A COUPLE of weeks ago, someone from the Agriculture Department contacted The Star asking to speak to me.
Intrigued, I called him and this was his query: Why did I name the papaya as the country’s national fruit?
The surprising question came about because the officer had somehow read my Aug 26, 2015, column, “Empower our symbols of unity” , in which I listed many of our national symbols, including the papaya as our national fruit, and wanted to know how I came to that conclusion.
I told him when I researched the topic online, there was no government website that gave a complete list of the national symbols so I depended on Google search and sites like symbolhunt.com.
Perhaps I was wrong but to this day, there is still no official site that clearly lists all our symbols and emblems, and the fruit question remains debatable.
This is even after the Information Department under the Communications and Multimedia Ministry on March 19, 2021, issued a 60-page booklet with guidelines on the use of the Coat of Arms, the Jalur Gemilang and the Royal Regalia.
There is no mention of other national symbols with less gravitas like flower, fruit or the latest addition of a tree (the merbau was named the national tree by then-prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad on Aug 23, 2019).
Coming back to my conversation with the officer, we agreed most people assume the durian is the national fruit and he said it was indeed No.1 in terms of export earnings; the papaya is at number three.
I have doubts, however, that the national fruit would be chosen based on how much revenue it generated in the early years of Malaysia. Besides, the durian wasn’t in as much demand (especially in China) then as it is now. Back then, the down-to-earth and very people-oriented Alliance government was probably looking for a fruit that was easily planted and enjoyed by the masses.
The papaya, while originally from Mexico and northern South America, fitted the bill, like the hibiscus which became our bunga raya even though it is native to China (hence its other name, China rose).
Whether it should be made clear what our national fruit is may seem a very petty subject in light of what’s happening in our country right now.
But what I want to share as you read this one day short of six years when that article was published is the same message: the need for unity in our country.
This is what I wrote then: “Now, 58 years after independence and 52 years since the birth of Malaysia, we are more than ever in dire need of unity in order to have the strength to beat down extremists, racists and bigots.”
In six days, we will mark our 64th Merdeka Day and that need for unity is even more urgent than before.
The motto on Malaysia’s national crest is “Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu”, and the literal translation would be something like “Unity Enhances Quality” but the official English version is more catchy and simply powerful: “Unity is Strength”.
This is something Malaysians have come to realise in the 17 months we have suffered through Covid-19. There was collective suffering as the pandemic wiped out lives and livelihoods and shuttered most of our economy.
While the previous Perikatan Nasional government doled out aid and subsidies as best it could and tried to follow the science, ultimately it was politically expedient decisions that made us lose the lead in the war against the virus. One was the decision to hold the Sabah state elections and not requiring quarantine time for people who had travelled interstate. The other decision: allowing Ramadan bazaars to operate and relaxing the SOP for Hari Raya Aidil Fitri.
In the terrible months following, Malaysians learned to lean on each other, with race and religion taking a back seat. Unity is strength became a reality and is now no longer an unfathomable slogan.
Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has left the political stage. Our new leading man is Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob who was very much part of the old Perikatan government that failed.
But his inaugural address to the nation on Sunday was actually quite encouraging with his call to citizens, government figures and Opposition MPs to unite like a “Malaysian Family” to help the nation to recover.
This is a different Ismail Sabri we are seeing and hearing. He who as the Agriculture Minister urged Malays to shun Chinese businesses to compel them to lower their prices now wants a Malaysian family "whose members have intermarried with people of various races and religions with strong family ties that bind them together”.
He who as Rural and Regional Development Minister created digital malls only for Malay traders after a phone theft at the Low Yat Plaza digital mall in Kuala Lumpur turned into a racially charged riot, now wants a Malaysian Family that looks for similarities and not differences to "build consensus for security and safety” for all.
He who as an Opposition MP criticised the Pakatan Harapan government’s intention to ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and insinuated it was Pakatan’s way to get more non-Malays into Mara Junior Science Colleges now wants a Malaysian Family because it is about "the strength of a nation bound together by values found within families”.
The Ismail Sabri of old that we knew was an old style race-based politician who believed his political longevity depended on the stout championing of Malay supremacy, rights and privileges.
But that was pre-Covid-19. In the last 17 months, there were no racist gaffes or pronouncements from him. Perhaps seeing how a nation must pull together in the face of a common enemy that doesn’t differentiate race or religion in its victims changed him.
Not only that, Ismail Sabri has shown nascent inclusive leadership by stating political stability needs cross-party cooperation, and to help achieve that he is offering Opposition leaders the chance to be a part of the National Recovery Council and the Special Committee on Covid-19.
Yes, that speech was perhaps his opening gambit. But if he continues to speak like a leader of a multiracial nation and really walks his talk, then we may be convinced we have a Prime Minister who has what it takes to lead us in these desperate times.
Ismail Sabri must know Malaysians are exhausted and demoralised by the endless political jostling and are united in wanting a sincere, inclusive administration that really wants to save our beloved nation and not one that is out to use the power of incumbency to increase its chances of winning in the next general election.
That will be shown most clearly when the new PM names his Cabinet this week. He has already declared it won’t be a unity government but will he fill it with MPs from parties who supported him, the way Muhyiddin did to no avail, or will he genuinely look for qualified people who can really assist him in quelling the pandemic and reviving our nation and economy?
It will also be interesting to see what he will call his administration. How about taking a leaf from our national motto and go with “Persekutuan Mutu” because quality and not quantity is what Malaysians want in the Cabinet and government?
Dear fellow Malaysians, Happy Merdeka. Let’s celebrate with our durians and papayas.
The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.