Tuesday, October 25, 2016

“Muar Stories Encore – A Colourful Past Revisited”

Foreword to More Pages From the Past by Kamaruddin Abdullah


 Many things have happened in ‘Muo’ (that is how the town of Muar is referred to by its proud inhabitants) since Pages From My Past by Kamaruddin Abdullah was published three years ago. Muar Town, now Bandar Di Rajaor ‘Royal Town’, is undergoing transformation. New buildings are reshaping its skyline. The Tanjung Emas area, once a sleepy hollow, is alive with development and activities. New housing estates are sprouting all over to cater for its growing population.

Three murals are providing another good reason for people to stop over at the town. The first one is at the Jalan Bakri roundabout. Entitled The Loving Sisters, it is an 11.86-metre by 9.75-metre work by young Russian artist Julia Voichkova, which was completed in 14 days. The other one atJalan Yahya was painted by Spanish artist Sabek and the third mural is at Dataran Tanjung Emas, done by a British, Thomas Powell.

Culture and the arts used to be part of the identity of Muar since time immemorial. A writers association, Persatuan Penulis dan Peminat Bahasa Muar (PPPBM), affiliated to GAPENA, the national writers’ federation, was home to many good writers from the district. I was one of its members in the 1970s. Besides the Malay ghazal and zapin, performing arts were flourishingamong people of Javanese descent in the form of kuda kepang, ketoprak, cempuleng and wayang wong.

At last something is ‘happening’now in what used to be bandar pencen (pensioners’ town). With new and hip eateries for the young and old alike,Muar is perhaps changing for the better. But like all things Muar, progress is cautiously embraced. Muarians (the people of Muar) like it their way – the Muar way.

Let the world shift and shake, Muar would rather move gracefully with time, preserving the identity and the uniqueness that is peculiarly and unmistakably Muar. After all, this is no ordinary town. This is a town replete with history and rich in tradition.

As proven by history, modernisation came early to the state of Johor. But Muar was a few steps behind Johor Bahru, the state capital, progress-wise. Abdul Malik Munip’s book, Bandar Maharani dan Daerah Muar 1884-1920:Peribumi dan Pemodenan, published in 1984 is really an eye-opener. (‘Bandar Maharani’ is another name for Muar). Abdul Malik, a Muar-born scholar, was a lecturer with the History Department of the University of Malaya. He later joined politics, even represented the parliamentary constituency of Muar for some years. The book is a study on how the district of Muar was administered between 1884 and 1920.

Muar was already a ‘special’ town in 1901 in the eyes of The Malay Mail. On 8 March of that year, the newspaper carried an editorial regarding the backwardness of the indigenous people, particularly the Malays in the Federated Malay States (FMS). It commented on the failure of the colonisers in winning the hearts and minds of the people despite creating “civilizing institutions” such as schools, hospitals, post offices and such. 

Yet the Malays were largely left behind in the economic sphere. Interestingly, the editorial made this observation:“The great fact remains that the Malays of Muar have a national life of their own and, taking part in the administration of the country, naturally take a keen interest in it.” The editorial was comparing the administration of Muar with that of other districts in Malaya at the time.Managed by Malay administrators, the management style was highly regarded by the newspaper.

In his study,Abdul Malik found that there was stability and relative prosperity in the district during the period. That was the period of no interference from the British. Even with the appointment of a Deputy British Advisor in the district in 1911, most of decisions were still made by pegawai anak negeri (local administrators) till 1914.  Muarians certainly have reasons to gloat that long before British advisers were poking their fingers into the administration of the district, Muar was already well administered.

Yes, Muarians gloat a lot. You are a Muarian not by accident. You are destined to be one. Being orang Muar (Muar People) even today is a badge of honour. Talk about Bangsa Johor (yes, Muarians are undeniably part of that) but for Muarians,they are Bangsa Muar first. Hey, after all, the current Prime Minister has Muar genes. His mother is a full-blooded Muarian, born to a distinguished Muar family.

What is so special about Muar? The penambang (jetty)? There were other rivers where ferries were used to get across back then. The tanjung(cape)? Until recently, only old mansions dotted the area. The panggung (cinema)? The Asiatic was not the only cinema offering cheap matinees in Malayan towns. Or the stories about people with Italian-sounding names who were part of the ‘satay cartel’ of the 1960s and 70s in Muar? 

Those satay sellers were of Javanese descent with names like Marion, Suarno, Mantono, Karto and Santini. Based on the names, one can’t get anymore Italian than that. These families dominated the satay franchise back then. And they were controlling certain areas so as to avoid conflicts. Ask Kamaruddin, he can write a book about them.

Or is it about the railway line at Parit Jawa in the district, said to be one of the earliest in the country? Or the fact that the town had two of the most active publishers churning Malay novels and other publications as early as the 1930s – the Muhammadiah Press and Jamiliah Press? Or that Muar High School, where I studied in Form Six, is more than 100 years old and has produced almost all the menteri besar(chief ministers) of the state?Do you know that Muar produced the most number of ‘Tan Sri’for any district in Malaysia, minus the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur? I may be wrong but Muarians believe this is true.

In short, we are talking about a town people look up to and talk about. Muar is famous for its home-grown Kopi 434, mi Bandung, satay served in the morning, and asam pedas. Little wonder that t-shirts proclaiming ‘Muo People: We Eat Satay in the Morning’,Menantu Yang Baik Adalah Orang Muar(The best son- or daughter-in-law is a Muarian) and Orang Muo Gaya Muo (Muo People Muo Style) are worn proudly. It is perhaps the consciousness of being a Muarian or the fact that Muarians are clamouring for their own identity within the Johor construct. Call it identity contestation.

I was born many kilometres away from the town. Muar was a ‘far away’ town for me and my family. I would take a bus ride to Muar with my father when he had urusan (business to attend to) in Muar, like paying taxes. The one-hour journey from my kampung, Sungai Balang Besar, to Muar was always eventful, at least by my standard back then. The business at the Land Office might take no less than an hour but I can’t forget the thrill of strolling along the Muar River bank, having tea at a Hailam shop at Jalan Abdullah, visiting Kedai Manap (the bookshop) or, when Ayah had enough money, having mi Bandung at one of the shops.

I wasn’t raised in the town, but Muar is always part of my consciousness. Pergi Bando (going to town) is always the magic phrase. When I was a student at Muar High School (1972/1973),I learned to appreciate the town even more – frequenting places mentioned in Kamaruddin’s first book, even getting to know many of the characters he later mentioned in his work.

This is the Muar stories’ encore.

Kamaruddin must have many stories to share from his past. I was told that he has become a minor celebrity now in Johor, especially in Muar, andin places frequented by Johoreans, and especially Muarians,in Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur. Everyone has an episode or a character to add to Kamaruddin’s stories. I am happy that he decided to come out with this second book about growing up in Muar. 

Like the first book, this is not an official history of Muar or its people. It contains stories of the town and its people. Kamaruddin is no historian. He is a blogger and a writer and, more importantly,a Muarian writing about his early life in colourful Muar. You can’t blame him for being irrationally exuberant about the place where he was born and bred. Perhaps nostalgia is good for us. When we reminisce, life feels more meaningful.

We often can’t help but bring back our fondest memories – whatever left of it at this age – with whim and longing, rewinding our follies of youth on replay, perhaps to relieve us of the pressures of the present. Kamaruddin is doing just that and more. He reminds us of our younger days too. Kamaruddin is not exactly writing his official memoir, he is reliving his memories of the good (and some bad) old days.

In this book he is sharing with us many more Muar stories, ranging from “Bobby Cliff and the Teenage Blues” to “In Memory of Pak Malek, My Beca Man” to “The London Circus is Coming to Town”. You want to know who were the “Muar Tanjung Boys” or the “Muar Town Girls”? Read the relevant chapters! Like the first book, he uses his licence to name names and talks about the characters of people whom he knew and encountered, replete with gelaran (nicknames), and get away with it. He does it with lots of humour and finesse.

Would you care to read about someone else’s first day in school or his tree-climbing adventures or about livestock and pets? But these ‘nothing’ stories become a compelling read in this book. Kamaruddin is a good story-teller after all. He writes effortlessly without proving himself to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

Just take a look at the chapter on Sangam the movie. Like Kamaruddin, I wasn’t a great fan of Hindi movies before Sangam. The 1964 film about an ill-fated triangular love affair acted by Raj Kapoor, Vijayanthimala and Rajendra Kumar was a classic in its own right. It was one of the best remembered Hindi movies of all time. Kamaruddin, a sceptic before entering the cinema,came out besotted and singing one of the signature songs in the movie, Dost Dost Na Raha.

Kamaruddin has a chapter on “The Cinemas of Muar Town”. One of the cinema halls he mentioned, Asiatic, was my favourite too for it offered cheap matinees on Saturdays. Asiatic reminds me of the cinema in Semerah, where my primary and secondary schools were, known as Panggung Kandar. The cinema is my ‘Cinema Paradiso’ – the place where I discovered the magic and grandeur of cinema. Cinema Paradiso is a movie directed by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore in 1988. It was a rite-of-passage movie for me.

Like Sangam, Penarik Beca (directed by P Ramlee in 1955) and Citizen Kane (helmed by Orson Welles in 1941), Cinema Paradiso lured me into the world of films and performing arts, an obsession I continue  to this day. My book, Jejak Seni Johan Jaaffar: Dari Pentas Bangsawan ke Media Prima Berhad (published by DBP), is the story of my involvement in the world of performing arts and content creation over the last 50 years.

I must admit that I am attracted to stories from Kamaruddin’s past. Even if you are not from Muar, you will be swayed by Kamaruddin’s simple yet arresting way of telling stories. Perhaps even relate to his stories. It is not surprising that the first book was a success. 

I am honoured to be given this opportunity to write the Foreword for the second book. It is always a pleasure to be associated with this project. I must thank the publisher of the book, Datin Kalsom Taib, who incidentally is the writer’s aunt and his former teacher. Kalsom herself is the daughter of the legendary Tan Sri Taib Andak, in whose house the late Tun Razak stayed when he was studying in London. Taib was the first Chairman of Felda. Like Kalsom, Kamaruddin too came from a distinguished family in Muar. And I thank Kamaruddin for his faith in me, despite losing patience at times for my procrastination in getting the Foreword done according to schedule.  

I am looking forward to more Muar stories by Kamaruddin. I enjoyed them immensely. I am sure you will too.Happy reading.