The Merdeka population
|Praba Ganesan is Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Social Media Strategist. He wants to engage with you, and learn from your viewpoints. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @prabaganesan|
SEPT 6 — Our two-room squatter home was plain and without a toilet. But it did have two cloth pieces which we put up around Merdeka (National Day) — the national flag and another of a stretch of hibiscus in pattern. It was a thing to be done, to have the items on display when the day comes around.
In the hullabaloo over what is patriotic or not, which is quickly becoming an annual barb-fest, I remember maybe not a simpler time but a period absent of the rhetoric.
Perhaps my summary of Merdeka this year will be better spent talking about the people and not the symbols. After all symbols are the tales of the people collapsed into an object.
Dinner and then the din (Merdeka Eve)
The PKR headquarters in Petaling Jaya may lack the iconic tonic, but on a Thursday preceding a busy holiday weekend, this writer had to clock out late.
It was a toss-up for me between Dataran Merdeka or Shah Alam, venue of the Selangor state government celebration. The former, a congregation of the known and unknown, edging to the city square; and the latter an orderly procession of official persons with some senior party leaders present.
I chose random, especially with the early pictures already appearing on Facebook. The Bersih people were about to get their night out in the Dataran, four months after being doused by water cannons.
What was to happen? The police had announced that any gathering at the square will not be tolerated. Which may appear hideously old-fashioned to the level-headed since the square has doubled up as dating “foreplay” for armies of couples and legions of Mat Rempits (biker gangs) for years. Several cell groups associated with Bersih (the movement for free and just elections) were adamant about showing up and lawyers were on standby for the arrests to ensue.
Unlike the war-zone scenes of April 28 — when 100,000 thronged to the near-empty otherwise city — the police backed down, almost without a whimper.
But I get ahead of myself, as by then I had only walked out of the office, made my usual nondescript exchange with Elanggo the night watchman before driving to the nearest KFC — the hungry never celebrate.
All of which played out well enough to lead me to the city fringe. Lake Gardens or Padang Merbok won’t give anyone parking joy an hour before midnight on Merdeka Eve, so I worked around it to the JKR (Public Works Department) building — my dad used to be a driver there.
The number of parked cars and the two couples walking ahead with the girls in fitter than fit jeans to go with their “tudungs” (headscarves) told me I was home again. With each yard with other people trails converging, the air of festivity and ease which should be Merdeka filled the air. I didn’t need to reach the square proper to know that this was not to be a testing trip.
At the back end, near St Mary’s Cathedral, the bikers had lay claim to their zone. Their girlfriends were well, nice, reminding me the perks of an independent nation.
The metal-on-metal scene receded as I reached the square proper. A sea of strange, and rarely unseen unfolded. The vocal Bersih frontliners inundating the landscape, slipping around and near families, couples and the usual Dataran crowd.
A group sitting on the bricked road singing some songs and selling some records. Couples on a date, bothered neither by the politics or the crowd. Families soaking up the moment. White kids, probably backpackers, with Malaysia-themed bandanas sharing a bottle of “happy” liquids. A dedicated line of Lynas — the rare earth refinery in the east peninsula coastal town of Kuantan — protesters toting their banners and standard line of being denied protection from impending environmental disaster.
You have to admire the spirit of the girl leading their procession. Though the look on the faces of those who’ve never been in a democratic rally is hard to put into words. And appearing quite natural to the occasion, some I suspect are foreign workers and maybe new Malaysians.
All there for their dose of Merdeka magic at the Dataran.
The clock struck 12 however quite uneventfully, as the crowd seemed unsure of exactly how to greet the moment. Not for a line of five men who got down and initiated another year of independence with a prayer for a nation.
My friend Jan, the Asian editor of Dutch paper Trouw, down for the week researching on Malaysia was equally busy gathering data on the country. First time here, he keeps telling me the Malaysia he sees keeps blindsiding him.
But both Jan and I had to call it early, we had an early Merdeka morning.
Merdeka morning, to a launch
There are Fridays, and then there are Fridays when the party launches its campaign bus. By 9am the press had a good view of the bus, the usual speeches followed.
It was one of those events where both those initiating it and following it had an air of expectancy, and at the same time unsure how to behave.
It was a bus, and it was about to head out through five states with more than 20 stops in three days. I got to see it off.
I had mixed feelings not going with the bus, but I had a few obligations in the city.
Camped at home mostly, I did have a few with friends late in the day before ending a fairly quiet day. However, the Merdeka weekend was not about to end, there was a match, a wedding reception, an open house and estate match to finish up.
Saturday confusion, Sunday elation
The two days had two events each only.
The first hurt, the second not much of a joy either. That’s Saturday.
The pub team played with the one team we never enjoy playing, and while we kept a lead till late, the fitness dropped and we ended getting flogged. The ego does suffer when your opponents name a 13-year-old in their team, the ego is flattened when the lad scores against you.
Deflated enough, I could not get to moan with the boys as I had to attend a wedding reception at a water park, yup a water park. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, the mainly Tamil crowd somewhat related to my mom where not in their beach necessaries. The park caters to events mainly these days.
But I ended on the slippery slope of shortcuts at least, when I tried to be too clever on the road. The smartphone you see is fairly useless when your telco provider does not provide you, well... service (Yup, it’s the company everyone is upset with these last months).
My mom spent the hour we were on the road to get back home, pointing out how much of a bad driver I was, and how her late husband could navigate through any part of the city without fancy gadgets.
Sunday stayed fun, luckily.
While a grating mom while you are driving blind can be tough on the spirit, her cooking up a feast at home for a Sunday brunch does more than make up for things.
Which is why at the open house for a senior party leader later I steered away from the food.
I was looking forward to the last part of the long weekend in the last half of the day.
A drive to an estate off Karak town for a football match.
By 4pm I made my first entry into the hamlet of Karak. One of the hundreds of one-street towns in my country. While every one of them resembles the last one, I find joy in getting there. The towns tell the story of areas far exceeding the length of its existence and two traffic lights.
By the time we got to the estate by the side of the state road to Malacca, the local lads were ready.
Which was part of the script, but there were two teams. To the outsider, you’d be tempted to ask them to put out a joint team since both teams were short of players, but they were from opposing estates. Two estates sharing a football match, and never shall they play as one, and one set of oddballs from the city driving in to play them.
I wish I could say the two matches we played back to back were classics. I can say honestly, they were well contested. They were happy and honoured that strangers were willing to come here to be with them. I was delighted.
We skipped the invite to the hot spring, however the visitors stopped at Bukit Tinggi for Chinese and beer.
A country of people
There was nothing extraordinary about the weekend, except the leisure time allowed me to interact. It must have been the same for millions of Malaysians.
The last few days, there have been several debates, and I am sure they will not expire before Malaysia Day. These debates have the unique quality of being about symbols and not the people who spent the holiday weekend.
I said at the start that the symbols represent values and aspirations. Otherwise they are just symbols. As much as the sensitivities and feelings of people must always be respected when it comes to appraising their connection to their country, for it is a deeply personal affectation, the selective perusal of actions and not intent does little to further the discussion all nations have.
The discussion of millions, simultaneously.
My holiday was a mixture of work, play and people I love and am learning to love. A nation, and its symbols must represent the extension of love in the abstract and actual.
I just wonder why we are not talking about the Malaysian as much as about Malaysia. There is no Malaysia without Malaysians. All Malaysians.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.