Celebrating Malaysia Day

It's time to celebrate with and learn about our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak.

I WATCHED a recent video clip featuring a student interviewing various people on the difference between Merdeka and Malaysia day.

While this was far from a representative sample, only two of the interviewees correctly identified Malaysia day as the day on which the Federation of Malaysia, comprising Malaya (or Peninsular Malaysia), Sabah and Sarawak was formed.

Singapore, of course, was part of this federation but left in 1965. One interviewee thought that Malaysia Day is 1 Malaysia Day, a testament to misinterpreted branding. But her interpretation was not too different from other answers which emphasized the celebration of cohesion between the difference races in our country on Malaysia Day.

Sadly, when Peninsular Malaysians (or Malayans, the term used by Sabahans and Sarawakians to describe us) talk about racial cohesion and national unity, we usually refer to the relationship between the Malays, Chinese and Indians. The Ibans, the Bidayuhs, the Melanaus, the Penans, the Kenyahs, the Kelabits, the Lun Bawangs, the Kadazans, the Dusuns, the Muruts, the Bajaus and the many other tribes in Sabah and Sarawak are instinctively ignored as are the Orang Asli, the Eurasians and the ‘Others’ in Peninsular Malaysia.

We can point to many factors for this state of affairs. For one, the marginalization of Sabah and Sarawak news in the mainstream media. News concerning other countries probably gets more coverage than news regarding Sabah and Sarawak, at least in Peninsular Malaysia. The occasional capture of a man-eating crocodile in a small village along the Rajang gets a mention, but little else. The frame of reference used by Peninsular Malaysian politicians such as using Malay, Chinese and Indians only to describe race relations in the country is another factor.

Undoubtedly, the fact that a majority of Peninsular Malaysians have not set foot in either Sabah or Sarawak must also play a role. I would not be surprised if more Peninsular Malaysians have been to another country than to East Malaysia.

As the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind…

Prior to 2010, I had been to Sabah twice – once to climb Gunung Kinabalu in 2001 and to have a beach holiday near Kota Kinabalu in 2003. I had never been to Sarawak even though my wife was born in Miri. One of the privileges of working and serving in the political arena were my visits to various parts of Sabah and Sarawak after completing my PhD and coming back to Malaysia in 2010. I had a taste of Tenom’s homegrown coffee in the interior of Sabah and visited the historic Batu Bersumpah in the Land Office in Keningau – a reminder of the autonomy enjoyed by Sabah including in cultural and religious matters. I’ve been to all the major cities in Sarawak and spent two weeks in Sibu during the 2011 Sarawak state elections. I hope to visit the highlands of Ba’kelalan and climb Gunung Murud, the highest peak in Sarawak, at the end of the year.

During this time, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and make friends with many East Malaysians. Only by speaking with them, did I realize the importance of autonomy and state rights to Sabahans and Sarawakians. I learned that we cannot take Sabah or Sarawak to be just another one of the 13 states in the Federation akin to Hawaii being the 50th state in the United States of America.

Sabah and Sarawak constitute 61% of the total land area of Malaysia and were co-equals to Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore at the formation of the Federation. I learned that many of the racial and religious disputes which arise in Peninsular Malaysia are non-issues in East Malaysia. Christians have used the word Allah there for many decades. Muslims would attend weddings held in church where there would be halal and non-halal buffet tables.

 Only when the expectations and lived reality of Sabahans and Sarawakians becomes part of our national consciousness can we begin to form an understanding of what Malaysia Day or being part of the Malaysian federation is all about.

So what can us ‘Malayans’ do to celebrate Malaysia Day inclusively? For starters, for those who have not visited East Malaysia, plan a trip to climb Gunung Kinabalu or to visit the Bako National Park near Kuching or to go to the Mulu or Niah caves from Miri or to snorkel off the coast of Tawau or visit a longhouse during the Gawai festival in Sarawak or celebrate Kaamatan or the paddy harvest festival in Sabah, both of which take place at the end of May every year.

For those of us who are interested in social outreach, we can take part in community development projects organized by NGOs such as Raleigh International which has regular expeditions in Sabah. Many church groups and religious organizations and even political parties are organizing community development project trips to East Malaysia.

For those of us who cannot go east there are many East Malaysians who have moved here in search for better jobs and educational opportunities – a sad indictment of the state of development in Sabah and Sarawak. It would take very little effort to organize Malaysia Day parties with our East Malaysian friends. For those of us living in the Klang Valley, we can head on down to Jalan Bangkung in Bangsar to celebrate the ‘We are Malaysia’ festival on the 15th and 16th of September featuring many events which showcase the diverse cultural heritage of east Malaysia. I hear that there’s even a tuak appreciation workshop!

Malaysia Day is not just a holiday. It is definitely not 1 Malaysia day. It is not a celebration of the cohesion of the Malay, Chinese and Indians. It is an opportunity for us ‘Malayans’ to celebrate with and learn about our brothers and sisters in Sabah and Sarawak.

Happy Malaysia Day!

The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.

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