By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge Malaysia, 27 March 2017. Also published in Penang Monthly, May 2017.
I paid at the counter for a taxi at KLIA2 a few weeks ago to take me to Bandar Sunway. My cabbie was an elderly Malay man who liked quoting Shakespeare. (Well, he was somewhat older even than me).
We began small-talking in Malay, but he soon thought it best that we switched to English after witnessing my faltering use of the language. I was glad he did. It turned out that he was born and raised in Penang, like I was; and went to a missionary school, like I. And he studied English literature, like I did.
Reminiscing, he would burst at appropriate points in our conversation into something like:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.
After finishing his O-level exams, Abdul had moved to Kuala Lumpur to join the police force, ending up working as Assistant Superintendent of Police in Perak fighting communists in the early 1970s in “the second Emergency”. He left the force after nine years to dabble in other things.
On learning that I am prone by profession to analyse politics, he left off quoting from Julius Caesar and ventured to clarify for me how “strange” Malaysian politics is. I could tell that his English had been somewhat dormant, but it quickly got better as we sped along the highway.
“Our constituencies are cut up in very funny ways, so our votes are really far from equal. You know, the means that the establishment have at their disposal are many, and staying in power is their main concern. That is the essence of Malaysian politics today. Why would they allow themselves to lose power?”
We passed a huge travel poster on a flyover, which was trying to entice Malaysians to visit Ho Chi Minh City. Distracted, I told him that I was there recently and was surprised to learn how popular the place was with Malaysians nowadays.
“They go there to buy textiles and such”, he said.
“So I heard”, I replied. “Do you know that there are several streets there right in the centre of the old city, that are lined with restaurants marked with huge green signs saying “Halal”? Shows you how well the Vietnamese have succeeded in attracting Malaysian Muslims to fly there on holiday”.
Abdul — I shall not use his full name here since I did not ask him for permission to relay our conversation so publicly — hesitated a while, trying to decide if he should talk further in that direction or not. Since we were still far from my destination, he seemed finally to think it worth his while.
“Well’” he continued ardently, “halal is not about food only. It is about everything, but we seem to limit it to rituals nowadays. Halal is the opposite of Haram, and is about being moral and obeying the Prophet in your heart, not about rituals. Rituals make up maybe 10% of it all.”
Not used to being involved in a conversation on Islam with a Muslim and a stranger, I only managed to respond with a friendly and deflecting “Are you a religious man, Abdul?”
A pause, and then he continued: “For me, it is about having faith first, submitting fully to Allah. Then come the rituals. One understands what is right and wrong through following the Prophet. Let’s say, if I have intentionally offended somebody, stolen from him, and I feel bad about it, praying to Allah for forgiveness does not ease my burden, my sense of guilt. I have to make up for it by asking for forgiveness from the person I wronged, and by making amends. That is obeying the Prophet. Why bring Allah into it? And if that person whom I wrong slaps me, then I have to take it. That is my punishment.”
“In politics, if I have been stealing from the people, then that is not halal, and I should make amends and apologize to them”, he continued along his train of thought.
“You know, when you reach the end, you reach the end. You cannot take your money with you. If I were to find a million ringgit left in my car, I would not be happy, really. It is not my money, and it was probably gained immorally. Haram money. I would get rid of it, and I hope I will not feel any sense of loss doing it.
“A good man lives with the idea of death in his mind, a sense of his own mortality. That way, he can stay humble and sincere and get his priorities right. If you live as if your life is forever, then your moral compass will not be reliable.
Apparently changing the subject, as we neared our destination, he said: “Look at the rain now. It is a blessing, it comes down to keep everything green”.
With the downpour and the heavy traffic, the trip to Bandar Sunway took about an hour. Abdul, this happy grandfather of 11 grandsons, handed me a small slip of paper from a bundle he kept in the car door, with his phone number on it scribbled neatly in pencil.
“A poor man’s calling card”, he explained with an embarrassed chuckle.
I tipped him a few undervalued ringgit to thank him for the delightful chat we had had. “Dinner on me”, I said. “I hope to see you again”.
He turned round fully, smiling warmly, and said: “Insha’Allah”. Yes. “Insha’Allah”, I beamed to myself as I climbed out of the wise man’s yellow taxi onto the wet walkway.
Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His recent books include “The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World” (ISEAS, 2015).