Saturday, August 23, 2014

Reading Rehman Rashid

I remember meeting Rehman Rashid at the Cooler Lumpur Literary Festival in 2013 despite knowing for certain that Rashid on the other hand, would have no recollection of me.

I had no idea how he looked like prior to that, but it might as well be as such or I would have avoided him. You see, I am cursed with the inability to behave like a normal human being when coming into contact with figures I am at awe with. To impose such affliction on someone like Rashid would have been mortifying to say the least.

I remember standing alone outside the event venue waiting anxiously for the Poskod Journalism Campus keynote address to start. Shifting my weight from one foot to the other, I pretended to look busy. On hindsight now, I have no idea how I thought I could possibly achieve that effect since I wasn’t doing anything, not even with a book to keep me company. So I was naturally grateful when a tall, slim man of about 40 or 50 (I can’t be sure because his face lacked the intensity of wrinkles one would come to expect with hair as white as his) approached me.

He held out his hand and introduced himself politely. I reciprocated by shaking his hand, still completely oblivious of who he was. For the life of me, I can’t seem to remember whether he had introduced himself with his full name or just Rehman, which could easily be mistaken as Rahman.

Although Rashid towered over me, he spoke as if we were peers of equal size and height, little did I know that baritone voice of his would fascinate me with his keynote address later that morning.

I can’t recall our conversation. It must had been perfunctory, but I remember being distracted by his sense of style. He was wearing dark denim pants (I think they might had been slightly frayed at the ankles) paired with a button-up shirt fitted loosely over his slender frame and polished black brogues. Nothing out of the ordinary except for the patterned bohemian sling bag hanging on his shoulder. It was strange that a man with such polished speech and manner should be seen voluntarily in public with a bag that seems more appropriate for a dreadlocked Rastafarian.

No one knows this but what Rashid said in his keynote address that morning changed the way I write. He was as good an orator as he is a writer. He was fascinating and witty. His messages, powerful and inspiring.

Rashid lamented how journalists are becoming egotistical and self-centred, that there are too many opinion pieces (and bloggers) but very little real journalism displayed in the media these days. His traditional view of journalism has made him a target of ridicule and criticism in the past, especially by bloggers; understandingly so for his patent public display of disaffection towards them. As harsh as he sounded in his opinion, I personally don’t think Rashid was being critical of the democratisation (or digitalisation) of the written expression and ideas, but more of the content. I think this is what many of his critics fail to understand.

Rashid asserted that the role of a journalist is to bring newsworthy stories of the everyday men and women on the street to the readers at home. He said nobody should care what a journalist thinks because a journalist’s job is not to think but to report.

I’ll be honest that I am constantly tempted to indulge my ego by writing an opinion piece, thinking that I have the carte blanche to comment on anything and everything, and people would give a damn about it. I still do it because it is easier surfing the net as research than engaging in meaningful conversations with people on issues I want to write about. The thing is, when I do the former, I often find my pieces to be utter rubbish.

Carl Bernstein, famed for his Watergate scandal reports said that good journalism is “trying to obtain the best attainable version of the truth” and the best way of doing so is by “being a good listener. Listening to source after source after source.” I believe Rashid was trying to tell us the same thing that day in his keynote address. He taught me that a good writer does not write to serve one’s ego but to be the voices of other people.

It took me four days to finish A Malaysian Journey. It would have taken me a much shorter time but for the frequent interruptions that came from a full-time job. Everytime I had to put the book down, I found myself willing for the day to speed up so that I could go back to it again.

For someone who had been pretty much ignorant of Malaysian politics until the age of 25, the book offers a lucid and easy-to-read narratives of some of the most important events that have helped shape much of Malaysia’s political landscape and its people today. I understand Malaysia much more in just one sitting of the book than six years of Malaysian history classes in school.

Rashid was very clever to write subject matters that could’ve easily run into the risk of being terribly dry, heavy and boring, in a prose which was both suitably beautiful and engaging to the readers. He was as delightful to read as Preeta Samarasan and Tan Twan Eng.

A Malaysian Journey proves that Rashid is a writer of conscience. He did not make himself out as some sort of a hero. There is a raw honesty in his account of his career as a journalist, being a Malay who benefits from the National Economic Programme, and the racial politics that would subsequently inflict such a gruesome wound on the nation that will take a long time before it heals.

Rashid approached the 16 chapters in his book by interlacing them in two separate styles – one chapter would unfold his voyage across Malaysia, often making sure the characters he met remained the hero or heroine, and the next of a significant national event that had taken place in the country chronologically.

What sets A Malaysian Journey apart from other books infused with political flavor is Rashid’s style of writing. It does not possess that unguarded bitterness found in most of Kee Thuan Chye’s writing, neither is it as intellectually pompous as Farish Noor’s. Kee tends to spit while Farish Noor shows off what he knows. Rashid? Well, he tells stories.

In my book, A Malaysian Journey has made Rehman Rashid one of the most memorable Malaysian writers of our time. I thank him for writing this book for he has made it possible for me to embark in an important journey in this place I call home.

This article was first published by The Malaysian Insider here.