The caged birds also sing here
Singapore Straits Times, 13 July 2003
By Nirmal Ghosh

HATYAI - This is unmistakably the Malay peninsula. The plains of central Thailand give way to rolling hills here in the south, the road a silver ribbon rippling through the darkening forest.

A late afternoon shower sends thunder cracking across the hills on the Malaysian border. A spattering of rain begins to mark the hot earth.

Slowly the rainstorm gathers itself and turns into a full-throated roar, churning across the red earth as its heavy grey clouds settle among the hills.

Within half an hour, the rain passes and the clouds rise, white this time, in fine wreaths, to vanish into an open late evening sky awash with the brilliant colours of a tropical sunset.

I can barely hear Ms Maskah above the roar of the rain, under the makeshift shelter. She is soft-spoken, and I have to lean forward and listen intently. I should not be here, strictly speaking, she says; it is an area only for women. I start getting up and she says never mind, it's okay.

She may be smiling, but with her hijab, it is impossible to tell; her eyes do not deviate from their sad, hunted look. It was from the school that she runs that Thai police took two alleged members of the Jemaah Islamiyah last month, destroying the self-propagated myth that the Kingdom was immune to terrorism.

As dusk falls, frogs and cicadas start a chorus that fills the surrounding countryside, now wet with rain. There are few major buildings here a few miles out of the town of Narathiwat; almost all the dwellings are old wooden kampong shacks. Only an occasional vehicle swishes by outside, leaving tyre trails on the asphalt that quickly come together as the rainwater covers their tracks.

But it is not all primitive, not all Conradian here. I smile to myself as I remember an article written about the south late last year by an Australian journalist, breathlessly headlined 'Into the Heart of Darkness'.

Some miles down the road from the school where Ms Maskah often sits listening to the rain, a tasteful open air restaurant features imported emu meat with cracked pepper as a man plays Take Five on a synthesizer. The streets of Narathiwat are filled with birdsong. Even the lamps outside the hotel where I am staying are fashioned in the likeness of gilded cages.

Clearly, singing birds are a major feature of this town. Cages hang in rows outside many of the shop houses. Peering into an open door, I see a house with six cages hanging from a beam in the room; the occupant is sleeping in a cot surrounded by birdsong.

The Marine Police have two gunboats moored at their pier. Beyond the channel where they are stationed there is a spit of sand and trees, and beyond that the sea. Their office has a big display board covered with pictures of themselves in action, showing a big illegal fish catch in the hold of a boat; the bloodied, broken bodies of air force pilots pulled out of the sea after a helicopter crash; the twisted hulk of the helicopter being lifted by a crane.

Like many people separated by political boundaries, the border here is just a formality. Thousands cross from Thailand to Malaysia and vice versa every week, visiting friends and family on either side of the border.

At the hotel, the bellboy informs me: 'Many Singaporeans, Malaysians come here.' When I ask what they do here, he says: 'They look around, then they go.'

A little further north at Pattani, like Narathiwat also on the coast, four Thai soldiers in uniform sit in a crowded roadside restaurant eating fried kway teow. The shelves in the restaurant are stacked with cans of abalone packed in Mexico.

Down the road, an ancient Chinese temple receives a constant stream of visitors, many from the immediate area and from Hatyai two hours to the south, and many from Taiwan. The temple is near the place where a Chinese woman, Lim Ko Niaw, hanged herself from a tree some time in the late 1500s.

She had sailed in a sampan from China to Pattani to persuade her brother to give up the religion he had converted to - Islam - and with it his wife, a woman from Pattani. Her brother, To Khieng, rebelled against the pressure, and began building a mosque which his sister then cursed. Then she hanged herself. Overcome with grief, To Khieng was unable to complete the mosque. It has never been completed.

Such were the passions that were brought here by the crossroads of the ancient seafaring trade. Today, Lim Ko Niaw is remembered in an annual Chinese-Muslim festival which, among other things, involves seven days of vegetarianism - a feat in a society known for its fondness for meat.

I walk into the temple, buying some flowers. The air is heavy with incense. A few people are circumambulating the interior, which is full of shrines. I place my flowers and pay my respects to these memories of old passions, and contemplate the fusion of cultures that was created here.

Leaving the lush south, on a highway that in the rain oddly resembles a British motorway, the town of Hatyai appears like a small Canadian or American city with its grid plan and compact high-rise downtown. Hatyai offers almost everything Bangkok does, but in a smaller, less crowded and less polluted space with no traffic jams.

In the sprawling campus of Songkhla university, brightly lit and sans the mildly feral feel of the southern countryside, Thai students from around the country sing in chorus in a large classroom with huge bay windows. Many wear headscarves; it is here that a modern version of the fusion of cultures manifests itself, peacefully and vibrantly.

The markets of Hatyai - less than half a day from Singapore by road - teem with consumer goods from all over Thailand, Malaysia and even Singapore.

Batik prints and cheap watches and electronics draw thousands of shoppers from Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan. The city is around an hour's flight from Singapore.

Security has been stepped up since the three alleged Jemaah Islamiyah members were arrested in Narathiwat last month - two from the school where Ms Maskah sat staring at the rain, and one from his house in town. But otherwise, life in Hatyai seems perfectly normal, just as it does in the sleepy towns further south.

This is not to say that there is no political awareness. Down in Pattani, a young girl with a headscarf riding pillion on a scooter ridden by a young man weaves in and out of the sparse traffic. She cuts a jaunty, lively figure, her headscarf flying in the breeze.

But on the back of her T-shirt is written: 'All I really want is peace in the Middle East.'