Remembering the departed of 2023

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THE Palestinian Ambassador was present at the Christmas Reception hosted by the British High Commissioner, and as the choir sang carols referencing Jerusalem and Bethlehem, now in Occupied Palestine, the combination of Santa hats and Palestinian keffiyehs worn by certain guests made perfect sense.  Some Malaysian Muslims find it unacceptable to wear the hats, or even take photographs with Christmas trees, so the solidarity shown among Palestinians of both religions hopefully serves to educate.

On Christmas Day, there was wonderful news for advocates of Palestinian refugees’ rights in Malaysia who have been appealing to the authorities, schools and donors to help Palestinians remaining in Malaysia as a result of ongoing Israeli aggression. Thanks to continued efforts, a group of Palestinian children will now be able to continue their education in Kuala Lumpur. One day, just as Bosnians who attended university in Malaysia in the nineties, they may play a role in the reconstruction of their country.

It has been months since mosques on Fridays have incorporated prayers for those martyred in Palestine, but it is difficult to comprehend the huge numbers which have now become all-too familiar statistics.

When I remember the inspiring Malaysians who passed away this year, it also serves to remind that every individual killed in Gaza was also inspiring to someone else, or – since so many victims are children – had the potential to inspire.

In September I wrote about the passing away of my grand-aunt Tuanku Najihah, who served as the tenth Tunku Ampuan of Negeri Sembilan and the tenth Raja Permaisuri Agong of Malaysia. I mentioned how her brother Tunku Mahmud tenderly sprinkled water on her grave; and a hundred days later (as tahlil remembrance prayers for her were due), he also passed away. He was always so jovial, his passion for equestrianism applying equally to love for his extended family: from him I learnt many secret tales of Seri Menanti!

A few days earlier, the former Defence Minister Tan Sri Abang Abu Bakar Abang Mustafa (who married my aunt Tunku Maziah) passed away. From him I received sound advice about politics and policy, especially before the 2013 general elections when I was asked to consider becoming active in the political scene.

Around the same time, I received insights on the same from two other people who passed away earlier this year. The first is Datuk Paddy Bowie, who died in October, whose breakfast roundtable sessions with interesting (and sometimes controversial) guests I regularly attended.  She shared a wealth of unique personal perspectives about key moments in Malaysian history, and yet was keen support Ideas in its infancy, offering resources to help us grow.

The other was a more firebrand activist, Haris Ibrahim, who died in August. From him I received a key lesson in understanding that achieving reform often requires pressure from a variety of stakeholders to be effective: intellectual advocacy needs to complemented by a bit of shouting and street fighting, especially if there are no inroads to established institutions.

Of course, there are plenty of people do good work with no desire for power or recognition. In this regard I remember three people who passed away this year. The first two are Datuk Zulkifli Sheikh Ahmad and Ismail Ibrahim who were instrumental in establishing the protocols and networks for Yayasan Munarah (the royal family foundation chaired by my brother) that were so important in delivering aid to needy families in Negeri Sembilan.

The third is Datuk Munirah Abdul Hamid, who founded Pertiwi Soup Kitchen in 2010, which literally nourished the lives of thousands of people. Her model inspired so many similar efforts by all types of organisations, from young volunteers in Rotaract Clubs to public-listed companies rightly giving back to communities.

I remember also a provider of musical nourishment, in the late Lewis Pragasam, the legendary drummer I first saw at No Black Tie in the early 2000s. In 2019 he was the guest performer at the launch of the Butterfly Effect programme in conjunction with my Ambassadorship of the Malaysian Pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020. He was teaching underprivileged kids how to play percussion using reusable and sustainable materials, and he taught me how to properly play a four-against-five polyrhythm.

I am fortunate to have interacted with these incredible Malaysians, and I pray their legacies will continue through the institutions they built and the individuals they inspired. These are the things that really make a nation, a civil society in which people contribute and build upon each other’s learnings for the sake of future generations. How much this infrastructure has been destroyed in Gaza this year, we may never be able to fathom.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).