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Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Here’s how far we have come…

 

Happy Merdeka Day everybody. While you’re enjoying your breakfast “teh tarik”, here’s a brief (and highly coloured) history of our country from me on this auspicious day. Enjoy.

When I was growing up just after our country’s independence, a common complaint then was “things were better under the orang puteh (white men)”. Yes, people were complaining about what was wrong with the present day even way back then.

The British did leave us some useful things – a democracy of some sort, a relatively civil civil service, the English language and a decent education system. They left behind some street names, too, but these, like the rest, are also disappearing.

These goodies however were mostly in the towns. My kampung didn’t have running water, electricity or a secondary school for years. This urban-rural divide would have an impact on Malaysia’s character later on.

Did the Brits also give us our love for titles and honours? Nope, we were already good at it even before they came. We don’t need them to figure out how many Datuks would be hit when we throw a stone into a crowd. The answer is – lots.

Islam was brought in by Arab traders in the fourteenth century and the Malays became Muslims. Before then the Malays were …errr…not Muslims, but we’re not supposed to talk about that. Now a Malay is also automatically a Muslim, and vice-versa. It says so in the Constitution.

Other recent colonisers included Siam which controlled the northern states and left some legacy such as tomyum kung. We’ve stopped sending protection money to the Siamese kings but luckily we kept the tomyum.

The Bornean side has its own history and cultures, too, and not just oil. They were never a natural fit for Malaysia because of the vast South China Sea separating us, but thanks to the Malaysia Agreement 1963, here we are.

Singapore is a more natural fit, but we split in 1965. Like most ex’s we snipe at each other occasionally, but remain friends bound by blood (and water). Of course kiasu Singapore must have their Independence Day earlier than us.

Much earlier on we had other colonisers too – the Portuguese came and built a historical theme park in Melaka. The Dutch evicted them and through vandalism and cultural appropriations replaced some of the park’s attractions with their own.

The Brits, already with the Straits Settlements of Penang, Melaka and Singapore, then took over all of the peninsula and Borneo territories through various means (white rajah, Federated (and Unfederated) Malay States, exiles, bribes etc) which I don’t understand even today.

Spot quiz: Is colonisation good or bad? Bad if you are a jerk while colonising others of course, but every civilisation in history has conquered others, or tried to. We would have happily colonised Java and Sumatra and given them nasi goreng if we could.

Being colonised is basically being subjugated in our mind. This happens not only with military powers but also with cultural and economic powers too. This was the case with Coca Cola and Capitalism and Consumerism (and Communism) and with languages, cultures and religions.

We can even be colonised by our own kind. When freedoms and rights are curtailed or denied, when we have more responsibilities than rights, then we’re just like any other subjugated people. This is do-it-yourself colonisation – no foreign imports necessary.

The Brits brought in Indians and Chinese to work the mines and plantations and made Malaysia a diverse, if rather fractious, country. How long will we remain so? The Americans haven’t got their racial issues sorted out even after 300 years, so don’t hold your breath.

They also threw in some divide-and-rule twists. The Malay Reserve lands were apparently meant to keep the Chinese from competing against the British estates and mines, and not to protect the Malays. Very plausible indeed, which certainly didn’t help with the racial harmony stuff.

The Brits were interrupted by the Japanese in World War II. If the Japanese colonialists had treated the locals better, we’d all be writing kanji and manufacturing quality cars and frequenting KTV lounges even before we were told to Look East.

Independence came relatively easily for us. Filipinos and Indonesians had to wage war for their own independence, whilst the Thais managed to taichi their way out of colonisation altogether even if it meant occasionally pushing their neighbours under the bus.

Here we gloss over the race riots of May 13 in 1969. One of the outcomes was a new economic policy, called the New Economic Policy. Many good things resulted (remember Asian Tiger anybody?)

Soon, however, a few people learnt how to become rich at the expense of the many, who must necessarily remain poor so they could be kept perpetually scared and convinced they need subsidies and quotas and defenders forever.

The Malaysian Dream says “anybody can become a prime minister”, and indeed anybody can, and has. Many Malaysians switched careers from being lawyers, engineers or doctors (let’s not get into THAT!) into politics, whilst some combined service to God with leadership of the masses, usually very loudly.

Then came Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He would have made a great king – intelligent, hardworking and iron-willed. He would have been a relatively benign but enlightened and transformative king. However, all positions for king in Malaysia had been filled, in spite of his clear qualifications and love of the royals…

He was followed by others, some worse but others even more worse than those who were worse.

In 2018 we had a new circus in town, with much merriment among many (the majority of our population actually if votes were any indicator).

But the new circus had lots of wild baboons – some of which were old and beginning to smell.

Some of these circus performers plotted a breakaway act, which soon turned into a zoo and then became a toxic landfill. Then the pandemic hit us, and we saw the emperor had no clothes and there really should be SOPs about emperors and clothes.

So here we are on a joint 64th birthday. We haven’t quite fulfilled our potential or lived up to our earlier promise. We haven’t (insert your favourite grouse here – about the economy, racial harmony, corruption, FIFA football ranking etc.) either.

So, 64 years young, with a brilliant future perhaps behind us? Sigh, so from another 64-years-young with a brilliant future behind him, too.

Selamat Hari Merdeka. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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