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Something important took place when I was seven: the family made, with the formal approval of the Malayan government, a visible documentation of my existence. Mother, sister and I had a photograph taken for our citizenship papers. Also, a separate picture of myself, black and white, head slightly tilted, a happy, innocent, smiling kid.
I grew up in Malaya which consisted of nine Malay States, each with a sultan (the ruler), and two British Straits Settlements (Penang and Malacca). In 1945, the British military administration took over the control of Malaya after the surrender of the Japanese. Britain’s plan calling for the transfer of sovereignty from the Malay sultans to the British crown, viewed by many as a devious attempt to re-organize Malaya into one entity, met immediate stiff resistance from the Malays, who smelled colonial power lurking to fill the vacuum created by the exodus of the Japanese. Incensed by Britain’s insensitive plan, the Malays, up and down the peninsula, galvanized successfully to boycott this plan, vehemently rejecting also its conditions of citizenship, which they feared would encourage Chinese dominance. It was no secret to many people that the entrepreneurial Chinese had controlled much of Malay’s trade, industry and business, while the Malays had dominated the political arena. I don’t think most Malays were elated and genuinely receptive to any outsiders’ portrait of them as lazy, easy-going rural folks, contented with their less industrious life style. Racial tension and hostility seemed inevitable and predictable, like the occasional destructive monsoon rains, battering the tiny peninsula.
We in the village were less aware of or impacted by the social and political upheavals permeating urban areas throughout Malaya.
The Federation of Malaya, inaugurated February 1, 1948, a plan to appease the Malays, not unlike making animal sacrifices to an angry god, allowed the sultans to remain sovereign in their states with a crown appointed high commissioner, including specific provisions to protect “the special position of the Malays”. While the Malays were granted automatic citizenship, rigid citizenship requirements were drawn up for the Chinese and others. And of the 3.1 million (out of a population of roughly five million people in 1948) who qualified automatically for citizenship, twelve percent were Chinese. Since our family and many in the village were the original “colonists” from mainland China who had settled in this once remote undeveloped corner of the peninsula at the beginning of the twentieth century, by invitation of the Malayan government, we were counted, I suspect, as part of the twelve percent. A large number of Chinese became citizens by application. Many Chinese at the time, blamed the Malays for irrationally erecting the unnecessary hurdles they had to overcome in order to become citizens of their adopted country. Mutual distrust and disdain spread like a tropical disease.
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Luckily we were outside its sphere of influence, because we lived far away from the center of government and controversy. We were simple farmers.
As a child, I came face to face with the Malays in my own neighborhood. The same two or three Malay women would bring their rural products to our doorsteps, in tough gunnysacks, not on bicycles but carried on their heads, cushioned by a bundle of cloth, going from house to house, not speaking a word of Chinese, always with a smile. They had walked miles from their kampong, contiguous to us, simple folks like us, trying to make a living selling fruits, clams and mussels from the ocean. We had something in common: subsistence existence, making a living from the earth. The neighborhood dogs, by their barking, would always announce their presence. There was not a time when any of my family or the neighbors would take advantage of these women by cutting down their prices or refusing their offer to sell. I loved their ripe mangoes and other exotic fruits. And whatever they had culled from the ocean and the land.
I wondered often why the Chinese people, my family included, would purchase many exotic fruits like durians and rambutans and mangosteens, et cetera, from the Malays and not grow them ourselves. Fruits were something grown for pleasure and enjoyment, not staples for sale, in our thinking. Thus all cultivable land was devoted to cash crops, anything that could be grown and traded for cash, a major source of income for many villagers. Land for a few fruit trees to satisfy our taste buds would be considered a poor investment. Frivolous, lacking good judgment. Some might think these fruit trees did not come from China, not part of our Chinese heritage, therefore, we should not embrace them. Purely my conjecture.
I came to know the Malay women well, in time learning to utter and exchange a few Malay words by parroting them, zestfully. I had seen brother engaged effortlessly in conversational Malay with the Malays in the Malay kampong. The Malayan government had once operated Malay classes for some Chinese in the Chinese community, hoping at the time to prepare and motivate those who might want to settle in predominantly less crowded Malay villages or towns because of overpopulation or lack of suitable land in the Chinese localities. That would probably explain why a large number of ordinary Chinese, like my brother, could communicate in the Malay language intelligibly with the local Malays. But the government Malay program died a quick death for lack of enthusiasm or desire by the Chinese, who preferred to live, however crowded, poor or deprived, with their own kind in the Chinese ghetto.
Mother would be the first to teach and admonish us children on how to treat strangers, people who did not share our skin color or speak our language, with kindness and respect. Her version of the do-unto-others-what-you-would-want-others-to-do-unto-you rule: “Be kind to them. The Malay women. You might be selling something to some people one
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day.” Mother was my moral teacher, always instilling in me to do good to people. Be they total strangers, or people you know, including your own parents. Simple lessons with grave ramifications: you cannot escape your actions and their consequences, now and for as long as you breathe. This is the simple lesson or meaning of the Buddhist or Hindu concept of karma: “the cosmic principle according to which each person is rewarded or punished in one incarnation according to that person’s deeds in the previous incarnation”. I grew up to learn that everything we do, whether in our thinking, or doing, or saying, has serious consequences. In one word: you harvest what you sow.
I continue to hear mother’s voice, one of wisdom and caution, in my adult life.
And later, when I had the opportunity to study in an English school, many of my classmates and friends were Malays, mostly from different kampongs, many miles away from the school.
Boys were winsome, girls, plain and simple, but were irresistibly sweet and charming. I worried at times how the girls could wear their sarong securely (sarongs are strips of colorfully printed cloth, wrapped around the waist and worn like skirts down to the ankles).
The girls taught me how to make paper flowers, particularly bright yellow or red roses. The Malays are known for their handiwork and craftsmanship. And our school cafeteria—called tuck shop because we were under the British then—often served delicious Malay food and snacks along with the Chinese and Indian favorites. I spent eight years going to school with Malay and Indian students. And race was never an issue in the school.
There are some obvious differences between the Malays and the Chinese. For instance, the native-born Malays or Bumiputras (meaning “sons of the soil”) do not have surnames and almost all parents use Arab names for their children.
The constitution of Malaya declares all Malays are born Muslims, followers of Islam, allowing religious freedom for the rest of the country’s inhabitants. All non-Malays are free to follow and practice their own religions.
Malay boys are circumcised between the ages of seven and twelve, the ceremony attended by friends and relatives.
One is expected to remove all your shoes when you enter a Malay house because shoes are considered unclean. And they want their living room floor clean, a place for their daily prayers. All faithful Muslims pray, always facing Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, at least five times a day.
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No Malay would have a dog as a pet because dogs are considered unclean by Muslims.
Muslims are barred from eating pork because pigs are considered unclean animals.
Malays usually eat with their fingers.
In the absence of a welfare system in the country, Malays are expected to look after their parents.
Malays are renowned for their delicate woodcarvings on home panels, walls, and fishing boats.
Those who love outdoor sports will try to master sepaktkraw (kickball), a popular Malay game played with a round rattan ball. The object is to use your feet to keep the ball in the air or across a net, losing a point each time the ball falls to the ground.
All children are often entranced by wayang kulit, a traditional shadow puppet show accompanied by a musical ensemble, one of many expressions and contributions of the Malay folk art.
While acknowledging the many differences in our cultural beliefs and practices between myself in the village and my many Malay classmates in school, the real world out there looked very different when I was growing up. There was always that persistent fear that someone might attack us with their parangs (a Malay word for “a heavy knife used by the Malays as a tool and weapon”) when some of us kids, sometimes with adults, would ride our bicycles through the Malay kampong to the ocean to buy fish from the Chinese fishermen when they return from their catch. All the fisherman were Chinese from our village, some distant relatives, others friends of friends but all from our own village. And they catered mostly to fellow villagers, though some might sell their bigger, expensive exotic catch at a huge open market in Kampong Koh.
There were at least five or six Chinese families, fluent in Malay language, setting up shops by the ocean, surrounded by Malays, serving primarily the needs of the Chinese fishermen who worked near the beach after the catch, drying and mending their nets and maintaining some kind of sleeping quarters there away from their houses in the village a few miles away.
We had relatives—one family—living among the Malays, speaking and looking like them. I wondered why their skin looked awfully dark for someone who was Chinese, exposed to the sun day in and day out, with very little shade from a few scattered coconut trees and the unbearable heat radiating from the scorching sand stretching for miles around. “Are you not afraid to live in a place surrounded by Malays?” I raised that
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question a thousand times in my mind, the few times mother would take sister and I to visit our relatives by the beach, eyes scanning the surroundings like a frightened dog. Sometimes we would have some difficulties with our bicycles because there was white sand everywhere on the road, inches deep. There were incessant rumors in the air, no doubt, about Malays attacking the Chinese.
A few times I had gone with brother, sister, friends and neighbors to another part of the Malay kampong where we dug, after trudging through deep mangrove swamps way out into the ocean, for clams and mussels. At times I feared we might not retreat quick enough with the returning tide. Fear was real for me, someone who didn’t know how to swim. And I did not like the feel of my feet sinking deep into the unfriendly swamp, or the howling sorrowful wind in an alien territory, easily ambushed by hostile Malays. I shuddered, allowing meandering thoughts of danger to enter my head. What if unknowingly I walked into a bottomless pit in the mud? The worst was praying to heaven and earth that nothing would happen to my bicycle or its tires while going to or coming home from the ocean, having to pedal miles through a Malay kampong. I never shared this crippling anxiety with anyone because I didn’t want anyone to think I was on the verge of lunacy, or my behavior unmanly, or worse, delusional.
There were occasions at home, usually late in the evenings, when sounds of distant drums from the Malay kampong, traveling easily through miles, conjured in my innocent active mind imminent danger on the way, like the drumbeats in Tarzan movies announcing the presence and fast advance of hostile enemies or the possibility of a war about to erupt, like steam from a pot. The Malays were probably celebrating something, less sinister than imagined, someone would say this to me to assuage my frayed nerves. Still I kept reviewing the Tarzan movies in my head and envisioned the Malays marching to our village with their sharp parangs. Fear was as real as the distant drumbeats.
Nothing but the passage of time could erase that anxiety.