Hidup Bagaikan Sungai Mengalir oleh Agnes Khoo

Kicking off my New Year’s resolution reading project (tag: Kempen Baca Buku Buatan Malaysia) with Hidup Bagaikan Sungai Mengalir, or Life as the River Flows, by Singaporean historian Agnes Khoo. I have decided this book counts for Kempen purposes even though it’s not fiction, not in English, and not on my original list. So whatz? I make the rules here!

Wah, this book literally took me 4 years to read lor. I remember talking about it on Dreamwidth when I first bought it at a NGO fundraising annual dinner in KL. It’s not that it’s not interesting! It’s a collection of interviews with 16 female guerrilla fighters involved in the Communist anti-colonial movement in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1930s to 1989. It would be hard for it not to be interesting! I think my slowness was partly because, its being oral history and about several different people, there wasn’t really an overarching narrative arc to stop me being distracted by other things. But the main reason is ‘cos it’s in Malay and I read so much slower in Malay. /o\

(The dumb thing is the original book is in English and I just bought it in translation because I felt like I should work on my BM. But what is really dumb is that on the same visit home I bought A. Samad Said’s Salina in English. Eh what lah you. /o\)

Anyway, I’m really glad I read this, and may buy the English-language version as well, for ease of future reference! It’s a fascinating part of history that people still don’t talk about, about people who are misrepresented (where they aren’t forgotten) to this day.

Observations:

– You sort of wonder what drove people to take to the jungle, and one big reason seems to be that life was already so hard outside the jungle. I mean, of course there was a passionate belief in the cause they were fighting for, but that too often arose from the really tough circumstances of poverty, war and oppression that they had grown up or were living in.

– Life also often seemed better for women as members of jungle guerrilla troops than as wives and mothers in a patriarchal society. Lots of the women interviewed say there was no difference between male and female comrades, although tasks seem to have been divided across traditional gender lines (e.g. cooking fell to women). Communist organisations offered education to people who often couldn’t get it elsewhere, community, a cause, a purpose.

– When they were interviewed in the early 200s, some women seemed to think the revolution was won, and some didn’t.

– Elephant kidney is yummy but afterwards you pee blue.

– Two out of the 16 interviewees go by the alias “Atom”.

– The two interviews with Malay women are, oddly, much shorter and in a different format from the others. Most of the interviews start with a quote and a description by Khoo of the person in question, but not the ones with the Malay comrades. I am guessing this is because Khoo had to interview the Malay women via a translator.

– The left apparently attracted new comrades for the fight via the medium of song and dance. As in, they held events where you could sing and dance. And then you became a student activist and the AJK of your school’s PKM-linked organisation, and then the government cracked down and you had to go underground at age 21 or something.

I feel like people of my generation and background in Malaysia (and probably Singapore as well) — well, I personally feel like I grew up with this big hole in my head where this stuff was supposed to be, and because it wasn’t there, there were so many things I didn’t really get about my country or why people were the way they were and said the things they did. And now I am just trying to piece it all together. I don’t know what to call it — it’s not even colonialism because we did it to ourselves. Anyway, you live and you learn.

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