ALL Malaysians have had to forgo usual birthday celebrations at least once since 2020: depending on the date, some have had to stay home twice in a row with no public acknowledgment of getting older. Some may secretly prefer this, but if social media is any indication, birthday parties are back with a vengeance.
The birthdays of heads of state remained public holidays during the movement control orders, but without any of the official events traditionally associated with them. It was therefore exhilarating that this month, the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negri Sembilan was once again celebrated. Although some aspects like the military parade were not yet able to be reinstated owing to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, most events were able to proceed with physical distancing.
The most visible part of the proceedings, by virtue of media coverage, is still the main investiture ceremony. This year, the speech from the throne praised the collaborative efforts of people from all over the state in working to defeat the pandemic and the recent floods. Indeed, at the temporary relief centres (PPS) in Jempol earlier this month, it was heartening to see that both the officials and volunteers came from every race and religion.
The honours list saw only 27 individuals receiving awards that bring with them the title of Dato’, including distinguished doctors, soldiers, lawyers, business people and a priest, alongside singer Aishah (of the New Zealand-based Fan Club of the 1980s). Besides this, many people received medals for their service and contributions to the state.
No honours system is perfect: there will always be people who deserve recognition who are not detected, while some recipients might not be universally admired.
But as I have written before, as a whole, it is a wonderful thing that people from so many different walks of life can receive public appreciation for the good work they do.
The investiture also enables the performance of ancient ceremonies: the emplacement of the royal regalia, for instance, carried out by officials who take their duties extremely seriously, in accordance with their matrilineal clan membership.
Some of the treasures, such as keris and spears, date back to when the first Ruler Raja Melewar arrived in Negri Sembilan from Pagar Ruyong in 1773, having been invited by local chiefs to reign over them.
Outside the palace, a slew of events was organised, attracting people from all across the state. The Londa Naga Lake saw anglers vie for the biggest catch, though apparently the usual tug-of-war could not be held with physical distancing. At the Seri Menanti padang, budding flight engineers submitted their radio-controlled aircraft to compete against each other, while nearby, esports enthusiasts battled for FIFA domination. At SK Tunku Laksamana Nasir, the sepak takraw tournament saw new trios dominating: previously those from the Fire and Rescue Department took the podium spots.
But the highlight this year must have been the Jelajah Keilmuan – perhaps best translated as a “Journey of Knowledge” – by bicycle around Gunung Pasir, one of the traditional “luak” or territories of Negri Sembilan that come under the jurisdiction of a penghulu answerable to the Yang di-Pertuan Besar.
Setting off from Seri Menanti, my brother and I joined over 200 cyclists from around the state, stopping briefly at the Balai (i.e. official residence) of the penghulu who was joined by the Ibu Soko. There, we were briefed on the history of the area – from the initial migration of settlers to the manner of Raja Melewar’s arrival, while two old cannons displayed nearby pointed to remnants of the 1874 Bukit Putus War.
From then on it was the natural features that told the story: hills that formed ancient merchant paths, ponds where giant freshwater prawns (udang galah) grow, paddy fields that have fed generations (and where just a generation ago it was commonplace for bomoh to conduct rituals to increase fertility), and stunning waterfalls that belie the devastation of floods downstream just some weeks ago.
Indeed, one common thread present in so many recent conversations with the people of Negri Sembilan – whether along the rural tracks of Gunung Pasir, or beside the squash courts of Chung Hua High School in Seremban, or by the beach in Port Dickson, or among those with keen political antennae – is the strong awareness of the impact and relevance of the past, and the need to make the right decisions for the future. More than ever, there has been an enthusiasm to start the year on an optimistic note, and the birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar has provided an opportunity for those sentiments to be concentrated and acted upon.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is the second son of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.