Wherever they are or how long they have been away, home is close to Malaysians’ hearts. This Merdeka, they reflect on what Malaysia means to them. Read their stories on Star2.com.


For my Sambal On The Side column due on or around Aug 31, I’d write something to commemorate Malaysia’s Independence Day: Either a wistful ode or a barb-laced piece, depending on what made headlines in the tanahair that given year. This time however, I’ve decided to focus on the word merdeka itself, and what it now means to me as a Malaysian abroad.

A quick Wikipedia check of merdeka’s meaning and origin yielded an insightful find: “Merdeka is a word in the Indonesian and Malay language meaning independent or free”. It is derived from the Sanskrit word, maharddhika, which means “rich, prosperous and powerful”.

My first thought was, “How serendipitous!” After all, some insular purists back home have spent an inordinate amount of time debating semantics and word ownership. This word and its origins kind of fly in the face of folks hell-bent on ripping the multi-cultural tapestry that is Malaysia.

When I left Malaysia in 2004, my dependence on a lifestyle that I was all too familiar with – and often took for granted – became uncomfortably obvious.

Be it the climate, the convenience of 24-hour clinics, cobblers who could fix a kaput heel in 10 minutes to striking up conversations with strangers, attending open houses or having a banana leaf meal with a group of friends who neither look like me nor speak my mother tongue. The wind in the angsana trees, the song of the cicadas, the crashing of waves, conversations at a wet market.

These are things so uniquely Malaysian, and can’t be replicated outside of Malaysia. They matter when you’ve been uprooted to an environment devoid of all that I now consider my creature comforts.

But it has made me more independent, pushed me out of my comfort zone, helped me discover and appreciate alternatives and even unearthed hidden potential.

As a food-loving, craving Malaysian, I was driven to finally learn how to cook from scratch some of the food I sorely miss. And I work to the sounds of the rainforest, courtesy of Spotify.

Yet, my departure liberated me from certain systems back home, such as when the odds of me being placed at an educational institution or netting certain jobs were stacked against me for simply being me: a Malaysian albeit, not the right type.

The irony, however, is that these very systems have unwittingly armed “not-the-right-type Malaysians” with steely determination and the street smarts to hack it elsewhere.

It is also liberating to voice my views without fear of censure. But I do credit our upbringing of “saving face” in enabling me to express divergent views in a less coarse manner than others. You can disagree but why diss, right?

Our uniqueness as a melting pot has also equipped us with the ability to adapt to or assimilate in any culture.

I’ve met Malaysians in unlikely places. “I’m from Perak, where you from?” “Wah, you Indian ah? I thought you African!” “How long you been here already?” “Me, ah? 16 years already, woh.” “Masih boleh cakap Melayu, kah?

I now appreciate the wisdom of making it mandatory for us to learn a common national language. It has given us the unique privilege of being either bi- or tri-lingual from childhood, strengthening and “loosening” our tongues, thus easing our learning of foreign languages.

I am also thankful that our colonial past ensured that some of us have a firm grasp of English that has others in thrall of our multilingual capacities. It makes us highly employable elsewhere.

Having lived 12 years away from the tanah-air has also changed my definition of who is a “Malaysian.” A Malaysian isn’t just someone who holds the passport or lives within the country’s perimeters as shown on a globe.

We are Malaysians by virtue of our affability, our respect for and acceptance of what bigots define as “others” and “otherness”, our generosity, our respect for true rule of law, and yes, our utter unwillingness to watch the only place we call home, go to the dogs.

Being outside and looking in, I can only repeat that Malaysia and her people could actually set the benchmark for globalised living and peaceful co-existence.

We only need to free ourselves from insular thinking, narrow judgment, and blind faith. And only then, will merdeka ring true.

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