Originally posted on The Malaysian Insider under the title “Reconnecting with one’s identity” on 24 April 2011.
The year was 1996.
I was 15 years younger and also 15kg lighter (if only they are both inversely related).
My only worries were to pass my examinations and for the boy whom I had a huge crush on to give me his time of the day. In my mind, we would have beautiful babies together.
The thought of returning home never occurred to me but it didn’t stop me from being an active member of the Malaysian Student Society. United Kingdom seemed far better off then.
Although it has been 15 years, I still think about the days when we, the Malaysian students, put up a swashbuckling performance at the annual Malaysian Evening gala. We did Malaysia proud by being hospitable, warm and friendly ambassadors. Our enthusiasm and solidarity were infectious and we built friendships that transcend ethnicity and religious affiliations through those years.
I miss the days when the Malay-Boys-Who-Can-Sing-And-Play-Music living downtown would invite my friend and I for home-cooked fish head curries. Apparently the fishmonger next door were selling the discarded heads for peanuts and like monkeys, we devoured every single morsel with much gusto and appreciation.
We also had a Malay friend who could measure the saltiness of his girlfriend’s satay sauce just by sniffing at it. Hers was the best satay sauce I have ever tasted. To reciprocate, my friend and I would make popiah and to our great surprise, they were well-received.
I mustn’t forget our one and only Indian Malaysian student. He was known as the quiet and shy guy who was joined at the hips by two other Chinese Malaysian students. They were really nice because they never forget to celebrate my birthday when I was alone during Easter holiday.
That was the only time when I remember being Malaysian.
15 years later, I am older and the questions running through my mind are of a different nature.
Would my marriage survive? Will I become a mother? Have I done enough for my ageing parents? Would I be able to afford a vacation in the North Pole so that I can see the polar bears? Would I die for my country? Would Malaysia ever change?
At 35, I have become cynical and resentful of so many things in life. What is certain is that the years gone by have served as a cruel reminder of how brutal time and poor eating habit can be.
Having worked and lived in four war-torn countries has somehow contributed a lot to my increasing lack of faith and respect for humankind. Although Malaysia is not at war, apathetic Malaysians combined with a morally corrupted government do very little to change my perception of human beings.
At the end of the day, I deduce we’re all just the same.
That changed on 2 April 2011 at Fort Cornwallis, Penang.
Perhaps it’s true that everything does happen for a reason. What happened for me was to leave my cushy life as an expatriate’s wife and to accept the challenging task of helping Malaysians understand the Federal Constitution. And the reason? I desperately needed to restore my faith as a Malaysian again.
The “Rock for Rights” concert organised by Bar Council’s MyConstitution Campaign, Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia and Frinjan on 2 April, reminded me of the semangat Malaysia I felt 15 years ago, but only better as I didn’t have to be in a foreign land to feel that I belong.
While working on this project, I got to know many Malaysians from very different walks of life and was privileged to learn from them. Many of them are either students or hold regular jobs such as teaching, marketing, public relations, writing, computer programming, event planning, environmentalist and lawyer.
Being an amateur who struggled to put together a concert, the bands and those involved were understanding, patient and forgiving. Many of them were just grateful that they had this rare opportunity to share their artistic talent as musicians and message as Malaysians. They are clearly no ordinary bands as they were not driven by monetary gain but only by their passion as musicians and Malaysians.
I asked Darren Teh from An Honest Mistake why they had decided to participate in this project.
He replied “We want to bring our music to the next level which is to cause change in someone’s life. Being part of this project helps us achieve that. When people listen to our song and knowing the reason behind the lyrics, it helps them connect with us ‘emotionally’. Besides that, knowing that we are adding value to the community, raising awareness of our rights and educating them through music – we are going beyond the boundaries of music, beyond just simple listening pleasure. We are proud to have been part of this entire project.”
I asked Petak Daud, an 18 year-old musician who stunned the crowd with his soft acoustic renditions of songs that speak loudly against the abuse of power by the police and government, what gave him the courage to sing such songs. He said, “The situation surrounding us is becoming worse. We’re like decomposing fleshes which in a matter of time will disappear altogether. This is my mission. I want to wake Malaysians up so that they can see the abuse taking place in this country.”
If a seemingly shy 18 year-old boy who unwittingly scratches his hair while he speaks on stage has the courage to sing such songs, why are most of us still keeping silent?
Azmyl Yunor has a theory – shopping malls and capitalism. According to him, Malaysia’s rapid economic growth over the last three decades has metamorphosised us from being Malaysians to creatures who are continuously motivated by economic gain above everything else. Before we could truly understand who we are as a nation, we occupy our time by shopping.
I told Azmyl that I was shocked by how passive the crowd was at Fort Cornwallis. While some of us cheered and danced to the music, many kept their seats warm by just watching without any expression on their faces. He smiled at my observation and shared his other theory of self-censorship.
Decades of living in a country where preventive laws and religious teachings are imposed have taught us that freedom of expression is vulgar and wrong. He said music is a form of escape. He wouldn’t be caught dead screaming on top of his lungs and rolling on the floor under normal circumstances.
The night was high when Barcode got everyone up to sing the Negaraku. I was exhilarated and I sang our anthem like how most kids would sing to Justin Bieber these days. And like the cool night breeze that provided us with much comfort, the affirmation that I love Malaysia came.
Ammar Khairi from Maharajah Commission shared similar sentiments. He said, “I sincerely hope that there will be many more patriotic souls in Malaysia as opposed to nationalists or even worse, haters. The difference is, a patriotic person would give out his heart and soul for the country and yet continually criticise constructively for a better Malaysia, whereas nationalistic pride is nothing more than waving the flag and declare your allegiance blindly and accepting everything that is told to you by the powers-that-be as the supreme truth.”
Later that night, the party continued. We, the Malaysians, shared and celebrated our identity by laughing and dancing the night away. Fellow columnist, June Rubis who flew in all the way from Sarawak to be our emcee (and to be starved as she emceed for 12 hours straight), screamed on top of her lungs, “I love you, you and you!” She whispered to me and said she would do it all over again.
I stayed high for the next couple of days. 15 years is a long wait after all.