Together with Cikgu Muhammad
“Ada tak pelarian Melayu di Malaysia ini?” (Are there Malay refugees in Malaysia?) Cikgu Muhammad quizzed us. Of course he knew the answer but that was not the point. He had a story to tell and he wanted us to hear it. You could hear the eagerness in his frail slurred voice as he stood in front of his home, a neat two storey dwelling that stood proudly despite its age just as Cikgu Muhammad stood in his sarong and songkok in front of us.
“Tak,” (No) we answered sheepishly, still clueless as to what exactly he wanted us to say or what did he even mean. Refugees? There are Malay refugees in Malaysia? It seemed highly unlikely to us. He did, however, catch our attention. So we stood there waiting for his response like wide-eyed school children.
Cikgu Muhammad, as we found out, was a primary school teacher and has been for all his life ever since he graduated from Penang Free School. He taught English and Literature which explains his perfect grammar school English and random quotes from Shakespeare.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.
Again, that was not what he wanted to tell us. If there was anything sweet in his story it was long gone.
“Pelarian Melayu dari Penang! Orang Melayu semua dah terpaksa tinggal seberang perai sudah tidak ada lagi disini.” (Malay refugees from Penang! They now have to stay across the bridge)There was truth in his words. We walked around all day in George Town and we hardly saw any Malay homes or businesses. Cikgu Muhammad’s was the first one that we saw. His house was in the compound of Achech Street Mosque that was part of the old Malay settlement in the area.
Cikgu Muhammad pointed out to us the house of the first Mufti of Penang, the founders of some of Penang’s madrasah both of which were a shadow of their former selves. Decayed and falling apart, they remained a shadow of their former selves standing forgotten. Cikgu Muhammad explained that many of Islamic scholars from the Middle East who visited Penang would come and stay in these houses as often the owners who were also Islamic scholars in their own right would often be their hosts.
Cikgu Muhammad then pointed over to some newer shop houses, lamenting that there used to be Malay houses on those plots but they were forced to live on the mainland now as they cannot afford to repurchase their homes after they were rebuilt or restored. These were the ‘pelarian’, not refuges from war or famine but refugees of progress and modernity. The very same people who gave a place its flavour and character are now too poor to stay in that place. Chased out be developers or local officials looking to make a quick buck.
At the back of the mosque stood another house that better withstood the test of time, Cikgu Muhammad explained that the particular house had been with the family for seven generations. This was to me as it should be expected. A mosque in Nusantara does not exist in isolation. Often it is the centre of the community. If there is a village there will be a mosque and if there is a mosque there would be a village. The mosque serves as a meeting point to do daily and Friday congressional prayers and also a place to study and learn Islam. However at Achech Street Mosque, the community that the mosque supported for a hundred years is almost gone and Cikgu Muhammad tells his story so at least it would continue to live in our minds.
As Singaporeans we were saddened by Cikgu Muhammad’s story but hardly surprised. A drive down Kembangan and you will see Lorong Melayu, Lorong Sarina, Lorong Mydin, Jalan Yasin, Jalan Daud, Lorong Marzuki remnants of former Malay villages in the area. The area is also home to three mosques, Masjid Kassim, Masjid Mydin and Masjid Abdul Razak. Now there are no villages in the area and hardly any Muslims too but the mosque still remains. Only names are left, clues to a history forgotten by a present generation heedless about its own past.
Perhaps it was indeed quite necessary to remove the villages and replaced them with far more efficient housing units (like the bungalows and terraces) but that is not my point. If we are going to give something up for the name of progress at least know what we are paying for it.
The struggle that Cikgu Muhammad faces today has come and gone in Singapore. While Cikgu Muhammad fights a losing battle to maintain the physical remnants of a community by the mosque, our situation in Singapore further along on the path of being forgotten. We have lost almost all physical remnants of our past but now we fight a losing battle keeping the memories of these places alive. Is there even an interest?
Perhaps that is the way it is for most but it should not be the way for us as Muslim for the simple reason – Syukur.
“He who does not thank people, does not thank Allah” (Ahmad, Tirmidhi).
We cannot be thankful, we do not know them. The people who planted the seeds of the Deen here in Singapore, those who built the institutions we so easily criticise and take for granted.
Cikgu Muhammad and the Acheh Street Mosque community has got a tough road ahead of them and so do we. If we are not concerned of our own history then people are going to tell it for us. Cikgu Muhammad would not let it happen on his watch, I pray we have the same amount of zeal in us.
Two hours of talking and Cikgu Muhmaad was going strong, he stood all the way and did not want to stop. He would have gone on if we had let him but it was time to go.
Talk to the elderly, they have got lots to say and you have got lots to learn.