In Conversation: With Pete Teo

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Freedom. Democracy. Apathy. Solidarity.

Its so incredibly fashionable to talk about any one of these.

Pete took another draw of his cigarette while that fine Malaysian afternoon quickly turned to rain. As we sat under the shade of that unassuming local mamak, I thought how apt it was that we were doing the most Malaysian of things, while talking about our Malaysia. Amongst what my assignment was supposed to be about-15 Malaysia and new media, we ended up talking about local art and politics, about life and successes; and as we watched our fellow locals go about their daily business- we spoke about all the things of the world that transcended the local.

Here was a man that had done so much in the public eye, yet I wondered, what did Malaysia really know about him? To me he was that funny sounding guy my dad listens to on his car stereo.

Having written two albums- Rustic Living for Urbanities and Television, he was also the man behind, ‘Here In My Home’, the PSA involving a grand crew of Malaysia’s favourite artists- Reshmonu, Maya Karin, Tony Fernandez, Jason Lo, Jaclyn Victor, Guang Liang et cetera.

He produced 15Malaysia, the web-series of 15 short films regarding Malaysia’s socio-cultural, political scene. As well being the man responsible for some of the most memorable tracks out of Yasmin Ahmad’s, ‘Talentime’.

What was supposed to be just a fifteen to half an hour interview, quickly turned to two hours. He took a sip out of his teh ais as I asked him what he thought about youths today, and whether or not he believed they were apathetic like what everyone else was saying.

“I think… I don’t know whether they are apathetic.” He said.

“I think its very fashionable to say they’re apathetic. But I’m not sure.”

“I think the question is apathetic about what? Or interested about what?”

“If you say they’re apathetic about Malaysian politics, or the State of Malaysia, it depends on which community you come from?”

“I think if you’ve gone through the system in Malaysia [education] it’s less likely to be so. The people who are most detached from it are the people that have gone overseas and don’t have that grounding here, like me actually.”

“I found Malaysia very late, I left when I was ten.”

“To me the more important question is where, when and if, you want developed the sense of ownership about the place you come from. I mean once that sense of ownership comes then its impossible to be apathetic.”

“You do what you can.” He said with a shrug. “I mean you don’t throw away your job and become a crusader. You don’t do that, nobody’s asking you to do that.”

“Once that sense of ownership arises, that is when you begin to say that, ‘Well this is my country’ and you mean that- you’re not just saying that. This is my public road, this is my lamp-post, this is my tax money, you paid for that- and then my politician who is supposed to be serving my interests, at whom at the ballot box I could hire or fire- once you get to the sense of ownership, then its impossible to be apathetic. And then perhaps we will then see changes. So to me it’s not a question of apathy to me its more a question of do people feel that this is theirs?”

With a few little nods, and a smile from me, he went on impassioned,

“Somewhere along the way you sort of fall in love with not so much just Malaysia as it is…”

“I mean, we’re griping all the time, but you forget how beautiful a place it is when you get it right. It’s a wonderful, wonderful country.”

“It has many wonderful opportunities, and many wonderful possibilities and in spite of all the problems, despite of all the economic, political, social problems it retains the possibilities and potential to be something really, rather special.”

“And along the way eventually you sort of develop a love about what you do see- the bits that you like, as much as the bits you don’t like-the ones you gripe about.”

“Unless I develop some sort of ownership, unless I work towards something for the betterment of it, however modest, and unless and until I develop or make an attempt to do something about it, however modest, I don’t have the right to gripe about it. You don’t have the right to gripe, you can’t even comment on it. Do you comment on Iceland? Do you comment on Norway? You don’t.”

I told Pete while chuckling a bit, that he should’ve been a politician. He responded in a sort of friendly ‘nah’, saying that, he could do so much more for the country if he wasn’t one. Somewhere along the lines, I remembered that quote I loved so much and how fitting it was; “For the reality of politics, we must go to the poets, not the politicians.” (Norman O. Brown), and that truly was the reality for Pete.

Then finally, I asked him about successes-his own, and what advice he would give to the young people today who wanted the same.

“Whatever you do, talent is not enough.”

“Hard work. Luck. Hardwork mainly.”

“But its very common for people outside my scene or those who want to do the work I do to say, ‘I wish I could do that’. The reality is, ‘you see 5% of what I do. You see the bit that’s fun, you see the bit that I push out, the bit that’s sort of quote, unquote “glamorous”, the bit that’s newsworthy.’ ”

“The rest is putting that moment together- and that is pure sweat. Not very glamorous at all, its eye-bags. Its working through the night. It’s not a side you generally associate with the arts, or entertainment. Its more, ‘this is really hard, this is really hard work.’ ”

“I mean I don’t shower for three days, I  haven’t eaten in five, that sorta stuff… I wanna sleep but I can’t.”

“My advice would be well… hopefully you’re working in an area you have a talent in, a gift in, be it being a professional accountant, or to being a filmmaker or whatever… a politician. Hopefully you’re working in an area where you have a gift, because I believe in that. Its important to work in an area you’re good at, one you have a natural affinity to.”

“At the same time a lot of young people feel that talent alone is enough-‘yeah I’m just talented its fine’.

“…Its so weird-everyone is more or less talented, what makes a difference is the very small things. But what makes a huge difference is who works harder, who is more professional, who puts in better effort.”

Pete said so many other things that day that I could, and couldn’t write down- Insights, comments, musings and all. But more than that, that day would always be special, because I would always remember it as one of my great firsts- The day I fell in love with interviews.

Happy Malaysia day everyone.


For the Meld Magazine piece >> click HERE 

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