THE first Malaysian Ruler to celebrate his birthday every year is the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan on Jan 14, and it means a flurry of activity especially in and around the royal town of Seri Menanti. Last year, a small number of socially-distanced events were reinstated after Covid caused the cancellation of all events in 2021, but this year, the schedule is back in full force.
Things began with the Majlis Negeri Sembilan Berselewat on Jan 5 in the padang outside the palace. Once again, Sheikh Habib Zainal Abidin spoke eloquently, this time on the importance of prayer, and either side, songs of praise of the Prophet Muhammad SAW and supplications to Allah SWT – including Ya Hanana, Solatullah Salamullah, and Tala al-Badru Alayna – were sung passionately by a crowd that had assembled from across the state.
Such expressions of love and worship through music may seem unusual to outsiders and even Muslims from other states (especially when, in one year, the performance featured a qanun or zither, a plucked stringed instrument), but it is one of the many practices of religion and culture that makes Negeri Sembilan special.
More familiar events have followed. The following Saturday saw me join 400 participants in a fun run, advertised as being 5km but reported by my running app as being nearly six, which is no bad thing given the utter beauty of the route, weaving through verdant forests and small plantations dotted by kampung houses and the serene bubblings of streams that ultimately meet the Muar River. The fastest times were dominated by the Seremban Runners Club, who received handsome hampers, but I was glad to have students of SMK Tunku Besar Burhanuddin accompany me for most of the route.
The chess competition saw 250 entrants from all over Malaysia and beyond, with an Algerian and Russian International Master alongside dozens of under-12 schoolboys and schoolgirls vying for victory, as a darts contest was safely ongoing nearby. Over the weekend of the birthday itself, there will be a tug-of-war, a fishing competition, a Fifa (on the PS4) championship, and a sepak takraw tournament. Traditional crafts will be showcased, from batik canting, flower arranging and the particularly local tradition of the folding of the destar – the Malay headdress – in its various forms. Dendam tak sudah (“eternal revenge”) is the most popular style, being featured on our ringgit notes courtesy of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who was the eighth Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, but each style has its own origin myths.
All this activity is great for the local economy, with hotels accommodating participants and their families and food stalls already mushrooming, and hopefully kickstarting a tourism boost as epitomised by Datuk Aishah’s song Moh Dogheh. That reminds me, at the concert, Negeri Sembilan singers including Waris and Ito (with his Blues Gang) may perform with a guest pianist, too …
In the following week, more intellectual pursuits will include special programmes by the Negeri Sembilan Public Library Corporation and a most unique historical cycling tour of Inas, one of the districts (luak) around the royal town that make up the Tanah Mengandung or ‘Pregnant Land’ at the heart of the state. Indeed, this form of transport is the best way to appreciate how, 250 years ago, Raja Melewar and his retinue arrived from Pagar Ruyung in response to the invitation to reign over the new federation of Negeri Sembilan across the strait, receiving proclamations of loyalty (and some occasional resistance)!
Still, the main spectacle for most people will be the parade on the morning of the birthday itself, provided by the Royal Signals Regiment (of which the Yang di-Pertuan Besar is Colonel-in-Chief), the band of the Royal Armoured Corps, and performances by various other regiments. The investiture thereafter will see 540 individuals being conferred with awards, including only two carrying the title of Dato’ Seri, and 21 the title of Dato’, from the fields of healthcare, law enforcement, the armed forces, philanthropy, infrastructure, and those who have contributed to the state’s economic development.
The birthday of a head of state is indeed a public event and touches the lives of citizens in many ways, in accordance with the Ruler’s roles connected to religion, the military, sport, academia, arts and crafts, and of course, recognising outstanding service to the state. But for family and friends, a birthday of a loved one is still primarily an opportunity to celebrate an individual: their achievements, passions and ongoing goals. On the occasion of my father’s birthday, I am glad to celebrate his good health, compassion, forward-sightedness, and love for his family and his state.
Happy 75th Birthday Papa!