Tuesday, March 15, 2011

T-shirt story better than concert

Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, but the Santana T-shirt sold at a concert there on March 7 begs to differ.

THE coincidence is amusingly uncanny. On the same week that Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad released his much-anticipated memoirs, some rock concert T-shirts being sold in Singapore had prints saying that Singapore is part of Malaysia.

Yes, it's true. T-shirts on sale at the Santana concert on March 7 were emblazoned on the back with the concert tour venues: Bangkok, Thailand; Jakarta, Indonesia; Seoul, Korea; Perth, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand; and, of all things, Singapore, Malaysia.

I missed the concert but still cannot contain the hilarity of the whole thing. The timing bordered on perfect irony -- on one hand, the former prime minister's book, A Doctor in the House, with certain blistering references to Singapore, and on the other, the collectors' item traded outside the Singapore Indoor Stadium proclaiming that Singapore is in Malaysia.

Danny Goon, a dear old friend from Penang, was one of the many Malaysians who went to see the concert and bought a T-shirt at the official merchandise store.

It was only later that he spotted the words written on the back.

This was his email to me:

Syed, Did you attend the Santana gig in Singapore on Monday? Well I parted with S$50 to buy a Santana T-shirt for a friend who missed his Guitar Heaven 2011 Tour concert in Singapore on Monday night. Little did I suspect that the T-shirt is likely to cause an international incident. Read the itinerary carefully... is the Red Dot still part of Malaysia? What would LKY think? Or Dr M? Incidentally, it is made in Haiti.



The Red Dot is a common, somewhat repugnant, reference to Singapore, mainly used by leaders and politicians in the region; LKY is Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore and now minister mentor; while Dr M is Dr Mahathir.

Singapore used to be part of Malaysia after it merged with the Federation of Malaya alongside Sabah and Sarawak in 1963 to form Malaysia.

The union, however, was rocky from the start. Distrust and ideological differences between leaders of the state of Singapore and the Federal Government of Malaysia resulted in frequent disagreement in politics, economic, financial and social policies. Eventually, in 1965, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to expel Singapore from the federation.

Some might consider the T-shirt boo-boo a trivial matter. Danny said he pointed it out to a few Singaporean friends who laughed it off. And the fact that the T-shirts were made in Haiti is small consolation.

But it might still touch a raw nerve in some people, including Dr Mahathir and Lee, whose disaffection for one another is well-known. Their respective memoirs say it best.

Lee, in From Third World To First, published in 2000 stated:

- We (Singapore) had to succeed (after separation) for if we failed, our only survival option would be a re-merger, but on Malaysian terms, as a state like Penang or Malacca.

- From time to time, whenever the Malaysians wanted things their way, even on matters strictly within our domestic rights, relations with Malaysia were strained. What they wanted is called in the Malay language an abang-adik (big brother-little brother) relationship with little brother giving way graciously. When non-vital interests were at stake, we were prepared to humour abang, but not when adik had legitimate interests to defend.

- Mahathir was candid about his deep anti-Singapore feelings. He recounted how, as a medical student in Singapore, he had directed a Chinese taxi driver to the home of a lady friend, but had been taken to the servants' quarters of this house. It was an insult he did not forget. Singapore Chinese, he said, looked down on Malays.

Dr Mahathir is equally, if not more, caustic in his memoirs. Among the passages:

- One area of Malaysian foreign policy that has always been challenging has been our relationship with Singapore. I may be wrong, but I suspect Lee Kuan Yew once nursed the thought of becoming prime minister of this country. (Aha, perhaps that explains the T-shirt imprints.)

- Enforced separation meant the end of Lee's dream. He cried when announcing it on television and never forgave Tunku. He did not attribute the expulsion to his own behaviour and obvious ambition, choosing instead to believe firmly that we (former Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Syed Jaafar Albar and Dr Mahathir) were responsible for Tunku's action.

- Malaysians were less sophisticated than they are now. They certainly did not possess the aggressiveness that is sometimes necessary in business. They preferred to sell their products to Singapore, which then acted as distribution centre and made a tidy profit marketing products obtained from Malaysia. They exported the same products, like orchids, to other countries, or sold processed raw materials back to Malaysia for a much higher price. Singapore agencies invariably included Malaysia as part of their own territory.

- It was only in Singapore that I experienced a very unusual kind of protocol. As a visiting head of government, I was only greeted by a protocol officer at the entrance of the prime minister's office and was then required to wait in an adjacent holding room until the prime minister was ready to see me. I was made to wait for about 15 minutes and felt very sorely used... So when Lee Kuan Yew, and later his successors, came to Kuala Lumpur, I followed his precedent.

Well, Danny, I may have missed Santana and his Black Magic Woman, but the T-shirt story is more entertaining, whether it caused an international incident or not.


Say whatever that is on your mind. Heck! This is a free country after all. If the racists Chinese can swear at the Malays as much as they want, we can do that as well.

However, I will not be held responsible to whatever that you have to say. The comment is solely the private opinion of the author.