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The National DNA

  • August 3, 2006

By Hazri Haili

One morning in July, giddy with expectations of travelling with a busload of tourists all geared up for exploring the city’s museums, I ran towards the National History Museum with such a focus that I nearly got run over by some biker (they start early!). My enthusiasm was however quickly deflated when one lonely tour guide greeted me. The tour guide, Mr Sim, a self-confessed “friend of the ministry”, stood with me under the morning sun next to the Merdeka Square waiting for more people. Nearby were officials from the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage who were busy trying to look busy. Eventually, two more came; one was a local university student and the other turned out to be Mr Sim’s supervisor. With this herd of three, Mr Sim started our whirlwind tour of Malaysian history.

As part of the recent Kuala Lumpur Festival, the Museum Trail was an effort by the Ministry of Culture, Arts  & Heritage (MoCAH) to present an impression of our nation’s past through the capital’s many museums. There were two different trails. Museum Trail One, happening in the morning, presented the make up of the national psyche or as our Mr Sim puts it: Our National DNA Museum Trail Two in the afternoon presented the idea of national unity through the theme Law & Order. With such specific briefs, the tour guide indeed had a challenging time making coherent the many variants of government speak for his ever eager herd.

Morning Trail: Bedrooms and Dioramas

The first stop in the exploration of our national DNA was the National History Museum next to the Merdeka Square. The first thing a visitor of this museum would see is a mural of our tiara chasing hero Hang Tuah with his ”Ta’ Melayu Hilang Di-dunia” slogan emblazoned above him (this ubiquitous affirmation sounds more and more like a warning with every repeat). We started off by completely ignoring the pre-historic and Hindu exhibits on the ground floor and going straight to the bits of history that led to the formation of Malaysia. The “melepas batuk di tangga” attitude of the curators toward our pagan and Hindu past was revealing — so this is our national psyche.

In its entirety, the National History Museum describes chronologically the events and the people whose contributions led to the formation of our nation, though little mention is made of the Chinese community (except for being communist sympathisers) and the Indian community (not mentioned much at all). It doesn’t show that the Malays were not always Muslim and this omission could give an artificial sense of ownership of a religion by one particular ethnic group. Anyway, the trail was certainly not designed to give a deep understanding of its content as the dear Mr Sim breezed us through the museum with his rosy commentary in half an hour.

The following portion of the tour brought us to the residences and offices of all our past Prime Ministers: Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial, Tun Hussein Onn Memorial and Tun Dr Mahathir’s Sri Perdana (the Tun Abdul Razak Memorial was reserved for the afternoon trail). All of them have more or less the same content, detailing our Prime Ministers’ pre-political life, their years in office and how they cope with life afterwards. The condition of these memorials reflect the state our country is in today. The level of maintenance of these houses of tribute is poor (except for the newly opened Tun Hussein Onn memorial): the documents and artefacts are left in harsh humid condition and are cleaned carelessly by bored migrant workers. The sight of under-worked museum caretakers at these memorials was so heart-wrenching I was struck with the urge to give them my Finance assignments to do so that they may have some meaning in their lives.

The bedrooms also reflect the personalities of the owners; Tunku’s is minimalist and almost Ikea-ish, while Dr M’s, whose walk-in closet alone is the size of my living room, is ornate and stuffy. Unsurprisingly, a layer of dust covers their bedsheets, white for Tunku, floral for Dr M. But more importantly, how do our former Prime Ministers’ wardrobes, walk-in closets and beds constitute our National DNA?

The last site in this trail was the National Museum (Muzium Negara). This Malay palace-inspired post-modernist building, which was designed by Malaysian-Singaporean architect Ho Kok Hoe, holds much nostalgia for me. It was the first museum I had ever visited outside of my hometown of Kuching. Much to my disappointment, Mr Sim only brought us only to the anthropological section of the museum. But to my surprise, this section holds true to its name, unlike the National History Museum, as its displays are much more sensitive to the make up of the nation.

The provided spaces gave ample room for the contributions and cultures of the many ethnicities of the country. One particular display that took my attention was that of an Orang Asli sculptor. According to Mr Sim, the actual person who sculpted this sculptor is a Malay artist by the name of Zulklfli Maulana and the sculpture is actually of himself; Mr Sim added that the artist completed it just before he passed away. Zulkifli also made the other intricate sculptures in the dioramas at the museum. This amount of dedication by an artist to the representations of other cultures was truly heartwarming to me.

The most annoying thing in the museum is its sad attempt at attracting youths. Hoping to present itself as a fun, relaxing and interactive place, the National Museum had constructed a seven-foot maze in the middle of the main hall. In it are mirrors and enlarged faces of young Malaysians. Not only does this fail as even the most desperate of amusements, the maze reveals absolutely nothing about the construction of the nation. Except that we are constantly trying to lose our youths in mazes.

Afternoon Trail: Lawyers and Pistols

That afternoon, I decided to continue with the Trail Two. The uni student and Mr Sim’s supervisor never returned. So for the first time in my 24 odd years, I had a personal entourage. I had my very own tour guide, two MoCAH officials, a bus driver and whole bus at my own disposal. I was truly thankful to MoCAH for making my dream of being Mariah Carey for a day come true.

Museum Trail Two also had five stops. Seeing that I was the only “tourist” here, Mr Sim decided to alter the itinerary for me, allowing me to skip the National History Museum and Muzium Negara, thus spending more time at the Tun Abdul Razak Memorial, the Royal Malaysia Police Museum and the Islamic Art Museum. The only reason I could think of for lumping Tun Abdul Razak here was that he was a lawyer, but then again, so was Tun Hussein Onn; I suspect the reason is more mundane — they just couldn’t fit him into the morning trail.

It is very interesting that this particular tour was themed Law & Order. It is as though MoCAH wanted to hammer in to the poor tourist that our country has law and order, so don’t play play! But why the need to prove this? Does Malaysia have a reputation for lawlessness? Is it because we want to show that as a Muslim country we are serious about our law and order? Is it because the MoCAH officers had too little mocha the night before and could not be bothered to refine their themes?

Take the Royal Malaysian Police Museum. From the mounted “Seladang” head above the museum door to the confiscated handmade pistols, the Museum wraps visitors with a snug blanket of security. There are no details on how the police officers gave personal nude aerobics classes and other such scandalous activities of the past year. The museum is able to spin the gritty nature of police work into an image that is palatable and reassuring to the public. One does think that the police in our country must be doing their job, and this is not the propaganda talking here. The museum is keen to share the force’s sense of pride that comes with its colonial traditions of mass hall dinning and parades (the museum itself was converted from the former Police Senior Officer’s Mess, to the cost of RM8 Million). This sense of pride is, however, being undermined by the paltry salary (RM690 for a “Konstabel”). With their pride trampled, no wonder police officers seek “side incomes ” and casual gropings for compensation (not mentioned of course). Well, the museum shows us the good that the police force is capable of, if nothing else.

The last stop on my trail was the Islamic Art Museum. This was by far my favourite museum though I remain perplexed as to why this museum was lumped together into the Law & Order trail. This well organised and beautifully designed museum has one of the most sensitively displayed collections of Islamic art I’ve ever seen. The art is presented not just as acts of devotion but also expressions of beauty through Islamic principles. One particularly touching segment in the museum is the display of ornaments by the Islamic community of the three major Malaysian races. This display presents that Islam is indeed a universal faith that can be embraced by anyone. Unlike the other museums, the Islamic Art Museum, through its artefacts, language and architecture also gives space for visitors to reflect. Kudos to the Al-Bukhary Foundation in establishing and creating a museum that needs to be envied and emulated by the MoCAH museum department.

Kudos to the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage for this great idea, which should continue even outside the festival, and to Mr Sim for his tireless service for the country. These two trails were pleasant to a degree, if you like historical artefacts. The lack of neutrality and sensitivity to its subjects, however, has a strong pong of propaganda, which can give the creeps to anyone, local or tourist.

In the end, the afternoon trail would be misguided if it assumed that national unity is achieved only through law and order. And while the morning trail was designed to define the genetic components of Malaysia, I can’t help but feel that we are more than the former chambers of our former primers or achievements of one political party. Proud as I am of the contributions of Islamic values to the nation’s structural make-up, this selective memory of the past is counterproductive to our attempt to understand who we are. Our national DNA, I believe, is also made up of the double helix of our varied past histories and borrowed customs, be it from Riau, Shanghai or Mumbai. This amalgamated identity is what taught us to be a tolerant society in the first place. Let us not forget that.


Hazri Haili studies DNA at a local university.

First Published: 03.08.2006 on Kakiseni