In 1981, not long after I turned ten, Malaysia implemented its infamous ‘Buy British Last’ campaign that was to carry on for a full two years; the following year, a complementary policy was introduced – the ‘Look East’ policy that strove to learn from the emerging economic powerhouses of East Asia. Mahathir Muhammad, then in his early days as Prime Minister, was already establishing what was to become his unique brand of leadership – brash, insolent, provocative, sometimes mischievous, occasionally inflammatory, and on more than one occasion, downright illogical. In many ways, his no-holds-barred style of government reflected the manner of Malaysia’s rapid economic rise in the years that followed. It was as if he was consciously trying to fashion an image for what he wanted the country to be: ultra-confident and unapologetic, not just severing all links with our colonial past but sticking a bold middle finger up to it while we strode chest-out into the future.

For my family, like most ordinary Malaysians, the ‘Buy British Last’ policy had little impact. The lack of availability of British-made products – shortbread biscuits, fine blended teas – had no bearing on our everyday lives. There were a few people for whom the sudden shift in trading relationships triggered a deep nostalgia for golden syrup and Horlicks, which had to be purchased on the sly through friends and relatives who had connections at the NAAFI, but for the vast majority of Malaysians, the idea of British-made goods held little appeal. Over-priced and obscure, things like Scottish jumpers (for those rich enough to travel to colder climes) and Marks & Spencer biscuits were beyond the imagination and price range for most ordinary people, and for those who were aware of them, the recherché quality of these goods lay in a sort of dowdy reliability which seemed increasingly irrelevant in the ever-growing presence of Japanese goods, shiny and practical and glorious in their modernity. Why bother getting an expensive, unreliable Rover when you could buy a sleek new Nissan at half the price and twice the efficiency? I remember a period when rubbish bins outside the houses of the middle-class suburb where I went to school seemed to overflow with old turntables and radios (wireless sets – even the name sounded ridiculously old-fashioned), thrown out in favour of crystal-clear Yamaha and Sony stereo systems. If ever there was a conflict between Old Order and New Order, this was it – the beginning of the end of the ancien regime, played out with such startling certitude that it seemed almost comical in retrospect.

And yet the blithe throwing out of the old masked a more complex reaction to the new. While the history books might record the high-level meetings between trade delegations in London and Kuala Lumpur, and the unthinking vigour with which the entire country jettisoned their last remnants of colonial sentimentalism, they might not necessarily articulate the unease with which a substantial proportion of the population regarded this new policy of Looking East, for the East meant, for all intents and purposes, Japan, which had invaded Malaysia a mere forty years previously. For the ethnic Chinese population of Malaysia, this new policy represented a serious test of their much-famed sense of practicality, their ability to look forward and forget the past. Then making up 35 per cent of the population of the country, Chinese-Malaysians still felt the raw emotional wounds of war, when they had been targeted by the Japanese army for particularly brutal treatment, a legacy of China’s ancient enmity with Japan. Most Chinese-Malaysians capable of making an informed choice in such matters (such as my parents and those of their generation) had been born during the war, or just after it, and it is safe to say that all of them had firm opinions on Japan. For them, the idea of buying from the enemy was abhorrent; and to complicate the issue further, there was the ever-thorny issue of racial politics which, inherited from the British colonial government and steadily exacerbated by post-Independent government, assigned differing social and economic benefits to the various ethnic groups in the country. The long and short of it is that many Chinese-Malaysians, already angered by discriminatory politics, felt the governmental decree to buy Japanese goods as a slap in the face. In the predominantly ethnic Chinese neighbourhoods where I grew up, it was not uncommon to hear people swearing over long-dead mothers’ graves that they would never, ever buy anything Japanese . . .

I used to listen to these tirades while counting the increasing number of Japanese-made goods in the house: the Hitachi rice cooker, lurking in the corner of the kitchen; the Casio alarm clock; the neat, solid plastic food storage boxes in the fridge – all this without even mentioning the objects of our childhood desire, which ranged from cute little Nintendo games to the ultimate of teenage glamour, the Sony Walkman.

For us, one generation further removed from the War, the injustices of the past blurred hazily into the distance, replaced by things we could use, objects we could covet. We were growing up, becoming aware of the allure of material objects, and it was impossible to resist Japan. Even in the most hard-line households, with the battered old Austin squeezed into the small open-walled garage, this renewed anti-Japan rhetoric felt less an attack against the old enemy itself but a protest against the government, the cry of an aggrieved people. No one had any real attachment to Britain, but the determination to get their hands on British products seemed a convenient way of expressing their dissatisfaction with their lot. I think it was in this way that we ended up buying a Ford Cortina (cream body, black plastic fixed roof), which we drove for over fifteen years. Towards the end of its life it broke down repeatedly in ever more embarrassing and inconvenient circumstances, until one day we left it with a scrap merchant who gave us twenty bucks for it.

The Buy British Last policy produced only one real, lasting source of anxiety for us as a family, as it did for most of the people I knew – a key issue in the dispute that caused the policy in the first place. Although there had been fairly serious skirmishes along purely commercial lines – such as the London Stock Exchange’s implementing of rules preventing stealth takeovers (a reaction to the Malaysian government’s seizing of control of Guthrie, one of the flagship plantation holdings during colonial rule), the incident that really provoked Prime Minister Mahathir’s already brimming sense of injustice was the British government’s decision to introduce exorbitantly high tuition fees for foreign students at British universities. In the late seventies and early eighties, Malaysian students represented the largest single body of overseas students in Britain, reflecting the long-established cultural ties between the two countries. Our entire school system was modelled along British lines, we studied in Malay and English and for bright students, Britain was the default option for tertiary education; America was then just a distant, nascent Plan B. The National University of Singapore was acceptable, as were the then unknown Australian universities; Britain was still where people wanted to study. Suddenly, however, that entire possibility was evaporating before our very eyes – the ambitions of an entire burgeoning bourgeoisie dashed. Figures were bandied about – three, four, five thousand pounds – easily twice the annual salary of a middle-ranking manager or lawyer.

I was only ten, but already aware of the importance of such matters; my sister was getting ready to sit for her O-levels, and in the true aspiring fashion of the new Asian middle class, our entire existence was subtly geared towards performance in public exams, with the ultimate goal being access to an old British university. What happened thereafter was a void – nothing seemed to matter after university; everything was presumed glorious. Getting in was all that mattered – your passport to a brilliant life. As I once heard a family friend say, ‘Once you’re at Cambridge, no one fails.’ (This is not true, obviously.) It was, and still is, entirely the done thing to speak openly about exams and university admissions in front of a ten-year-old, and assume total comprehension on his part. But although I understood the gravity of the situation, I never quite got what had to be done, unlike my peers, who seemed instinctively to grasp the importance of the task at hand. The only way for the non-rich to attend university in Britain now was to gain one of the few scholarships available to the ethnic Chinese population, mostly – and ironically – awarded by the British government or else by charitable foundations. Thus began an unseemly, often vicious scrap for these bursaries, an all-consuming competition from which I disqualified myself by being utterly hopeless at Maths, the essential element of Southeast Asian public exams, particularly for boys (I wasn’t great at the Sciences, either). Only those who have grown up in an Asian environment can know the constant pressure and low-level paranoia that many school-going children experience – a mentality that our Singaporean cousins call kiasu: the fear of losing, even though it isn’t clear what, or to whom, they are losing. In the dizzy haze of childhood anxiety, it was impossible to appreciate the delicious irony of this desperation to study in Britain, even as our entire country was celebrating its new, confident self – celebrating a renaissance that had no further need for Britain, that would only look into the future.

Kuala Lumpur, where I grew up, is a curious city. Established in the latter half of the nineteenth century on the site of vast tin mines, it lacks the heritage of the old Straits settlements of Penang or Malacca, with their layers of history and old-world charm. As a capital city, it is unassuming and relatively ordered, unlike the frenetic urban sprawls of Bangkok or Jakarta or Manila; and of course it lacks the cosmopolitan pizzazz of Singapore. The absence of any pronounced character had always made KL (as everyone calls it) an easy place to live – a small big city, its streets are cleanish, its suburbs neatly laid out in grids of numbered streets; food is plentiful and readily available, day or night; and the traffic, though bad and worsening, is still nowhere near the semi-permanent gridlock of Jakarta or Bangkok. Sometimes, driving around the city on my way home after dinner, I am struck by its small-town ambiance – the inherent slowness of life, the dedication to a certain way of life that revolves around languid, simple meals with friends, often in modest, open-air eating places, or going from one mamak stall to another, nowadays perhaps interspersed with a drink in a fancy bar somewhere in central KL. We call this kind of social interaction to lepak, even when we are speaking English.

‘What do you want to do tomorrow?’

‘I don’t know, maybe just lepak’.

It can be most closely translated as hanging out, or relaxing, or kicking about, but it is more than that – it involves a greater sense of intimacy, an acute appreciation of the absence of responsibility, a feeling that there is, in fact, nothing more to do in life than to lepak – as if to lepak is inevitable. To understand the Malaysian’s commitment to the art of lepak (or lepak-ing; the verb can be used with great freedom) is to understand why KL is a strange place – a capital city with the soul of a village, a metropolis that doesn’t quite know how to be a metropolis.

During my childhood, KL often felt like an overgrown village, or at least a series of interconnected villages separated by large stretches of fairly thick jungle, through which narrow, unlit roads would snake, giving the impression of travelling deep in the countryside, even if that journey only lasted five or ten minutes. Even in the centre of town, around the expensive hotels such as the Hilton and the Equatorial, the cityscape was distinctly low-rise, verdant and slow-paced, dominated by the racecourse (horses, not Formula 1, just to be clear) fringed by huge old angsana and rain trees, under which there was a permanent presence of food stalls and their clients, lepak-ing even on weekdays when the races weren’t on. Founded under the patronage of Sir William Maxwell, the Turf Club’s provenance made it a prime target for redevelopment as we moved into the 1980s (a quick scan of the surnames associated with the Club’s early days gives an idea of its origins: ‘Messrs Aylesbury, Tate, McD Mitchell, F Douglas Osborne, Dr Travers . . . et al’); the sharper the acceleration of nationalism and modernism (always a dangerous combination), the more it seemed likely that the racecourse’s days were numbered. Today, predictably, its former site is occupied by the Petronas Twin Towers, for six heady years the tallest building in the world, and still the proudest emblem of Malaysia’s gleaming modernity.

Although it would take a further decade or two for the redevelopment drive in central KL fully to hit its stride, the signs were clear to see in the early 1980s – quite literally, as it turned out. The renaming of roads in KL had begun in the decade following Independence back in 1957 – a gentle, gradual translation of English words into Malay – ‘road’, ‘lane’, ‘market’, etc. But suddenly, in 1981, the year of the Buy British Last campaign, the proper nouns of scores of major roads in the city centre were changed, so that by the time I was old enough to navigate my way around the city as a teenager, I had no idea where Birch Road, Treacher Road, Cecil Street or Foch Avenue were. In the map of my memory I have only ever know Jalan Maharajalela, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Jalan Hang Lekir and Jalan Cheng Lock.

And where words go, actions soon follow – the beautiful stuccoed mansions built either by the British colonial administration or wealthy Chinese families at the turn of the century began to disappear, the land on which they sat considered too valuable not to be used for a shopping mall or a high-rise, high-tech office block or a five-star hotel. The Cheong mansion opposite Pudu jail survived until the late 1990s, when it was replaced by the giant Berjaya Times Square shopping mall that already feels tiny and shabby compared to the newer malls in the area; and the last great privately owned mansion, Bok House, home to the legendarily bad-yet-wonderful Le Coq d’Or restaurant for over fifty years, was torn down just over five years ago.

There is, I admit, a slight nostalgia in my descriptions of the KL of my childhood, exacerbated by the fact that I live half of the year in London; distance always sharpens the sense of loss. But I am not a sentimental person, nor am I particularly nostalgic: I like change, and it is entirely understandable that a country like Malaysia should build an image of itself by reacting to what it had been before. My problem is not so much with how we destroy the past, but with what we build in its place. Looking at any of the big shopping malls – the Suria KLCC at the foot of the Petronas Twin Towers, for example, though the same could apply to any of them – you will notice that the ground and first floors are lined with glamorous shops. Vuitton, Cartier, Prada, Burberry – they are all there, and all empty, save for a few tourists from Saudi or the Gulf States; the concourses are wide, cool and empty. Go a few floors up, however, and the cheap and cheerful food courts are overflowing with people eating all day and night, just as they would at the streets stalls which these air-conditioned food courts imitate. Build a gleaming new luxury mall and Malaysians will still turn it into a place of simple pleasures where they gather to eat, laugh and while away the time.

This is why KL often feels hard to pin down – a comfortingly sleepy village clad in First World glitter. This is also why we look across with such envy at our neighbours in Singapore. They have the chutzpah to carry out what Mahathir would like us to have done, to force our way noisily and unashamedly into a new world order where fusty old countries like Britain no longer matter. Across the causeway, Singaporeans make money and achieve blingy modernity as naturally as breathing; their thoughts seem unanchored in the past, washed through with a kind of collective amnesia that we secretly covet. (On more than one occasion, I have heard it said at book readings in Singapore that while Malaysian novelists of my generation are still preoccupied with ‘stories about the past,’ like World War II or anything pre-Independence, our Singaporean counterparts write stories ‘relevant to contemporary life.’) But the average Malaysian is, let’s face it, easy-going and reticent, fundamentally unsuited to a life of glamour – so while other countries hustle their way into the future, we seem to spend all our time at street stalls and food courts, as we have always done, perfecting the art of lepak.


Granta in Bulgaria
Tania James | Interview