Malaysia's Kampung High

I grew up with many adults in my village in Majidee in Johor in the 1960s who were stoned either on ganja imported from Thailand or pil khayal – ecstasy – bought from some pharmacist in the town of Johor Baru.

Had I not got hooked on books and slept with them and run around the kampung exploring the world carefully, I would have ended up as another Mat Gian – Joe Addict – getting high all day and all night sniffing glue, smoking gangsta ganja, or drowning my sorrows with bottles of Tiger Beer or Carlsberg or Guinness Stout that I would need to swallow my pil kuda with – methamphetamine, those horse-powered pills.

This comes up today because “vaping” – using e-cigarettes – has been catching on among the young in Malaysia as an alternative to smoking. Vaping centers have been exploding across the country, where you can get everything you need to get started. Is it harmful? Nobody has figured that out, although there is a good deal of uneasiness about it from New York to Panama to Brazil to Hong Kong to Singapore, where it has faced bans.

Escaping Death

Vaping is for sissies. For me, I could have died sitting down near a corner of the Johor Baru bus station. Or I would be as sure dead with my face buried in a plate of rice and gangsta chicken curry late at night, overdosed as a gangsta ganja ghost could be. I would be a dead Malay boy high on life unexamined.

Yes, that was what my kampung was about. A village always flying high. A Malay village of high fliers. Every fifth or sixth household would have a son or daughter who was an addict at varying degrees of addiction, and untreated.

A family with Mat and Minah Gian. Malays. Kids always with kepala best or “good high feeling” all day. Their eyes would always be small and as if in Nirvana every nanosecond of their lives.

Poverty eradication programs in Malaysia have led to a drastic reduction in poverty since my childhood. Income inequality has been reduced considerably, hopefully reducing the incidence of drug addiction, which was so great in the 1960s that the government in Kuala Lumpur introduced some of the world’s harshest drug laws. Under the Dangerous Drugs Act, those in possession of 15 grams or more heroin and morphine, 1,000 grams or more opium (raw or prepared), 200 gm or more cannabis – ganja – and 40 gm or more cocaine would hang, and did. Nobody paid much attention to those laws.

You Could Tell by the Eyes

Yes, Mat Gian, who I would love sitting down with and listening to their stories and theories and worries about the world. "Gua story sama lu haaa... Gua cakap sama lu haaaa” would be either their opening line or closing line -- "I tell you... let me tell you..." they would say with eyes as steamy and dreamy and chinky as Bette Davis's and Cheech and Chong’s combined. Eyes of enlightenment. Eyes that would tell you stories of how one would be chasing dragons all day, round and round the kampung.

I loved these Mat Gian, though. I learned a lot from them, especially on how the world works. I felt like I was Al Pacino, learning how to act by going undercover and learning how to think and feel like a drug addict, ready for my role in a sequel to Dog Day Afternoon. A cool feeling, as if I was an anthropologist studying the Mat Gian of Johor Baru or Sin City JB.

"Lu ada sen, tak? Paw sama gua seposen?" a Mat Gian would be asking me if I had 10 sen to lend him. "Gua tak makan lagi la, brader” – I have not eaten anything yet. With open palms but half-closed eyes they would ask me for money. They would also be shaking.

"Wa bayar balik lu laaa..." I'll pay you back, they would promise. "Gua promis lu gua tak beli barang la Mat. Bole ka?" I promise you I will not use the money to buy ganja or pills, they would say.

Sometimes I would just run away, laughing, after pushing him away. "Lu pigi mampus lagi baik la, Mat." You are better off dead, I would laugh at him.

There was also a time when I heard of one of them who was so high he threatened his mother with a machete and when the kampung folks intervened, he ran out of the house. A few minutes after that, as I was told of his fate, the Mat Gian was hit by a fast-approaching Vespa, His left leg was severed. He could still yell and cry, although he was high on drugs.

Instant karma, as John Lennon would say of the Mat Gian who cursed and threatened his mother. Because his mother would not give him the many sen needed to buy his barang, so that he could get stoned and steamed and high and "make his kepala (head) not just best but the bestest."

My village. My growing-up years. My people. My teachers in life. The language of highness.

The Language of Doping

Stoned. Steamed. Stim. Fit. Hisap fit. Kena fit. Tarik fit. Hisap dam. Hisap barang. Tarik Tarik barang. Tarik dam Kena dam. Kena barang. Sedut. Sedut benda. Telan pil. Telan barang.Tolak barang. Ayam Kena ayam Main ayam. Sambar fit. Sambar barang, Push. Pusher. Blues. Kepala blues. Kepala stim. Stim kepala. Kepala bagus Kepala best Kepala best - SIAL!

These are some of the words associated with smoking pot/ganja and taking ecstasy pills that I heard used often. I heard them from the adults who were either on mind-altering substances, or from those un-stoned, talking about those stoned and getting high.

Those were the slang words used widely in Johor Baru, the Southern Sin City where dragons puffed into each other’s face while singing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. While the rich collected luxurious cars and sipped wine and champagne in faraway lands, the underclass in the village smoked grass and popped pills to escape from the harsh realities they were in.

Those words fascinated me. I was child roaming around the village, peeking through cracks in wooden walls of the dilapidated homes of my neighbors, wondering what those older than I were doing. I picked up those words and phrasal nouns. These slang words would live in my head for days as I tried to figure out what they meant.

Dragon on the Loose

I especially loved the phrase “chasing the dragon.” I would imagine smoke coming out of the nostrils of those creatures and I would imagine them running around in my village.

I had read plenty of stories about dragons in those books about myth and legends from faraway places. I had read about the dragons of Lake Chini in the East Coast state of Pahang (Naga Tasik Chini) and had also seen a Malay movie of that title.

Magical and comical.

I knew what dragons looked like and knew that they would only bob their heads in and out of the sea and that was it. I never knew that ganja-smokers in my kampung would also know about dragons and even be chasing those magical ones.

"Chase the magic dragon." Hahaha, I would laugh and imagine those Mat Gians or Joe High or Joe Ganja or Joe the Puffing Dragon, in their state of mind of ganja-highness and close-to-Nirvana, would be chasing dragons.

Hahahaaa, I said, with all due seriousness. Magical and comical. I had also read a story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in which a dragon was slain. I had also heard a song by the British singer Rod Stewart and former grave-digger, who sang about a dragon being slain as well.

So the Malay men in my village chased dragons. I suspected that some of them even turned into dragons and died as those creatures too. A life unexamined chasing dragons, getting high and never taught to question things. Any way the wind blows didn't really matter to them, the late Freddy Mercury of the awesome rock group Queen would probably say about these Hippie Days Malays.

So the Malay men in my village were chasing dragons. I suspected that some of them even turned into dragons and died as those creatures, too. A life unexamined chasing dragons, getting high and never taught to question things.

And while I was made to swallow a coconut in order for me to be silenced, older people in my village were made to swallow pills and chase dragons in order for them to be taught not to question Reality.

I asked myself: what do all these mean?

Ganja - opium of the masses? Of my kampung folk? Who was feeding them with these? Who threatened me with that coconut?

Just thinking of those questions made me high. And I was still a child, aged 11 or 12 years. I was screaming and yelling and, like a younger Harry Houdini, trying to wriggle myself out of the grip of those foul-smelling Segget River-bathing men in uniforms.

Now, that’s a different, but related story of a society vaping ganja.

And I could imagine my mother crying. Profusely this time. Bless her soul.

I did not become a Mat Gian, that Malay addict. Books and rock music as well saved me from it. Most importantly, my family – poor in material possession but rich in dignity – saved me. I too, was looking at the world as an ethnographer of life. Of the lives of those around me, who could have lived better lives.

Dr. Azly Rahman grew up in a village in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and is the author of seven books on the socio-cultural, educational, and politics of Malaysia and international affairs. He teaches courses in Politics, Anthropology, Education, and Philosophy in New Jersey.