What is a Malaysian family?


When the first poster in the series of teaser posters for our Merdeka video was posted on Facebook, I received a number of reactions, the most notable must be the one from Kak Mariam who said, “Seeing the poster, I feel proud to be residing in Johor…”


Form Four Arts, Johor Baru Convent, a group
photo with caption: Here's one for unity!
Another reaction from Dr Kim, a medical doctor, bluntly asked, “Why no face mask?”


I replied to assure him that the film crew was ever mindful to managing good physical distances and each artiste in the video was filmed at separate time slots.


Other reactions included phrases like, “Can’t wait!” “When will it air, what time?” “Don’t forget to share the link with me,” and “Wow! Looking forward!”


This series of teaser posters were designed to create interest in the lead-up to the launch of our Merdeka video produced by BrandCulture PR MarCom in collaboration with Zenith Lifestyle Centre, timed precisely at 12.01am on National Day, August 31.


A former classmate Kausar Kassim, who saw this video responded with a single line.


“Here’s one for unity,” as the caption sent with an old group photograph of our Form Four Arts class taken on the field of Johor Baru’s only Convent School.


Coloured shot captured when we
returned to school to collect exam results?

When I scrutinized the faces of our friends in this precious group shot, I was struck by two main thoughts; One, this was a class made up of girls from our multi-cultural community and two, at least two in the group seen here, had already passed away.


As far as I know, only one other girl (and me!) still lives in Johor Baru while the others have moved to Kuala Lumpur and abroad to the UK, Australia and elsewhere.


Back then, only a few girls had cameras so the photos captured in school are precious mementoes as proof of our fun and friendship among our multi-racial group.


After we had established our careers and settled our families, former schoolmates and I connected again and met up in Johor Baru for our special reunion gatherings. 


Another precious shot captured in colour,
at the famous front steps outside the Bookshop.
These were properly organized events where girls joined from near and far and I had the privilege to share this experience in, Going forward in the spirit of1Malaysia (NST, Johor Streets Oct 2009).


After reconnecting again, various groups met up regularly for informal gatherings, went on short trips both local and abroad, and in 2014 I recorded these happy reunions in, Fifty years of friendship.


In 2015, when the Johor Baru Convent celebrated its 90th anniversary, many schoolmates returned to their hometown, to join the gala celebration here.


There was so much for us to catch-up on that one event like this was just not enough.


Again on the front steps
outside the Bookshop.

To make good use of this time together, we arranged an extended itinerary to explore our city’s Heritage Quarter in a day tour that ended with a dinner together. Read about it in, New sights on old streets (My Johor Stories, Sept 2015).


It was very special to observe how the friendships formed in school, the shared experiences in important formative years, had created a special bond among us.


This bond crossed racial, religious and cultural boundaries because we not only hung out together in school, we also visited each other’s homes – not only on festive occasions – but regularly, and often ate together and stayed over just like family.


Long before the various forms of slogans like Keluarga Malaysia or the Malaysian Family, Muhibbah and OneMalaysia were introduced, we had in fact, already adopted these principles and put into practice the sentiment of, Unity in diversity.


Recently, there were many podcasts and interviews, discussions and conversations posted on YouTube that highlighted difficult and sensitive subjects which I thought were downright heart-breaking but also enlightening, educational and encouraging.


My two older sisters, Ruby [Right] and
Pearly [Left] with me at the front porch 
of our home at Jalan Dato' Wilson.

I particularly appreciate the style of veteran journalist, Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai, when he hosted guest speakers on his YouTube channel, The Real Chun Wai, the way he moderates the discussion and touches on topics that were once considered taboo.


These honest discussions are not only welcome but absolutely necessary because we have lost that spirit of unity – introduced by our nation’s founding Fathers – that was once a natural, prevailing sentiment among Malaysians in past decades.


When I listened to the conversation Datuk Wong had with Professor Dr Tajuddin Mohd Rasdi, I was amused when I heard that Prof Tajuddin grew up reading Enid Blyton books. It struck a familiar chord because I too enjoyed reading Enid Blyton books.


In fact, I shared about how I cultivated my reading habit and continued to find joy in reading various genres of books in, Cultivating a Reading Culture (NST, Johor Streets Oct 2012).


When I heard Prof Tajuddin, a Professor of Islamic Architecture in the School of Architecture and Built Environment, UCSI University, talking about his joy in reading, I was also glad to hear that he would never consider candidates he interviewed who do not read.


A family photo captured using a tripod stand;
Mum is wearing a traditional sarong costume
(No, we are not Peranakan) Lido seafront, JB

I also found another thing in common with Prof Tajuddin: We lived in government quarters, among neighbours of multi-cultural backgrounds.


His father was a Policeman and they lived in Police barracks while my parents were with the Health Department and we lived in hospital quarters.


In fact, when I was born in the Johor Baru General Hospital, my first home was an address in the staff quarters at Jalan Dato’ Wilson, a road within the hospital compound.


What prompted me to write, Jalan Dato’ Wilson Revisited (NST Johor Buzz, April 2009) was a call from a stranger – a man – who said he probably knew me when I was a toddler because we lived in the same neighbourhood.


I learnt from my parents that it was a safe and friendly place where residents mingled freely and the kids played together. Neighbours would stopover for chit-chats and as I was the youngest, and probably the cutest, I was often cuddled and carried by them.


Mum and her children outside our house, the
staff quarters for the Health Sub-Centre, Masai

When I heard Prof Tajuddin say that the neighbourhood kids whom he grew up with were mainly Sikhs, I had a sudden flashback to our neighbours who lived in the staff quarters when our parents were with the Government Health Sub-Centre in Masai.


I shared our Masai experience in, Going back to Masai-chusetts, a story published in my 2017 Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


Our house was a single-storey bungalow with a wide grassy garden that separated our house from the Health Centre or clinic.


Mum and dad developed this garden as a hobby, to grow vegetables and flowers, documented in a story, Green Fingers, also published in my 2017 Non-Fiction Bestseller, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage.


Mum and dad with colleagues at Health
Sub-Centre Masai [L to R] En Aziz,
A/N Kamariah, Mum, Bainon, S/N Yeo, Dad.

Our immediate neighbours on the other side of our house were Staff Nurse Lily Cheang and the Assistant Nurse and their families who lived in two semi-detached units.


Over the 13-year period while my dad was based in Masai until his retirement in 1977, I remember the three Assistant Nurses who lived next door, transferred to join the staff at the Health Centre.


There were Aunty Kamariah, her husband Nizam with sons, Nahar and Najib, then Aunty Irene, her husband Raymond Kumar with her two children, Adrian and Sandra, followed by Aunty Janet, her husband Mr Basil with kids, Mathilda and Zachery.


I also remember the children of Staff Nurse Cheang: Chun Yoon, Chun Yeen and their sister, Wai Yee, along with her husband, Mr Chee.


We got on well with our neighbours probably because we simply emulated our parents who had a great relationship with the staff, not only as a team but also as friends who often gathered to enjoy parties that featured food and fruits like durian. 


Mum and dad on the grassy patch between
our house and the Semi-D units; Mum
wore a Baju Kurung to attend an event.

When some of their colleagues were transferred in or out, we were sad to part with our playmates but like resilient kids, we were also happy to meet and get to know the children of the newly transferred staff.


There were no fences between our houses and the semi-detached units (lined up on the same row) but these two buildings were separated by a grassy slope.


Behind this row of houses, two staircases down, there were two blocks of barracks with smaller residential units allocated to staff like Health Officer En Zul, Mat Jan the gardener, Mohd Dom the water-pump staff, Encik Aziz the Attendant, and Aunty Bainon the AhMah.


This grassy slope between our houses was a favourite outdoor spot for rolling about, playing hide-and-seek and masak-masak with leaves and flowers plucked from plants in this sprawling compound.


Prof Tajuddin’s candid sharing had triggered off thoughts about these youngsters – when I knew them – but by now they would be grown up, may be holding responsible jobs, some may be living abroad, married, divorced or even retired.


I found it so uncanny that on Sept 3, I received a phone message that read: “Hi Peggy, I am Adrian, your neighbour in Masai. My sister Sandra and you were friends… I’m retired now and live in PJ.”


Wow! It was just wonderful to reconnect again. This started an exchange of messages where he updated me about his parents’ passing in 2008 (dad) and 2019 (mum), and that his sister with two kids, now live in Atlanta in the US of A.


English was our main language at home so when I first heard mum speak in Malay, I was simply stunned because she spoke the language like a native speaker. Later I discovered that she could also speak different Chinese dialects, each with the right tone and accent. 


If I was shocked by mum, I was absolutely amazed when I first witnessed dad speaking to an Indian man in Tamil.


One incident engraved in my mind was when the cowherd came to deliver a load of cow-dung which dad used for his vegetable garden. Dad was certainly not making it up because the Indian man responded naturally and seemed to understand him.


I asked dad and he explained that in those days when he was with the Johor Baru General Hospital, he learnt the language from his Indian friends during night duty. They would do paperwork after their rounds and on quiet nights, they would pass the time teaching him Tamil.


Mum and dad certainly showed by example, how we should integrate ourselves into the local, multi-cultural community, and as they did so, they gained a great deal of respect and friendship with many from all walks of life among the Masai folks.


Dad’s keen interest in Tamil rubbed off on us and I’ve learned quite a bit of Tamil vocabulary from him as described in, Tamil & Thousand Island (NST Johor Streets, July 2011).


On that same grassy patch again;
My brother, Kenneth, with neighbour, Najib.

Incidentally, my friend Kak Mariam, felt a strong connection to the conversation between Datuk Wong and Prof Tajuddin, not only because they share common origins as Penang-nites, but also because the content of their discussion triggered off feelings of nostalgia from her childhood days.


She told me that she used to follow the Taipusam crowd and enjoyed eating the vegetarian food at the temple located near the Penang Botanical Gardens.


On Christmas eve, she would go with friends to the annual Midnight Mass and fondly recalled the Christmas gifts she used to buy for her friends.


During Chinese New Year, she would bake cookies for the festive season and would also receive lots of festive goodies during Deepavali.


She happily recalled those carefree days and lamented that now there was no more of such compassionate bonding like we had before.


This Malaysia Day season, I had the pleasure to appreciate the “Aku Malaysia” series of videos that featured Malaysian personalities like Jo Kukathas, Ramli Ibrahim, Amy Dangin, Nandini Balakrishnan and Patrick Teoh, just to name a few.


After Kak Mariam saw the video that featured Ramli Ibrahim, she confessed that she shared his wish for our beloved country.


She grew up in a friendly neighbourhood where she learnt to speak Hokkien and English and even a little Tamil, and also went to a Christian School.


It was heartwarming to know that she shared the sentiments of Ramli Ibrahim and Prof Tajuddin and felt so blessed to be a true Malaysian too.


Like Kak Mariam, my siblings and I had a well-rounded upbringing where we learned that there can be unity in spite of our ethnic differences. The friends my siblings and I have now are a clear reflection of the values we were brought up with.


It was not about the colour of skin or the curl of hair but it was simply about the heart. So it was just natural for us to form firm friendships with people of all races and to feel comfortable in different cultural settings.


The global pandemic had somehow proven that we are no different at all because all of us are susceptible to this dreadful virus, and may survive or succumb to it.


Commemorating National Day and Malaysia Day during the pandemic is a ripe time to revive this precious legacy among the present generation by starting with ourselves.


Remember: There is no taboo in visiting temples or other places of worship, in wearing other traditional costumes, speaking a variety of languages and dialects, sitting crossed-legged on the floor, eating cuisine from other ethnic origins, sometimes from banana leaves and comfortably with our fingers.


Let us build relationships with people of different cultures in a more inclusive community and set fine examples for others to emulate. Don’t be surprised to discover that we have much in common with each other in our Malaysian family.

NOTE: This post is dedicated to all our former schoolmates, dear friends who have left us.

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