This article was written by me around August 2015 and published in Han Chiang News in September 2015 just before “Malaysia Day”. I feel that Malaysians who, unlike yours truly (and my contemporaries who studied in Northern Ireland during the period of 70s to 90s) who have seen at first hand how bigotry have brought man-made calamities to a nation, will not be sensitive to the perils of such political tragedy as in the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland. Malaysia of today is a lot more divided than the Malaysia of the 1970s that I had grown up in. Despite the fact that we are more educated, with almost everyone being literate, and better connected & better informed by modern communication tools, today we are more divided as a people of our most endowed homeland as ever.”Are we all going to be Zombies? ” That is a poser for my readers.
During my stint as the Principal / Vice-Chancellor designate of Han Chiang College / University College (2015 -2017) I mooted the idea of giving my students a chance to both organise and experience what I had when I was an undergraduate at Queen’s University of Belfast: a live concert with live bands and real singers. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the kind of talents that we had among our students and even staff. I left the concert shortly after the DJ entered with his gig so that my students (and perhaps some of the staff on chaperone duties) could let their hair down and boogie the night away without the invisible “intimidation” by my presence.
A very meaningful song – Zombies
One song that was played that night really rekindled my memory of my second homeland, Belfast, Northern Ireland where I spent eight and a half years, most of which was during the so called “Troubles”. The Cranberries’ “Zombies” was a protest song about the “Troubles” of Northern Ireland which was released in 1994 but very well received in Malaysia up to early 1996. My then baby son somehow was fond of this song. The saying was, shortly after the release of this song, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that had waged a war of terror in Northern Ireland to oust the British since 1968 (and then moved their activities “across the water” to England in the mid 1980s) declared that they would abandon their insurgency and would be switching their fight to the ballot box. It was not till 1998 that peace finally was declared in Northern Ireland. I had a chance to visit Belfast in 1999 and was amazed by the change (for the better) that I would not have imagined when I left my second homeland in 1991.
My first encounter of the “Troubles”
I arrived in Belfast in early October 1982, shortly after the end of the republican’s hunger strike crisis where ten convicted and jailed members of the republican movements went on hunger strike resulting in their death. Tension was high. People were suspicious of each other and some (including a good number of my classmates) were not exactly friendly to foreigners like me. Then on the first night that I moved into a shared house with 3 other Malaysian students, I heard something like a motorbike backfired at around 11 pm. It was, we found out the next day in fact a sectarian killing where a young man was shot dead for being from the “wrong” community just a street away from our house. I experienced at first hand the “Troubles”. Unfortunately I was to experience a great many more of these kind of incidences during my stay in Belfast. As a postgraduate student, naturally my peers and Malaysian buddies were mainly medical doctors. Their tales of injuries and bodily harm due to sectarian violence that they had to treat were even more gruesome to depict here.
A Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?
After a few weeks attending classes as a freshie (first year undergraduate), I managed to break the ice with most of my 27 other classmates. One of my classmates (who shall remain “nameless”) then casually asked me, “Chow, wat arre ye?” (Chow, what are you?)
By then I was beginning to understand the many different accents of the people of Northern Ireland and starting to adopt some of their accents and way of pronouncing English words so that I could be understood. My reply was, “Marn (man), what do ye (you) mean?”
My friend then said, “What’s your religion marn?” “I’m a sort of Buddhist,” I answered (I knew it would be pointless to explain that Chinese Malaysians have this other religion called Taoism that is mixed with Buddhism).
The next question from my friend was devastating. “Are ye a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?”
The sectarian divide in Northern Ireland was so intense that even university students would just classify themselves, inclusive the foreign students like me into either a Catholic or a Protestant.
My first taste of a car bomb
Jobs for graduates in Northern Ireland during the period of the “Troubles” were difficult to come by. Unemployment rate for the population was the highest in the UK. All because of the lack of confidence in the political situation there which deterred business investments. During the early eighties, car bombs were regularly planted at strategic commercial areas around Belfast. On the eve of my Master’s degree graduation in December 1987, I encountered my first car bomb: I was in a car with a friend (who was graduating at the same time with his Ph.D) and we were suddenly diverted by the Police to a side road. The bomb went off on the next street as we were turning! Fortunately for us, the great old Morris Minor that my friend, Dr. Sean D’Arcy had was very solid indeed & the bomb was not too near or powerful to cause us any injury.
Police stations and the security personnel were “legitimate” targets. To compound the matters there were the terror groups on the opposite side of the republicans (the so-called loyalists) waging a similar campaign of terror onto the republican communities. The “Troubles” had caused at least 3,600 deaths with 50,000 people maimed. Such was the scale of this political tragedy.
It’s in your head!
Today, 17 years after the ceasefire, the memory of the “Troubles” still haunt many who have lived through the period, including this writer. Perhaps some of the lyrics of “Zombies” sum up the collective feeling of the people of Northern Ireland well:
And the violence caused such silence
Who are we mistaken
But you see it’s not me
It’s not my family
In your head in your head
They are fighting
With their tanks and their bombs
And their bombs and their guns
In your head in your head they are crying
In your head
In your head
Zombie zombie zombie ei ei……………..
One thing that puzzles me even today is, how come two communities in Northern Ireland which had lived for centuries together, speaking the same base language (English) with similar culture and food could be driven to exert such mistrusts that resulted in many horrible acts of violence against each other. But when these two communities could find a common ground, they could bring peace, prosperity to their common homeland in a short span of just a few years.
We shall not be zombies!
Meanwhile 10, 814 kilometers away in Malaysia, we are being manipulated by those who bank on creating the worst sectarian divide among our people with the power that be often sitting on the fence or turning a blind eye to these acts. After experiencing what incited hatred could do to communities in Northern Ireland, I cannot bare to imagine what could happen in my homeland.
With our multi-religious, multicultural, multilingual and diverse dietary preferences, it would not take much to start a sectarian firestorm if restrain is no longer applied. I feel that the often-overused phrase “tolerant of each other” is wrong. To survive as a nation, Malaysians collectively should be accepting each other as we are and get on with our lives.
If we let the minority with ulterior motives to impose bigotry on our society unhindered then we deserve to be heading towards the Malaysian version of the “Troubles”, which I shudder to think could be overcome in 30 years as it did in Northern Ireland!
Perhaps the keyword to deal with this threat is “Restrain”. We should restrain ourselves from being lured by these minority. We are not Zombies and we shall not be Zombies.