The 25-year-old recording artiste, whose first solo album Finding My Way was released in April 2008, writes in her Facebook profile on 11 Sept 2009: “[…As] my awareness and understanding of the East Malaysian plight deepens, I have become increasingly disturbed and frustrated with the way things are and seem to be adamant on continuing to be.”
Recounting the contract signed between Sabah, Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore on 16 Sept 1963, and the subsequent withdrawal of the island republic, she says: “When four people decide to gather their assets and set up a company, they sign a contract, which states that they each own four equal parts of the company. When one of them decides to leave, naturally, the previous contract has to be revised and rewritten.
“Apparently it wasn’t so natural at all to request this … [T]oday, 46 years later, my nation that signed a contract with three others to become a fourth of a country has been reduced to a 13th.
“… As long as Sabah is treated like 1/13th instead of 1/3rd, as long as Malaysia Day is treated as a state holiday instead of a national celebration, we cannot become the united nation that was envisioned in the original plan,” she concludes.
The Nut Graph interviewed Kuala Lumpur-based Mia via e-mail on 11 Sept 2009 to learn more about her family and growing-up years in the East.
TNG: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Mia Palencia: I was born in Kota Kinabalu (KK). In the beginning, we moved around the state a lot. I think we finally settled in KK again when I was four or five. I spent the rest of my childhood there and moved to Kuala Lumpur when I was 17.
Can you trace your ancestry?
Back in the days when foreigners were being sent to Sabah as soldiers or managers, they sometimes took local wives. I believe I am a product of that generation.
My paternal great grandfather was a Belgian soldier who married a local woman. They had two children before he was called back to his own country. He later returned to find that she had remarried a local. Heartbroken, he took his son back to Belgium and left his daughter with her. That daughter was my grandmother, Lydia Brabon.
She married a Filipino man named Thomas Palencia and had nine children, the youngest of whom is my father. She named my father Brabon, and so my father, Brabon Palencia, is the marriage of both surnames.
My maternal great grandfather was Australian, believed to be of German ancestry. He was sent to Sabah to manage a plantation, and took a local wife even though he was already married with children in Australia. He sent their children to a convent to be brought up estranged from their Sabahan mother and her family. He died of malaria in Sabah and was buried there.
My grandfather, Henry Brand, was a very tall Eurasian man. He later fell in love with a lady of Filipino and Spanish descent named Juanita Villa Lobos, and they also had nine children, the youngest of whom is my mother, Jennifer Brand.
What is your strongest memory of the place where you grew up?
I grew up in a house called Rumah Putih. It was a modest home with generous grounds; plenty of room for children to amuse themselves outdoors. My strongest memories are of our very elaborate Christmas parties! My parents spent weeks in advance preparing for Christmas. They would hand-make beautiful large star-shaped lights that hung outside on the porch.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your family?
I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandfather when I was growing up. He had a farm and orchards before he came to live with us. I distinctively remember him having wounds on his legs that he bathed and dressed every day.
Later on I found out that my grandfather had been a Japanese prisoner of war. He was captured and tortured for many weeks, leaving my grandmother to fend for herself and her many children. Luckily, the Japanese Occupation was drawing to an end, and my grandfather was able to escape. But because he was diabetic, his wounds never healed.
He was an incredible man, and played a huge part in my eventual gravitation towards singing.
How do you connect with these stories as a Malaysian?
Having grandparents who struggled to survive through the war has given me a greater sense of the age (or rather, youth) of our country. I feel that the young people of my generation take our independence and freedom for granted, and why not? They were born into a free and self-governed country. I think the weight of the fact that just two generations ago we were fighting to be our own people is often dismissed.
Malaysia is a young country. We’re still working out our kinks, but we worked really hard to be where we are today.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
The fact that I am Sabahan means that I didn’t grow up in a Malay/Chinese/Indian [Malaysian] setting. We were oblivious to these things as children, and largely unaware of the history and growth of West Malaysia.
Growing up in an atmosphere where people in Sabah were very much just happy to be Sabahan, we had our own struggles with governance, and West Malaysia was, to a Sabahan child, a faraway place that we only visited once in a while.
When I first moved to KL, it was as if I had moved to an altogether different country! I had a lot to learn about the loves and hates of West Malaysian society, and to somehow find my place in the midst of it.
While I have come to love (and sometimes hate) KL, I think I will always be a visitor to a certain degree. It is hard working out what it means to be a Malaysian in Malaysia, when in reality we are all unique and as different as [the] sun and [the] moon. East and West Malaysia are the same country, but they are not the same place.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and for future generations.
I once had some Australian friends who came to stay with me for awhile. They kept calling people here Malays, much in the way that they would call their fellow people Australian. It took a lot of explaining before they realised that Malays and Malaysians were not the same thing. I had never really thought about it until their visit!
I’m sure this is still pretty far off, but I would like to see a Malaysia where everyone is just Malaysian.
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