Image is taken from http://fzak.deviantart.com/art/Merdeka-177392932
I grew up in a small village called Kampung Kopisan Baru in Gopeng, Perak. This was in the 70s and 80s. My neigbhourhood consisted of people of all races – Malays, Chinese and Indians. Most of the people in that village worked in the tin mines nearby and so they were not only neighbours but colleagues and good friends as well.
Here was a place where we could pop into our neighbour’s house in the middle of the night and unashamedly ask for some food because we had unexpected guests. We could go off on a trip with the safe knowledge that our neighbours would keep an eye on our house without us even asking.
All the children went to the same school and they too were friends with one another. My closest friends in school consisted of people from all the different races and religions and we were so comfortable with each other that we’d often end up in one of the houses after school, doing our homework or playing games. The parents would warmly welcome all the children into their homes and being respectful of one another’s culture and beliefs, would ensure that the food served was acceptable to all.
There was no prejudice or fear in the way we interacted with each other. We saw and accepted everyone as our friend and all the elders always looked out for all the children, once again irrespective of race or creed. It was no surprise to see a Malay man boxing the ears of an Indian child who had misbehaved, only because he cared (it was an unspoken rule that the elders had a right to punish or scold any child who was caught misbehaving, and this also meant a further punishment when we got home). At the same time, we would probably come across a Chinese woman gently applying ointment to the knee of a Malay child who had injured himself while playing.
When there was a wedding in the village, everyone would be invited and all the women would come together to prepare the meal. It was a joy to see all the Mak Ciks, the Achees and the Ah Sohs sitting and chatting together while doing the cooking. When there was a funeral, everyone felt the loss and all would come to pay their respects and to help out in any way they could. The best time was during the festival season – trays of goodies would be sent to the neighbours with invitations to join them for lunch or dinner and this would be reciprocated when the neighbours celebrated their festivals. We respected one another’s religion – there was a mosque, a church, a Hindu temple and a Chinese temple all within walking distance of each other.
In school, when the Muslim children were having their agama lessons, the non-Muslims were free to go to the library or to the canteen. But most of us preferred to remain in class and do our homework. At the same time we would catch snatches of the lesson going on and the ustaz or ustazah would sometimes draw us into a discussion. They would ask us to explain about our religious beliefs or rituals and never once were we disrespectful. In fact it was a learning experience for everyone.
That is what being a Malaysian means to me – to accept each and every person on an equal status and not be to be coloured or prejudiced against another because of his/her social background, race or religion.
But now when I look back, I wonder if it had all been a dream. Did we really co-exist in peace and harmony back then? I am having my doubts now because after all these years, we are suddenly being urged to strengthen racial integration. Children, regardless of whether they are at a primary level or university students, have to be taught or persuaded to integrate with one another. Where did we go wrong? Who is to blame for all these?
Children, as we know, are innocent. They are not prejudiced and can see beyond the colour of one’s skin. However, they are impressionable and if we fill these young minds with hate and mistrust, then we have failed in our duty not only towards our children nut also to the nation.
As we celebrate yet another anniversary of our independence, can we truly say that we have our own identity as Malaysians? Can we truly call ourselves Malaysians? This is certainly food for thought.
By Patricia Pereira