20 June 2005

Wednesday June 15, 2005
The real Malaysia

Sometimes life is like a movie script. Let me tell a little story about Malaysia that should really make it onto celluloid.

The other day a young Indian fellow called Mike, who happens to work for me, finally got married to his girlfriend Zai, a Malay girl. The wedding reception took place in a suburb of KL at Zai’s parents’ home.

Or rather, as is normal in our city, on Zai’s street. The whole street had been cut off for the wedding, decorated with arches and tents, turning it into a street party that Sunday.

Despite the heat, the entire neighbourhood seemed to have turned up for it as well as many of Mike and Zai’s friends and colleagues.

Pink was the theme colour, ranging from what the bride and groom wore, the matching outfits that the bride’s family could be identified by and the yards of pink satin that swagged the pelamin, the windows of the modest single storey terrace house, and the bridal lunch table.

A local band entertained with the latest Malay pop songs while everyone tucked into the nasi minyak buffet.

What was fascinating was the fact that the wedding was really a microcosm of urban Malaysia.

Here was Mike, who is Indian, marrying his Malay girlfriend after a long courtship. Their friends and neighbours were of all races who came and went as is customary, helping themselves to the food and adding to the pile of presents for the newlyweds.

When Mike, resplendent in pink songket, accompanied by his sari-clad mother arrived, they were greeted by the requisite kompang and a short silat demonstration.

Despite the humble setting, Mike and Zai’s wedding lacked for nothing in terms of all the essential elements.

When they sat on the pelamin, Mike’s mother began the merenjis ceremony with a little Indian tradition.

She gave Mike a gold chain to put around Zai’s slender neck and then she herself placed another gold necklace on her new daughter-in-law who responded with a respectful kiss of her hands.

Then everyone followed suit in the usual manner, sprinkling scented water on the couple in the traditional blessing.

What makes this a particularly quirky slice of Malaysia is the fact that Mike happens also to be a champion bodybuilder (he is the bantamweight Mr Malaysia).

His fellow bodybuilders, of course, also came and we were treated to the sight of a good number of crew-cut guys with very impressive muscles and tiny waists.

And just to prove that Malaysians can be disciplined when they want to be, all these guys sat together and ate only grilled fish because they have a competition coming up!

(The groom himself didn’t take a day off from his strict diet just because it was his wedding either.)

Observing Mike and Zai’s wedding, aside from thinking it would make a great movie (an interracial romance between a bodybuilder and a Siti Norhaliza look-alike; how’s that for an original premise?), it made me wonder what the real Malaysia is. Is it the Malaysia as envisioned by some of our public figures, divided by ethnicity and religion, full of territorial claims? Or is it this simple portrait of neighbours and friends brought together by a wedding, that reliable social unifier?

When people make hateful claims about the superiority of one way of thinking or belief over another, I wonder what it means to families like Mike’s and Zai’s where people of different beliefs have become related? I remember listening to a Christian woman once talking about her Muslim son and grandchildren and wondered how could she possibly be unmoved by laws that affect them.

In Malaysia, we are not as homogenous as we like to portray ourselves and many of us do have relatives and close friends who come from different ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds.

Our kinship ties are forged by marriage and shared interests and these can be strong. To try and differentiate us through state policy would be akin to trying to cut through a piece of silk cloth, so beautiful in one piece, ruined when torn.

Maybe if we started making movies that did reflect real life, we would have a more realistic approach to social harmony. If it wasn’t completely true, nobody could make up Mike and Zai out of their imaginations. We keep thinking, through our movies and through our approaches to governance, that Malaysia is a uniform and obedient society that conforms to some politician’s or bureaucrat’s dull black and white dreams.

In fact, it’s far better and more colourful than that.

What we need is to always ensure that it is these simple portraits of real life that are constantly polished and shined. Otherwise life in Malaysia would be very drab indeed.