Sharing Malaysian stories


My parents tell my sister and I lots of stories about their youth, growing up in post-war Malaya and then Malaysia after it was formed.

Dad spent his childhood in Malacca before being posted to various localities as an English teacher before he settled down in Kuala Lumpur.

Mum on the other hand travelled a lot between Singapore, where she was born, and Malacca where her father was, so she had many stories of her own as well.

As they get older, some of the stories have become repetitive but I’ve never really gotten tired of it — okay, maybe sometimes — because it was always an opportunity for curious old me to ask new questions to dig out more details.

In recent years, however, I’ve come to realise how important it is that they keep telling their stories. This is because I’ve learned there are so many benefits to this — I get to learn from the past, consider my life in the context of my history and most of all, have a clear idea of how things were.

These days, we often hear the older folk say things like, “Back then, things were different”, referring not just to simpler times before people got caught up in the rat race and the invasion of modern technology, but also when community spirit was stronger and diversity more embraced.

However, unless everyone has ‘storytellers’ like my parents in their lives, we don’t often know the exact details of how “things were different”.

It is because of this that I’ve been on the hunt over the past couple of years for Malaysian stories to record and share with the public.

Last year, in conjunction with the 50th Malaysia Day, I visited all 13 states in 15 days with friends to collect 50 stories for a project called 50x50 My Malaysia (www.MyMalaysia50.com).

During our visits, we visited small towns and big cities, kampung and coffeeshops to speak to random Malaysians to record their stories.

What we found was an amazing diverse set of people who had very interesting tales; many were similar in that we as a nation share many commonalities.

This year, to complement that project, I teamed up with my friends Nini Marini, John Lim and Vivian Chong, with the support of Low Ngai Yuen and her Kakiseni team, to launch LimaPuluhTujuh, to collect more stories about growing up in Malaysia specifically.

As our nation just celebrated 57 years of independence since the historic year of 1957, I felt that it was a good opportunity to look back at how things were. We even recorded seven audio stories from personalities — including SEA Games swimming champion Daniel Bego and Odissi dance extraordinaire January Low — and their fellow Malaysians.

Listening to these stories — currently on display as part of an interactive exhibition at Pavilion KL — harkened many emotions from me as I too revisited my own life growing up in Malaysia against the country I live in today.

The truth is, the divisive rhetoric and, at times, vitriolic statements and actions by some people over the past few years is hard to swallow because they are so fundamentally opposed to what I believe my Malaysia to be — diverse, tolerant and successful.

The appreciation for tolerance and embracing of diversity was also the Malaysia my parents and I grew up in, and is what I hope my three nephews and one niece inherit from my siblings and me.

So, I turn to my fellow countrymen and women to help me lift my spirits — and each others — through the telling of their stories and sharing it with the world. Because the only way I know how to counter negativity is to drown it out with positivity.

And, if all these stories I’ve compiled so far and continue to collect say anything, it’s that the future I imagine for Malaysia is more than possible to be achieved because, as my parents and everyone has told me through their stories, it has existed before.

Selamat Hari Merdeka and Happy Malaysia Day in advance!

LimaPuluhTujuh is still collecting stories about Malaysians growing up. You can contribute your stories and photographs via the website (www.LimaPuluhTujuh.com) or on social media networks using the #My57 hashtag. The interactive installation for this project is located at Level 3, Fashion Avenue at Pavilion KL and will be displayed until Sept 16.

> Niki Cheong is a writer, lecturer and digital media specialist who believes that it is the people that makes a country what it is. Look for him online at http://blog.nikicheong.com or on Facebook (bit.ly/nikicheong).

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