks the author’s first in over two decades – his last title, the bestselling A Malaysian Journey, was published in 1993!
It’s certainly been a long wait. Especially from an author advised by British Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul himself, who told Rehman that four years between books was too long, and you needed to “force yourself to write”.
If he had followed Naipaul’s advice, Rehman said, he might have ended up publishing errors and addendums to his books every few years, due to the constant shake-ups in Malaysian history and politics. Time, however, had allowed him to discover context.
“You have to wait for the story to unfold. In this case, it took 23 years, what can I say? But I feel there is enough perspective between A Malaysian Journey and Peninsula to make both kind of complementary now,” said Rehman, 61, speaking during the launch of Peninsula on March 30.
“I live for stories. I don’t live for my wife, or children, I don’t have any. I just live to know what’s going on, and then to be able to tell you. And the beautiful thing about books, as opposed to journalism, I can wait 20 years before I tell you what happened.”
Born in Taiping, Perak, Rehman is a veteran journalist with 30 years of experience in print, broadcast and online media. He has won Journalist of the Year awards in Malaysia (1985) and Bermuda (1991). His other books are Pangkor: Treasure Of The Straits (1990) and Small Town (2016).
Peninsula, published by Fergana Art Space Sdn Bhd, is Rehman’s personal memoir, exploring the generational changes Malaysia has undergone since Independence, and examining their roots in the past and implications for the future.
The book was launched to a packed hall at Publika in Kuala Lumpur. In attendance were many luminaries from the local arts and writing scenes, most notably poet and national laureate A. Samad Said.
“I wrote this little book for those gone before me, whether after full and long lives or before their time. The spaces they have left in my heart, I have tried to fill with words rendering their time here meaningful to me: how we came to be here as the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters of Malaysia,” Rehman writes in the book’s Foreword.
From 1971’s New Economic Policy to the more recent 1Malaysia Development Berhad saga, Peninsula touches on many significant aspects of Malaysian history, all written in Rehman’s blunt yet eloquent style.
The chapter “Boomiputras”, for instance, chronicles the rise of the bumiputra corporate economy before the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, while “DAPenang” offers insight into both the state of Penang and the DAP political party.
Peninsula also contains many chapters exclusively devoted to a specific Malaysian community or region: “Heartlands”, for example, delves into the political and social history of the East Coast states, while “Lost Tribes” and “Future Stock” address the nation’s orang asli and migrant worker communities respectively.
Perhaps its most striking chapters, however, are the chapters “Gen One” and “Gen Two”, which discuss how changes to the national education system led to divisions between Malaysians, with effects that have carried forward until today.
Also interspersed together with Malaysian history are stories from Rehman’s life in Malaysia and Bermuda, starting with his career under former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and concluding with a poignant tribute to his late wife, Rosemarie.
According to Rehman, the parts of Malaysian history contained in Peninsula were chosen by how well they wove into the message of the story he wanted to tell.
“I did not write a neat book with beginning, middle or end, kau tim. Just like Malaysian Journey, it’s a slice, it’s a spectrum. I cover 250 years, so it’s quite a substantial one, but it doesn’t end. The ending has to go, to carry on,” Rehman said.
Writing Peninsula, the author said, had been a wonderful experience, despite the mostly sad nature of its content.
“It just flowed. I loved writing A Malaysian Journey, it was like euphoria, and I’m happy to say it felt like that again now. Except that people had to die,” Rehman said. “It’s not a happy story. I’m sorry, I wish I could give you a fairy tale with a happy ending, I can’t. It’s a sad, reflective book of failure.”
Rehman said he had written two chapters that did not make it into the final version of the book. The first was about Malaysian women: he had abandoned it, however, after he realised he wanted Malaysian women to tell their own story.
“And the last bit was something I put right at the end. I called it an ‘Epilogue’. I thought I would put it like, if you do this, we might end up like this, if you do that, you might end up like that. And then I thought, no, now you are playing prophet!” Rehman said.
“So I kept that out, and left the book hanging. I want people to think for themselves – we each have our own destinies. If I were to prescribe what I think is going to become of our nation, that may not be what you think.”
Asked about the future, Rehman said he wanted to complete another book: one that was very different from Peninsula.
“It’s about Hulu Selangor, it’s about Kuala Kubu Baru. There are no politics, no current affairs. It’s about history, society, people, culture … wonderful stories, which have just gone by the wayside!” he said.
Peninsula, he said, was a deliberate attempt to pass on a message: that all of us needed to know our own stories, and we needed to tell them.
“I needed to pass on this knowledge, understanding and awareness of how old you are. How deep your roots are, and how far they are. And the miracle of us being here today,” Rehman said.