AFTER biting into a white chocolate and raspberry biscuit I was recently offered, my brain instantly replayed old memories based on a similar taste, but I could not pinpoint specifically why. Minutes later I exclaimed: “Jammie Dodgers!” – the popular British biscuit I used to eat daily in my early teens. The next day I ate an exceptionally good pink and white kuih lapis, which transported me to an even earlier time: having tea at the house of my late Nyang Wan.
Indeed, certain tastes, smells, sights and sounds can get one in a seriously reminiscent mood. For me, music is a particularly effective trigger. Klasik Nasional is one of my regular stations and it is clear that many Malaysians also enjoy being transported back in time. However, I’ve also been hearing many remakes of classics, especially Indie bands playing P Ramlee (though the 2011 collection ‘Satu Indiepretasi’ has so much chutzpah it needs to be soothed by the Bolshoi Ballet Theatre Orchestra of Tashkent’s interpretations). Other cultural throwbacks abound too: one current announcement on air extols the virtues of wearing the baju kurung and at a recent tahlil I noticed that more men were wearing their songkoks at a jaunty angle.
A number of restaurants and cafes have embraced this spirit. Wondermama in Bangsar Village is bedecked with 60s-style chairs, props and white cast iron grilles. Hit and Mrs in a quieter part of Bangsar adopts the same principle but in a slightly more risque way. A number of restaurants eschew the Tom and Jerry cartoons for P Ramlee films. However, I have yet to see a menu bravely violating the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka by using 60s spelling: I won’t order air batu campur, but ayer batu champor (made using the classic hand-cranked ice shaver) is an entirely different matter.
What’s interesting about
this renaissance is that – judging from the hipsters who always hang out at Publika and are involved in social enterprises or trying to save the planet – it is being driven by young people. Many Malaysians who were not alive in the immediate post-Merdeka era have a huge affinity for it.
It is political, too. For the middle class children of upwardly-mobile parents who attended English-medium government schools, went to joget clubs and learnt the lessons of life away from the prying eyes of the state, the contrast between today’s Malaysia and their conception (albeit somewhat idealised) of an older Malaysia is blatant, and perhaps this loyalty towards the imagined nation of yore represents a rejection of today’s mores, warped to the maximum by deliberate politicisation.
The foreignness of the past is starker when popular culture meets politics, of course, like in Datuk Zainal Alam’s ‘Undilah’ or old movies’ tackling of touchy issues, which I would recommend for those who cannot visit museums like I suggested last week.
However, I would like to put in a good word for the National Science Centre which I visited since my last article after at least a decade of not stepping into the distinctive domed building. It was buzzing with children enjoying the play areas and interactive exhibits that were performing their educational function.
Logically, I was there for Star Trek: The Exhibition – KL is the first city in Asia to host it, which must say something about its popularity here. Although the original series came out in the 60s, I became a fan in my teens thanks to ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ which was then running on Malaysian terrestrial television. It was definitely not cool to admit to being a Trekkie in those days, but geek has since become cool (so we tell ourselves at least) and I am astonished by the popularity of the franchise’s reboot courtesy of the 2009 movie, whose sequel will be released this May.
Models of ships, props and uniforms were very well exhibited, and schoolchildren sniggered with glee as they compared their smartphones to the comparatively bulky ‘future technology’ on display. There was an ‘Asians in Space’ panel featuring Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, but the most exciting element was the replica of the bridge of the Enterprise-D.
The show was never really about the technology though. Many political lessons were learned from the series – from the institutions of the United Federation of Planets (a liberal democratic socialist state), the restoration of the Klingon constitutional monarchy and constant references to the rule of law, in particular Starfleet’s Prime Directive. The crews of the ships were famously multiracial, multi-species and mixed gender and provided inspiration for countless real-life astronauts today.
In drawing inspiration from the past or the future, it seems there’s no time like the present.
Star Trek: The Exhibition runs until the end of the month.
Tunku Abidin Muhriz is a founding president of IDEAS.