In the foreword to Good Grief! I mention how Adibah Amin, a senior editor and the best-known columnist at The New Straits Times, asked me to write a personal column when I was a rookie at the paper. This is that column, which I’ve tidied up some but it’s still a ramble. In the 1970s young people from all over Malaysia arrived in the capital to work and it was not uncommon to hear them yearn for their more blissful hometowns while finding fault with everything in KL. They found it funny that anyone considered KL his hometown, but it was mine. I was thrilled when Adibah okayed this piece to run in the Capital Perspective column in the paper’s Op Ed pages and I did not know it would lead to writing personal columns off and on over the years, first at NST and then at The Straits Times after I moved to Singapore in 1980.
I’d been at NST for just 14 months when this ran on November 26 1977, under the headline This Happens To Be My Kuala Lumpur!
GO AHEAD. Call Kuala Lumpur a hell hole. Curse its floods, traffic jams and taxi drivers. Mourn for the disillusioned young lured here by visions of bright lights. Grumble about not finding a parking space at lunchtime, or tickets for the 9.15 show, or the jaga kereta, cinema touts and kamikaze minibus drivers.
This, if you don’t mind, happens to be my hometown.
Sure, that sounds funny. It’s perfectly respectable to come from Kulai or Simpang Jalong or Gua Musang. But KL? One almost hears the shriek of laughter and: “But everybody knows KL is nobody’s hometown!”
Well it’s mine. This is where I was born, went to school and university, and where I now work. Not terribly exciting, perhaps, but this is where I grew up and experienced all those big and little joys and hurts and fears and frustrations that go to making life, in retrospect at least, interesting.
Going to Fatima Kindergarten on Bukit Nanas was a terrifying experience because my first teacher was Miss Zach, who seemed to be 150 years old and something of a legend for her fierceness. She rode sedately to school each morning in her trisha, and then rammed the alphabet down our throats.
But that was where I started making friends, the first of whom was Abdul Wahid Karim who sat and suffered next to me. He gave me my first dog, a pup I named Whiskey, who died too soon in a fight. It was a major trauma for me as a six-year-old.
Wahid and I and some others moved from Fatima Kindergarten to St John’s Institution next door on Bukit Nanas, and most of us remained in the same school for the next dozen years.
There were some perks to being a KL schoolboy right from the time we were in primary school, especially when we were made to line the roads waving flags as visiting dignitaries passed by in their limousines – it didn’t matter who was visiting, from where; it meant we got to skip classes.
And later there were rallies, marches and Malaysia Day parades we were selected for – performing calisthenics or dancing (with real girls from the Bukit Nanas Convent next to our school) and having our performances telecast nationwide.
The most fun was when Kuala Lumpur was declared a city, and we danced all night in a parade along its busiest streets in a KL version of the mardi gras.
In Sixth Form I found myself one of six boys in a class with 24 girls. The year before, 1970, had been the first, terrible year of the national Malaysian Certificate of Education examinations – the equivalent of the O levels – and a pass in Malay language was compulsory in order to pass. Disaster struck that year at St Johns, which had always recorded a strong pass rate. Only 23 per cent of the Class of 1970 passed the exam. Hence the big influx of girls as well as boys from several other schools in sixth form.
Who could forget Azmah, the prefect who who popped into the office complex near SJI one day and found 10 boys smoking while in school uniform. She rounded up the lot of them and marched them to the principal’s office, then promptly burst into tears!
Those were probably the last days of an era when a schoolboy’s most mortal sin was smoking a cigarette; we were only just beginning to hear of schoolboys on drugs.
But really, paradise was having the capital city just a flight of stairs from school. It took just a well-timed nip to be out of school and free to get lost in any corner of town. And with so many students owning cars or motorbikes, the getaway was made much quicker and we always got tickets for the 1pm movie.
KL is also where I went to university. The mid Seventies were a period of student demonstrations, the Riot Squad arrived frequently on campus during one season of student unrest, and you had to run from tear gas. Then we graduated, and The New Straits Times featured a cartoon by Lat showing row after row of mortar boards in the Great Hall of the University of Malaya and, held high, a newspaper turned to the Situations Vacant columns… somehow, we managed to laugh.
Those were bad times, being unemployed in KL, where the jobs were supposed to be. There was a day when three of us new grads went out to do the town to celebrate achieving our honours degrees, with something like $10 between us.
Afterwards, there was the sheer joy of getting my first job – as a relief teacher – even though teaching was the one thing I’d vowed never to do. But the best was yet to be, I knew, the day I sold a short story to a magazine for $80. I landed a job at the newspaper not long after.
THE OTHER DAY I met an old classmate in a supermarket and for four minutes we talked about the people we were still in contact with. A guy who became an army dentist, the girl who married her lecturer and went away, and Larry who chose not go to university and had become so successful selling computers and photostat machines that he changed his car every six months.
Last year, Hashim got married. Florence too. And this year, Lee Chong and Poh Yin. I bumped into Movita doing her marketing recently and she was blissfully pregnant. God knows what’s happened to so many other people who’ve got lost in this city.
I have made my best friends here, yet at times it feels as if the city has robbed me of many more, especially those who went to work right after school. We changed at different rates, and changed from one another so that today we don’t meet any more, even though we’re all still here in KL.
It could get a person feeling down, but two weeks ago an invitation came from my old school. The Eagle Scouts troop had built themselves a fine new den which was going to be opened by a Cabinet Minister and would I come? In a corner, a scribbled “Still remember you” signed by Colin Nicholas, who was a couple of years behind me in school.
This can’t be such a cold, impersonal city after all, when you’re thought of five years after you’ve left school and have never gone back. It was a reminder that KL is much more to me than a crowded, congested, unplanned city. I am not a migrant forced to leave loved friends and family elsewhere to work here. This is where I come from and that makes a whole lot of difference.
It does not mean that I am blind to the sins committed in my city, or that I like crawling in a traffic jam, or that I forgive the city’s planners who, unable to keep pace with the thousands of people pouring into the city each year, have an uncanny knack for getting bright ideas that aren’t.
Expensive bright ideas like building a satellite town so close to KL that for most of the last 20 years Petaling Jaya has struggled to shed its “dormitory” image; building Subang international airport so close to civilisation that it’s becoming hemmed in by housing development; building a Federal Highway and rebuilding it 15 years later, even before its designers had stopped congratulating themselves.
Then there are the small bright ideas: of making KL a garden city and planting trees and shrubs along some roads while mercilessly hacking beautiful old rain trees on others. And the anti-litter and anti-jaywalking campaigns that are so ill-sustained, because everyone knows that once the crackdown is over, you can throw everything from used tissue to rambutan skins out of your car or run amok in peak-hour traffic and not a thing will be done.
That’s my schizophrenic city for you.
The best times I’ve had in KL have been the simplest of times, sitting in the middle of the Selangor Padang on a fine night with good friends, talking, dreaming and perhaps suddenly breaking out into crazy songs. Or going on a long drive wherever the road takes us, sometimes to Rawang, sometimes to Subang or Kajang.
Coming from KL has made me extra tolerant of the way people are, and I will listen as Penangites (especially Penangites) moan for their fabulous island and its incomparable laksa or lorbah or kway-teow, and Ipoh men delude themselves that the sweetest girls are from their hometown because of the limestone-flavoured water they drink.
I know the Penang laksa is just as good in KL’s Jalan Alor, Penang’s trisha riders are of the same breed as taxi drivers here, and the price tags in Penang don’t mean a thing because the shop men there expect everyone to bargain. As for girls, limestone water, sea breezes or mountain air don’t mean a thing, and I know a few young women of ultra sweet dispositions who guzzle beer as if it flowed from the hills.
Anyway, if other Malaysians don’t care for my city, I have met quite a few tourists who are absolutely charmed by the most mundane of things here, and I love showing off KL, bluffing them about the culture, jazzing on about Batu Caves, Kampong Baru, the State Secretariat and Masjid Negara.
I confess I have had fits of aversion to my city, and flirted with thoughts of settling in some more peaceful place – once Bentong, then Tanah Rata, then Malacca, then Kota Baru. Once, I suffered so great a passion for Kuala Dungun’s pure serenity, I almost vowed to someday build my little shack on that superfantastic East Coast strip.
But wherever I go, however much I enjoy myself elsewhere, coming back to KL is always an exhilarating experience as I return to familiar faces, places, smells, sounds and feelings – the things that are real, ordinary and stable in my life.
And even if, like the time I returned from Singapore recently, the welcoming committee comprises a pack of taxi drivers ready at 7.15am to fleece me at $2.50 a mile, I’ll know I’m back in my crazy, disorganised city.
And I’ll keep coming home.