IN two weeks, we will celebrate Independence Day.
Three years from now, our nation will be 50; and in 2057, long after many of us are gone, our Malaysia will be 100.
Will this nation of ours live on long after we are dead and buried beneath its soil? Will our children and grandchildren be holding miniature Jalur Gemilang, side by side with their friends from other racial and religious groups, proudly declaring to the world that their Malaysia is 100 years old? Will our country still be peaceful? Will we still be prosperous and progressive? Will race and religious chauvinists by then have disappeared? Will we still be able to appreciate each other's religions and cultures? Thirty-five years ago, our elders were very pessimistic.
In the aftermath of May 13, 1969, suspicions between the country's two main racial groups, the Chinese and the Malays, were at an all-time high.
But even then, except for the urban centres of Penang and Kuala Lumpur, the rest of the country was almost unaffected. In States like Johor, Kelantan, Terengganu, Sabah, Sarawak, Kedah, there were hardly any such incidents.
Even in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, there were many heart-warming cases of Malay families protecting Chinese families and Chinese families protecting Malays from roving bands of crazed, irrational mobs.
In those worst of times, we saw the best in our people, proving that the majority really wanted to live in peace, were not bigoted nor intolerant.
In 1987, two friends of mine, Zulkifli Talib and Joseph Chin, and I, borrowed a four-wheel drive and travelled the back roads of the peninsula, spending two weeks in the cheapest places we could find, to see the rural heartland.
In Penang, we put up with our Chinese friends, sleeping on thin mengkuang carpets in the hall after spending hours talking about little nothings. We ate nasi kandar at Chowrasta Market, apom at Craven A which is situated at the beginning of Dato Keramat Road and Macalister Road, and had coffee at the all-night Chinese coffeeshop in Island Glades.
The next day, we drove up to Perlis, stopping in Gurun long before the highway that runs through it today was built. An old pak cik, close to 70, we thought, who was at a stall selling coconut water, struck up a conversation with us.
He was a real gentleman with the old world charm that we hardly see in the cities. Curious, almost like a child, he could not understand why three 20-something-year-olds would take two weeks off work and spend their time and money visiting the boondocks.
To us, he was essentially the man of the country, a man who worked the padi fields, a religious man who prayed regularly, was generally happy at the way life had turned out and was now waiting for the call to meet his Maker. He was dressed traditionally, baju Melayu, sarong pelikat, a kopiah (skull cap) and the cheap but functional Fung Keong shoes.
We knew he did not have much money but he certainly had a heart of gold. When I decided to pay for our drinks, including his, some unseen signal was exchanged between the old pak cik and the stall operator.
"No, it's already paid," the young man said, nodding towards the old man.
Despite being poorly paid journalists, the three of us, penny-pinching to make sure our money lasted, knew that the RM3 the old man paid meant more to him than it did to us. But he probably felt that we needed the money more and thinking of his kindness as we drove away brought a little tear to the eye.
After visiting the lovely Bukit Wang forest reserve in Jitra and whizzing through little Perlis' Arau and Kangar, we spent the night in a cheap hotel near the bus stand in Sungai Patani. At 3am, in our RM15, three-bed room with stained bedsheets and pungent smells from the attached bathroom, a luxury we did not expect, running feet and shouting awakened us.
The police were raiding the place for gamblers and prostitutes.
One Chinese, one Indian and one Malay constable — it's true — knocked on our room and asked what we were doing in such a dump. When we told them of our round-the-country adventure, they laughed, saying we should have stayed at the Rest House.
We did not say it would have been too expensive for us and they kindly advised us to be more careful about the place we chose to stay on our journey.
It was the same wherever we went: Baling, Kroh, Grik, Gua Musang, Jeli, Kota Baru, Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan, Mersing, Kluang, Johor Baru, Muar and finally back to Kuala Lumpur.
We saw many beautiful places and Malaysians like the old pak cik and the ageing Ah Pek who owned a small coffeeshop in Kuantan which served the best roti bakar we ever tasted.
One place that has remained in our memories is a small town called Kemasik, just after Dungun.
Passing by in the evening, with the sun going down over the horizon, we saw a little bay that looked so peaceful and calm and inviting that we did not hesitate to bathe in the beautiful, blue sea.
There were some young boys from the kampung, playing the flute and guitar and using the back of an upturned sampan as a drum, singing haunting tunes from P. Ramlee's Anakku Sazali and Getaran Jiwa.
They looked at us amused, that three men, pushing 30, could find so much fun in the water. We looked at them in envy, that they were so content and that they could sing so well. It was a magical setting as dusk drew near and the boys packed up and left, just as the lingering strains of the azan, calling the faithful to maghrib prayers, strained across the sea from the little mosque a little distance away.
It was a beautiful trip for all of us and when we meet, so rarely these days, we still speak of the wonderful time we had, meeting so many good people and seeing so many things that make our country tick that we normally would not see.
The only unsettling part of the trip was Zul's snoring. At night, when we most needed rest, his running sawmill snores kept us awake so much that on the final leg, Joe and I contemplated putting him out of his misery. We compromised and put him in one far-flung corner of the huge room in the Johor Baru Rest House while we pushed our beds to another corner.
Joe nicknamed him "The Bison", a name we still use fondly when referring to him.
At the end of the trip, we realised how great our country was and how good our people are. The pride we had in being Malaysian, in being part of a large family of Malaysians, has stayed with us ever since. We never found time to make another such trip, even though we promised we would.
Since then, with other friends like Joniston Bangkuai, Mervin Nambiar, Steve Duthie, Leslie Lopez, Lai Kwok Kin and Sobrey Jaafar, I have travelled the length and breadth of Sabah and Sarawak.
From Kota Kinabalu to Tambunan to Keningau, Tenom, Kundasang, Lahad Datu, Tamparuli, Kota Belud, Kuala Penyu and Beaufort; from Kuching to Bau and the beautiful seaside village of Lundu; and from Miri to Matu Daro.
If anything, the rich cultural diversity, the beauty of the different cultures, the picture-postcard scenery has only strengthened our belief that Malaysia is wonderful and its people marvellous.
We still have our share of zealots, chauvinists, insufferable and intolerant Malaysians. We still have that culture where people of one racial group stick to their own. But that is what we see in our cities. We do not see that in Sabah or Sarawak; we certainly see little of that in the smaller towns and the rural heartland in the peninsula.
Every year, my wife and I, like thousands of other Malaysians, proudly fly the Jalur Gemilang in our house at about this time of the year. The past few years, it is the children who, come August, remind us to get the flag out of the storeroom or buy new ones, to put upon the bamboo pole and raise it above the porch.
Every year, there are many Malaysians who get together and usher in Merdeka at the stroke of midnight with their friends, neighbours and relatives.
We have come a long way from Aug 31, 1957. That we still debate what a Bangsa Malaysia means, that we still question narrow race and religious issues, that we still shy away in raising issues publicly which can hurt each other's feelings is a sign that we constantly want to make our country a much better place to live in.
So, will the Malaysia most of us know be there for our future generations? By God's grace, and if our people's will prevails, Malaysia will be a greater country. Selamat Menyambut Hari Merdeka.
Kalimullah Hassan was appointed Group Editor-in-Chief of The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad on 1 January 2004.
Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"