Excuse Me Sir, Your Malaysian Is Showing

« Ma patrie est le monde. »

- Sénèque

Oh is it?

Oh is it?

Samedi, 31 août 2013:

Today is Malaysia’s 56th Independence Day. Well, technically, it’s Malaya’s Independence Day, as ‘Malaysia’ wasn’t really formed until the 16th of September 1963 when the states of Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore agreed to join forces with the Federation of Malaya. But Singapore probably felt that the party was getting a little too crowded and decided to call it quits; it later became an independent state in 1965, and so it is just Malaysia with its thirteen states and three federal territories as we know it today.

Historical facts aside, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on what it means to be truly Malaysian in conjunction with Daily Post’s ‘I Pledge Allegiance’ writing challenge. How deep does my patriotism go? What does it mean to love my country (or not) and how do I express this love (or lack of it)?

Since we were young we have been constantly uprooted from our homeland for years at a time due to our nomadic lifestyle, which makes my relationship with my country, without a doubt, a very complicated one indeed. But growing up overseas and away from the motherland, I found that I’d actually been blessed with many opportunities to celebrate my Malaysian identity and culture, which keeps my Malay(sian) identity rooted firmly in me.

The international schools my brothers and I have attended have all held an annual ‘International Costume Day’ or something of that sort, in which we got to put aside our school uniforms for a day or an entire week and wear our traditional outfit to school instead. We would also have to paint our own A4 size national flag and give a performance that showcases our culture in whatever way we choose. In Ghana International School, which had a rather large population of Malaysian (in particular Malay) students, we performed Dikir Barat and silat (a form of martial arts native to the Malay archipelago), and during our time in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I participated in a traditional Malay dancing performance (specifically the hati kama and zapin, the latter of which is unique to my home state of Johor) at Malaysia’s 50th Independence Day Celebration organized by the Malaysian Embassy at the Radisson Hotel.

When I am overseas  I feel proud to wear my baju kurung or baju kebaya, cook my mom’s chicken curry for my friends, speak Malay with my people, and to wave our jalur gemilang (our pet name for the Malaysian flag) in International Day parades. This, to me, is one of the integral parts of being Malaysian: to immerse oneself in its rich culture and to appreciate it by emulating it in the way we eat, dress, and entertain.

But when I come back to Malaysia I have somewhat mixed-feelings about my relationship with my home country. It is basically a love-hate relationship. We are like a married couple at the brink of divorce; at the end of every row and disagreement we’ve had I’d come close to booking a flight and walking (or flying) out again, perhaps for good this time, but I keep coming back, obsessed with the idea of “Things will get better.” I keep giving it second chances, because I know I am not too perfect either. But sometimes I still feel that one of these days, I just might board a plane with no return ticket to KUL.

It took me a while to realize that I am actually not trying to run away from my country per se, but rather, its people. We have been consistently disappointed by our close family members in recent years, and there is only so many knife stabs in the back one can take. I feel extremely let down by my own people, some of whom are driven by their own greed and jealousy at the expense of the well-being of our own people. Some can’t even handle seeing others succeed and would rather waste their resources — time, money, faith, family ties, friendships — on sabotaging other people’s lives than on self-improvement.

This sort of environment is hardly conducive to producing extraordinary talents among Malays because the competition is not at all the healthy or productive type. On many occasions one would have to ‘dumb oneself down’ and hide one’s achievements because the appearance of having succeeded will invite that great green monster. But the mark of a true fighter is the ability to pick oneself up after being beaten to the ground and to channel out the people who contribute nothing to their individual growth. Considering how far we’ve come since our independence from the British in 1957, I’d say we’ve certainly been blessed with many fighters in this country.

Whatever its people lack, Malaysia compensates for it handsomely with an endless array of irresistible gastronomical offerings, which is probably one of the reasons why I always hesitate at the thought of leaving this country for good. Satay, nasi lemak, mi goreng mamak, nasi goreng cina, mi rebus Haji Wahid, tom yam, roti canai, nasi ayam, asam pedas ikan merah, daging masak cili padi, ais batu campur, otak-otak, roti john – boy, my mouth just literally starts watering whenever I think about it.

There are a handful of Malaysians overseas who have attempted to establish restaurants offering Malaysian cuisine, but I have not yet found one that could really deliver that truly authentic Malaysian taste. When I was in Perth I avoided Malaysian restaurants like the plague because the food was often not that great and didn’t quite match up to their exorbitant price; I always felt cheated after eating at a Malaysian restaurant my friends have ‘tricked’ me into going.

Some would say that flag-waving is the ultimate expression of patriotism but I would argue that patriotism is none other these noble qualities: altruism, empathy, solidarity. Last month during Ramadan I came across a Facebook status originally published by an Indian Malaysian man that got pretty viral, in which he describes an incident that happened during his recent trip to the supermarket. At that time it was nearly sunset and the azaan (call for prayer) could be heard over the public speaker, indicating the time for Muslims to break their fast, but the cashier, a tired-looking Malay-Muslim girl, didn’t even stop to break her fast; the line of customers waiting to pay was long, and there was simply no time.

The man asked her in concern, “Dik, puasa ke (are you fasting)?”, to which she tiredly nodded affirmative. He handed her the bottle of Tropicana Twister juice she’d just scanned and said, “It’s OK, break your fast first with this first. We can all wait.” The Chinese customer waiting behind him also nodded his agreement. The cashier accepted his offer with gratitude and what he claimed to be “a shine in her eyes”. This, he said, is what 1Malaysia — the racial integration propaganda heavily promoted by Najib’s administration — is all about: Understanding one another in terms of their own culture and religion and lending a hand to those need, regardless of skin color or religion.

This is actually one of the funny things I find about Malaysia — despite the underlying racial tension in our not-so-smooth social landscape today, people from different races tend to be more helpful towards each other than with people of their own race. This is generally true for Malays, but I can’t really say much about the Chinese or Indians. The first Eid greeting card we received this year was actually from my mother’s Chinese friend, who have also given us much encouragement and moral support during our times of difficulty. I can’t say we’ve received the same support, moral or otherwise, from even our own family.

To love one’s country, one must embrace both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Malaysia has many unresolved issues relating to race, religion, corruption, politics, you name it, and there are so many skeletons in our closet that I worry if we have any more space to hide new ones. Before this I never really cared about what happens in my country, mostly because I was still stuck in my ‘ignorant adolescent’ phase and was too young to care about these things. Being physically dislocated from my country even made these problems seem far away and almost completely irrelevant to me.

But when I had to do an Honours research project at UWA last year I decided to get knee-deep in one of the issues that always has the potential to spark outrage and offend people in this country: polygamy. I first got hooked on polygamy as a result of my personal circumstances (some of my own family members such as my uncle, granduncle, and great-grandfather were polygamous), and also because I wanted to know what all that fuss was about. Well I got my answer alright — polygamy turns out to be extremely controversial because so many things were at stake: Islam and the ulama’s (religious scholars) monopoly over religious authority and the Shariah system, and the misogyny that is inherent in the interpretations of Islam and in Shariah laws on polygamy (supposedly backed by the Quran and the Sunnah), which have significant detrimental consequences on women and children’s well-being in general.

My research has given me a sneak peek on what sort of skeletons we keep in said closet, and something clearly needs to be done. Discovering this ugly side of Malaysia was a serious wake-up call though; these are issues that affect nearly all of the Muslim (in particular Malay) population in this country, yet only a handful of people actually have the guts to dig deep into it because polygamy is deeply linked to Islam and few want to question it in fear of being condemned as “anti-God, anti-Islam, and anti-Quran” by the ulama. Fortunately, engaging myself in all this mess has actually given me a renewed understanding of what it means to be a Malaysian and above all, a Muslim woman, and I have slowly come to embrace my country with all its battle scars and wounds.

So there you have it — this is my Malaysia. Its people may have some self-esteem and jealousy issues but this country is, without a doubt, culturally rich. Yes, we have our problems but we’ll talk about it over a glass or two of teh tarik and a plate of rojak at the nearest kedai mamak and we know that everything is going to be alright.

Selamat Hari Merdeka ke-56, NegaraKu…

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