At the very beginning of my gap year, when no one even considered it a gap year because I was fresh out of college, I travelled with a group of friends to my roommate’s home: Kuching, situated across the water in East Malaysia. I’d gone there with the notion that I would shop until no store was left unvisited, but it turned out rather differently (fortunately for Babah and his wallet).
The picture above was taken along Kuching’s famous Waterfront walk, where we’d been taking pictures when something unexpected caught my eye: a series of big, brass plates in the sidewalk detailing the city’s history since the late 1800’s.
This one in particular threw me; I’d forgotten, since I began learning the history of the world and not just that of Malaysia, that such signboards as pictured used to be commonplace. I’d forgotten that Malaysia used to be Malaya and that people had given their lives for that change to occur.
Shifting my gaze upwards to call attention to this piece, I was then struck by something else: my friends. Out of the 13 who were there with me on that day, only 2 were foreigners, but we were all dressed in shirts, T-shirts, jeans or bermuda shorts. We were all speaking English, and we did so even in our Maldivian and Korean friends’ absence, when there was no need to. We were all staring at the streetside souvenir kiosks in wonder, as though such traditional items were foreign to us.
In that moment, I suddenly became aware that I was considering all the old farts I’d heard ranting about ‘kids today’, ‘Westernisation’ and emotional distance from our own cultures. I also remembered what I’d heard, in school, about how our Irish former Headmaster had scornfully dismissed Malaysian Independence Day celebrations. ‘You think you’re independent now,’ he’d apparently said, ‘but you’re not.’
Be that true or not – I don’t claim to know anything about it – and getting past its highly offensive surface, there’s truth to what he had said. Are we really independent, after all? We have our own flag and Malaysians in the boardrooms. But so what? The Malayan Union had a flag and Malay rulers in 1948. So did the Federation of Malaya in the 1960’s. Heck, we probably spoke more Malay then, under British administration, than we do now.
And that’s the question, isn’t it? Why do our own cultures embarrass us so?
I have pointed all these questions at myself, as well. Does my culture embarrass me? Well, I won’t pretend. I am more comfortable speaking and writing in English than I am in Malay. When I speak Malay I sound slow, formal; a stark contrast to the rapid ups-and-downs and shrieks that my chiefly-Malay-speaking acquaintances utter. I also have many convictions that clash with the central faith of the Malay culture, as I consider myself quite liberal. And then there’s the big one: the fact that I am leaving next year to study in England, when I know Malaysia’s facing a huge brain drain issue. I tell myself that I’ll come back, but will I?
I wish it could be another way, that I could be comfortable with the two cultures that passed me back and forth as I grew up, but it isn’t, and I find myself, as well as many others, quite unwilling to change. It makes me wonder: that sentence carved into the ground up there, WE DO NOT WANT TO BE COLONISED, does that apply to Malaysians today? Does that apply to me?