The value of diversity


FOR many of us Malaysians born in the years close to the first Merdeka day in 1957, something stirs within us and thoughts arise from a deep unidentifiable place each time Aug 31st comes round.

We can’t quite put our finger on it and are not exactly sure how much of the feeling is real, what part of it is rooted in some subconscious streak of patriotism in our spirits, and how much is just superficial sentimentality which will vaporise as soon as the Merdeka season is over.

The memories of our childhood Merdeka moments are fading, it is true, like yellowed pages of a well-loved and much read book and yet some parts remain poignant and the same feeling arises. It is the same undefined spark of anticipation we experienced all those decades ago and for a brief instant at least, a moment of celebration rises in our beings.

Consciously or not, our thoughts take us back to our growing-up years and linger a little longer than intended on scenes associated with Merdeka Days past. We remember the school parades, the special assemblies, the buntings and flags, the processions and performances.

We talk about them fondly to our children and their children and with each memory we awaken, the parades seem grander, the performances more wonderful and the colours more intense. Perhaps they really were all that when we were growing up - grander, bigger, more colourful. Or perhaps it was the way we perceived them then - with grander, bigger and more colourful vision.

Of course even today we see displays of Merdeka and the paraphernalia related to the National day celebrations all around us. The media continually reminds us that it is Aug 31st, the anniversary of our Nation’s independence leading up to Malaysia Day itself.

And advertisements related to the day are shown in many variations to remind all Malaysians about what this day should mean to them. The efforts to evoke meaning and ownership of the day are concerted and everywhere in the country there are competitions, performances, and strategically placed messages as reminders of the significance of National Day.

Fond memories

But for reasons which are all meshed up with feelings of patriotism, the deep roots in this our homeland and a longing for the simpler days of the past, I wish I could go back and recapture that feeling of early Merdeka’s in the 1960s. I remember the feeling of eager anticipation as the day grew closer with the promise of its specialness and the pleasure when it finally arrived. In the morning, my schoolmates and I would troop to the ‘town padang’ (public field) to witness the Merdeka assembly and parade.

Most years, we were actually part of the marching units or involved in performances and duties related to the day. After that, we would all walk back to our homes, belting out every patriotic song we knew with ice-ball syrup dripping down our cheeks.

Back to a special Merdeka day cake baked over a wood stove and a P Ramlee movie on black and white television. The evenings were the best though. This was when the townsfolk would don special festival clothes and head out to the town square once again, this time to witness the special stage shows, brightly decorated floats, parading the streets and more performances.

It was Merdeka and we felt it in our spirits. We were still children and did not fully understand the feeling of our parents and grandparents at that time. Of what it would have been like for them to come to this land, sodden with dreams that they were not entirely sure of.

The promise of this country that they and the generations after them would call home without knowing what home would really be like in the future. And yet, in the mid of so many uncertainties there was the assurance that finally this country had become free to rule itself. And they like the people around them were the people of this country.

Here was a land where not everyone looked the same or sounded the same. Here was a land where people ate different food, sang different songs and wore different clothes. But during those Merdeka moments, there was something in the faces of all the people who gathered there in the small town square that identified them as one despite these differences. I remember that we were not always respectful of those differences. We quite blithely chanted rhymes and sang songs round the campfire which had pretty strong and unflattering connotations of ethnic stereotyping.

By current standards of political correctness and warnings for ethnic sensitivity, it was all very inappropriate. Still, there was no perceptible element of malice or contempt and at times almost seemed like the names we have for family members, which are not always flattering and yet only possible because the bonds between us were that strong.

A kind of magic

For us who were children then, there was a kind of magic attached to the day, maybe because we were children and had not yet become accustomed to discrimination, prejudice and bigotry that would linger like a plague in the years to come.

Did those thoughts go on in our parents heads, I sometimes wonder, the parents of those early Merdeka years. Not all of them are with us now and those who remain may only have hazy recollections of those early Merdeka moments.

For many of them, life was a struggle and the needs simple and straightforward. Money for food, for shelter and for a good education for their children. I remember the parents of early Malaysia and what they went through to ensure education for their children.

Most of them knew that the only sure way upward was through a good education. And so they continued their work, in offices, business places, or in the fish market paddy fields or rubber estates, cleaning houses or doing laundry to earn money for a future and a hope for their children.

Did they at any point think that maybe the Malaysia of the future may not be so kind to their children. Maybe no matter how hard they tried or what they achieved there would be forces trying to hold them back.

Did they think that the playmates or houses they walked in and out of so freely may one day be closed to them and the easy friendship without boundaries of race and religion would one day lose its ease and run the risk of becoming contrived?

But in all likelihood, life had enough challenges without having to think about these things. And in the mid of those challenges there was still time to celebrate special moments like Merdeka.

So much has changed since then and our Merdeka celebrations have become grander and more sophisticated. There is much showcasing of our national unity, multicultural identity and the mixed colours of our heritage. Again and again we remind ourselves of how far we have come and the long journey we have travelled together.

A lot of the displays of unity and spirit of harmony is real, we know, because we too have travelled the same road. Some of the of it we can sense is artificial.

But still, even an artificial taste is better than no taste. It shows that there is an awareness and an attempt is being made towards the ideal situation.

And who knows, one day we may once again become in our spirits, the children of those first Merdeka moments.

Dr G Mallika Vasugi who currently teaches in a local university, provides insights on the teaching profession. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.

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