COMMENT ‘The Patriot Game’ is a personal view of what it means to be a ‘Malaysian patriot’. I wrote it in 2010 and it hit a raw nerve when it was released on the Internet because I received an overwhelming response from Malaysians in many corners of the globe.
It will be interesting to see whether the situation today in Malaysia is any different from what it was six years ago, what with the increasing religious encroachments into our lives, the ever-growing gulf in income inequality and the frustrating impunity of corruption in high places. I also want to find out how the new generation of young Malaysians today responds.
“Come all you young rebels
And list while I sing
For love of one’s country is a terrible thing
It banishes fear with the speed of a flame
And makes us all part of the patriot game...”
These plaintive yet stirring lines from an old Irish republican song also inspired Bob Dylan’s ‘With God on our side’. As we hear of more Malaysians emigrating (one million in 2010) and their reasons for doing so, allow me to write about my own part in the patriot game...
When I was a young rebel in the Seventies, I received the news that my brother-in-law and eldest sister were emigrating to Australia with pious indignation. I felt that despite the injustices, Malaysians should stay and fight for our rights while helping to build the country.
It was easy for me to say as a propertyless and angry young man. But I was unable to honestly feel how my brother-in-law felt as a Professor of Medicine in Universiti Malaya (UM), watching the compromises to academic excellence in the name of bumiputeraism and suffering the indignity of being systematically bypassed in his career advancement?
His warning of the possible de-recognition of UM’s MBBS degree by the British Medical Council was not heeded and this became a reality in the Eighties. The rest is history...
Counting the brain drain
Today, I am not as sanguine as I was in my youth except to feel a deep sadness that talented Malaysians are forced to leave the land where they were born in order to pursue their careers in other countries.
Has the government cared to record how many Malaysian talents have been lost to other countries since 1969 and how much this translates into economic terms?
In my family alone, our country has lost not only a Professor of Radiology (my brother-in-law), but also a Professor of Psychological Medicine (my brother at the National University of Singapore or NUS). His daughter is an accident and emergency (A&E) specialist in Singapore and we have three other psychiatrists abroad (a cousin in Ottawa, my nephew in Newcastle and another cousin in Singapore).
Two other young cousins are doctors in Singapore, while two more nieces have just graduated as doctors from Imperial College. I doubt they will be coming to practice in Malaysia. Our own daughter is now a practicing doctor in Australia.
A colleague of mine in the Eighties had four children who were all accomplished academics at MIT, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge. In the housing estate we live in, practically every household has children studying or working abroad and some of them have truly illustrious careers, all benefiting other countries.
Apart from our medical professionals, many talented professionals in the then-Lembaga Letrk Negara (LLN), Public Works Department (JKR), Malayan Railway (KTM), and the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) have been forced to seek employment overseas ever since the ‘bumiputera policy’ came into being. During my recent speaking tour at Melbourne in 2016, I discovered that there are 80,000 Malaysians in that city alone and these include Malay emigres.
Barry Wain has counted the glaring costs of Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s rule. He puts it at RM100 billion! Maybe someone should count the collateral damage of the bumiputera policy since 1969.
Has any Umno leader expressed regret or remorse over this brain drain? No! These ‘drained brains’ have been greeted with “good riddance!” at Umno general assemblies through the years since the Umnoputras seem to be more concerned about the dubious figures proclaiming a higher proportion of bumiputera representation in the professions.
No doubt the creeping rise in religious bigotry and unjust divisive rulings has sickened many Malaysians and will prompt even more to emigrate.
Our so-called ‘nation builders’ and ‘outside-the-box’ thinkers seem incapable of producing a ‘win-win’ situation that can prevent this brain drain while simultaneously building national unity.
Wasn’t it Robert Frost who said “Originality and initiative are what I ask for my country”?
My first stirrings of patriotism
Patriotism is indeed a ‘terrible’ thing - when the Irish use the adjective ‘terrible’ they mean something equivalent to ‘awesome’ rather than ‘contemptible’.
The pogrom of May 13, 1969 had left a traumatic imprint on me and many other Malaysians who had lived through the post-Independence period. I had just completed my Higher School Certificate (A levels). Soon after, I saved up enough to buy a ticket to London and borrowed a month’s living expenses from my sister.
During those early years of sojourn in London, my first instinctive ‘patriotic’ feelings were kindled whenever I met British people who would ask me where I was from. After I had told them I was from Malaysia, they would invariably add: “I suppose you won’t be going back there no more then...”
Without a moment’s hesitation and recognising the assumption behind that statement, I invariably replied: “Of course I am. I’m certainly going back to my country when I’ve finished my studies!”
I’ve kept true to that undertaking I made to myself even though these British people I met were just strangers in the pub or in the street.
That’s not just patriotism, that’s integrity to myself.
A choice in the Seventies
Then when I was at university in 1975, I suddenly got a letter from the British Home Office asking me to send them my passport since they suspected that my leave of stay in the UK had expired.
Weeks later, I got my passport back with a letter saying: “I am writing to say that the time limit and conditions attached to your leave to enter the United Kingdom have been removed... You are now free to remain permanently in the United Kingdom. You do not require permission from a Government Department to take or change employment in England, Wales or Scotland and you may engage in business or a profession...”
(The Under Secretary of State, March 6, 1975)
Until today, some people I meet in Malaysia still ask if I’ll be emigrating to the UK since my kids are working abroad and I have a British wife. My answer, with my wife’s support, is always: “If I had wanted to emigrate, I would have done so in the Seventies!”
When I finally finished my PhD in the early Eighties, I returned to Malaysia to ‘build my homeland’ with my British wife. I could have stayed and enjoyed a good bourgeois existence in Britain - enjoying the English countryside, good ale and the arts but my social conscience would have got the better of me ere too long...
Back in Malaysia at the end of 1982, apart from working, I wrote profusely in response to many issues confronting our society during that time. It was a period when the press such as The Star were relatively freer and while it was owned by the MCA, we used to joke that it was “edited by the MIC for the DAP”.
It turned out to be a false spring. The Eighties were the heyday of activism in the country which culminated in the ‘Operation Lalang’ crackdown. The BN government showed its appreciation of my nation-building efforts by arresting and detaining me without trial during Operation Lalang in October 1987.
Detention without trial under the Internal Security Act (ISA) is a good test of one’s patriotism. During the first sixty days of solitary confinement when the Special Branch was trying to ‘rehabilitate’ me, I remember they had a three-pronged approach to my rehabilitation programme (sic), viz:
(i) Why don’t you emigrate since you have a British wife rather than “cause trouble” here?
(ii) Why don’t you join the Barisan Nasional instead of always siding with the opposition?
(iii) Why can’t you be like Khoo Khay Kim instead of speaking for those Chinese educationists?
To the first question, I told them I was a Malaysian who had come home to serve the country. To the second, I said it was against my principles to join racist political parties. To the third, I said, “You’ve already got one Khoo Khay Kim, why do you want another one?”
During those weeks of harrowing interrogation, they also wanted to know about my activities when I was in the UK. At one stage, they asked me if I had ever written to the British press.
When I couldn’t recall what they were getting at, they produced a news cutting of an article I had written to The Guardian in the Seventies. It was a critique of a feature in the paper by the famous writer Anthony Burgess in which he had written patronisingly about the old colonial stereotypes of Malaysian society.
“There,” I pointed out, “there you have perfect evidence of my multi-ethnic perspective and my defence of our country, the opposite of what you are making me out to be!”
Of course they knew what I was made of but still, they sent me to Kamunting Rehabilitation Camp on a two-year detention order for being “a threat to national security”.
At Kamunting, the so-called ‘rehab’ programme included a weekly ‘assembly’ during which we were supposed to sing the national anthem as if we were back at school and to make a pledge (Ikrar) of allegiance to the Agong, country and the Rukunegara. Many of us (who were labelled ‘hardcore’) did not participate in this vacuous token of ‘patriotism’.
It brought home the scathing quote by Samuel Johnson that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
The American humourist Kin Hubbard adds: “The less a politician amounts to, the more he loves the flag.”
While in detention, my wife and I made the decision to change our six-year-old son’s British passport to a Malaysian one since otherwise, he would have to leave the country with his mother every few months to have it stamped. When some of my Camp inmates heard about this they exclaimed: “What! You mad ah? As soon as we’re released, we’ll be leaving this country! You crazy lah, giving up his British passport for a Malaysian one!”
Several of these Operation Lalang jailbirds have flown and good luck to them. Patriotism is not something that you can foist on people. People make choices according to what they have experienced, especially in today’s globalised world. They certainly love the country where they were born and grew up but alas, their country does not seem to love them in return, instead incarcerating them and robbing them of their precious freedom.
Would you defend your country with your life?
In recent years, there has been plenty of breast beating among the Umnoputras, with flag waving, keris kissing and singing of patriotic songs. But how many of these Umnoputras can proudly stand up and say that they patriotically took part in the liberation war against the British colonialists and the Japanese fascists?
Yet, how many Malayan patriots have given their lives in these two campaigns? Have they ever been honoured by the country they defended?
They were honoured by the Allies for their valour during the anti-Japanese resistance after the Second World War in London. Have our historians exposed those who collaborated with the Japanese fascists during the Second World War - the “quislings who sold out the patriot game”?
At least one man, Chin Peng, can claim that he achieved this and before he died, he merely wanted the opportunity to visit his homeland that he had defended against British colonialism and Japanese fascism but he was unable to do this! If he were an Irish republican, Chin Peng might have been inspired to sing this other republican song I have adapted:
Show me the man
“Where is the man who does not love
The land where he was born
Who does not speak of it with pride
No matter how forlorn
I only know that I love mine
And long again to see
Oppression banished from our land
And (Malaysia) truly free...
Let friends all turn against me
Let foes say what they will
For my heart is in my country
And I love our people still
There is not a (Malaysian) today
Who’d ever wish to roam
Into a foreign land to toil
If he could stay at home
So give to us our liberty
Let our banners be unfurled
Then (Malaysians) will prove to be
A credit to the world!”
DR KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.