Going forward in the spirit of 1Malaysia

Peggy [Far Left] with friends [Left to Right]
Siok, Kausar and Mastura [Front row]
Ramlah and Jit Chin [Top row]
during break time in CHIJ JB
Minutes before the breaking of fast, patrons at the Ramadan buffet were helping themselves to desserts, ready to break their fast.  I helped myself to a variety of cake and “kueh” but a piece of moist chocolate cake toppled over against my finger and stained it with a blob of thick chocolate.  A quick lick will wipe my finger clean but because I was among fasting Muslim patrons, I hesitated and then wiped it off with a paper napkin.

As far I could see my family and I were among at least three other tables of non-Muslim diners.  For us, it is an annual tradition to enjoy a Ramadan buffet together so every year we just picked a date and a destination.  We are familiar with the social etiquette in such a situation so we patiently waited along with our Muslim friends to break fast. 

In accepting and respecting our diversity, it was also okay for non-fasting diners to fill their plates and carry on eating.  But as the breaking of fast was just moments away, it made a difference for us to sit down quietly in an attitude of mutual respect.  When the Muslim patrons started to eat, we paused to say grace as a family before starting to eat. 

I believe it’s our upbringing, growing up in Government quarters living among all races and mixing freely with schoolmates that taught us the respect for different cultures.  Just as our parents have friends from every race and religion, my siblings and I remain fast friends with school and workmates of every creed and colour.  Looking back, I realize that we have adopted the values of 1Malaysia long before it was embraced today.

Friends [Left to Right] Emma, Mei Yoong and Alice
In school I mixed with different cliques in a healthy combination of different races and we used to hang out in warm camaraderie, doing regular things like eating “dosai” at Kerala Restaurant before going to the town library or slurping “ice kacang” at Ee H’ng along Jalan Ibrahim, after visiting the library. 

We are blind to any racial differences as we ate from the same plate and drank from the same cup or sipped from the same straw.  Growing up together, we had great fun doing class projects, organizing house parties, sharing clothes and make-up, and having sleepovers in each other’s homes.

Now living in locations worldwide, my network of school-mates remains in touch with the convenience of the internet and we continue to exchange updates in cyberspace.  Thirty years on, we organized a big reunion bash with an overnight stay in a resort, bringing together more than 60 friends from different parts of the world, some as mothers, mothers-in-law and even glamorous grandmothers.  Graced by Sister Regina, a former teacher/counselor, our coming together again from such great distances, was a hugely successful event.

The gang at our reunion in 2004
When Sister Regina was invited to address us, she suddenly removed her shoes, left them under the table and walked bare-footed to the lectern.  As we watched her slowly make her way up to the raised platform, those who saw this unusual gesture were silenced in awe and openly alarmed.  Our fears were calmed when she gently explained that it symbolized her respect to us because she was so humbled by how we are keeping the spirit of unity alive in spite of our diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Since that reunion in 2004, we had a second grand reunion in 2007 and made short trips together to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and various districts in Johor, strengthening our bond and reconnecting with each other in a very special way. 

When classmates who have moved to work and live outstation or abroad return to their family homes in Johor Bahru for Hari Raya, Deepavali and Chinese New Year, we will somehow fix a day to meet and catch up with each other.  With careers established and children now grown, it’s very refreshing to rekindle our long-standing friendships as we move into the next chapter of our lives. 

During this recent Hari Raya break, a classmate was in Johor Bahru not only for her annual festive visit but also to present me with her daughter’s wedding invitation.  The weekend event held in Kuala Lumpur next month will include a typically Johor-style Akad Nikah ceremony and a dinner banquet the following evening.  As Emma and I hugged each other fondly in farewell, I felt very privileged to be among her close friends and be invited to share with her, an event as special and intimate as her daughter’s Nikah ceremony.

Mei Keeng [Left] meeting Kausar again after so many years!
I realize that we are all on an equal footing as non-native speakers of the English language and this common language bonded us together even though we each have our own language and culture. 

Having established and nurtured our relationships in school, it’s interesting to note that the days of attending my friends’ wedding celebrations are over and I’m now going to their children’s weddings.  It’s just another way which shows how far we have come, not just in accepting, trusting and respecting each other but also in loving one another. 

By building on mutual respect, we can each do our part to go forward sharing and cultivating strong and harmonious unity, to make this nation a better place for our future generations.  Call it by any name – Muhibbah or 1Malaysia – there’s always more to learn and love than to frown and fear about each other. 

A version of this article was first published in The New Straits Times, Johor Streets in October 2009

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