The Red Army on the Russian Steppes

Since returning from England in the late 1980s, Kam Raslan has carved a niche for himself as a freelance writer and some-time magazine editor (most infamously at the 1990s incarnation of Men’s Review). He is currently a scriptwriter for the Instant Café Theatre Company, a part-time commercial and television drama director, and a regular columnist for various publications, including arts and culture journal Off The Edge.

A month ago, I sat down with Kam to talk about, well, Kam. Among the items that came up over the course of our long chat was his debut novel, Confessions of an Old Boy: The Dato’ Hamid Adventures, which will be published by Marshall Cavendish at the end of March. An exquisitely naturalistic reconstruction of a high-level Malaysian civil servant’s mindset – indeed, his no-holds-barred confessions (as the book’s title indicates), in episodic form – I’m going to root for its success.


Watching Movies

Did you desire to become a filmmaker or writer – or both – as a kid? Or were your early ambitions entirely different?

Film came first, but I realised straight away that if I wanted to make a film I’d have to write it as well. So, although the initial spur was film, both went hand in hand. I got the film bug when I was around 17, and it hit me hard when I watched a Russian movie called The Mirror, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. It’s a beautiful, hypnotic movie, and it was very un-Hollywood – but it suggested to me that film is capable of something exceptional.

Writing for film is a strangely technical exercise that I’ve only begun to truly understand very recently. I was inspired by the epic movies of David Lean, who directed Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. I can find myself at the computer, wanting to write: ‘The Red Army cavalry charges across the vast Russian Steppes and crushes the anti-Bolshevik Tsarists’. Then I immediately realize that I can’t afford that, unless I can do it with a couple of Bangladeshis and Jit Murad.

There are also other technical, film-narrative story-telling aspects that I won’t bore you with, but after a while they felt like constraints. I wanted to find a way to tell stories that could be realised and accessed immediately. So I started writing fiction. It felt liberating. Suddenly, I could write stories that travelled continents and were set in the past.

Also, film is a slave to plot momentum, and characters can become secondary. There is nothing about the central character in Die Hard that you haven’t seen before, and the only thing that makes it exceptional is Bruce Willis’s performance. With fiction the character can say more – or, more especially, think things that are not necessarily plot-related.

But everything I’ve learnt from film has been vitally important, especially the desire to keep the story going and being concise.


Your elder brother Karim is an established writer. Does that make your relationship competitive or supportive?

I’m the youngest of three brothers. I’ve always looked up to them, although we grew up quite separately. Johan is the eldest; he’s the chairman of PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Malaysia. Then there’s Karim, who’s a writer, lawyer and political consultant.

Karim has been writing for a long time, and is well-known for his ASEAN-wide political commentaries as well as his short stories. He has also, I believe, finished writing his novel.

Karim and I write very different stuff, so I don’t know if there can be any competitiveness. He’s always been very supportive, and believed in me even before I did. A small cause for concern for me was that Karim wrote fiction long before I did, and I always felt that was his area. So when I started writing fiction, I worried that I was trespassing on his turf …

All three of us look quite similar, so I’m constantly being mistaken for one or the other. If somebody says they’ve read one of my articles in the paper, I’d wait to see if they liked it. If they did, then I’d take all the credit – but, if they didn’t, then I’d say: “I think you’ve mistaken me for my brother.” Sometimes I don’t bother to correct them at all, because it might embarrass them. On one occasion, I happened to be standing next to a notable Tan Sri, who told me that he had decided to award his company’s business to me. I really didn’t know what to say. Unless he wanted me to wash his cars, I really couldn’t have been much use to him. I think I shouted “Fire!” and ran away.


How have both your parents influenced you? Would they have preferred you opting for a less ‘nebulous’ profession?

Our father died when I was four years old, so our mother raised us alone. I can’t imagine what my father would have wanted me to do, although I suspect it isn’t what I presently do. He was in banking at the time of his death. Throughout my childhood I told people that I wanted to be a banker, even though I had no idea what that meant … Anyway, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Malaysian banking!

My father’s influence came through his absence and through my imagining of him. He did leave behind the sense that he was somebody important. Throughout my life I’ve met countless people who don’t know me, and didn’t know him – but knew of him, and respected him. That legacy gave me a sense that one must achieve something big. It’s a blessing and a burden.

My father was an avid photographer, and he left behind hundreds of photographs and two movie cameras that I was obsessed with. I know that I was drawn to film because of those cameras, and because they created a connection to him.

But I was raised by my mother, so she has had a big influence on me. As I get older I become more like my mother; whenever my hair grows long, my wife calls me Dorothy, because I look like her. My mother is always apologising for my hair, as if it’s her fault.

She plays the violin and tried to make me learn. I rebelled – it’s an impossible instrument. But the fact that I was always around classical music had an enormous impact on me, because I think it’s given me the patience to be able to appreciate, not only Wagner, but also slow Russian movies.

My mother’s full of surprises. I was a very surly teenager, and I would disappear into my room and listen to David Bowie. Recently my mother told me she’s a fan of Bowie. She’s also very independent-minded, and has always let me make my own choices in life. She’s originally from South Wales, but married a Malay in the 1950s and then moved all the way to Malaysia. That took either courage or foolish romanticism. I think I inherited that from my mother – that, and the hair.

Old Bungalows

As an Anglo-Malay educated in England, do you think your genetic heritage as advantageous or disadvantageous, in terms of ‘fitting in’ with the Malaysian milieu? Do you sometimes feel estranged from the local social and political context?

Calling me ‘Anglo-Malay’ makes me feel like an old bungalow overlooking Port Swettenham.

When I first returned to Malaysia I was concerned about fitting in. I’d spent very little time in Malaysia growing up, and worried about my lack of Malay-ness. It took me a while to realise that there is no such thing as genetic cultural inheritance, and that I am what I am: a Malaysian. (My friend Dato’ Hamid likes to think of himself as a Malayan – and I would go along with that, too.)

I’ve had several epiphanies about this, but one was a story that a friend told me:

My friend was standing at an isolated phone-booth on the East Coast one day, when a girl walked up. The girl called her boyfriend in KL, and he obviously told her that it was over. The girl pleaded and listened, then put the phone down and walked back along the long, empty road.

People are always more than how they are defined by their identification cards. Human stories, stories that we can all understand, happen everywhere.

How would you describe your worldview?

I’m a secular humanist, and I believe in liberal democracy.

Because of where I grew up, I consider myself to be innately middle-class – a race of people who, in this country, are easily pushed around. Malaysia’s politics of race means that nobody will stand up for middle-class aspirations, because that would create a connecting thread between the races. Malays with universal middle-class aspirations find themselves trapped by somebody else’s definition of what it is to be Malay, and to step outside that definition is to be a race/religion traitor.

Our notion of democracy has boiled down to the majority vote, but democracy is also about minority rights and the rule of law. Perhaps because I grew up in England, where I was the only Malaysian for miles around, I am interested in the minority – but not just obvious racial or class minorities. Many of us, even when we are amongst our family or community, feel separate or alienated for personal, emotional reasons. I am interested in those emotions; I am drawn to what it is to be outside.

Trying to be Funny

One of your literary trademarks is an acute sense of irony, expressed as dry, sardonic wit. Does that come naturally, or was it a conscious decision to write in that particular style?

I have tried – sometimes too hard – to be humorous whilst talking about serious issues. Expressing public opinions can sometimes be tricky in this country, and I couch my words so that people will ‘get it’, without me being overt – and in trying to find other ways of saying things, I think I’ve discovered, for myself, some interesting connections. Besides, reading rants can be dull, and I only want to write stuff that I myself would want to read.

I don’t want to appear arrogant, but if there is one trait that I know I do have, it’s a sense of humour. I am quite funny. I don’t know where it comes from, but I can remember the first time I used it. It was one of my first days at school in England – I was five, and it had been only a few bewildering months after having left Malaysia. Suddenly, rowdy English kids picked me up, and were about to carry me away to beat me up.

I had never been in a situation like this before, and my mind raced to think of a way out. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I blurted: “Hey, do you want to hear what a Chinese person sounds like when he’s angry?” I did a quick impression of our old Hainanese cook, Ah Chong. The kids started laughing, put me down and went off and beat up the school’s only Chinese kid.

I made that last bit up, but it would have been funny – in a dry, sardonic kind of way.

The Cinematic Novel

Having spent the last 10 years as a scriptwriter and film director, are you a visually-oriented novelist? Do you, for instance, see Confessions of an Old Boy being turned into a movie?

Actually, I’ve been a scriptwriter and film director for over 20 years. And yes, that does help make me be aware of the importance of the visual – but to be visually concise, because movie scripts waste very little time on description. Film also taught me the importance of sound and I’d like the reader to be able to hear the story as well as see it.

But what I enjoyed, while writing Confessions of an Old Boy, was being freed from film constraints. I wanted to be able to write an unfilmable epic, without worrying about the money. I have a relatively long descriptive passage in one of my stories, describing the East Coast monsoon, but I did that because the monsoon is an essential backdrop, even a character, in the story.

If any movie producer read a script that said ‘The monsoon covers the land as far as the eye can see’, they’d throw it away, because it would mean waiting for rain that might not come – and I know from experience that if you point the camera at rain, it doesn’t look like it’s raining.

So I think that the novel can be turned into a movie in the reader’s mind, but I never wanted to write it with a view to filming it. But if anybody wants to, please make the cheque payable to ‘Cash’.

How long was the interval between the conceptualisation of your novel and its completion? Were you working in a disciplined, regular way – or only when inspired?

This was a tale of blood, sweat, toil and tears. I wrote the first story in 1999 and finished the last one, the precise moment Italy equalised in the 2006 World Cup final. One story in Confessions of an Old Boy took five years to write, and it’s only 3000 words long. After I wrote the first story I realised that I could write a lot more, and it took a while for the whole book to coalesce in my mind.

The only way I could make it easier for myself – and I recommend this to any aspiring writer – was to break the plot down into small scenes. I tried to write one scene each day, and tell myself that I had achieved something. It was hard work. But, much later, when the stories were serialised in Off The Edge, I read them again – and I couldn’t see the blood, sweat, toil and tears at all. They seemed to flow easily, and I couldn’t believe that I had written them.

As for inspiration, that has always come in a flash, for me: the whole story reveals itself in an instant. Then, five years later, I’m still at the computer trying to convert it into words. I know that Karim is much more disciplined. I wish I could be, too.

Thinking about the Future

Would you consider yourself prone towards pessimism or optimism? Does thinking about the future inspire in you despair or hope?

I always think that things can be better, which is a form of optimism.

All of us can do something to make things better – but I don’t think many do. I’m always astonished at how we can absorb rubbish into our lives, and imagine that that’s just the way things are, and accept it. We’re too scared to be angry.

I’m very worried about the future of this country. After a brief moment in 1999, when it looked otherwise, our style of democracy is now entrenched. It’s like a train that’s waiting at the platform, about to leave – but latecomers keep rushing in, and the conductor keeps squeezing them into the train. That train will never leave. My only hope is that the rest of us, will build our own train.

Have you begun a new novel? Any hints about the subject matter?

Now that I’ve finished Confessions of an Old Boy, I miss Dato’ Hamid. I imagine that he’s on holiday somewhere in the South of France, or tending his orchids – but that we’ll meet up again soon. I’m toying with the idea of the Dato’ being at the fall of Saigon, or maybe in Africa. One of the stories in the present book is a murder-­mystery, and I’d like to do another one of those: somebody is murdered at a Malay College Kuala Kangsar Old Boy’s reunion.

The problem for me is that I wrote the Dato’ Hamid stories on the basis of what I already know in life; if I’m to write anything new then I’d need to have new experiences. I’d really like to write non-fiction: a book looking at post-conflict nations. News organisations always report a conflict but leave when it’s over. I’d like to see how people have resolved conflicts, and learnt to live with each other. I’m thinking about things as diverse as The Emergency, the American Civil War and Northern Ireland. But, I’d have to sell something like that overseas, because no Malaysian publication would have the resources to pay for the project.

I guess the next thing should be a movie of Confessions of an Old Boy, but I get worried, thinking about telling the men with money about how it’s set in Kuala Kangsar, in 1917 …

I Want

Have you discovered your life purpose – or given up the quest?

A long, long time ago, I woke up suddenly in the middle of the night. In a flash, I had understood my life’s purpose: “I must learn how to feed my body through the process of photosynthesis!”

Since that night I’ve not really tried to think about it. I’d like to be able to write books that people want to read, and I want to direct the movies that I want to direct. To be honest, my quest is to do what I want to do.

This might sound strange, but with the Dato’ Hamid stories I wanted to show that the history of our country is more interesting and epic than reading the papers might suggest. There are stories in between, alongside and behind want our press reports.

We may not be aware of it but we have all been part of a great big, global drama.

Ultimately I want to do a piece of work that’s as perfect as a Beatles album. But that’s impossible.

First Published: 15.03.2007 on Kakiseni

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