Malaysiakini Letter

Are many of my friends Indian?

YS Chan  |  Published:

LETTER | Although my parents were Chinese school teachers, I was sent to study in an English school and the nearest was Simpang Lima Primary School in Klang. Like most of my schoolmates, we played with each other without a care in the world.

Thinking back, I now realise that the mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian students was quite balanced in my school. Until today, I do not look at people through the lens of appearance or religion. What I remember fondly about my primary school was the nasi lemak I had.

The sambal prepared by the Chinese tuck shop operator was mouth-watering. A Malay classmate often brought nasi lemak packed in banana leaves for sale and a few of us would buy and eat them sitting on the five-foot way of a wooden building housing the dental clinic within the school compound.

Later, I enrolled myself at the La Salle Secondary School just in front of Simpang Lima. Although I was living in the Pandamaran Chinese New Village, I was mixing with my classmates who were mostly Indian and Catholic.

After finishing Form 5, I took up a correspondence course on automobile engineering and moved to Senai where my uncle operated a motor vehicle workshop. A Malay man I spoke to in English asked me why I was speaking like an Indian. I did not realise it until then.

During my secondary school days, I cycled every day and often went to the homes of my friends. Deepavali was especially a delight, as visits included friends of friends and mutton curry was usually served, and it was heavenly.

Compared to soft drinks and cookies dished out during Chinese New Year, Indian families laid out a feast as they were truly generous and gracious, more so when many people were poor in the 1960s. While many Chinese were put off by the strong mutton smell, I learned to enjoy it.

Many Malaysians may not know that the Pongal festival and Thaipusam, a public holiday on January 21 in five states and Federal Territory, are not celebrated by all Indians. And some Indians themselves are not always aware of their ethnicity and language.

To me, Indian is more of a nationality like American, British or Australian, and these three countries are much more multiracial than Malaysia. While conducting training, many participants, including Indians, were shocked when I proclaimed that nobody speaks Indian.

Mandarin is the most spoken language in the world, but many Malaysian Chinese also speak Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Hainanese, Foochow and other dialects. What they have in common is the Chinese handwriting in the form of characters.

But when it comes to Indians, there are hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects. Until India became independent in 1947, the British were also in control of West Pakistan, East Pakistan (later became Bangladesh), Nepal, Bhutan, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Burma (now Myanmar).

Most Malaysian Indians are from South India originating from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Sri Lanka and a sizeable Sikh community from Punjab. Hindi is the most spoken language in India followed by English, Bengali, Marathi, Telegu and Tamil, with Malayalam and Punjabi among the top 12.

In recent years, I asked some of my friends of their ethnicity as I was fascinated with their roots and they should be proud of their ancestors for being successful in continuing the lineage. On the other hand, it is hollow pride for people who are proud of their race but ignorant of their ancestors.

Many of my friends replied they are Indian because they were told they are and as stated in their identity card. Although many Indians and Chinese no longer speak their dialects or mother tongue, their ethnicity has a bearing on who they are.

After all, we are a product of our environment and experience. A Malaysian child that grew up in the United States would be speaking, thinking and acting like a typical American, regardless of his or her race or religion.

But the coming generations would be standardised by machines and interacting less with fellow human beings, including family members. Pacifiers, made of rubber or plastic for a baby to suck on, have been replaced by smartphones or mini-video players.

As for the Thaipongal harvest festival, it is celebrated mainly by Tamils that originated from Tamil Nadu. Over there, Pongal is celebrated even more grandly then Deepavali, as the first rice harvested is boiled in clay pots with sugar, milk and spices, giving thanks to the sun god.

As for Thaipusam, it is another grand festival in the Hindu month of Thai and is more widely celebrated in Malaysia than by Tamils in other countries. A large number of devotees would throng major Hindu temples nationwide, with over a million congregating at Batu Caves just outside Kuala Lumpur.

But many of my Indian friends are also Christians who celebrate Christmas and Good Friday and are also Muslims who celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri and Hari Raya Haji. As for Malaysian Chinese, those who are not Christians and Muslims are labelled as Buddhists.

Even Chinese who replied they are Buddhists may not have stepped into a Buddhist temple, as most Chinese temples are Taoist. Temples celebrate festivals according to their main deity. In traditional Chinese homes, ancestral worship is practised and is part of Confucianism, which is more of ethics than religion but frowned upon by Chinese Christians or Muslims.

Although many Malaysians are ignorant of other races including their own, I am more comfortable with my fellow citizens than say Chinese from China. A section of Malaysians may be noisier than others but could lose out to China nationals with thundering voices.

We may speak in Malay, English, other languages or dialects, but we are accustomed to each other’s mannerisms and have been living harmoniously for a very long time in Malaysia, a place we call home. We should never allow selfish politicians to take us apart.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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