OCTOBER 1 — As we learned, belatedly, 140 metres of asphalt can fascinate cyberspace. Welcome, Jalan Palestin (Palestine Road)!
Curiously, thinking of this addition, not many Malaysians have been to Palestine over the last 70 years. [N1]
To provide context, our border shutdown is not the reason Palestine’s out of bounds, rather it’s the hard-to-miss Israeli occupation of Palestine. A military rule which offers barbwire, checkpoints, bullets and funerals. Their nation’s economic goals and quality of life is subject to Israeli security concerns. [N2]
In solidarity, seemingly, with folks in the Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and West Bank, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) renamed a small lane Palestine Road (Jalan Palestin). The street’s two markers are the KWSP Building and the back-alley to the historical Coliseum Cinema and Café. [N3]
A fringe issue, but there are salient parts to it necessary for national contemplation. On why it’s opposed.
One half objects because the significance is not evident — what’s Palestine to us — and the other sees it as yet another incursion in the name of Islamisation.
Both merit examination. Useful when we respond to permutations in the future.
Two ends to one street
Countries, states and local councils like DBKL name or rename things all the time, it’s a thing they do. They, local councils, also issue parking tickets and regulate your neighbourhood pasar malam. But, naming things is cool for those who get to, but by and large it is a humongous power trip.
What about this short afterthought of a lane referred to now as Jalan Palestin?
To the first protest, unrelatability, I’ll say sure.
However, there is no litmus test for names. Which is to suggest, “Whatever rocks your boat, matey!”
But as city caretakers, DBKL owes an explanation to its residents, a moral obligation even if not a democratic one — yup, that’s the usual seasonal plug for local council elections. [N4]
DBKL should engage the population, and ask for its support. Even, allow a polite objection period. Speak to the city heritage board, Think City, city guilds and other stakeholders before acting.
Tell the people why, and let a discussion occur. Now, it's just forced on Malaysia Terbaru (Latest Malaysia).
There are many roads in the city ever ready to be renamed.
Second, ah, the Islamisation thingy.
Palestinian statehood is a geopolitical challenge, not merely religious obsession, of Israel’s Jewishness pit against occupied Palestine’s Muslim core.
Malaysians in secularist fervour can’t reject all in fear of theological shadows. Instructive, Palestine is not celebrating over a street in Kuala Lumpur named after it. The Palestinian cause has mountains to climb, and a small lane thousands of kilometres away is cold comfort.
Still, Malaysia cannot afford to ignore half its people’s fears, and conversely selection bias of what to honour exists.
If opposing one small lane is an over-reaction, then DBKL may open its ledgers and indicate the number of roads, buildings and monuments they’ve changed to reflect Kuala Lumpur’s multicultural character.
This is not about quotas, but when they are colossally disparate, then the fear is founded by facts, not merely feelings.
Fear does not stay benign, as much as ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad might claim otherwise, but instead it eats into the other thing which truly builds a nation, trust.
And people drive by road-signs all day, every day. The mistrust grows with every approaching intersection.
To speak candidly, Jalan Raja Laut won’t begrudge the loss of Jalan Raja Laut 1, as the main road is already a major city artery.
In reality, roads are functional constructs and easy names are liked.
Regular people have two concerns; it’s not complicated — name length, pronunciation and spelling — and does not embarrass users and those referred to by it.
For length try Brussel’s Clos des Compagnons Batisseurs and for ridiculous — the choices are maddeningly unending — Shrewsbury’s Grope Lane tops my list.
Still, most of us will die not having a single shoestring named after us, so if we have to live with other people’s glories, memories and history on boards at intersections, we’d just want them painless.
Or names are cut or altered if bothersome. [N5]
Meaning is beyond metal
While bureaucrats believe signboards secure greatness, they only need to be reminded of what happened to Leningrad, Stalingrad, Madras, Batavia, New Amsterdam or just sing along to Constantinople.
Names survive often by resonance with people, and at times thanks to dumb luck.
DBKL if they truly want to honour the Palestinians, and to spur them on, should connect the name, cause and its value to our Malaysian values. That we are inspired by the Palestinian story, not merely because they are Muslims but because they pursue a noble end which brings pride to Kuala Lumpur to have a street named after them.
That KL residents celebrate the street, not instead, feel they just suffer the use of the name.
Meaning requires context, relevance and purpose.
Tomorrow is the 151st birthday of Indian independence leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. While his struggles were in India, and before that in South Africa, Germany’s Hanover, Bremen and Bonn have Gandhi Streets. If that’s a lot, wonder at the 28 Dutch cities with street names after the Gujerati lawyer.
But Gandhi does intersect with the Palestinians, in Jordan’s capital, Amman.
Jordan houses more Palestinians, six million, than those present in Palestine.
Amman in 2015 redesignated parts of Saddzagloul Street as Mahatma Gandhi Street. Mayor Aqel bel Tagi at the commemoration said it befits that two peaceful revolutionaries, one Egyptian and the other Indian, sit together.
Anyways, city councils can rename their roads. But to do it silently and without public discourse on what we set to achieve with the honour brings disservice to the very intention of the act.
And to rename roads, whether inspired by events and people near or far, without foresight of all our own events and people, is callous.
As Gandhi posited, in a gentle way you can shake the world. We can start with the other roads still needing renaming.
[N1] Except for Christian pilgrims on special passes to the holy lands. Palestine is central in the Abrahamic faiths.
[N2] Even their national footballers are barred from travel occasionally. Did not hurt them much, when they trounced Malaysia 12-0 over two legs of the World Cup Qualifiers in 2015.
[N3] Not an area to hang about after dark, especially for out of towners.
[N4] DBKL jobs are at the mercy of the federal territories minister, who is then at the mercy of the prime minister. Kuala Lumpur’s residents are collateral in this majestic play.
[N5] Manila’s main thoroughfare, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, cuts through six cities, but residents to avoid a rash of fatal aneurysms caused by commuters repeating the mouthful reduce it to EDSA.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.