Postcard from Zaharah: Merdeka picnic in the Queen's royal park

ZAHARAH OTHMAN

A rendition of the Tanggal 31 Ogos patriotic song made popular by the late Datuk Sudirman Arshad that pierced through the late summer air in Kensington Gardens, perhaps, was not that perfect. The same could be said for some of the Kebaya revellers, who turned up during the Muhibbah Merdeka Picnic held recently at the gardens. Instead of wearing a complete ensemble of the quintessential costume, revellers came to the picnic in mishmash of kebaya tops and a pair jeans. But that didn’t matter. What matters was that unmistakable spirit of muhibbah in celebrating Malaysia’s 61st years of Merdeka (independence) in the land that colonised her. Merdeka picnickers, not having much confidence in the English weather, had claimed a spot quite near the entrance of the royal park, just in case it rained. The weather, however, was just perfect and the turnout for the event organised by Bring Back The Kebaya, was for all intents and purposes, a huge success. Malaysians were arriving from all corners of the park with their picnic baskets to share and celebrate this joyous occasion. “This is such a good turnout, it is amazing. I am overwhelmed by the support. This is such a new burst of feeling of hope for Malaysia,” gushed Dr Lyana Khairuddin, the kebaya-clad virologist, who is pursuing her Master in Public Policy at the University of Oxford. Spirit of patriotism intertwined with spasm of joy were high among visitors during the event, which started at about 11am and ended with the ever-popular traditional Malay joget lambak dance about five hours later. My initial feeling of disappointment when I was told that there would no flag-raising ceremony and gathering in the morning at the High Commissioner’s residence unlike the previous years, quickly dissipated, when I saw news about the Muhibbah Merdeka picnic. Throughout my 38 years here, if I could help it, I would never miss any celebration.

I would be with fellow Malay- sians to enjoy the moment. It is no different this time around. Even if the perfect waist for a kebaya is long gone, I still wore one and hid the waist under a long outer dress. The spirit is there and still bursting with pride as a Malaysian, carrying my mini Jalur Gemilang flag as I walked with a few friends to join the crowd.


Organiser Dr Lyana Khairuddin (centre) in white kebaya top with Syebvonne Nguyen and Mimi to her right, and Ida and the writer to her left.

Being away from the motherland, celebrations that bring together and unite Malaysians from different backgrounds, have always had a special meaning to me and my family. My children remember fondly when they were involved in singing patriotic songs and enjoying games of congkak and even taking part in performing traditional dances. I was once enlisted as a judge in a cooking competition with fellow Malaysian, “Kak Puteri Zakiah”, who has been here for almost 40 years. There was the “berbalas pantun” exchange, which had all of us in stitches. And there would always be that long queue for Lani’s satay. I would always wait for that stirring moment when the flag was raised while we sang the national anthem. Over the years, celebrations are being downsized. Like everything else, perhaps, events such as these have become a victim to budget cuts. This year, for example, even the Merdeka Carnival, which has for the longest time been held at the Tun Abdul Razak Rubber Research Centre in Brickendonbury, has now been moved to the residence — a much smaller place for a huge number of people. But still, people are communicating among each other, eager to attend the one event when they could be in their best
Malaysian attire, fly the flag
and meet old friends, as well as making new ones. It is another event to look forward to. For this year’s picnic, Syebvonne Nguyen did not only cook and make the Jalur Gemilang kueh lapis, she also brought along her whole delightful family dressed in mini kebaya tops and batik shirts. Syebvonne, who recently made a trip to Malaysia, also brought along mini Malaysian flags, just in case there were others who didn’t have any.


Annabel Nguyen with the Jalur Gemilang ‘kueh lapis’ that her mother, Syebvonne, made.

“I made this Jalur Gemilang kueh lapis for this special day. I love you, Malaysia,” said Syebvonne as her daughter Annabel, in her blue kebaya top, went around distributing the kueh lapis to those present. Never one to miss an event such as this, where she could show off her Jalur Gemilang top, was Ida. Ida and her other patriotic mates, such as Bibah Vincent were a sight to behold during the last Merdeka celebration when they donned their Jalur Gemilang tops and posed proudly for the cameras. Twins Zarina Holmes and Salina Christmas also took this opportunity to mingle around and show off their delightful collection of kebayas, which they have aplenty. Perhaps, during my stay here, this is the first event of its kind for me. There had been other similar events before. However, I am all hoping this is not just a one-off but the first of many informally organised initiatives, which would help foster the much-needed spirit of togetherness; to have a chance to get connected no matter how different our political inclinations or no matter what our leanings are in the life that we lead. With that thought in mind, I walked away, humming Tanggal 31 Ogos, with a smile on my face and a love for my country that is Malaysia. © New Straits Times Press (M) Bhd