Tuesday, September 17

The importance of celebrating each other’s festivals

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I USED to have the greatest respect for the many government departments and business corporations in the 1960s right through to the 1980s, who were able to attract and retain among their employees a truly multiracial breakdown of an almost equal number of Malays, Dayaks, and Chinese; with a sprinkling of ‘others’ as in Eurasians, Indians, and other minority groups.

In the various companies that I used to work for, from 1970 till I branched out on my own in the 1990s; we had the ideal workforce of such a multiracial composition in all of them.

It was vital for these operations and to ensure that everything runs effectively and smoothly – as our country has so many public holidays for the various festive occasions of Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Gawai Dayak, Christmas, Wesak Day, on top of the other listed holidays.

This usually meant that for instance during Chinese New Year most of the Chinese staff would be taking extra days off on top of the prescribed two days and if they happened to fall on a weekend, such workless days could be even up to a week or more! Now supposing that this government department or private company were to have 80 per cent of its staff being Chinese, it would be totally crippled in its operations. As it were then, it worked out pretty well as the non-Chinese would still be at work holding the fort … and so had carried on similarly for Hari Raya and Gawai Dayak when the Muslims and then the Dayaks went on leave.

It is rather sad that this phenomenon no longer exists. Many government departments, as well as private companies are badly affected during these festivals. If the superiors don’t grant their staff their requested leave, they’ll have grumpy and unhappy workers for the duration of the festive period.

I noticed this often times in the past with some government departments like Customs, Immigration, JKR, and Land Survey during the Hari Raya period. Also that during Gawai, at least 75 per cent of the food courts and coffee shops would be affected and similarly during Chinese New Year, it’s difficult to find hawkers anywhere doing any business.

However, one thing has remained the same and hopefully will be so for a long time to come: we all take pride and much joy in celebrating each other’s festivals together.

I remember as a boy of about five or six, during the nights of Ramadan all the kampung houses at Kampung Masjid, now renamed Jalan Datuk Ajibah Abol, were brightly lit with kerosene lamps and coloured bulbs and there was always much excitement in the air as dad would drive all of us cramped into his black Opel Rekord saloon car, slowly making his way, following other vehicles as they meandered through the narrow roads of the kampung. That stretch of probably just a couple of miles would take almost half an hour.

During Hari Raya itself, we would visit friends (and relatives) and there would be the usual tête-à-tête among long lost friends, who see each other once a year or so. We always looked forward to the tasty satays and the delicious curries, rendang, and lemang. Nasi kuning would also be served. A great time was had by all.

Similarly when the time came for Chinese New Year, our Malay, Dayak, and other Chinese friends and families would troop through one’s residence at open houses; prior to the 1990s it was usually free for all, anyone would just drop in at their own convenience (but a hassle to the hosts who had to be on their toes all the time). However, this has changed in the last 20 years or so when an appointed day and time is given to would be visitors and guests to tell them when to come and for how long! This seems to me more civilised but definitely less exciting.

My more memorable personal experience during the festivals must definitely be the two times I had spent Gawai visiting Iban longhouses in the then Second Division; one nearby Sri Aman and the other past Betong.

My good friend and former work colleague William Howell hails from a very remote longhouse deep inside the interior after Sri Aman; this was in the early 1990s before Google Maps and Waze; to get there we had to pass a number of rickety wooden makeshift bridges, some built over padi fields, and we got terribly lost for many hours. This was during the very early days of 2G handphones and there was absolutely no service at all. Eventually, we found the place and had a terrific time; the tuai rumah made us all feel very welcomed and during his stand-up speech said to us that we were “the first ever aliens” to visit his longhouse during Gawai!

The second memorable experience I shall not dwell on in detail, except to say that at the (then MP) Datuk’s bilik at 9am, we were already treated to a choice of langkau, tuak, Johnny Walker, and Hennessy XO! After that, the other dwellers in the other 30 plus bilik had lined up to insist upon us paying them a visit too, one bilik at a time! Needless to say after a few bilik I slept like a log in the ruai to awake a couple of hours later among the pet hunting dogs of the longhouse.

All of us have such great memories of the many visits we had made to each other’s homes during our various festivals. They make for formidable bonding elements in our relationship with one another.

It saddens me somewhat to see that all these ‘open houses’ and visiting each other is gradually changing, as most folks during their respective festive occasions are now choosing to either sneak away for short holidays to some neighbouring Asean country or would just inform their friends and families that they were not celebrating that year.

I know for a fact that insofar as our neighbours are concerned, Sabah, Singapore, and Peninsular Malaysia, this long preserved culture of ours of having open houses has not been in their culture and many of my friends from these places had expressed their surprise when they had first been part of it when they came over either for a visit or on work transfer. All of them were rather envious and had shown their respect and admiration for us here in Sarawak.

May I urge our next generation and future generations after them to please help keep this tradition and culture alive – I know it’s not easy but it’s something we must preserve at all costs.

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