I WAS born a Sarawakian. Malaysia had not yet come into being in October 1962. Of course, I was not aware then that I was a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Before I turned one, I had become a citizen of the newly minted nation of Malaysia. This, I would learn in school, much later on.
Growing up in Kuching was great, especially when I look back at those halcyon days with the benefit of hindsight, having travelled a fair bit and having more basis with which to compare. There’s not much point in claiming your hometown is the best if you’ve never left and it is all you know, this insight being part of the lessons learnt from venturing farther afield.
The first language I knew was my mother’s tongue, Hakka, of the Sin On variety. My father was Teochew, which technically makes me a Teochew too, but we all spoke Hakka at home. When I could walk well enough to wander over to my grandfather’s house about 100m away, I started picking up Teochew to communicate with grandpa and all the uncles and aunts, and cousins then living under his roof.
Carrying on a family tradition, I was enrolled in St Joseph’s Primary School Kuching, then the premier mission school run by the Catholic Church. All lessons were conducted in English, with Bahasa Malaysia (BM) and Chinese also taught as subjects. It was a natural progression to St Joseph’s Secondary School when I turned 13.
For 12 years, I made many friends with whom I have stayed in touch with to this day, and we all still communicate in English. Chinese, Malay, Iban, Bidayuh, Indian, or lain-lain (others), it did not matter.
We played in the sports fields, we quarrelled and fought, we laughed and cried and bled, all in English.
We had morning assembly everyday, lining up in front of the headmaster and school staff, and we sang the school song the Sarawak state anthem, Fair Land Sarawak. Yes, all in English. Negaraku was in Bahasa, of course, and as pupils, we learnt the words by heart even if if we did not really understand what they meant.
I recall the adults talking about May 13, but it did not seem important to us. It was something bad that happened in a faraway place called Kuala Lumpur that I had never visited. And I was just seven. Stories about the horrors of the Japanese Occupation seemed more real because our relatives had suffered and some of the effects still lingered then.
Before I turned 11, we suddenly had to learn a new state anthem, in Bahasa. We also had to raise and salute a new state flag. The colours had changed completely, from yellow, red and black to blue, red and white, and it looked much like the flag of Czechoslovakia, only flown upside down. That was also why Czechoslovakia, quite a mouthful for a young child, was one of the first foreign countries whose name I learnt, other than England (finer distinctions such as the United Kingdom and Great Britain would come later).
In class, we learnt about the history of Sarawak, which was mostly like a fantastic adventure for the White Rajah, James Brooke, and his successors, and their battles with native “rebels” like Rentap and the Hakka gold miners from Bau.
In those days, Bahasa was not deemed important and you did not need even a pass to attain the major public examination certificates. My seniors sat for the Junior Cambridge, Senior Cambridge and Higher School Certificate exams, and my batch was the first to switch to the Lower Certificate of Education (LCE, at the end of Form 3) and Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE, end of Form 5). We needed a credit in English to obtain Grade 1 or 2, among other requirements, but Bahasa did not feature at all.
Most of my classmates did well in their exams and have gone on to great things in life. Nearly all of us failed the BM paper, including some of the Malays. It wasn’t because the language was so difficult, just that it seemed unimportant so no one bothered.
After MCE, I went on to further my studies in Western Australia where, for over four years, everything was in English.
When I came home, Sarawak had a new chief minister, who gave us a new flag and state anthem. Malaysia also had a new prime minister, but at least the flag and anthem remained the same.
Returning to the weak economy of the mid 1980s, jobs were hard to come by so I tried my hand at a variety of occupations. The most enjoyable of these was as a trainee loss adjuster or insurance investigator, which gave me the opportunity to travel a lot to the interiors of Sarawak and Sabah, visiting timber camps whenever a bulldozer or logging truck fell into a ravine and an insurance claim had to be assessed.
My first stint at the job that would become my lifelong career was as a cadet reporter with the Kuching office of The Borneo Post, where I stayed for three years before itching for more.
Kota Kinabalu was the next port of call, and another three-year stint as feature writer with the now-defunct Borneo Mail, which took me on adventures all over Sabah.
It was here that I learnt to speak Bahasa, or more accurately, Sabah-style Malay, because I really had to. Everyone in Sabah speaks to everyone else in Malay, some of the time, at least.
This was strange to me at first, because a Sarawakian Chinese would never speak to a fellow Chinese in Malay, only in dialect or English, and inter-ethnic communication was all in English.
Life in Sabah was wonderful, everyone was friendly and got along just fine, and there were plenty of places to visit and explore, from the pristine beaches to the majestic Mount Kinabalu and its surrounding highlands. I took up scuba diving at a fraction of the cost — in both money and time — that it would have cost elsewhere. Four-wheel-drive adventures and superbike rides were some of the bucket list items ticked, at a time before the expression “bucket list” had been coined.
As idyllic as Sabah was, the three-year itch struck again, and career development considerations pulled me to the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur, where I began what was planned as yet another three-year stint, this time with The Star in Petaling Jaya. I ended up overstaying by 15 years.
I had a blast, ticked off many more boxes on the list and made many new friends. Making the most of the great road network, I drove all over the peninsula, on and off the highways and into the jungles, and even across the border all the way to Bangkok.
The days of looking outward, of looking forward to visiting more foreign destinations, all these were fulfilling and rewarding but, eventually, they would come to an end. Not abruptly, perhaps, but gradually.
For me, the day the wanderlust began to die was Sept 11, 2001. Yes, that 9/11. I was in Frankfurt for the motor show when it happened, and chaos ensued. We saw the first footage on a tiny TV in the coach taking us to the Frankfurt airport, and made it back to Singapore just in time to see the second tower collapse on TV, and before flights were suspended and cancelled around the globe.
“This changes everything” was my thought then, and it did. There were other trips abroad after that but, somehow, the wide-eyed wonder of visiting new lands had gone, replaced by long lines to undergo stringent security checks.
Thoughts turned to home, and the process began that would eventually lead to the return to Sarawak. So, I am now back where it all began, and have been for the past eight years.
It felt good to be home again after two decades away, but life would not be plain sailing. A difference of opinion at the office, a termination and subsequent court action were some of the challenges but all ended well.
With plenty of free time that comes with semi-retirement, I had a greater-than-usual-interest in the political developments leading up to May 9, the jubilation in most of the nation, and of course, the odd situation Sarawak finds itself in now. These are truly uncharted waters for us.
Long-buried issues such as petroleum royalties and MA63 (the agreement which then-Malaya made with Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah to create Malaysia) have sprung to the surface.
Where do we go from here? How do I feel about Malaysia Baru (new Malaysia)? About Sarawak’s future path?
One thing has not changed. I am Sarawakian first, proud of it, and have never hidden that fact from anyone, when I was living in Sabah and when I was in the peninsula. I have also lived and worked and played in all three regions of the country, and have met and made friends with many people all over the country, through work and through hobbies.
Malaysia is a wonderful nation, abundantly blessed with resources and natural beauty, and the melting pot of cultures has also yielded our most appreciated treasure — great food.
But the politics all this while had been unsatisfactory to me. A single party (okay, coalition if you insist) has dominated for far too long, giving rise to massive corruption that became a way of life. Racial and religious tensions have become dangerously high, seeming created intentionally for political purposes.
What I see on social media — the intolerance and lack of understanding and outright hatred — is totally different from what I have experienced first-hand, not only in Sarawak and Sabah but in the peninsula as well, where the people I call friends get along just fine with each other and with me. But I do wonder at times, was that all just skin-deep?
Day-to-day life in Sarawak today continues just as it always had before but a day of reckoning is coming in a couple of years. Thanks to its political history, the state has its state polls out of synch with the rest of the country so Sarawakians will be asked to make their choice soon.
Leading up to this, politicians and their followers from all sides are bringing up issues like oil revenues and MA63, and the big issue of whether Sarawak and Sabah are “just” states like, say, Selangor or Penang or Perlis, or are they equal partners with Malaya?
These are issues too big to settle here and now, but they do cast a shadow as Malaysia Day, yesterday, marks 55 years since Malaysia came into being.
Paul Si is a former journalist.