It’s my third or fourth day with the family and the whole thing is beginning to get me down although my cousin seems to be enjoying it. She has the luxury of distance and of spending a childhood relatively free from them so she is able to forgive their foibles. Now and then I get a glimpse of what it must look like through her eyes, this vast fractious cast of uncles, aunts and cousins whose lives she’d only ever really glimpsed the surface of. And I guess it can be fascinating.
The family temperament, after my grandfather, tends towards the passionate, short tempered and self-righteous. In some, it becomes bitter and self-consuming. Pretty much everyone on my father’s generation (and there are eight of them) inherited that trait. This makes for spectacular feuds over everything including their shared history; feuds that never quite disappear because no one talks about it and hence there is no reconciliation or forgiveness. Tensions remain simmering under the surface at all times made worse by their mutual co-dependency and their rather more endearing devotion and attachment to their mother, my grandmother.
I do not know what will happen to them after my grandmother dies. She is 93 this year, her mind is still sharp but her body is failing. I suspect that the central core of the family will vanish, the core which causes their forced co-existence but also provides mediation. I hope that her children, freed from having to relive their difficult childhood with each other, will be able to let go of the past and each other and move on.
I do not have a lot to write about Malaysian politics even though I feel I should and to be honest, I am no longer particularly interested in it. I gave up on Malaysia when I decided to become an Australian citizen. I gave up on its convoluted and fraught race relations. I had little hope for its chinese and other non-malay inhabitants seeing the government’s commitment to the intersection between islam, race and power. I could not see its society with its differing conflicting traditions all locked into the same country becoming more liberal in general or accepting of each other in particular. I could not see a future for me here.
Those were not the only reasons I decided to leave of course, but they were the political and cultural reasons.
Driving around KL now with independence day coming up, I’ve noticed how the city is festooned with flags. Cars have little flag holders attached to their windscreen, public housing flats have flags hanging from each window, shops fronts, building fences, buses, signboards – everything cries out with patriotism, the atmosphere exudes patriotism. The media runs inspirational snippets of choirs singing their praises to the nation, individual ministers are shanghaied into singing the national anthem individually, tunelessly and with fake fervour on national television. Happy cheerful citizens are shown practicing for the big parade.
I am unconvinced by any of this. The question that hangs over all of this is one that I am sure most Malaysians are aware of – how can everyone love their country equally when some as defined in its constitution have many more rights than others? What sort of affection is possible when the people are afraid of sedition laws which bring with it indefinite detention without trail? How is it possible to feel loyalty to such an abstract principle as a nation when its principal religion does not differentiate between church and state and runs its own judiciary system? To what extent can one even respect its government, the most visible aspect of the nation, when nepotism, corruption and incompetence is the norm?
I understand enough about Malaysia that I know there are no easy answers, no easy solutions and that it is in many ways a credit to its people and its government that its society is as stable as it is. I actually wish the country well but if I found myself today with my Malaysian citizenship and had to again choose between it and an Australian one, I would without hesitation choose Australia.
I stepped off the plane from Melbourne with a goatee, dreadlocks nearly down to my waist and a beaten up leather hat that’s seen a few too many outdoor raves and camping trips. My cousin has perceptively said that it is my point of difference.
My appearance, more so in Malaysia than Australia (although it is also true in Australia though on a lesser level) is one of my means of distancing and disassociation from my family, my culture and a substantial portion of its values and the nation of my birth. This isn’t the only reason why I look the way I do, I would like to think my difference goes deeper than my appearance and there is a certain degree of proactiveness involved in the course of my life, but even after all this time, I feel a certain amount of pleasure when people express disbelieve when they ask and I tell them of my origins. It is an emotional affirmation that I have freed myself from my beginnings and successfully remade myself into someone else.
Whether this is actually true or not is something else again.