Merdeka belongs to all Malaysians


Merdeka Day, that’s what people of my vintage will always call August 31 no matter how many times they try to change it, is upon us again.

I thought I’d take this time to answer a letter I wrote to the future me when I was 12 years old and about to leave the kampung for boarding school. On the eve of the biggest journey of my life so far, I penned a letter to my future self. I didn’t get past the “Dear future me” line but I think this year on the cusp of our 60th Merdeka, I’d like to answer that letter.

“Hello, this is your older self. We are now greyer and wiser, we’ve been up and we’ve been down. Our ambition to become prime minister as we wrote in the blue ‘Kerjaya’ card did not pan out but otherwise, things have turned out OK in the balance.

“Our kids still talk to us, and can even be persuaded to be seen in public with us on certain days and certain venues (cinema OK. Video shops and barber not OK.) We still have a full head of hair but much of it is white, though in a way that gives us that dignified look, if I may say so.

That girl who lived near the sundry shop? Forget about her, four months from now she’s going to tell you that although she likes you, she likes Kudin better. Yes, you’ll be sad for two months but, in the present time, she is still living next to the sundry shop in Muar and you’ve done quite alright seeing the world thanks to the education system.

“Speaking of the education system, all the teachers had in your time were the green ‘blackboard’ and a chalk, but on the whole I think we learnt a lot more meaningful things then.

“The teachers actually taught simple stuff that I still remember today. Teachers today have to teach six-yearolds abstract concepts instead of the times table and spend all their time writing reports or going to public rallies. So, teaching now is a bit off to say the least.

“As it is, I think our children are doomed anyway because they are slowly descending into illiteracy due to something called Twitter, whose invention will boggle your mind and takes too long to explain here.

“I looked into our daughter’s phone once and I couldn’t understand any of the Twitter messages. No one writes letters anymore, so don’t worry about what Mrs Mala said about our handwriting.

“Twitter is also where most of our politicians are making speeches, conclude what you may from that because in 2017 we still cannot understand why.

“The Malay melodramas on television have not changed one bit since 1968 with the same story lines and the same parents-won’t-let-us-marry plots. Malay movies, alas, have gone backwards. They have titles like ‘My Husband is A Jaga Kereta’ and variations of the same theme.

“I am still undecided whether we have better healthcare now, but I can tell you the dispensary nurses will still tell us loudly how to take the constipation medicine so that everyone in the waiting room can hear, and of course before long all the neighbourhood kids will find out and make fun of us. (I found this out the other day at one of the most expensive hospitals in Kuala Lumpur.)

“We are still friends with the Phang brothers though we only meet once or twice a year now, thanks to something called Facebook where most Malaysians live instead of physical housing estates. I don’t know the names of all the people on my street which will be strange to you.

“Talking about the Phangs, the delicious fried koay teow Mrs Phang used to force Adrian to bungkus for his friends to eat during recess will now be frowned upon by the majority of Malays.

“In our time, Mrs Phang’s word that the koay teow is halal was enough for us to wolf them down but today they’d probably need a Jakim (Department of Islamic Development Malaysia) certificate to be sure.

There is also missing nowadays the careless ways we used to insult each other, which I think is a true sign of genuine friendship, because nowadays that kind of thing is not politically correct. But sad to say, I see less of our children commingling than we did in your time. This is another thing I am not sure whether we’ve gone forward or backwards.

“On the eve of Merdeka, I can tell you it is still one of our favourite holidays because we are unashamedly patriotic. In your time, we’d physically wave the Jalur Gemilang, which is what they now call our country flag by the way. With age our exuberance is more tempered perhaps, but not diminished.

“We still have theme songs for Merdeka, but they’re not the stirring martial music of your time anymore.

The theme song for the last two years is more like a pop song, which they say the young kids can relate to more.

“But I have saved the best for last. We have just won 111 gold medals, and still counting, from the SEA Games. Oh, in your time it was called the SEAP Games, but yes, sports still instill in us a deep sense of togetherness which I like to think is where the true Malaysia is at today.

“When the Jalur Gemilang is raised for a gold medal and the Negaraku fills the air, I dare say all red blooded Malaysians feel a stirring in their bosoms regardless of race, circumstance or politics. Heck, I even read somewhere that a whole restaurant stood up during one medal ceremony when we won gold.

“I like to think that this is where Malaysians are at the moment. We are less demonstrative of our patriotism, but we are no less loyal to the flag, which belongs to no one and belongs to everyone at the same time.

“I leave you with that thought and the glory of Malaysia’s absolutely brilliant SEA Games performance and a happy Merdeka Day to all Malaysians, wherever you may reside.”

  • ZB Othman is the editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Reserve.