Malaysia turned 55 last weekend. Although the electronic and social media platforms are filled with rancorous exchanges, the general population is nice to each other, no matter the political leaning.
We come from a somewhat mixed family. My father was attended to by an Amahwhen he was little. His eldest sister married a wonderful Chinese man whose last words were, “Tell the world that I lived and died as a Muslim.” Two Chinese and an Indian were married into my family.
Slightly more than four decades ago I went to a Chinese kindergarten somewhere in Melaka. It was just a couple of years after 13 May 1969 but the relationship between races then was good, or so it seemed to this little boy then. Although I cannot recall any of my schoolmates’ name, we played together. Almost every evening my father would take me to Uncle Ah Boon’s house where I would converse with them in beginner’s Mandarin before stopping for some Putu Piring at the foot of Bukit Peringgit.
I went to the St John’s Primary School on Jalan Bukit Nanas and had great classmates such as Yong Choon Wah, Chow Kah Sung, Michael Foo. While waiting for the bus to go home, Choon Wah and I and a few others would go up and down the escalators at the neighbouring AIA building where an A&W outlet was once located until the Sikh jaganabbed us and threatened to send us to the police station. Not once did my friends and I see each other, other than as fellow Malaysians.
That jagabecame famous on 4 August 1975 when he was shot beneath the eye by a Japanese Red Army terrorist who had taken 35 people there as hostages. His name was Sukdave Singh.
My favourite Nasi Lemak from then till now is the Nasi Lemak Tanglin. I often jogged to where it was located, a small stall in front of a Chinese kopitiam and a plate of Nasi Lemak accompanied by the kopitiam’s glass of Sirap Ais and Lengkung were the highlight of my week, almost every week.
A few years later when I was at The Malay College, I realised that 80 percent of the teachers there then were Chinese. Ask any MCKK alumni who went there between 1972 to 2005 and they can tell you that the Additional Mathematics guru then was Mr Tan Gim Hoe. Every one of his students would remember his famous “Tatapa. Tatapa” (Tak Apa, Tak Apa) as he tries his best to make you understand his lesson. He even wrote the Additional Mathematics textbook! MCKK was Mr Tan’s first and only posting, and in the 33 years and 10 months that he was there he helped produce brilliant Malay students such as the former Khazanah head Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar. I used to meet Mr Tan in town every Saturday for Add Maths tuition when I was in Form 4. While some of the boys would be upstairs at Kuala Kangsar’s famous Yut Loy restaurant for a quick smoke, I would be with my Pau Daging, Add Maths books and Mr Tan.
Unlike back in the 1970s, we hardly see Malays and Chinese dine together these days. Not only do we look at each other with contempt, we also now question each other’s rights that are enshrined in the Federal Constitution. I blame the education system – the Arabisation of the National Schools, and the existence of vernacular schools. Children who do not grow up together will never learn about each other.
Just when everything seems bleak, my wife and I made a road trip along the coastal road in Selangor to attend a wedding in Sabak Bernam. We stopped for breakfast at a nice kopitiam in Kuala Selangor. For tea, we crossed into lower Perak where we found a kampung sundry shop that doubles as a kopitiam that has a mix of Malay and Indian clientele.
Michael, the second-generation proprietor, spoke to us in lower Perak Malay accent. He told us that the suppliers of the Nasi Lemak, noodles and kuih are local Malays. “It is the way of life here. We live in our community where we don’t see each other as Malay, Chinese or Indian,” he stressed. Prosper thy neighbouris his motto.
“Come back tomorrow morning for some Char Kuay,” he said before we left. “I’ll make them fresh for you.” And we did! Michael and his son CJ served us one of the best Char Kuay ever, complemented by his homemade Seri Kaya. But it was not just the food and kampung coffee that had us in awe, it was how Michael and his clients enjoy their banter.
It was there and then that I was transported back to the 1970s, where Malaysians eat and drink and joke together, without a hint of any political divide.
And that made it the most beautiful Malaysia Day ever.