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Rice, history and politics in Alor Setar, Malaysia

Arriving in the centre of Kuala Lumpur at 1:00am, I found myself on a street kerb in the heat of the night, contemplating a dark deserted bus station from where I had planned to continue my journey. A passing local confirmed my suspicion that the station was closed not just for the night, but for the next month. My mind rapidly worked to conceive ‘Plan B’ as my attention turned to the flashing neon sign of an all night cafe on the opposite side of the road. The first option was hot tea with the brief respite of a Bollywood movie playing on a nearby television.

One negotiated taxi fare later and I was standing in front of another bus terminal where long distance travellers in transit were huddled around a brightly lit kiosk, glued to an English football match on satellite television.

With a long wait ahead and not being a fan of football, I watched the parade of overnight coaches arrive and leave, trying to imagine the lives and destinations of travellers young and old, as they walked with luggage wearily, or with anticipation, toward a waiting moped or the main road.

Soon after dawn, my journey was back on track as I headed north to the town of Alor Setar, capital of the Malaysian state of Kedah and located not far from the border with Thailand.

Long distance coaches in Malaysia make comfort their aim and no more is this appreciated than when you haven’t had much sleep. They are the closest to ‘sleeper buses’ I have encountered, installed with upholstered sofa sized seats (with three seats abreast, rather than four) which recline about 45 degrees and leg rests that lift from underneath the seat front.

Gunung Keriang,near Alor Setar

The Langkawi islands, situated off the north west coast of Malaysia, that offer luxury beach resorts, golf courses and duty free shopping, are in the vicinity of my destination, but very few of its more than two million tourists venture about 70km south east to Alor Setar, despite its rich history and special place in the modern history of Malaysia.

Founded in 1735 by Sultan Muhammad Jiwa Zainal Adilin Mu’azzam Shah, Alor Setar is the royal seat of the Kedah Sultanate and situated in the heart of the Rice Bowl of Malaysia with rice cultivation dating back centuries.

Today the state produces one third of the nation’s total rice output and is the largest producer for the local market, substantiated by the local Paddy Museum (Muzium Padi) which is one of only four rice museums in the world; the other three are located in Germany, Japan and the Philippines.

With no public bus service to this outstanding sight, located 8km from Alor Setar, local taxi drivers were amused when I took a bus going toward Kangar and then walked 4km to the museum along a quiet rural road which wound through rolling brilliant lime paddy fields and planters’ homes nearby.

Also visible from miles away was Gunung Keriang, a giant limestone rock formation which secretes numerous caves and towers above the Paddy Museum, which sits at its base. Paddy farmers wisely enjoying tea in the shade of trees or local tea houses waved encouragingly as I walked on in the blazing late morning sun.

Alor Setar's Rice Museum

An hospitable villager offered a lift on his motorbike for the last 1km and as we sped toward our destination, the architecture of the museum, which at a distance resembled three flying saucers, was revealed as a creative interpretation of bushels of harvested rice stalks. Inside the visitor takes a journey through the history of rice production in Kedah and the life cycle of paddy from planting to packaging, with displays of farming equipment, varieties of rice and rice products and a massive 360 degree mural of agricultural life in Kedah viewed from a rotating platform.

Paddy harvesting occurs here during the dry season, also the best time for flying kites as the drought coincides with strong winds in the area. During my visit, the paddy in the fields was yet to turn the golden colour ripe for harvesting, but fine examples of traditional kites or Wau can be seen in the State Art Gallery in Alor Setar. Beautifully crafted with bamboo frames and intricate designs created from segments of cut rice paper, they have a range of forms including Wau Burung, the bird kite, Wau Bulan, the moon kite with a crescent shaped tail, and Wau Merak, which features an ornate tail piece reminiscent of a peacock. The Malay term Wau refers to the shape of the kite’s wing, which resembles the Arabic letter ‘Waw’ (و), as well as the sound it makes in flight.

Early on my second morning, I met Mokhtar working at a shoe stall in the centre of town, who said he was particularly proud of Alor Setar’s history.

Archaeological discoveries in the nearby Bujang Valley have revealed an ancient kingdom and trading centre which flourished in the region from the third to twelfth century AD. In the twentieth century, Alor Setar also featured in the story of the birth of modern Malaysia.

In 1903, Tunku Abdul Rahman was born here before going on to study law, win the first federal general election in 1955 and negotiate independence from Britain on 31 August 1957, subsequently becoming the nation’s first Prime Minister.

The birthplace of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad

Rumah Merdeka, or ‘House of Freedom’, was the home in Alor Setar where he conceived his general election campaigns between 1955 and 1969. It was also a haven for his leisure hours when he returned to Kedah on holiday during and after his time as Prime Minister, and where he wrote scripts for two films, Raja Bersiong, a gruesome horror story involving a former Kedah ruler in pre-Islamic times, and Mahsuri, a Langkawi legend and the story of a beautiful daughter of Thai parents from Phuket, who married a local warrior and subsequently sacrificed her life following accusations of adultery. Located in a lane off Jalan Putra close to the town centre, Rumah Merdeka was restored a few years ago and is now open to the public.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth and longest serving Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003, and whose memoirs, A Doctor in the House, were published in March, was also born and raised in Alor Setar.

Unlike Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was a son of the 24th Sultan of Kedah, Dr Mahathir grew up in a modest home with his father being Principal of the first English school in the town, Sultan Abdul Hamid College. The traditional Malay house where his academic talents were nurtured is a short walk south of the city centre and includes an exhibition centre detailing the history of Dr Mahathir’s life and political career. The home features the family’s original furniture, possessions and displays of family photos. Pride of place in the light-filled front room is a large reading table with high-backed rattan chairs used by the family for writing and homework.

In addition to becoming Alor Setar’s first Malay medical doctor in the 1950s, championing third world development and being credited with realising Malaysia’s swift path to economic growth and modernisation in the space of twenty years, Dr Mahathir is well-known as a prolific writer. His books include The Way Forward and A New Deal for Asia. On a visit to his birthplace, I was absorbed by copies of newspaper articles he wrote in the late 1940s and early 1950s displayed on the walls of rooms. Malay Women make their own Freedom, published in The Straits Times of Singapore in 1947, addressed the struggle of women and the post-Second World War period which brought social reforms and improved opportunities for education. Another article, Malay Padi Planters need Help (1949) revealed his concern for the socio-economic plight of paddy farmers and his advocacy of mechanical paddy cultivation to improve productivity and standards of living.

As I walked to the railway station early on the last morning of my visit, the only sound was the muezzin call to prayer as the moon cast its pale light onto the streets and the darkness was pierced by headlights of long distance buses heading out of town.

I remembered my conversation with Mokhtar at the shoe stall, which had progressed to a discussion about the state of the world and its conflicts.

You should write about human feeling,” he had advised on our parting, “because people should not be fighting each other, we should be living together in peace in the world.”

At the station, it was the most tranquil time of day; the only activity was the station master attending his collection of potted plants and miniature cascading water feature on the platform before the train from Kuala Lumpur was due soon after dawn.

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