Malaysians – unique and united

Malaysians © Adrian Cheah

"The melting pot or mixing bowl images do not provide an adequate picture of Penang. The kaleidoscope, with its shifting patterns of colourful pieces, overlapping sometimes to make new shapes, some larger in one frame and smaller in others, offers a better metaphor for Penang's multi-ethnic population and its changes over time." – Sarnia Hayes Hoyt Old Penang 1991

Merdeka © Adrian Cheah

I decided to start off this short essay on Hari Merdeka (also known as Hari Kebangsaan, National Day and Independence Day) with a quote from Sarnia's book on Penang for two reasons: one, Penang's cultural dynamics can be regarded as a  microcosm of the interaction among the various races in Malaysia; two, since independence in 1957, it is nothing short of miraculous that each and every race that make up the Malaysian 'kaleidoscope' still maintain and practice their individual cultures and habits.

Merdeka © Adrian Cheah

Some Malaysians have long called for the abolishment of racial tags and just regard every citizen of this country as Malaysian. In fact, I remember a white visitor from South Africa being quite appalled when a form she was asked to fill in required her to state her race. Perhaps she had forgotten in a moment that she was in Malaysia. Her reaction could also have been due to the history of her country, and what made her cringe when she was asked her state her race. But after staying in Penang for a week, she observed how Penangites behaved and slowly began to understand that defining people by race wasn't necessarily a bad thing. She was also pleasantly surprised by the fact that she could walk the streets at night without any violent incident. But that is another story.

And therein lies the unique experience of being a citizen of this country, where one can proudly proclaim one's roots, on the one hand, be it Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Eurasian, Arab, Thai or Burmese, and on the other, remain fiercely and passionately patriotic about being a Malaysian. Which comes first? In Malaysia, such petty concerns do not matter, because over half a century of years of living together have taught people how to strike the right symbiosis and balance the two perfectly, like the Chinese yin and yang. They feel equally at home enjoying rendang one day, laksa the next and dosei the day after.

Take me for example. I am a product of a mixed marriage and I have always regarded my duality as a unique gift. I refuse to be shoehorned into being completely one or the other. Why should I when the blood that runs in my body comes from two different sources? I'm not a scientist, but I dare say that even from a biological standpoint, my DNA or whatever it is that makes me what I am, would be equal parts Malay and Chinese!

Some experts (doom clucking ones, no doubt) predict that the soon-to-happen borderless world will render racial categorizations meaningless. Granted that the end result may be that you achieve oneness, but isn't it also true that at the same time you lose what it is that makes you different and unique? Even in America where its citizens are known collectively as Americans, pride in one's heritage is still very much evident - notice how some quarters proudly describe themselves as Italian American, American Chinese or African (Afro) American? You can blur lines in an attempt to blend one and all in a huge melting pot but you can't neglect your roots for as long as you live and breathe.

I once asked a Chinese friend who spent some time in America if Chinese New Year was a big holiday there. She seemed rather surprised by my question but admitted, with a tinge of regret in her voice, that it was not a big thing there. Her response got me wondering. Can you imagine Chinese New Year as nothing more than just another passing day? Or Thaipusam without the kavadi processions?

Merdeka © Adrian Cheah

So how on earth do you define a true Malaysian? Does he even exist? The answer is both yes and no. Yes, because every citizen in this country has a right to call himself a Malaysian, and no because without his roots, he becomes little more than a hollow shell, non-descript and bereft of soul.

Merdeka © Adrian Cheah

Come Hari Merdeka, fly the flag with gusto. Be proud of your heritage and your roots. We may come from different cultures but we are all brothers under the same skin. Be unique and yet united at the same time.

Merdeka © Adrian Cheah

Written by Raja Abdul Razak
Photographed by Adrian Cheah © All rights reserved.