Forgetting our past
AUG 17 — The quiet passing of Tengku Ismail Tengku Su, a renowned Terengganu songket maker and owner of the majestic Pura Tanjung Sabtu (www.puratanjungsabtu.com) last weekend, is a stark reminder to us all that our cultural heritage is not a serious matter to the average Malaysian.
Tengku Ismail Tengku Su, and his peers such as Prof. Zul Mohammad, Prof. Ungku Aziz and other lesser known but equally passionate cultural activists, are known only to those as obsessed about culture and heritage, and loved by their close friends and relatives.
Outside of these circles, these personalities are not known. In fact, some may view these men and women as oddities, for running around inspecting rubbish dumps in villages, and resurrecting old Malay houses that rural people deem as fit for burning.
There are some, like the eminent Prof Khoo Khay Kim, who are remembered by Malaysians, and it is because of their written work and constant presence in the media.
But the ones who are not so visible, should also be admired and appreciated, for it is these very people who will delight you with tales and facts of a Malaya that many of us cannot even remember or imagine.
While Malaysians protest, and campaign for voters' rights, free and fair elections, better governance, robust economy and fairness, they should also remember their personal and national histories.
We fight for a better future, but we tend to forget the past. When we do, it would only be at certain functions. We all clap our hands when we watch old Malay films and dance to songs that tickle our feet, but do we really embrace our past?
I don’t think we do. We hardly even appreciate our language; instead we exchange them for English and Arab words. We may speak our mother tongue, but most times, it is a colloquial one, and even worse, bastardised, for as I was once told, to speak in proper Malay, the Malay of the old, is the order of the elite, and not of the ordinary Malay.
We talk about how other countries celebrate their culture: Indonesia. Thailand. Vietnam. Even the French are proud of who they are. Back home, for example, I was told that there are two belanga makers left in Terengganu.
One is on his way to old age and senility and the other dreams of those days when his art was appreciated as a functional and yet artistic ornament of a home. While we idolise the others, we unfortunately do not care for our own.
As a relative, and also friend and student of these eccentric, yet knowledgable creatures, I have witnessed what they have to go through to receive just a nod.
Yes, these personalities can be volatile. Disorganised. Have no business sense. And sometimes, very gullible. It is these character flaws that have been their downfall, at the hands of "people in authority."
An important person in government reneging on sponsorship. Someone else taking off with their ideas. Even worse, instead of helping these artists and the poor, these people in power take their skills and art, and turn them into very strange and expensive products.
Some of these people have no choice but to become cunning. They swan, flatter and befriend those with money and status. And they come back to friends, and utter words of contempt not only for these titled personalities but for themselves too, for becoming beggars for their art and cause.
But to get some money, they become temporary court jesters. Of course, not all these cultural activists are like that, but I have seen of a few putting on masks. It is not a life to be envied. But you must do what you must, I suppose.
They lead hard lives, these men and women, as they fight for their cause. Many are just ordinary academics or professionals. It is one thing to support a family; it is another to support a dying craft that is very expensive to sustain.
Other people ask, “Why bother? It is not our way anyway. It is syirk/old/not progressive.” Others, wanting an extra social cachet, leech on to these personalities, parading them at events and parties.
Social climbers name drop these people’s names. What a life an amateur historian has to lead!
Still, despite the shark infested waters of a world that changes by the second, influenced by the global economy, reality TV and bonkers politics, these people are the ones who respect a past which made our country what it is.
It is they who educate us, (whether we want to listen is another thing altogether), who remind us of who we really are. They deserve scholarships and titles for their tenacity.
Many, before Tengku Ismail, have passed on and taken national secrets with them to their graves. Many after he, will do the same or just disappear. They will be known as that peculiar relative with books and papers piled as high as a coconut tree, living at home by himself.
It is an extraordinary life that they lead. What a pity that Malaysians think of them as ordinary.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.