HE says he believes in 1Malaysia because he has really lived through it. A politician for 18 out of his 42 years, Datuk Dr Wee Ka Siong is currently MCA Youth chief and deputy education minister. He is also now the Member of Parliament for Ayer Hitam in Johor, but he still has fond memories of his kampung boy lifestyle in Malacca.
In a 19 July 2010 interview at KL Hilton between functions, Wee, who is known for his strong command of Bahasa Malaysia, English and Mandarin, tells The Nut Graph how his childhood and family have shaped his identity and views of Malaysia.
TNG: Where and when were you born?
Wee Ka Siong: I was born in Malacca [in 1968], in a small town called Jasin. We lived in Kampung Air Baruk, which is a Malay village, and where you had only five Chinese families.
I spent 18 years in Jasin, in that kampung house which was in front of a padi field. My childhood friends were Malay [Malaysians] and we used to play all sorts of games like “teng teng”. We also played badminton a lot, using wooden racquets. I was just a little kampung boy.
Can you trace your family tree?
My paternal grandfather came to Malaya at the age of 20 and I am a second-generation Malaysian. I have not been to China or my grandfather’s hometown, a city called Lu Feng in the Guang Dong province.
My grandfather started with a small sundry shop in the kampung, maintaining good relationships and a brotherhood with the neighbours who were mostly Malay. Because of that, my family was given the opportunity and privilege of renting on Malay reserve land for 40 years, at just RM5 a month. My grandfather was asked by the neighbours to stay and build a house there to ensure the sundry shop would remain; it gave them credit.
I still remember those 555 notebooks and I would take down credit records on them as a boy. My grandfather used to help the villagers, and so we always had good relationships with them.
My mother’s side is even more colourful. She was given to another family when she was just 40 days old, as she had too many sisters and there was gender discrimination at the time. My mother went to school for only seven months and she was a top student in Malacca. But she had to stop and look after the family when her sister-in-law developed a mental illness.
She would go around neighbours’ homes, charging five or 10 sen to deliver clean water in bamboo buckets. She is an iron lady, and also worked in the estate as a rubber tapper. She is a first-class Tamil speaker, and is also fluent in Telegu and Malayalam because she grew up in the Bukit Asahan estate, which was predominantly an Indian area.
What are some of the memories or stories from your childhood that have stuck with you and why?
When I was a boy, my father used to fetch me from school using a motorbike and take me to his friend’s house. This friend was a blind man named Pak Cik Hussein. He was poor, and only made about RM1.50 a day making bamboo weaves and baskets.
My dad would spend about one and a half hours chatting with Pak Cik Hussein, and every time he went, he would bring some 30 sen bread or 50 sen kaya to the house. Sometimes my father would also go to the market to buy ikan kembong for his family. I remember when Pak Cik Hussein got married to another blind lady. We were all so happy, and it was as if our own family member was getting married.
It is a fond memory, that wedding day. In 1988 when I was studying in UTM (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia), I received a call from my family to say that my father got into an accident while travelling to meet Pak Cik Hussein. He was in a coma for a while, but thankfully came out of it and recovered. I feel he was blessed.
Why is that memory so significant to you?
Well, because there are still so many poor people out there who deserve help from others. At that time, my dad was just a smallholder, as my grandfather had some rubber estate. We were not rich, just a bit better off than others.
But when you have RM10 or RM20, you think about how RM1 or RM2 could really help out someone and [their] whole family. The self-satisfaction is something you cannot really describe in words. My grandfather used to remind us that we were on Malay reserve land for RM5, but that we could not just give RM5. He used to tell us, even after we shifted from there, that during Hari Raya we had to make sure we bought beef or mutton for the landlord. We did that for 40 years and were thankful.
The villagers also relied on us as well. So there is that interdependence that is meaningful to me. I think it is because of my grandfather that my father did the kind things he did. A few years back, my father and I went back to see Pak Cik Hussein’s family, and I was happy that the children are all now going to university and working. I am not saying they are well-to-do, but when you see that they are better off, you feel such joy because they went through such hardship.
How has all this formed or shaped your identity as a Malaysian?
From day one I was in this multilingual environment. I was so impressed when my mother could speak Tamil with her Indian friends. I helped my parents when I was seven, rubber tapping in the estate. It was very difficult work.
Every time when it started to rain, you would hear people shout “Thamby, malawara!” That was the signal that it was going to rain, and to please run and collect the latex. From the estate we would ride the bicycle through the Malay kampung, where we had friends asking me, “Hey small boy, want to eat langsat or rambutan?” So I had a chance to mix around with all these friends as a kampung boy.
We played together at a young age and didn’t know any barriers. We learnt each other’s languages and it was all so natural. I have seen the hardships that the Chinese, Malays and Indians go through. And we would play football together as a team, where we always wanted the Indians to be strikers because they had strong legs and our Malay friends as the goalie because they were great at that.
I would grow up feeling that this was a true reflection of 1Malaysia, and the team spirit really made us feel that this was our kampung.
With such a multiracial past and such happy memories, are you disappointed now with the situation in schools?
My secondary school classmates are still all my buddies and I consider them my brothers and sisters till now. They are from all races and we are still close. We had multiracial study groups and knew each other’s families. But now, you seldom see this around. Even in secondary school, which is the perfect platform to mix around. I think we are losing this. The games are all now mono-ethnic as well. I used to play (sepak) takraw, and we would all play ping pong and badminton. But gone are the days.
You are now in the Education Ministry, so you see this happening. What is being done [about it]?
We are trying our best to bring this mix back. When we organised sports days back in those days, as a scout leader I used to have members from all races helping to sell ice-cream in school. We collected money to save for our camping and other projects.
All of us learnt how to do business together. Now there is no more of this. So I used this as an example when I went back to my alma mater and spoke to the principal there. I told him that when I was a troupe leader, it was a really proud thing for me to know that more than 520 students out of the school’s 800 students were scouts.
Can you imagine [more than] 60% of the school population joining the same association, camping and cooking together? This is missing now. Unfortunately, now I think the kids are too pampered.
What, then, gives you hope in our Malaysia? What needs to be done?
We have to revive the spirit of oneness. When we go through hardships together, we can learn and design for the future. I think unity in diversity and inclusiveness are important in the 1Malaysia concept. “One” is not assimilation. That is not the true spirit of 1Malaysia.
When we played football or games back then, we would all automatically stop at 7pm because it was time for maghrib. From day one, we all knew that. Through activities like camping, we also learnt how to protect our juniors, and we had that sense of belonging as well.
Now, if you stay in Damansara, it is known that there are many Chinese [Malaysians] there, and in Shah Alam, there are many Malay [Malaysians]. Can we get a good mix? I think about the socialisation process, and I don’t believe that you can foster good relationships by just visiting each other here and there. I think it is cultivating that mind for oneness and the dedication to work together. It is not about tolerating anymore, and I think it is high time we elevate that into mutual understanding, respect and the appreciation of other people’s culture.
It must be that we think: “Put myself in their shoes, what would I think?” That is the highest level of appreciation. Malaysia is very rojak and ABC (ais batu campur), and despite all its problems, this great diversity gives me a lot of hope.
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