THE book Roots Living Heritage, edited by a multicultural team, documents the memories of 17 writers who took the time to become historians and chroniclers of their own family members.
They described those who came to Peninsular Malaya in the 19th century with one writer focusing on the growth of the town of Batu Pahat.
From the 1860s to 2022, we get to read the trials and tribulations of their forefathers from faraway lands (Turkey, Sumatra, China and India) to create our multicultural landscape.
What is so compelling is that the narratives of their exploits and adventures were narrated through the eyes, ears, and memories of their living relatives.
While some of us are familiar with the events and places in the stories through our school History lessons, the writers have managed to give their first-hand, personalised, and intimate knowledge about the people, places and events that have taken place in the past.
For that, we are truly enriched and inspired.
All the chapters were written by writers, academicians and personalities in Malaysia who are renowned for their regular contributions in print media.
The language used is not so academic which makes reading easy and their narratives so personal and special.
Because of their multicultural origins, the stories they selected are also inclusive of all the ethnic groups in Peninsular Malaya.
The diversity of experiences and encounters they shared made the book come alive with interesting anecdotes, reflections and sayings.
So, what did the book convey to us all?
Beginning with the Ottoman empire, we know some of our prominent personalities in our political and intellectual spheres were related to two Circassian women (of Turkic origins) who came to Malaya in the 1880s.
From China, we read stories of hardworking and successful individuals who contributed to the growth and development of the country.
They came to Malaya in 1903 in search of tin and flourished by growing and tapping rubber.
They cleared lands, established trade associations, cultivated fruit plantations, built housing estates and many more.
One of them joined politics and was appointed to the state executive council.
From the Indian continent, we have famous names who came to Malaya to build roads, railways, government buildings, and schools.
In addition, there were prominent judges, lawyers and civil servants who contributed their intellectual capital to the growth and development of Malaya.
From across the Straits of Melaka, we have Malays of Minangkabau in Sumatra who championed the concept of merantau (walkabout) and brought 40 varieties of nasi padang.
We also learned that the establishment of Mara, Felda and Pekan Rabu were the initiatives of one man who saw the need to develop Malay human capital
From old Ceylon (Sri Lanka), we have doctors, lawyers and teachers who were highly respected for their professional and philanthropic work.
Then we read about a Sikh who was one of the many volunteers who signed up in 1939 to assist China fight the advances of Imperial Japan.
His stint in wartime Indochina exposed him to notable personalities. At one point, he served as a bodyguard to Lord Mountbatten. It was reported that his quick-thinking after an accident saved the Admiral’s eyesight.
There were also stories on how our forefathers had to live through the days of the Japanese invasion of Malaya, the Communist era and the British colonial days which contributed to the rise of nationalism leading to the achievement of independence in 1957.
Other stories of note include that of Dollah Baju Merah from Kelantan who championed wayang kulit and managed to capture the interest of foreigners to our cultural heritage.
The economic transformation of Batu Pahat into an urban centre in Johor and earning itself the nickname of “Little Paris” is also in the anecdotes.
A star who made her mark in Malay movies of the 1960s, in both acting and producing, and who had no qualms in training diligently for the song and dance routines required of a Bollywood movie.
There were many interesting experiences and anecdotes shared and we recall some of them here:
- Having women as gifts to foreign Rulers was a practice in the early days in some faraway lands to build relationships;
- Charging 1 sen for those who wanted to take baths and showers because of piped water being installed in the house;
- The name "Hiap Seng" which means "Working together for success and accomplishment" becoming a brand for the family business;
- The practice and spirit of merantau and its significance to finding new lands and fortunes;
- Having the family house serve as the headquarters for the Japanese Occupation where people were hung and tortured and the trauma that the inhabitants endured;
- The days when teaching was a profession of choice and the pride and dignity that came with it;
- The extraordinary hard work, talent and discipline needed in attracting foreign investments to Malaysia; and
- The skills of a diplomat who averted the direct confrontation between Malaysia and Philippines on the latter’s claim on Sabah.
This 250-page book should be a MUST READ for those of us who love History and want to know more about multicultural Malaysia based on the memories of those who are still alive.
It captures our rich diversity of people, places, and events that make our country so unique and special.
More books should be written to capture “stories from below” narratives from the ordinary person on the street so that our sources for learning Malaysian history are varied. In the age of social media and where everyone can write, this book offers a source of reference for our schools, universities, tour guides for visitors to the museum and to the country and just about anybody who wants to know more about the people who come to live in the then Malaya.
By gaining access to a variety of sources (not just limited to the list from Education Ministry), our young generation will be able to appreciate the contribution of our forefathers to the diversity that we have in the country.
More books have to be written by Malaysians from different races about their own family’s history and how they are able to build harmonious relationships of peaceful coexistence among the various races in Malaysia.
Of course, we must include those from Sabah and Sarawak, which is missing in the book.
We would give the book a rating of 6 or 7 in terms of content but to make it a complete 10, it would be good to focus on what is meant by the word “roots”.
This is the hidden dimension that writers have to identify by locating the values that they want to communicate through the stories they have selected.
These culturally related values and qualities that can be extracted have to be unique to our heritage as Chinese, Malay, Indian, Sikh.
But we did get to hear the following:
- The story of Haji Elias who was known to have paid for his meal before eating to communicate the values of integrity and honesty;
- The story of Maria Menado on how important the values of adab dan sopan are in our polite society which is slowly dying;
- The story of Tok Pah who had a deep sense of commitment to develop Malay entrepreneurs;
- The story of wayang kulit to impart the values of integrity, honesty and unity as well as the need to preserve one’s heritage;
- The lifetime of multiple achievements of V.C. George especially his erudite judgements (130) leaving a footprint in the Malaysian legal fraternity; and
- The importance of joining clan-oriented associations to connect to one’s roots.
All in all, it was a delight getting to know in close proximity the unforgettable events that have taken place in our multicultural setting and their impact on our forefathers. This is our national strength that we must acknowledge, celebrate, and defend.
Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspectives of the book and hope more efforts will be undertaken by Malaysians to document their historical encounters for the benefit of our future generations.
DR ASMA ABDULLAH and MASNOON BUJANG