Brave New World

Published: Wednesday July 22, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday July 22, 2015 MYT 7:26:06 AM

A ‘pasembur’ of ancestries

Growing up on an island, I think this realisation must have seeped into my consciousness.

YESTERDAY I spent six and a half hours in my car crawling from north to south. It wasn’t too bad an experience because I was with people I loved and we entertained ourselves with general silliness. But then I suppose I was in a good mood and even an aching left leg, the result of constantly working the clutch, did nothing to dampen that mood.

The past few days have been perhaps the best Raya I have had since childhood. For the first time in what feels like the longest time, all the people I loved were under the same roof and everyone was just so relaxed and happy. It was truly a time that made one feel grateful.

Apart from family I also had the chance to meet up with old friends from Francis Light School. Obviously, coming from a school with a name like that, my home state is Penang.

It was a blast seeing pals whom I have not seen in 34 years. We’ve all aged, obviously, and grown (some more than others), but upon close inspection, one can see the little boys with whom I used to play and study.

I am of course completely biased, but Penang folk make me laugh. I think it has something to do with our dialect. And sitting there drinking coffee with my mates, I laughed real hard.

It’s not just what was said but the way it was said that got to me. I may be wrong but I think we are the only people who use the term “marka” for girls. Just exactly what “marka” means I have no idea, so if there are any cunning linguists out there, please drop me a line.

And there is something schizophrenic about Penangites and the way we talk. All the aku and hang is crude. As is our utter refusal to use the “r” sound, replacing it either with a “q” (it’s Gelugoq, not Gelugor) or with a guttural sound impossible to put in words, that is rather akin to a bronchial patient clearing his throat in the morning.

All this makes us sound like a bunch of roughs, yet at the same time we refer to ourselves in a most infantile manner. To hear grown men call themselves chek when talking to their elders, makes it seem like we are using baby talk way into middle age. It is a very odd mixture indeed.

As are we. Looking around my table at my friends, one thing struck me very clearly and that is we are all obviously island boys, but at the same time we are equally obviously from a variety of ancestries. A pasembur of ancestries, you can say. I suppose all of us at the table would be classified as Malay, but to believe in some form of racial purity would be stupid beyond belief if one were to just look at us.

Growing up on the island, I think this realisation must have seeped into my consciousness. And so, although I appreciate the differences in ethnicity for the colour and cultural richness it provides our lives, I also realise that to be hung up over it is ultimately silly.

Now, as much as I enjoyed my little reunion, I am also aware that it’s not as if my rediscovered chums and I are going to be hanging out all the time. Unlike Stephen King’s assertion in his story Stand by Me, I don’t believe that primary school friends are the ones to last for life.

This is because at that age, we hadn’t really developed yet. All we were concerned about was play.

As we got older, our lives took different paths, and our personalities harden into what they are now. This means that at the end of the day we will not necessarily gel with one another.

Be that as it may, the memories we share do give us a bond. What the boys of Francis Light whom I met do not realise, and I was too embarrassed to tell them, was that I really looked up to them when I was a child.

They were talented sportsmen, street-smart and tough town kids. I on the other hand, as they so accurately pointed out that evening, was blessed with the legs of a stool and was quite a soft suburbanite.

But whatever the differences, we all played together and our only criteria for friendship was whether someone was nice or not. Perhaps the season, as well as an overdose of my mother’s rendang, has made me sentimental, but I hope that my friends feel the same way too.

That despite all the changes we have gone through and all our differences, there was a time when we really understood what was important.

Selamat Hari Raya everybody.

Azmi Sharom ( is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Azmi Sharom, columnist

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