Friday, September 17, 2010

Intermarried more easily and with greater acceptance

Bringing two halves together

By June H.L Wong
Friday September 17, 2010

For too long, we didn’t pay enough attention to Malaysia Day. Now that we have, there is still much to be done to forge a greater sense of unity, togetherness and appreciation of each other.

YESTERDAY was Malaysia Day. We “celebrated” it, or rather took note of it for the first time because it was a national holiday.

It’s good that we have finally given recognition to an immensely important historical event but one wished it had come sooner.

Imagine what we could have achieved if we had started years ago. That was what hit me when I read our Malaysia Day Star Special. It was the work of my colleagues who were picked for their familiarity with Sabah and Sarawak. Together, they produced an excellent edition that focused on giving a voice to Malaysians in those two states.

While I enjoyed the stories, I came away feeling that after 47 years there seems to be two nations, not one. All this leads to the inevitable question: Why is this so? Is it because of the way history is taught in schools?

From my time as a student – and I am a true blue product of the Malaysian education system from kindergarten to university starting from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s – till now, our history books seem to end with Merdeka declared on Aug 31, 1957, with only a cursory look at the events after that. The creation of Malaysia seems barely imprinted in our consciousness.

It is this failure to connect the two halves of the country that we now find ourselves in the embarrassing situation of being ill-informed of what brought these halves together as a nation and who these people are who share the same nationality as us.

It’s not just our education system that has failed. There are other institutions that should have played their part but didn’t.

Yesterday, the Department of Museums Malaysia director-general announced plans to showcase the cultures and lifestyles of ethnic groups in Sabah and Sarawak.

Datuk Ibrahim Ismail, who oversees 21 museums nationwide, was quoted by The Star as saying this would enhance integration among all Malaysians.

We support and applaud Ibrahim for his plans but again it also beggars the question: Why only now? Why wasn’t this done from the moment Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed “Merdeka Malaysia!” on Sept 16, 1963?

Ibrahim was spot-on when he said Peninsular Malaysians were only familiar with very few communities from Sabah and Sarawak. When The Star editors met on Wednesday evening to pick the front page photo for the Thursday edition, none of us Semenanjung folks could confidently identify the ethnic groups represented by the four pretty girls standing in front of the Malaysian flags.

We had to call our Kuching colleagues who told us the girls were Rungus and Kadazan. While it took a peninsular leader to create this entity called Malaysia, it is those in Sabah and Sarawak who seemed to have embraced it more whole-heartedly.

They are the Malaysians who are more colour blind and united, as observed by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak himself. They are the ones who more comfortably adopted Malay as their lingua franca and intermarried more easily and with greater acceptance.

More than ever, we need to confront the truth why Peninsular Malaysians are “less Malaysian” than those in Sabah and Sarawak. Then only can we accept that something needs to be done; that we must bring the two halves of the nation closer together and learn the best practices from each other.

And we can do it because we do have common values and interests. It’s called 1Malaysia and if we can put aside our knee-jerk cynicism towards such a notion and really work towards it, it can become a reality.

Apart from getting our history books, Sejarah lessons as well as our museums right, we could also take a leaf from Hollywood and Singapore’s MediaCorp which produced TV series like Phua Chu Kang and The Little Nyonya.

Much as we hate to admit it, that little Red Dot of a country repeatedly runs rings around us and seizes upon ideas and opportunities way ahead of us.

Why do Malaysians love Phua Chu Kang? Why isn’t this TV character and his adorably dysfunctional family a Malaysian creation?

We know clever and sincerely wrought humour, even if built on stereotypes, can be accepted and enjoyed wholeheartedly. We have Lat to prove that.

So why haven’t we been able to build on Lat and have something that we share proudly?

Singapore keeps stealing our lines. Again, we should have come up with something like The Little Nyonya, a 2008 MediaCorp production about a Peranakan family set in Malacca spanning 70 years, currently on ntv7 with a huge following.

We could have done it better and truer too be cause the cast would speak in a mix of Malay, Hokkien and English instead of Mandarin in the Singapore series.

It’s not that we haven’t done it before – produced shows that Malaysians wanted to watch. We had those much-loved P. Ramlee movies, Bakat TV (this talent competition was the hottest thing on TV circa 1972) and Empat Sekawan.

If we look hard enough, we can find great stories to tell. For one, there is the fictional pirate created by Italian writer Emilio Sagari in 1883 called Santokan, the Tiger of Malaya, who was the nemesis of White Rajah James Brooke of Sarawak. Wouldn’t that make an exciting series if done right?

Remember that excellent Maybank advertisement about the Iban girl making her way in the world without forgetting her roots? Could that have been expanded into a powerful and riveting drama that would get Malaysians cheering for one of their own?

Here’s another idea: Next year marks the 500th year of the fall of the Malacca sultanate in 1511. That is one date we all learnt in school. Can you just imagine a gripping TV series based on the events leading to that year of infamy? History can be useful if we know how to wield it

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