By Benjamin McKay
In remembering the late Tan Sri Azizan Zainul Abidin, former chairman of Petronas and well respected public servant, writer Farish Noor observed that, “great nations are made not by rhetoric and empty promises, but painstakingly built upon the labours of quiet patriots whose greatness lie in their humility.”
The capacity for such labour and humility may be found in the strength of conviction and received wisdom of those who indeed labour. But labour and stature alone do not account for the capacity of a citizen to quietly shape the world around him. It is his access to unfettered reflection and the solace of his memories – of his time and place within the broader narratives of societies – that will ultimately afford him an understanding of himself, of his society and of his will to engage outside of himself for the public good.
Daring to remember: the freedom to be alone with one’s own thoughts and memories is a freedom that is hard to extinguish. To remember is an act that can be performed either alone or collectively – in its collective manifestation it often becomes a part of the right to (and rite of) myth.
Angelyn Mitchell used the term ‘Freedom to Remember’ in the title of her study of the emancipation through literature of black American women from the historical bonds of slavery and neo-slavery. As Malaysia prepares itself for the happy anniversary of 49 years of postcolonial history perhaps a celebration of the universal freedom to remember is in order.
In the lead up to Merdeka, the mainstream media will, as they have in the past, reflect upon the struggle to attain nationhood and the sacrifices made by Malaysians to maintain the journey that your founding fathers and mothers commenced. That journey did not begin or end with the Tunku’s rousing roar of multiple ‘Merdeka’s or with the raising of a new flag. It began long before that defining moment. And the struggle to realise the dreams of a new nation continues apace through your own, sometimes more contested, more contemporary times.
My own engagement with the story of Malaysia came about originally as a student of your history. I read the collected reminiscences of many people from your past as an attempt to understand perhaps something of your present. History does not lie dormant in the past, but resonates across time and generations in a constant synthesis of renewal and reinvention, of reflection and reinterpretation. The right to remember what was, what is, and perhaps more importantly, what might have been, lies at the heart of all of our own personal engagements with history – the personal, societal, national and global.
Struggling in the quiet
Officially proscribed and sanctioned history serves a contemporary function – the maintenance of status quos and ideologically driven visions. Those histories often sideline the achievements and memories of the vast majority of us – of women, of minorities, of those who toiled and struggled in the quiet, but nonetheless important tasks of building a society from the bottom up. Your nationhood was not something that was granted and endowed, but struggled for and assimilated – and the process of that struggle and assimilation is an on going one shaped by the capacity of citizens to reflect and to question.
In conducting oral history interviews here in Malaysia over a number of years now, I am continually struck by how many highly personalised and individual accounts of what it might mean to be a Malaysian co-exist in the public and private imaginaries. Those readings of history, personal and national, are of course subjective. But are they any more subjective, any less authentic, than sanctioned histories that have been written to be consumed as grand narratives in that vague project we refer to as ‘nation-building’?
What of the film technician of Indian descent who claims that his move from employment in the studios of Singapore in 1965 to Kuala Lumpur meant he had to undergo a profound psychological trauma and adjustment to now belonging to a new and separate nation? And what did that say to him and that nation about the place of Indians in Malaysia at that time? What of the Malay film star who abandoned the supposed economic security of life in Singapore to make a commitment to her heartland of Malaysia following that same spilt between your two countries? What sacrifices did she and her family make in that commitment? I know an old man in Penang who can recite a list of all the ships that regularly plied the waters near that most maritime of islands and whose recollections of his childhood under the Japanese occupation is more chilling than any official history.
The cleavages of post war economic recovery, the communist emergency, the Malayan Union, the independent Federation, the birth of a Malaysia that included Singapore and the eventual expulsion of the city state from the new country – not to mention the violent and tragic events of May 1969 – are all often marked as political events shaped by leaders and public figures; contested ideologies and ambitions. But real people often had their lives and livelihoods torn apart by those events. And where official narratives often dress wounds quickly in official bandages, sometimes the wounds of these individual lives remain torn. It is their memories that need to be recovered. Luckily, they have the freedom to remember and can personalise their own encounters with times either troubled or full of hope.
Heartbreaks personal and national
I am but one small outsider in a long history of encounters between outsiders and your nation, but as I ponder my own freedom to remember, I am more and more reminded of just what an impact your country has played in my own personal history. I first arrived here almost on a whim at a low point in both my personal and professional life some seven years ago. Fleeing a bad relationship and a particularly gruelling period in my academic life, I stumbled into Kuala Lumpur.
It sounds odd to locals that a city as manic and chaotic as Kuala Lumpur could in any way provide a sanctuary for emotional recovery, but it did. The broken heart was soon replaced by a love for a new country and its diverse people, whose daily acts of – ordinary kindness to me and each other helped in the healing. In the process, I also found a direction career wise that sorted out the professional crisis. Everything I have learned about your nation, your peoples, your history and your cultures since – however limited and however in need of constant improvement – has been shaped by my own freedom to remember and to reflect. Indeed, in a tangible sense I can chart my own myriad number of personal trajectories across my numerous encounters with Malaysia.
If I had not in happenstance found solace here all those seven or so years ago, I might not have commenced my research on your cinematic past and present, nor would I have likely ended up teaching here to university students in what has been for me the happiest time in my academic life. In remembering my own path and the way it has crossed with Malaysia I am constantly struck by how random it all seemed to have been, but with time, I see a pattern emerging. Nations too can be tracked that way – distance and reflection allow us to apply order to what appears to have taken place without any apparent rhyme or reason. Heartbreaks personal and national can then be healed in an open engagement with each other’s memories. But if either prison guards or autocrats had the capacity to remove memory, chaos would surely and ultimately triumph.
Recent history everywhere proves how unsettling our times indeed are. On the eve of your 49th anniversary as an independent and sovereign nation, it might appear strange that even to defend and uphold an article of your own constitution could be deemed provocative. But the sentiments and intent of that article do not remain in some now distant past, a happier less complex time perhaps, for those sentiments linger on in the memories of those who carry your country forward. It may seem lonely to acknowledge that those sentiments are protected perhaps solely by the freedom to remember, but it is a freedom that all of us possess. Acknowledging that on the eve of your wonderful birthday party should act as some sort of solace as you continue the journey that began so long ago and that saw such promise and optimism at midnight on August 31, 1957.
Such knowledge and remembrance will never be erased even if over time it might mutate and be reassimilated in the broader history of your national life. Be happy to celebrate the freedom to remember. August 31 is of course your celebration, but there will be many of us who will join you to reflect, to reminisce, to remember and to give thanks. Happy Birthday, Malaysia.
First Published: 18.08.2006 on Kakiseni