“YOU know, we always talk about how ‘things were better in the good old days’; but did our older generation have it better in terms of racial unity?” my friend questioned recently.
We were sharing a plate of delicious, cooked-by-the-roadside mee mamak, served in an unassuming kopitiam. I was fresh off a panel that discussed Malaysian unity, and she was taking a break from her work that involved rejuvenating the side of Penang I grew up in.
The Penang connection is important. Both of us reminisced about better race relations, having grown up in Bagan (as locals affectionately call Butterworth) and Tanjung (i.e. George Town) respectively.
It did feel like life was better then. Personally, I remember Saturdays spent waiting for my mother to finish work at Level 33, Komtar, while I read books by Enid Blyton, then taking the minibus and ferry back without any rush; Sundays were spent having picnics at the beach with the whole family.
Life in Penang was slower in pace, more relaxed, and people were (or are) more courteous about each other’s differences. Roads can be blocked for a Malay kenduri, a Hindu prayer ceremony or putting up a performance stage for the Hungry Ghost Festival without anyone shouting vile hate or resorting to physical violence.
As we enjoyed our shared plate of mee mamak, we came to the conclusion that perhaps we were romanticising the past. Our personal experience notwithstanding, should either of us decide to move and live in Penang today, it would be foolish if we returned expecting the Penang of our childhood.
The island is cleaner now and Tanjung holds Unesco Heritage status, albeit less gritty than the Tanjung of my childhood. Bagan is more industrialised, with more highways and fewer trees but culturally hip with fringe festivals nowadays, no longer the sleepy town I returned to every school break during my teenage years.
People have changed, too. We are adults now, with adult prejudices, issues, and experience – no longer the innocent kids who were happy with a simple ferry ride.
With all the noise on social media where Malaysians express their frustrations with each other – either for lack of civic consciousness, obscene behaviour while travelling, or hurling abuse at female athletes and royalty with regard to their way of dress – it was refreshing to see Malaysians united for one night, mesmerised by the SEA Games 2017 opening ceremony.
All Malaysians regardless of ethnicity, religion, and political divide applauded the ceremony’s vibrant, inclusive cultural showcase and world-class production.
The good feeling I had after watching the opening ceremony was, however, soon shattered. Various reports – including the flag blunder in the ceremony’s booklet (followed immediately by an official and personal apology by the Youth and Sports Minister), an athlete being robbed by a bus driver, abusive chants calling a neighbouring country’s athletes “dogs” and Myanmar supporters being harassed and physically abused – marred the unifying spirit of sports that the SEA Games should impart.
As athletes keep winning medals for their respective countries, it is invidious that many of us show our true character through online abuse. Malaysians seem adamant about hating our own athletes – commenting on their dress, their ethnic background, and their privilege despite their obvious qualification for the sport.
I feel like shaking these armchair commentators for their folly. If they had trained for any sport, they would know of the perseverance, dedication and sacrifice that athletes have for sport, especially at the level of representing one’s country.
Another part of me feels sad. Are Malaysians so divided now, so adamant about hate and vileness instead of being proud of our athletes, our scientists, our social activists, or any Malaysian representing the nation at the regional and world stage?
The closing of this year’s SEA Games will be followed by celebrations of Malaya’s 60th Independence Day. There are many talks and articles on unity going on in conjunction with this milestone, but as showcased through our behaviour over the SEA Games, we need to take a long, good look at ourselves in the mirror.
Are we proud to be Malaysians? Are we empowered with our cultural, religious, and national identity?
As I was writing this column, news came of the passing of Datuk Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim, a beloved activist, especially among the Tamil-speaking community. His constant encouragement to young Malaysians regardless of race, his dedication to ensure underprivileged children get a chance at education to ensure their upward social mobility, and just his kindness and humility will make me, and so many others, miss him.
Death is a certainty that reminds us of our responsibility. Having inherited this nation from our forebears, we must pass it on to the younger generation in the best condition. Thasleem is famously known for saying that he only works for one race – the human race. I think we all should do the same.
The next chance I get, I will appreciate that ferry ride even more as a reminder of where my identity is rooted and my gratitude for being Malaysian.
Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist and a runner, and hopes to #bringbackthekebaya. The views expressed here are entirely her own.
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