I love maps - old and new, world maps, regional maps, atlases, topographic maps, town maps and even transport maps. Perusing them is an adventure, moving your fingers along the rivers, the hills and the various landscapes. I drew my first map or rather a plan of my school during my primary school years. It meant having to look at the world from above, like a bird on the wing, and not like an earthbound two-legged creature. It's a fascinating mental exercise for a child to visualize your surroundings from a totally different perspective, like a lizard on a ceiling. That was what I used to tell my students who had no interest in maps. So I remained forever and ever a map geek!
I have these two old books (what's new?). One is a Regional Geography of Malaya by C. Richardson (1933). The other is The Story of Malaya by W.S. Morgan (1956, 5th Impression). They are much treasured for their lovely maps.
Firstly, the map of the Malay Archipelago showing "The Area of the Malay Races".
On this map, the Malay Peninsula juts out from the mainland of Asia into the South China Sea and forms the northern border of the Archipelago which then stretches as far south as Australia and the South Pacific Islands. This Peninsula, once called The Golden Chersonese is physically linked to Asia yet historically and culturally it is connected to all the islands ranging from the larger ones like Borneo and Sumatra to the myriad of many other medium-size and smaller islands.
The next map informs us that the Malays prefer to set up their settlements, which later developed into states and empire, along the river banks and estuaries, typical of a seafaring people.
The most well-known was of course Malacca, an empire based on commerce with countries as far away as China and India. This map illustrates the relationship between Malacca and China which went as far back as the 15th century or even further.
Island hopping has always been a trait of the Malays of the Archipelago. Prior to western Imperialism or Hindu colonization, this part of the world which the former named South East Asia or the East Indies but never The Malay Archipelago - the Malays have had free passage criss-crossing this region in their sampans, koleks, prahus, catamarans (albeit a simple earlier prototype) and big boats wandering from coast to coast for trade and settlement - with some looting and pillaging thrown in. This is no different from our present day Nick Leeson crooks and carpet-baggers.
These Malay mariners set up roots wherever they liked. There was no need for immigration forms and passports. They blended in with whoever were there first and assimilation was not an issue because of a common language, Malay or a dialect close to it - and their physical similarities and later their religion made the integration easier.
I like to think that someone like me, born in the Malay Peninsula, grew up to adulthood on the island at the southern tip of Malaya and connected on my mother's side to the tiny island of Bawean and a Chinese immigrant grandmother (she was an abandoned baby adopted by a Bawean family) - and on my father's side to the Minangkabau people of Sumatra and a grandfather of Kuala Selangor Malay stock with a tinge of aboriginal blood I was told - should be able to move and settle anywhere she wanted to in the Malay Archipelago.
I grew up knowing that I belong to both island and peninsula, but identity cards and passport and politics got in the way. It was a dilemma for me to sort out what documents to hold. How can a piece of paper with your photograph and personal details written on it describe what and who you are?
After graduating in 1967, my father advised me to go back to Selangor - he could see the writing on the wall about the future of Malays in a Singapore which had a large Chinese majority. I was stubborn and also resentful that I had to make a choice because I believed I belonged to both geographical entities of island and peninsula. Why should I have to choose one or the other?
After 11 years of teaching, I left my island in 1978 when I finally realised that I had hit a glass ceiling where my career and future were concerned. A true friend of mine, a Chinese girl I shall just name as SLL, with whom I shared good times and bad times as impoverished students in London, was honest enough to say to me, "Maz, as a Malay graduate you have no future in Singapore, it's much easier if you're just a factory worker. If I were you, I would go to Malaysia."
Instead I left for Brunei where for 6 years I worked hard for my and my family's rice bowl. I knew I was a foreigner in this sultanate, just a temporary sojourner. But they rewarded me well for my services as a teacher just like any of the other expatriates and locals of similar qualifications - no favouritism, no discrimination- it was all very business-like. And I gave to my teacher-trainees the best that I could offer so that they would be able to stand on their own and not depend on expatriates like me.
I eventually settled down in UK where I lived for over 25 years - still with my island passport. There was no urgency or desire to become a British national. I cannot bear to cut off the umbilical cord with the Archipelago.
Age and the loss of loved ones do odd things to you. Like the salmon that swims upriver to where it was born, I returned to Selangor where my grandfather and father were born. And it was quite a swim for a Pisces like me.
On Friday the 25th of September 2009 I was given my Malaysian Identity Card and on the 29th I was granted my International Passport - both received with pride. At my age I am aware I have very little to contribute to my birthplace but I also know I will not be a burden or an opportunist. I could have opted for the Make Malaysia My Second Home scheme but I did not take it up. It was not because of insufficient resources. This peninsula is my home and I wanted no other way but to become a citizen. It was worth the waiting.
However, Kampung Chantek (off Dunearn Road), Pasir Panjang, West Coast Road,
Royal Road and Boon Lay in Singapore still belong to me - the repository of my history and heritage and no Immigration Authority can take that away from me.
And so Abah, I have come home like you asked me to, many years ago, to -
Malaya, oh tanah ayer ku.
Tanah tempat tumpah darah ku.