A warm birthday weekend in cool Seri Menanti

IT is a rare thing for Malaysians to comment about cold weather, but recent conditions of continuous monsoon rains and winds have produced images of tropical scenery blanketed by snow. Kuala Pilah, one of the hottest and driest places in the peninsula, plunged to 21 degrees Celsius.

Rain is often seen as a blessing (or berkat) in Malay culture, and the days leading up to the 70th birthday of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar saw a steady stream of it: from the tahlil and thanksgiving prayers in Seri Menanti on Thursday, through the usual Friday prayers the next day and the selawat, with songs of praise and a lecture that extolled the values of peace through love for the Prophet Muhammad. Concluding the event, the state anthem ‘Berkatlah Yang di-Pertuan Besar’ was accompanied by the pitter-patter of drizzle (or ghobeh).

Precipitation unceasing throughout the night, Saturday morning nonetheless saw a horde of cyclists congregate for the Kembara Mahabbah Seri Menanti: a 20km cycle needling through small kampung roads. Dozens came on vintage bikes and amazingly, some were dressed in period attire such as three-piece suits with bowties, yet devoid of the muddy streaks that afflicted me. The only thing missing was a penny farthing.

Such warmth and good humour characterised the weekend’s festivities. At the presentation of cakes by hotels and state institutions, pastry chefs excelled in portraying themes close to their Ruler’s heart: from representations of the state’s adat through architecture to his interests in music and sport.

On Sunday afternoon – by which time the rain had stopped – the annual sepak takraw tournament saw more teams vying for victory than ever before (a shame the winner was decided based on an opponent’s injury), and on Monday the participants of the fishing competition beamed proudly with their catches. Impressively, the under-12s participating in the Piala Keputeraan Tuanku Muhriz were unfazed by the soggy pitch, pushing their training with 1Malaysia Connecting Communities (1MCC) to the limit as the ball often landed unpredictably: despite that, there were some beautiful goals. Nearby, the digital pitch of an e-sports tournament brought joy to the day’s Fifa 18 champion.

On Saturday evening, the concert by Negeri FM filled the padang to capacity, causing the valley to echo, “This is Pilah: One more time”, when Waris took the stage, while a young Haqiem Rusli was persuaded to sing the classic ‘Apo Nak Dikato?’

Every year, those coming to be a part of the birthday celebrations in the royal seat increase in number and travel from further afield: the festivities are gaining in fame, and it’s wonderful to see the usually quiet town of Seri Menanti burst to life, boosting the local economy and benefiting visiting traders too.

There were, of course, the more sombre but grand ceremonies. Unfortunately, the parade had to be cut short because of the sodden ground, but the artillery fire was entertainment enough for the multitude of schoolchildren.

The investiture ceremony was a special one for me as I was bestowed with the Darjah Seri Setia Tuanku Muhriz Yang Amat Terbilang (SSTM). I was honoured to receive it on the same day that Datuk Seri Dr Ronald McCoy [the gynaecologist and founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize last year] and Datuk Faizah Jamaludin (the award-winning lawyer and now judicial commissioner) received theirs. In total, 36 individuals received awards carrying the title of Datuk, keeping the annual average to well below 40.

The Royal Address noted the initiatives of the state government, and concluded with themes that Tuanku Muhriz often stresses: the importance of harmony in society and the independence of institutions established by law. His Royal Highness highlighted that “the principles of good governance – integrity, public trust, transparency and honesty – are extolled by all religious teachings and cultural traditions” and that “these values form the basis of our Rukun Negara that ought to be championed by all, citizens and leaders alike”.

The Ruler reiterated that those in positions of authority should take action towards defending, protecting and guaranteeing the independence of the national institutions of law, justice and administration. Tuanku Muhriz stressed that this also applies to the process by which the upcoming general election is to be conducted – and some in the Balairong Seri were visibly struck by that comment.

Speaking to some of the well-wishers present, it is clear that it is precisely because of my father’s commitment to the Federal Constitution and the institutions of this country that so many express such warm loyalty and affection.

Happy Birthday Papa!

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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