Monday, September 21, 2009
In writing this letter, I find it hard and difficult to put into words what it is that has been brewing in my mind and heart. Recently, on the 16th of September, we celebrated the 46th year of your existence, Malaysia. It is certainly a fine and long period of existence. Older than me without question, you are in many ways the embodiment of my emotions, of my hopes, my fears and my dreams all rolled into one.
After all, you are the land where my blood drops, where the citizens live one and prosper in peace, united in their progress. I take that from the lines of the songs that people sing up and down the country. Did you know...I once heard that song in a 70s Dutch film? I wanted to research about the filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, and swotted up on all of his major film works. No mention of Verhoeven in his filmmaking days in Holland can be made without even a breath of 'Soldier of Orange' getting in the way. There was a scene of a university orientation, where a young Rutger Hauer was made to stand in front of other students and sing a song. He sang 'Terang Bulan', but of course, me being a Malaysian, and the tune being what it is, I literally leaned forward and jacked up the volume, squeezing the headphones closer to my ears. “Is that guy singing my national anthem?” was the first thought that came to mind. As it turns out, it wasn't, but in that one moment, then, an fair example of the globalised cultural permeations of the world: an Indonesian song, one that inspired/was inspired by your national anthem (delete according to how often you throw rotten eggs at foreign embassies), appearing in a film made by a Dutch filmmaker, whose country had previously conquered both Indonesia and Malaysia.
Culture. That's what you are rich with, Malaysia. Culture, race, religions, language, traditions. Whether it is actually one that is spawned from within the borders defined in the middle of the 20th century, or whether it is one that made its journeys across greats seas and lands, you decide. Or rather, others decide for you. But it doesn't change the one fact that is as true as the sky is blue: Malaysia, you are one rich, lucky bitch.
But wealth does not define a person or a nation, does it? For wealth itself does not truly equate to the quality of the subject matter at hand. I suppose wealth is merely the quantity, the amount of whatever it is that we have. Money, oil, land...material variables by which people measure a someone or some thing's greatness. After all, one cannot be rich without being a quality sort of person, right? At least, that is the ideal that is rooted within not just our society, Malaysia, but the society of others. Reach, and you shall receive. Aim for the sky, look for the stars, work your socks off, and all the dreams and ambitions within you shall come true.
In a lot of ways, that is very true. Nobody who has become successful did so without actually working hard. You may well find the odd case or so, the apple amongst the bunch who climbed to the top of the mountain by climbing up the easier path nobody saw, but ultimately, the essence of working hard and receiving the rewards for it stands. However, it is somewhat funny that while the journey may well be more important than the destination, what is adulated is not the trials and tribulations that most of us, Malaysians or otherwise, go through. I mean, you certainly have gone through a lot, Malaysia. What is put on the pedestal is the actual perception of the end rewards: one is successful and looked up at because of the car he drives, of the house he lives in, the university he went to, the languages he converses in.
Even more so than this, Malaysia, the people permeating your very land have a very defined and specific system that is also as strong as steel when it comes to judging success, to judging people. I find that in a lot of situations, a man's credibility is no longer limited to the physical things that can be attained through sweat and blood. No longer is a woman's ability merely defined by the career that she may well have carved out by herself. Unfortunately, when it comes to Malaysians, the issue of race and of religion doesn't extricate itself from the debate, any debate. It becomes the debate. There are also, of course, other factors that come into play. It isn't, of course, a new thing. There is always a certain tendency by people throughout history to define and distinguish ourselves more clearly from others by way of our skin colour and the direction of our prayers. There is always 'the other', and while it is a tool that is used to define those who are not from the same ilk as us, this very definition is also used as a way to define ourselves as who we are.
Who we are.
It's a pertinent question to think about, isn't it, Malaysia? Who we are? What are we doing here? Why are we all here? In 'Battlestar Galactica', the commander of the ship went one step further and stated that while we fought to survive, we never really answered the question of why we deserve to survive, given that we're such a flawed race. I won't, of course, pose that question here and now, because we'll be here all day (and as I am writing this particular post on Word, we're already at the 1012-word mark). The questions previous to that, however, are definitely pertinent, because quite frankly, I have never been able to figure you out, Malaysia Putting it lightly, you are one of the most fucked up countries I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Of course, being my homeland and all, it can't be escaped (not that I actually want to). But I say that in the most literal and metaphorical of ways possible. Literal, because of the colonial influences that have bestowed themselves upon your green earth. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Japanese, and the British again. Your 46 years of existence may have come after the last Union Jack was lowered, but it does not hide five different conquerors, five different masters, five different powers who have seen fit to plunder your lands, to make us bow to them in reverence, to have raped you. They took with them back to their homelands our livelihoods, while we please ourselves with the fact that the word 'amok' in the English language came from us.
Metaphorical as well, because even to this very day, you remain fucked long after the British flag is lowered from flag masts all over the country. I'm am not talking here about political methods of fucking (that is most certainly another debate for another day). Rather, I always have had a difficult time to properly define you. What are you, Malaysia? A country, a nation certainly. An imagined community, most definitely. But what kind of country? What kind of imaginations? What kind of communities? Oh, for the beautiful mix of cultures, religions, languages, traditions and spirits. We are all Malaysians, we are Truly Asians, we are all united under the one banner that is inescapably Malaysian. We all have the same identity cards with the requisite pictures of ourselves that we wouldn't want to show to others, and we all have the same passports that all say we can't go to Israel (but some of us go anyway).
Yet, we somehow do not hold as strong to the same principles as, say, a Korean might. Most would settle for saying that yours is a rojak existence; I wouldn't disagree much, but it still leaves a lot of room for definition, I think. I believe that we are one of the luckiest nations on the earth. Our cultural mix is far more interesting and diverse compared to the London that I lived in over a decade ago (it may well have changed now, though); we are luckier than the Koreans for being exposed to such diversity. Yet what kind of luck is it that has been bestowed upon us? What kind of luck sees protests against temples with the heads of cows dragged through the streets, without immediate action taken against the perpetrators? What kind of luck sees the blatant gaps and differences between races and religions without doing much to accord each with the appropriate respect across the board? What kind of luck sees us getting some great things accomplished, yet fail as the simplest of things such as deciding what language we should learn Science in?
In this regard, and by extension of the previous point, I have never been able to figure out what a Malaysian is. Yes, of course, one who is a citizen of the country that is Malaysia, but beyond that...? I ask you this, Malaysia, because I find myself being sickened by the things that have been undertaken in your name. I find myself hurt by what have been done under the banner of Islam, a religion I was born into but believe in nonetheless. I cry as I hear of girls being raped, of people being forcibly removed from their homes. I cry at the lack of humanity that is rampant within you, the sense of discord and distrust that has been sowed into your earth time and time again. I whoop with delight at the fight that the brave and the few put up, and I plot my own path to charge and change things in due time. Nevertheless, the far and few in between may stand out in the crowd, but the crowd still sit down inactively. Blind, divided, segregated.
It is incredibly timely that I had just had an interesting conversation with my roommate. He lamented at the difficulty of language, of how it posed a barrier towards understand rather than promoting it. I replied that language could well be a barrier, but it is also a way of forming our own identity. Not only that, overcoming the barriers posed by language can also help to define us further as human beings. To overcome the challenges, the difficulties, the obstacles in our path. To become better people, a better nation.
Which most certainly cannot be answered without truly looking in the mirror, and asking, once again: what are we? What kind of people have we, Malaysians, become? It is a question that we can only answer when we are down and almost out in the dumps, because that is probably the only time when we aren't blinded by our own perceived success. We can't go further without knowing where it is we come from. What kind of country, nation, home have you become, Malaysia?
Quite frankly, I don't know. Or rather, I know what the answer is, but find it a difficult one to articulate nonetheless. I know that progress, true advancement in any field, cannot be achieved without teamwork. This is definitely one thing I have learned from my filmmaking endeavours. Even if one person is missing from the set, it causes an extra load on someone else; someone, just anyone, helping to do the slate can be a great, great relief. No film is done by the director alone, even if he does get the lion's share of the credits. The people outside of the spotlight are just as, if not more important that the people inside of it.
So we definitely can't go further without truly understanding the respect that is required for such endeavours. We cannot go ahead without trusting not only ourselves, but also other people. And yet, while I was there, I see it on an almost daily basis. The Chinese are out to get us, I'm told. We must buy this food at this restaurant because we must support the Malays. We must do this because of Islam, we must do that because of other people. Rarely do I see people stepping back and actually saying, “Wait, hang on...what's going on here? Is there something not quite right here, when we decry others based on their race/religion?” At least, I see this not from the people who truly matter, who truly have a power in changing the nation and its destiny.
Perhaps what it is that people need is to take a break, Malaysia. Maybe once in a while, what we all need is to just take a step back from you, from politicking, and just thinking how this would all pan out if the train continue to steam down the same track without pause. Because I can't see what the big deal is. I can't see why race and religion matter as much in the new world we are standing in right now. I can't for the life of me think why persisting with overreactions and underreactions in equal measure for political benefits will benefit us, Malaysia. Neither do I believe measuring one's greatness by the material variables can bring us forward. Honestly, I can't. Maybe it is just me, but it doesn't make much of a difference. Turfs wars, certainly ones based on the ideals that seem to be so important to many Malaysians, are no longer the way to go forward. People believe in fighting for themselves, for their race, for their religions, for their culture and language and traditions, but they do the most inexplicable things to get that point across. People claim that they are not racist or religionist (if ever there is such a term), but they still wouldn't consider marrying someone outside of their own race very much.
I hope that one day people will be able to see that ultimately, in the bigger picture, race and religion matters not a single jot. It is from my experience that I have been cheated to, lied to, broken hearted by, disappointed of...and not one of them has been because their skin has been paler, their faith stronger, their clothes better, their cars more expensive. Those things were done because people are stupid. People can be cruel. People can be heartless. People can lie, cheat, steal to their heart's content, but people will not do that because they are inherrently Malay. They won't do that because they are inherrently Chinese. They do that because they just do. They're human beings. They are desperate to do that...because they are human beings. We all feel the same things, over and over again, because we are all human beings. We all lie, we all cheat, we all steal, and it all has absolutely nothing to do with race or religion. Dammit, I know damn well I have done some things, Malaysia, that my parents wouldn't be proud of. Race, and religion, and culture, and all of these things, in this regard, does not matter, it just doesn't matter. They are strong, sturdy, and self-sufficient to a certain extent; cultures and languages will prevail, no matter the language we teach our kids Maths and Science in. Race and religion will also endure, even if people will inter-marriage or attend the same public universities. We, as human beings, will endure, somehow, because...that's what we are. At least, we have the capacity to. Perhaps that would have been a sufficient enough answer to the question I mentioned earlier: of whether we deserve to live.
Why do we deserve to live? Because we, as human beings, have the capacity to improve, to become better, and to learn from our mistakes. What kind of lives we would live? What kinds of people we will become?
I suppose that's up to us, and to you, Malaysia. I sincerely believe that we will endure...without having to kill each other. If overcoming the challenges of life are the measure of a person's character, I just hope I live long enough to see you, Malaysia, and the people within become the best that they can possible be as a member of the human race.
Happy birthday, Malaysia.