The Pithy Contradiction in Kelantan’s Signboards

Some thoughts on multiculturalism and religious fundamentalism in the Islamic heartland of Malaysia.

I’m often sheepish about how little I’ve travelled — really travelled — around my own country. I don’t mean the interstate road trips to visit family (I had plenty of those growing up), or day or weekend trips with friends where the foremost priority was to enjoy each other’s company. I mean travelling the way I’ve travelled in more far-flung places: solo (at least in the setting out), relying on public transport, digging deeper into the things that pique my interest. There was also the ignominy of having turned thirty without ever having visited the east-coast state of Kelantan, known as the Islamic heartland of Malaysia — at least, not in any way that I can honestly say I have. I might have passed through as a kid on family trips to the Perhentian Islands, the main draw for tourists in these parts — but passing through doesn’t count, does it.

So the road to Kelantan, for me, has always been paved with good, if procrastinated, intentions. But in July, I finally found an impetus to visit: a story for Roads and Kingdoms on the Kelantanese art of shadow puppet theatre, called wayang kulit. I spent most of my week in Kota Bharu, the state capital, and two days out in the surrounding areas — and came back with a better understanding of the place, aided by the perspectives of the people I spoke to for my story.

Driving around the Tumpat district of Kelantan, near the Malaysia-Thai border. Rural Kelantan is a tapestry of coconut trees, paddy fields, and grazing cattle. © Emily Ding.
Downtown Kota Bharu, the capital of Kelantan. © Emily Ding.

Speaking from a Malaysian’s perspective, the view I had of Kelantan before my trip is probably similar to that of most of KL-ites, gathered from what we’ve read in the news — which is to say: Kelantan is Malaysia’s most religiously conservative state, where life is circumscribed by more widely encompassing syariah laws that form part of Malaysia’s dual legal system.

In part, this is because Kelantan has the highest concentration of ethnic Malays in Malaysia (they make up 95 percent of the state population) — and in my country, being Malay also equals being Muslim, as laid out in the Malaysian Constitution. More importantly, it is the only state in Malaysia currently under the control of the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), and has been since 1990. PAS was the reason the now-disbanded opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat worked, for a while, under Anwar Ibrahim —deputy prime minister turned persona non grata to the Malaysian authorities and currently languishing in jail — and also the reason that coalition eventually fell apart, depending on whether PAS’s radical or moderate faction held more sway at any particular time. PAS has long been defined by its mission of establishing an Islamic state in Malaysia, and is currently pushing a bill through the federal parliament to give state syariah courts more extensive powers to impose harsher hudud punishments — short of the death penalty — for certain crimes, such as the amputation of limbs for thievery and stoning for adultery. So Kelantan’s not exactly a pretty picture on paper.

My experience on the ground as a non-Muslim, however, was pretty different. At least, it’s a far cry from my experience last year in Aceh, Indonesia, where non-Muslims and tourists are also held to Islamic social codes — like how unmarried men and women can’t share the same room, or how certain premises will bar a woman from even entering if she’s travelling alone, unwilling to take responsibility should anything untoward happen to her. During Ramadan, this meant that we couldn’t eat or drink in public too. In Kelantan — at least, in Kota Bharu, the capital — there are gender segregation policies in force at selected public spaces, but they seem only to be loosely implemented. And there was that large poster hanging on the Siti Khadijah Central Market warning Muslim women that their headscarf (here called tudung) should also cover the entirety of their chests, and another warning Muslim women not to wear “sexy” or “tight” clothing — or risk a fine of up to 1,000 ringgit and/or incarceration of up to six months. As an ethnic Chinese, I wasn’t held to any of this. However, I was prudent about what I wore: short- and long-sleeved shirts with necklines that didn’t gape open, and long pants and long skirts, though I found that fitting tops and jeans weren’t a problem.

Here’s the way Mama Miriam from the local family homestay I lodged at, Zeck’s Traveller’s Inn, put it to a British traveller: “It’s okay for tourists — just as long as don’t dress too sexy. There’s nothing wrong with sexy, but it could make you feel a bit uneasy on the streets, you know. For people here, it’s like they’re watching TV.”

I thought that was funny. The British traveller laughed, too, perhaps feeling a little awkward — I mean, it has to be a little awkward when you’re told your people look like the god and goddesses incarnate of TV, right? — and responded with a self-deprecating, if a little misdirected, joke: “Sexy? Hmmm… maybe European women, not British women…” Luckily for him, no one was in the line of fire. While we were on the subject, he also wanted to know if it would be okay for him to wear a cut-off vest and shorts for a run around town. “Ohh sure! You’re a man, it’s okay,” Mama Miriam said. Indeed, women are just better at controlling their baser desires, even when confronted with this. Haha.

Women’s rights aside, however, I generally appreciated Kelantan’s differences from the rest of Malaysia. It does indeed move to a different rhythm — quite literally, as weekends here start on Thursday evenings to free up Fridays for prayer congregations, which means that on Sundays you’ll see children in their whites and blues filing noisily in and out of schools. I also appreciated how the street and shop signs here feature at least three, if not four, languages: Romanised Malay (Malaysia’s official language) and/or English, Mandarin, and mandatorily, Jawi — the Arabic script for Malay. A local acquaintance even told me that Jawi has to appear first at the top, followed by Malay, and so on. Every sign seems to me a pithy reflection of Kelantan’s central contradiction: its multiculturalism and its Islamicisation.

Retail shops in Kota Bharu with multilingual signs — Jawi being mandatory, trumping all other languages in importance. © Emily Ding.
Malay women walking past a Chinese lion-dance mural, Kota Bharu. © Emily Ding.
The typical “Chinatown” arch, in the process of being built on Jalan Kebun Sultan, Kota Bharu. © Emily Ding.

“What multiculturalism?” you might say. “The state’s 95 percent Malay-Muslim.” And it is, but Kelantan is located along Peninsular Malaysia’s northeastern border with Thailand, which has historically made it particularly receptive to influences from the rest of Asia. Aside from mosques, there are also Buddhist temples dotted around the state, especially in the district of Tumpat close to the border. There’s also a thriving Chinatown on Jalan Kebun Sultan in Kota Bharu, serving up pork and a wealth of non-halal fare, though the red arch that typically marks out Chinatowns everywhere is still just a bare grey slab, under construction. A local acquaintance told me that by building it, “PAS is trying to win the hearts of the Chinese”, hinting at a certain underlying tension. These outside influences have resulted, too, in a pluralist Malay culture that has nevertheless been long capable of coexisting with the adoption of Islam in the region — culture and religion diverging somewhat in reality, despite what the Malaysian Constitution says.

When PAS took over the state government in 1990, however, it instituted a few changes to homogenise Malay culture, spurred on by a purist Islamic political vision influenced by developments in the Middle East. For example, one of the things PAS did was to ban traditional performance arts to root out what it saw as corrupting, pre-Islamic influences. Wayang kulit, for example, contains Thai, Javanese and Indian influences and derives from the ancient Hindu epic of the Ramayana — though, suffice to say, the shows continue due to their long history as part of the daily life and culture here and the difficulty of enforcing the ban. But this imposition, rather than the truly organic development, of stricter mores might explain several incongruities in the Kelantanese character.

Before my trip, I had met with Eddin Khoo, the founder of a non-profit organisation called Pusaka based in Kuala Lumpur that works to document and conserve Malaysia’s traditional performance arts. Culturally, he’s mixed Chinese-Indian; and religiously, he’s Hindu. Nominally, he’s an outsider to wayang kulit, but through his work with Pusaka and as a cultural and political journalist, which has taken him many times over the past three decades to Kelantan, he knows the art form intimately. Here’s some of what he told me — which, as ignorant as I was about Kelantan, surprised me:

“One of the reasons why traditional Malay culture is so sensual, so seductive and so complex is because its open to everything. In traditional Kelantanese villages, I’ve never had problems with race, religion, culture, nothing whatsoever. If people ask you about it, it’s because they’re curious. People always say, ‘Ah Kelantan… PAS lah… Islamic government lah…’ But you see, the Kelantanese are very interesting. They vote against somebody, not for somebody. This has been a consistent Kelantanese trait. They hated UMNO [the incumbent national ruling party], so they voted PAS lah. It doesn’t mean they support them. And now PAS is going to kena [Malay for “get what’s coming”] because of the recent flooding and everyone still living in tents. Do you think they’re going to win next? Our politicians are so puffed up they have never been able to rationalise and understand this.” Eddin also described wayang kulit as an expression of dissent, having seen performances where “authority is savaged and religious hypocrites are laughed at”.

It’s clear which party’s got more money around here. © Emily Ding.

Eddin did qualify this liberal and rebellious spirit, however, saying, “Unfortunately, it’s changing among young people. They’re no longer conditioned in their villages, but in schools in the modern system. So they have this very linear world.”

This points to tensions within Kelantan’s narrative, which has made it more interesting to me. Even everything I said above about the position of women in Kelantanese society needs qualification. If I’m not mistaken, the limitations on women’s dressing and laws on gender segregation were also introduced in 1990 when PAS came into power, and so are relatively recent. Eddin’s colleague Pauline Fan notes in a piece published in Axon Journal that Kelantanese women have traditionally enjoyed a strong economic position, and even today, “wield more presence and power than men at the local markets in Kelantan and often manage the family expenses.” Eddin echoed this with some amusement: “There’s a saying in Kelantan that men are the artists and the dreamers, whereas the women get things done.”

Women trading in dry goods at the Siti Khadijah Central Market in Kota Bharu. © Emily Ding.
Women trading in poultry and seafood at the Siti Khadijah Central Market in Kota Bharu. © Emily Ding.

The Siti Khadijah Central Market — on which, ironically, hangs the aforementioned poster admonishing women on their dress — has historically been dominated by female Muslim traders. Munsyi Abdullah, the father of Malaysian literature, had observed this as far back as 1837 during his voyage to Kelantan. An article published in The Muslim Private Sector in Southeast Asia, edited by Mohamed Ariff, chalks this up to Kelantan having been, at various times, ruled by women — as far back as the fourteenth century under the warrior princess Cik Siti Wan Kembang. It also attributes the emergence of female traders to the vacuum that opened up when Kelantanese men sought fortunes in neighbouring lands.

Even today, when I told friends and acquaintances that I was visiting Kelantan, several said to me, “Oh, you have to go to the Siti Khadijah market and take a look. All the traders there are women!”

Well, that’s not quite true anymore. The inner circle of the market building is filled with women, yes, selling eggs and chillies and vegetables, but it’s surrounded by an outer ring of men, mostly selling fish and raw meat. Men and women were in more or less equal numbers, and the whole place seemed to me more reflective of gender segregation than the dominance of female traders. Anyway, you find female traders in markets around the world — that’s hardly unusual. It seems to me that the so-called dominance of women in commerce in this day and age only seems liberal if you compare it to other Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia where Muslim women are restricted in participating in economic activity.

But I get it. We’ve all done the same: repeat something unusual we’ve heard about a place as a sort of defining characteristic. We all love a good myth. But though myths are never entirely true, they are never entirely untrue either — and I think it’s in that contradiction that we find what’s real.