I have lived across two worlds all of my life – Britain and Borneo – two islands on opposite sides of the globe that have shaped each other. Equally, they have shaped me, with a British father who came to Borneo in 1954 searching for a new life, only to find a local Eurasian wife – Chinese mixed with Scottish over three generations. Her European great-grandfather had come as the second General Manager of the Borneo Company, the only overseas company allowed to operate in Sarawak in the 1860s, and my father would prove to be the last in the newly made Malaysia of the 1970s.
Although born in Kuching, I grew up in Kota Kinabalu in the life of an expatriate before my father’s retirement sent us winging across the world to a grey UK which we hardly knew. But the UK made me – ten years in a forbidding boarding school, ten years in London – my education, my attitude, my way of thinking is unmistakably English, even my accent. I loved it, I lived it, I get it. Then suddenly, at the age of 35, with the same longing for a new life which presumably drove my father, we relocated back to the Borneo of my birth. Except, in so many ways, it wasn’t. So much has changed that even my mother, born and bred here, was taken aback. The last decade has been a long period of adjustment, a learning process about my alien, Western ways and equally my inherent Asian access and insight. This blog is an attempt to reconcile them.
The Kancil is the ultimate kampung car. Mini and manoeuvrable – perfect for avoiding the inevitable potholes in every Sarawak road – with a high wheel base so it can mount any curb, pass over boulders and edge out of embankments, it lasts forever and goes anywhere. Every journey in rural Sarawak will see a stream of hefty Hiluxes (pronounced pilak, pilak in Iban) and nippy little Kancils, each packed full of entire families, climbing dizzying gradients and fording raging rivers. It is indestructible, easy to park and cheap to maintain. If you forget to turn off the lights (I speak from experience) it can be push-started by just one person. I love my Kancil with its 660cc engine, manual windows and tiny frame; the kampung car that transports me around town.
The Kancil was the debut offering from the Perodua stable, the second run of ‘Made in Malaysia’ cars, as the ‘dua’ (Malay for two) in the name suggests, released a decade after the first fleet under Proton. As a relatively new nation, it was decided that Malaysia needed an automobile industry and it started with the Proton Saga, launched in 1985 – promoted internationally to limited success but protected at home by heavy duties on imported cars. Perodua, a later collaboration with Daihatsu designed to focus on minis and superminis, quickly eclipsed its older, bigger brother to become the best-selling brand in Malaysia by far from 2006 to 2011. Even now, the streets are still awash with them, enjoying around a third of the domestic market share thanks, in part, to its preferential pricing.
After years in the UK, where I trained in the small car ownership necessary to survive in a country of narrow roads, impossible parking and sky-high petrol prices, I happily purchased a secondhand Kancil on my return to Sarawak. In the standard silver, it was so common that I regularly found myself trying to unlock the doors of some stranger’s car, believing it to be my own. It was the ideal vehicle for my Western mentality. But, as the years passed, I will admit to being seduced. The new, imported Mini Cooper became available secondhand in Sarawak at the right price and I indulged my dream of owning one. Fabulous too in so many ways, it handles like a go-kart and is, of course, super cute! But, it is completely unsuitable for Sarawak, grinding into every uneven speed bump and leaking copiously in torrential monsoon rains. So I sold it, reclaimed my Kancil and set out on the streets of Sarawak once again.
But, seriously, I get bullied! Tritons tailgate me, Hiluxes harrass me, everyone tries to overtake me, roaring past on short stretches of residential road. Even Myvis, big brother to my own car, consider me beneath their dignity. No one, except the occasional Kancil, lets me go first! I am endlessly surrounded by the sound of revving engines and honking horns as the car behind me in the queue steams round and past when I pull out of junctions. In fact, Sarawak drivers seem to suffer from an epidemic of Kancil blindness as they muscle in front of me, shoving into my lane as if I simply don’t exist, or blithely ignoring my right of way. It seems to me that Sarawak streets have a very clear pecking order and my poor old Kancil definitely occupies the bottom rung.
Now, you might all be thinking that I am just a terrible driver. Of course, this might be true but, honestly, this never happened to me in the Mini Cooper! In fact, on several occasions, after a large car has been particularly obnoxious, the driver has caught a glimpse of my face as they leave me in their noisy wake, and realizing that I don’t fit their image of the typical Kancil driver, they are suddenly chastened and wave in apology. Really, it isn’t me that has changed; it is the car. I drive exactly as I did before – a calm, decisive and somewhat stately driver who has a (slight) problem with parallel parking. I swear, it is the Sarawak class system, played out on the road.
The Kancil itself was the first off the Perodua production line. Named after the tiny mouse deer, which makes its appearance in local legend not only for its diminished stature but also for its smarts, it was a small car for a small budget. When I first came back, 10 years ago, it was the standard in Sarawak. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see ancient cars held together by wire and house paint (really!). But car ownership in Sarawak has been on an upward trajectory as incomes have increased, along with a taste and inclination for credit. The once ubiquitous moped has been upgraded, with far fewer of them overall and now rarely a sighting of the ones with pedals included for getting up stubborn hills when the engine alone runs out of steam. The Kancil itself has been phased out of production and now my own is one of the worst cars on the road.
And in Sarawak, that really matters. This is a place where effort is directly rewarded. There is no such thing as a landed gentry and Sarawak status depends on the sweat off your brow and the strength of your back. Industry is admired and there is no outdated snobbery against trade, especially amongst the Chinese. In urban circles, as evidence of the fruit of your labours, cash is king. Since much of Sarawak life is lived outside of the multi-generational home, the cost of your car is the ultimate expression of that – an Englishman’s home might be his castle, but in Sarawak, it is his automobile. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the predatory pricing, the pull of imported cars persists – Japanese names remain the favourites but Ford, Volkswagen and Peugeot have all set up flashy showrooms in the last decade in the state. As a whole, it seems that bigger is always better, though the cachet of the hybrid engine is starting to make an impact. Nowadays, there is even a burgeoning market in modification and the Perodua staple styled as a Mini Cooper is a common sight.
My Kancil simply doesn’t make the cut and I’m expected to give way to all those above me. It has made me recall when I was teaching a primary six class, who all found my ideas about life, especially my socialist leanings, otherworldly and highly amusing. One day, they queried my choice of car. Why didn’t I try to trade up? I defended my Kancil with all the inverse snobbery of the infinitely practical English in me. Eventually, one small boy stumped me with a question for which I couldn’t quite find a convincing and culturally meaningful argument. If you don’t drive an expensive car, he asked, how will the person behind you know how rich you are? Succinctly stated!
But as the traffic mounts and parking gets increasingly tricky, I’ll stick with my Kancil, thank you. May it never become endangered.