Tash AW ... Duty and Dreams
By Tash AW
Here’s a parting thought: for those of us privileged to have grown up in this blessed land, isn’t it time we gave something back?
BOTH MY GRANDPARENTS lived on the banks of great muddy rivers. One lived in Kelantan, the other in Perak; both came from families that had fled nationalist China and settled by chance in small towns deep in the countryside, where they dreamt of a future free of the war and famine that had plagued their ancestors.
Pursuing the dreams of their generation, my parents escaped to KL as soon as they could. They wanted better jobs than Kuala Krai or Parit could offer and, above all, they wanted to raise their children in a modern house with modern amenities—running water, refrigerators, television sets. And so I grew up in a comfortable suburb, in an area where PJ merged into KL: leafy, quiet, innocent.
During school holidays, when many of my schoolmates were whisked away on glamorous shopping holidays to Singapore, my family would drive outstation to visit our relatives.
We did the balik kampung thing quite a lot in those days—much more than other city dwellers seemed to, at any rate. Although my parents never articulated it, they wanted us to be in touch with where we had come from, to remember that life in rural Malaysia was far harsher than our cosy suburban existence.
I can’t say I loved those long trips to stay with my relatives. My relatives spoke Kelantanese or Hainanese or Hokkien, all of which I only have a rudimentary grasp.
But the principal reason for my discomfort was that it was obvious that I was blessed in ways that my cousins weren’t. Fate had conspired to give me things in life that even members of my own extended family would never enjoy. Education, clothing, food—things that my friends and I took for granted as facts of KL life were luxuries in many other parts of the country.
Every time I stayed with my relatives I felt over privileged, and that is not a pleasant sensation. For great privilege brings with it great responsibility, and at the age of nine or 10, I didn’t wish to think about responsibility.
Yet in adult life I feel a greater resonance with rural Malaysia than I do with KL, where I went to school and did all my growing up. I am not entirely sure why this is so. I am not given to nostalgia and do not sit around wistfully recalling idyllic days on the riverbank catching fish with my cousins à la Lat (if anything, I remember the details of country life with mild terror—the rats and snakes enjoyed human dwelling places rather too much for my liking).
The only reason I can think of for my attachment to rural Malaysia is precisely because it is linked, in my mind at least, to the ideas of responsibility and destiny: how chance, privilege and duty are inextricably linked.
It was during those times in the countryside, shying from outdoor squat toilets and unable to sleep at night because there were no fans, never mind aircon, that I was first forced to think about what it meant to be part of a rich and complex Malaysian society.
Although I speak principally for and to the people of my generation and background, what I am about to say applies equally, I think, to everyone connected to Malaysia. My friends and I—all the people with whom I went to school, cycled around Bangsar, attended embarrassing teenage discos—are now in our mid to late thirties. We were the first generation of Malaysians who grew up in a state of peace, and for whom higher education was a given: a huge number of us had the added luxury of being educated abroad.
I look at the names of my email contact list and see people who now occupy lofty positions in investment banks and accounting firms in KL and elsewhere. And yet, in those moments of quiet and solitude, just before we turn our lights out at night, we might ask ourselves one question: what exactly have we achieved in our lives—for ourselves and for Malaysia?
Material success, certainly—there’s no denying that the standard of living in Malaysia has increased exponentially just in the last 20 years. But are we any richer as human beings? Do we read more? Watch more good films? Go to the theatre more? And crucially, can we, despite the good fortune that has favoured us, look at every single person in Malaysia and say that they have all benefited from the good fortune that fate has decided to bestow on us, the favoured few?
Merdeka Day is as good a time as any for us all to think about what we do with our lives—about how we exercise our privileges, and whether we do enough to improve the fundamental condition of our own lives as well as the lives of those who do not enjoy the same advantages as we do. We live in a country that is blessed in many ways, and it is incumbent on us to remember that good fortune cannot be divorced from responsibility.
I don’t mean to sound like a Hollywood actress talking about starving children in Africa, nor do I intend on embarking on a long political discourse, which would, in any case, be beyond the confines of this essay.
What I am asking of everyone who reads this is in fact much more difficult than merely dipping into their pockets to give a few spare ringgit to needy causes, for it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the future success of Malaysian society depends on the people of my generation (and younger) having a vision that is as idealistic and energetic as that of our parents and grandparents.
Happy Merdeka Day!
TASH AW’s first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book. His second novel, Map of the Invisible World, was published in June 2009.
Reproduced from the Merdeka issue of The Star of August 31, 2009