Of values, traditions and culture

THERE is a light-hearted moment described in the book, I, KKK: The Autobiography of a Historian, where Emeritus Professor Khoo Kay Kim related the induction of his son, Eddin, into the Khoo Kongsi (clan association).

Expecting a ritual reminiscent of gangster movies complete with blood sacrifice, Eddin instead was simply asked for his I/C by an elderly gentleman and voilà – he was formally part of the clan.

This part of the book was playing in my head recently while I participated in the Oxford tradition of matriculation. Originating from the Latin term matricula, matriculation is the ritual of enlisting students’ names into a university, not that much different from the process of registering for a clan association.

Yet as I sat among fellow students who included Malala Yousafzai in the historic Sheldonian Theatre, the ceremony felt like a cross between the Sorting ceremony described in the Harry Potter series and a cult-like ritual.

We were all dressed in sub fusc – black gown, black trousers or skirts with black leggings, white shirt resplendent with a bow tie for the men and velvet ribbon for the women, mortarboard in hand (we were not allowed to wear these hats in the theatre, an honour reserved for the Vice-Chancellor) – congregated in a place steeped in history.

A senior dean then presented the students to the vice-chancellor, and she in turn accepted us into the university. The ceremony was conducted in Latin and lasted a significant five minutes.

Despite the brief ceremony, there was a ripple of excitement throughout the theatre; we all felt a bond had been forged between us.

In her speech following the ceremony, the vice-chancellor reminded us to abide by the university’s statutes, assured us that we could drop by her office when we needed to, and that Oxford seeks to merge the ancient and the modern in creating a culture of excellence.

There was no denying the diversity of cultures, religions and nationalities present in that small theatre, yet there we were honouring an almost 800-year-old tradition. Rumour has it that the university itself thought it best to do away with matriculation, but following a vote by staff and students, the ceremony has remained to this day.

Here is proof that a tradition is only kept alive if there are people who participate and uphold it, making it their culture. No culture can be forced onto people, nor can people be forcibly prevented from participating in a culture.

This brings me to the recent kerfuffle in Malaysia. Reports of demonstrations over Oktoberfest, and preachers who spread vile hate to divide society, necessitating strict condemnation from our monarchs, contribute to the discourse about what the Malaysian values and traditions that we should uphold are, and on whose judgment something should be considered as Malaysian culture.

While I have to agree that Oktoberfest is more synonymous to Germanic culture than Malaysian, its organisation in Malaysia is nothing more than a commercialised marketing tool.

Thus those who enjoy beer and are willing to part with their hard-earned cash for a night of revelry should have the liberty to do so. Policing of such events should solely be on the basis of preventing those who participate from driving and causing accidents from drunk driving, rather than moral policing.

Instead of harshly accusing such celebrations of being “not part of our culture”, complete with senseless demonstrations, why don’t we instead advocate for cultural celebrations that are historically part of our tradition, and can bring people together?

I would love to see more Malaysians participating in events traditionally linked to a certain ethnic group – be it as simple as drawing a kolam, appreciating Gawai or wearing the kebaya as often as one can – to organically forge the bond of unity.

Promote a culture of civic mindedness, tolerance and kindness. Are these not what Malaysians are famous for among tourists and foreigners?

In his essay, Human Rights and Asian Values, economist and philosopher Amartya Sen argued that seemingly Western values of liberty, equality and tolerance can be found in Asian histories too. Sen further argued that rejecting human rights on the basis of upholding local culture is problematic.

The core of upholding human rights involves respect. In this case, creating a culture of tolerance in a society should include respecting different cultural traditions and religions – not to smear (pun intended) another’s race with regard to their toilet practices, or to prevent Malaysians from wishing each other a “happy birthday”.

Malaysia is a country that is famous on the world stage as a champion of moderate Islam and multi-ethnic harmony, but the recent goings-on have demonstrated otherwise.

Where has our tolerance gone? Why has our ability to share a nation been divided into Muslim and non-Muslim spaces, to the extent of separating where we can wash our clothes and whether or not non-Muslims can drink beer?

It is time for us all to evaluate what kind of culture we want to cultivate in Malaysia.

Lyana Khairuddin is a Chevening-Khazanah Scholar pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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Opinion , Lyana Khairuddin , columnist


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