The Archipelago of Paradox by Merryl Wyn Davies

Hands raised aloft, opened palmed, imploring. Head lifted heavenwards, beseeching. Repeatedly. Point by point. The constantly intensifying tension is matched only by the intensity of fervent dua, prayers of supplication. The year is 1992. In Kuala Lumpur the final of the Thomas Cup is being con­tested by Malaysia and Indonesia. And Datin Sri Siti Hasmah (as she was then) the Patron of the Malaysian Badminton Association, wife of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, is single-handedly praying the nation to its ultimate victory. It is traumatic and euphoric. Each twist and turn, each stretch and smash, each point lost or won prompts earnest invocation of divine intervention. And it worked! Malaysia reclaimed the Cup, the world team championship of badminton, for the first time in twenty-five years and, most glorious of all, defeated Indonesia.

Ah, yes. I remember it well, for I was there. Like the rest of Malaysia, I was seated in front of my television – at the time oblivious to an entire quart of chocolate ice cream somehow evaporating down my gullet in a futile attempt to allay the tension – enthralled by the action, entranced by the power of prayer as after each point the cameras cut to Siti Hasmah who never relented in her devotions. Why does this instance come so readily to mind as explanation of the apt epithet ‘the archipelago of paradox’? The answer is that like everything else in the region this event holds in tension unresolved contradictions. The paradoxical is the combination of contradic­tory features and qualities; the leading to conclusions that seem logically unacceptable or self-contradictory. In Southeast Asia such things are never hard to find.

The paradox is not in the prayer, a common enough response among ardent sports fans everywhere, though the fact that these prayers were dua, Muslim prayers, is specific, significant and essential to the story. The endur­ing contradictions the event calls to mind are more subtle, more deeply embedded as subtext, while also being so self evident they can be ignored by all. Simply put: this glorious national victory was the fulfilment of Malay­sian plurality because this was the Cup won by the Sidek brothers and therefore a genuine Malay achievement. For those not attuned to the reali­ties of Southeast Asia this may require some explanation.

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