The early days, 2003-04

The early days were filled with mixed emotions. On the one hand, Sumana and I were terribly excited to be embarking on this bicycle journey across Malaysia. On the other hand, there were a fair number of people who thought we were wasting a summer that might have been spent more productively on a more “normal” internship.

But there was certainly lots of raw energy. Many authors, most notably Haruki Murakami, like to talk about running and writing, and the relationship between the two. Having now run a couple of half-marathons–no way I can do a full–and almost done with the book, the one parallel I see is in motivational levels.

For both running and writing, the beginning and the end are filled with hope and feverish excitement. The middle, unfortunately, can be one long, tedious slog, where you start to seriously question the reasons for being where you are, doing what you’re doing. I imagine it’s similar to many other long, creative processes with uncertain outcomes.

Let’s start at the top. Not sure if you remember, dear reader, but back in 2003, there were some clear political tensions between Malaysia and Singapore, around airspace, land, water, crime and other things. Both sides’ newspapers, nationalist as they are, were driving citizens into a frenzy with their editorials. Politicians even alluded to war. Many of our Singaporean friends kept commenting that Malaysia is a dangerous place that should be avoided–“Drive straight to KL, but don’t stop anywhere on the way.”

Both Sumana and I have always loved Malaysia, so we found all this a bit unsettling and unfair. The problem, in our mind, was that ordinary Malaysians and Singaporeans did not really have a chance to understand each other. There is really very little dialogue between us. Our national media channels are essentially government mouthpieces. In any case, we can’t even buy each others’ newspapers. In Singapore, it’s easier to get a copy of Le Monde or the New York Times than the Malaysian Star.

So, just get ordinary people talking, and all our problems would be solved. Having just spent four years studying in California, that’s what our idealistic souls told us. In Dec 2003, I asked Sumana, “Why don’t we walk across Malaysia in our sarongs and see who we meet, and write about our encounters?”

From that rather flippant thought, a much more workable idea evolved. By Mar 2004 we had decided that we should bicycle across Malaysia. A bicycle was good, because we did not want to visit as the typical Singaporean did, barrelling through small towns in a sedan, or dropping in to tourist magnets in tour buses. A bicycle would allow us to approach kampungs and people quietly, unassumingly. Everybody wants to chat to a cyclist from far away, right? (Not really.)

And so then, like many insecure artists, we started seeking affirmation and approval from saner souls close to us. When I look back at this period now, it really went by in a blur, because we were so excited, every day was filled with new ideas about the what, how and where of the trip.

Amid all that, it’s sometimes easy to forget, or downplay, the impact of our conversations with our four mentors: Linda Lim, Sharon Siddique, Pete Gosling and Koh Buck Song. If they hadn’t prodded us on, we would have probably spent that summer doing something a lot more boring; a ‘normal’ internship somewhere.

“What will you achieve with the book? Don’t you need a regular internship to find a job? Is this a productive use of your Masters Programme Summer? How can you write a book based on one trip? Cycling?!?!”

It would take me far too long to catalogue the stream of dissuasions that we listened to. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them came from Singaporeans (plus 1 or 2 Malaysians).

Perhaps the most discouraging bit of advice I got came from an unlikely source–a researcher at one of Singapore’s think tanks. Up till that point, all academics we spoke with had egged us on, each providing his or her own perspective on our trip. But there was this one person–a Malaysian who had lived in Singapore for a long time–who threw cold water all over us. telling us “You Singaporeans think you can understand Malaysia with just one trip. There is nothing more I can help you with, sorry.”

At that point, I remember feeling surprised, saddened, a bit incensed even.

That is why we are eternally grateful to Linda, Sharon, Pete and Buck Song. They were four beacons of encouragement in a sea of bemusement.

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