Day 6 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020 | Travels with my wife through Asia and beyond. Join us as we explore history and culture. And after thirty years in Asia, we are now back in the UK. What next?

Travels With My Wife

Still talking after all these years!

Day 6 of The Round Malaysia Road Trip 2020

Today we visit Kota Bahru, taking in a few incidental sites such as the place where the 1941 Japanese invasion started, then go onto more romantic musings where love perhaps does not conquer all.


Love might not conquer all, but fried chicken certainly does, if the average Malaysian diet is anything to go by. Which is no doubt the reason why one headed out to sea in boats with chicken head prows. It makes sense because the fish could think they are off the menu and feel a false sense of security, before being swept up by a net. Fish are not as clever as they are made out to be. And the man in the biggest boat, gets to eat a lot of them. One finds such splendid vessels on display in the old Palace museum of Kelantan in Kota Bahru.


The Kota Bahruvians of Kelantan were great traders - and still are if the market there is anything to go by - and despite their Buddhist Siamese connections, are reputedly on the conservative side of the Islamic spectrum - Or perhaps because of it! And of course commentators of a Marxist bent, blame it all on the British who took away power, but not wealth, and left the Sultans too much time on their hands so they turned to religious pursuits.

Though in these covid 19 days with all its face covering and social distancing, I cannot say that I noticed much difference between this state and any of the others. There were no marauding Taliban stringing up TV sets from the lamp posts. What I did notice though is that it had a better class of museum than most containing an impressive run down of the various ways in which one could gut a person, should the need arise.


Malays do have a bit of a reputation for vengeful moods, though given the modern Malay's cheerful and ever helpful countenance, it is hard to understand how they gained that reputation. At least it is, until one looks a little deeper into their history. The nineteenth century seems to have been a litany of little wars punctuated by the odd slicing and dicing of a British colonial administrator. I hasten to add that it was not always the Malays that indulged in such hobbies. The Chinese, despite the Empire's lucrative charms for them, were not averse to the odd hacking to bits of inconvenient authority figures. For that matter Malay and Chinese were not averse to having a go at each other as well, all of which makes modern Malaysia something of a miracle. Something deep in its psyche has changed.

Given the endless unpleasantness and absurdity of much of the Imperial project, one wonders how on earth did it happen at all! It was obviously built upon premises that were paper thin and few really believed. The British Parliament in the 19th Century frequently censured the whole enterprise and in particular were miffed at being constantly inveigled into paying for military engagements they considered of no value and less purpose, especially of the kind that expanded British influence in the Malay peninsular. And given the number of Brits involved in the area, often countable on one hand, two at a push, and the financial incentives often in negative quantities, there is something rather mysterious about the whole process. Even more mysterious because turning up here without air-conditioning and relying upon the cooling possibilities of a pith helmet soaked in water, often ended in premature death!

Whether it was the British, or having been long dominated by the Siamese, and its remoteness lending it a distinctive Malay dialect, Kelantan seems most interested in establishing a Malay identity that differs somehow from the rest of Malaysia. It is not particularly reliant upon the Independence struggle as a determining factor. And dare one say that their experience at the hands of the Siamese and the Japanese within living memory, rather inclines them to a slightly more nuanced, or perhaps just plain odd, position regarding the British and thus the rest of Malaysia?


On the wall of the Old Palace Museum one finds a nice run down of Malay history. Here they tell of how the king Iskander Zulkamain with Princess Balqis gave birth to a dynasty that spread by sea and land to Sumatra, the Philippines, and as far as Mongolia! And during this expansion there was intermarriage with "the natives". And thus, as the museum wall poster proclaims, came forth the offspring of a new civilisation called "Bangsa Baru" i.e. The New Race! And this new race embraced Islam to become "Bangsa Mulia", i.e. The Noble Race. And then became the "Bangsa Melayu". i.e. The Malay Race, which I assume is considered even higher up the evolutionary chain.

It goes on: the offspring of Iskandar entered the Malay Peninsular from Sumatra and Java, from Arabia and India, and from Sulawesi and Mindanao, and China. And that is why some Peninsular Malay look like arabs, some like indians, some like chinese, and in Kelantan, you have a migration of champa from North Vietnam and so whatever the champa looked like, is also echoed in their general type.


Despite the endorsement of this particular history, it is not of the most academically sound and you will not find much of this sort of thing in Kuala Lumpur's State Museum. There everything is a progression towards a multi-cultural Merdeka, rather than a multi-ethnically fuelled Bangsa Melayu with supernatural antecedents.

Iskander Zulkamain is a somewhat shadowy character based upon Alexander the Great, and even Islamic scholars who consider the Koran pretty much the last word on everything, say Iskander Zulkamain is a mythological character not to be taken too literally. However, as in all myths, the moral is the thing, though, also regarding myths, the moral is up for interpretation.

In this case, I would suggest that this is a claim that all Malays, regardless of their shape, pigment, and dialect, are descended from a noble warrior tradition. In diversity, so the motto of Indonesia goes, there is strength. And in Kelantan one senses the interpretation of that is that strength is not unity. Kelantan's collective unconscious, if Jungian psychology prevails in this neck of the woods, still harbours a bit of resentment towards the Melakan Sultanate for sending Hang Tuah to kidnap one of its Princesses. And judging by the elaborate Marriage rituals of the Sultanate's harem, Kelantan did not take any interference with its women lightly. They tell a story of how their rescue attempt, involving the pleadings of a love sick Prince, was treacherously thwarted and the said prince was hacked to death by Hang Tuah's henchmen. Love, did not conquer all. And the display of canons in the park outside the museum does indicate that the lesson has been learnt.

So one suspects that Kelantan breeds a political establishment with very much its own ideas about how things should be done. As a Malay saying has it: when elephants fight, the deer die by the wayside. Which probably means that most people avoid politics altogether and just get on with their lives, which may or may not go someway to explaining that miraculous shift in psyche. No doubt there is a graduate student somewhere working up a PhD in sociology on some such a thesis.

Anyway, please watch our video of our visit to Kota Bahru.

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