The Hollowness of Symbols: Why I Won’t Be Flying The Flag

28 08 2007

One of my oldest, closest friends mocked me and some other friends today, for the fact that we are planning a Merdeka Day gathering, outside Malaysia, no less. Gathering and singing Negaraku to mark Merdeka Day is, in his opinion, the lamest thing to do.

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t me he was mocking, and it wasn’t Merdeka or the anthem he was mocking;

It was the futility of clinging to a symbol that no longer represents what it once stood for, and his contempt comes out of enormous disillusionment and rage, not disrespect.

Let me be frank: I agree with him.
Symbols mean very little to me.

The national flag, the anthem, the Rukunegara. All these mean little to me in truth.

They are nothing but a colourful graphic, a reasonably dignified musical piece and a well-written list of aspirations and commitments; they are nothing but hollow symbols, if you strip away the original meaning. And that is exactly what UMNO-BN has been insidiously doing for so many years.

What does mean a lot to me is on the ground. Where it’s real.

Can I talk to my Malay neighbour without the awkwardness that comes with “talking to the enemy”? Can I stop myself from reacting negatively if in future my daughter says she’s dating a Malay or Indian boy?

The racism and reactionary racism has been so ingrained in us that even I find it difficult to overcome years of conditioning. But I will overcome it. Can you?

When I sang Negaraku with my fellow colourblind Malaysian citizens at the Bangsa Malaysia Merdeka gathering, it was for the hope that here at last we might be able to start something worth fighting for, worth singing for. The end of racism in Malaysia.

Once, a long time ago, I was one of the pledge leaders for my school during assembly. I knew the Rukunegara by heart, and I believed most of it. I knew how to recite it, not in a dull monotone as one might read from a particularly dull and contentless Malaysian school textbook, but with the forceful dignity that a national pledge should deserve.

I was one of the best pledge leaders in my school of the time, and I say that unabashedly. So yes, once upon a long time ago, I believe I was actually what we might call… “patriotic”.

And then I grew up.

I saw the same symbols I once honoured being used to justify institutionalised racism, communalism, rampant corruption. I saw the flag used as a shield to immunise the government from criticism of its wrongdoings. I saw hypocrisy clad in the Jalur Gemilang, tarted-up with silicone-enhanced breasts and pouty lips to boot.

And then I understood that symbols and meaning are two different things entirely. Sometimes they harmonise beautifully. Sometimes they clash with ear-splitting dissonance, the metallic scream of direct opposition of meanings.

And I am deaf from the dissonance.

So my patriotic phase died. A long time ago. In the usual sense of the word anyway.

Now I try to keep it real. Azmi Sharom asked the most pointed question of the Bangsa Malaysia forum:

“Are YOU a closet chauvinist?”

My answer to Azmi is: “I almost became one.”

So I struggle to overcome my reactionary instinct to paint all Malays as scoundrels, an instinct that came out of burning resentment over institutionalised racism and UMNO-BN impunity, until I learned to differentiate UMNO the fascist party and the Malay people as two separate and distinct entities. It is not easy, but I will overcome it. Meeting and knowing of people like Haris, Azmi, Rocky, Faridah, Marina, Malik… proves that my reactionary instinct was wrong, and makes it easier to overcome my own rock-hard cynicism.

And overcoming chauvinism in all its forms (racism, religious supremacism, sexism) is far more real than celebrating symbols which may no longer hold their original meaning. That to me, is real patriotism.

But there is also false patriotism, and it often looks more real than real patriotism.

To quote Samuel Johnson: Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

Googling the quote above, I found this gem of a derivative quote by Joyce Marcel, who was criticising the Bush administration, but it applies equally to our situation. Just substitute the appropriate nouns and place names:

“…A free press is the hallmark of a democracy. By trying to corrupt, intimidate and manipulate it, the Bush Administration has shown us just how little respect for democracy they really have, here and in Iraq. What they care about is power and control.

After Dr. Johnson said patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel, the cynic Ambrose Bierce amended it with, “I beg to submit that it is the first.” Then H.L. Mencken jumped in: “But there is something even worse: it is the first, last and middle range of fools.”

If you substitute “democracy” for “patriotism,” I beg to submit that you have the situation in America today. Whether your political views are right, left or center, your news sources are being corrupted, you mind is being manipulated, and you should be outraged…”

This is why it is hypocritical that the same UMNO-BN ministers who are guilty of far more egregious crimes are baying for the blood of an angry young man who did no more than to stage a protest using a symbol which I suspect has lost much if not all of its meaning for him now.

Wrapping yourself in the national flag and singing the national anthem at full volume and swearing allegiance with your right hand while your left is dipping in the cookie jar or painting a nazi swastika or busy beating down dissidents DOES NOT MAKE YOU A PATRIOT; it makes you a hypocrite of the first degree.

And I accuse Abdullah Ahmad Badawi of being a hypocrite of the first degree.

So you see why I flinch when I see symbols, and you see why my friend rages.

So let’s keep it real: work on overcoming all forms of chauvinism: racism, religious supremacism and sexism. It’s something that begins at home, within ourselves. I’m not talking about being politically-correct here. Screw PC, we’re not so uptight that we can’t take some dumb race jokes and laugh at ourselves. I’m talking about making a genuine effort to purge the more insidious casual chauvinism that creeps into our psyches, almost unnoticed sometimes. It is far more difficult than it seems. But if you can do that, then we are winning.

The simplest test, answer this question for yourself:

Are YOU a closet chauvinist?

Keep it real.



7 responses

28 08 2007



[ GhL ] :
hello nat

28 08 2007

I understand what you are saying. I too am not too big on patriotism (Hey! I pay my frakking taxes promptly, that’s patriotism for you, so go wave your flags in the faces of those who don’t). A flag is just a symbol. Means nothing to some of us. Means the world to some (Superficially, or with ulterior motive, I suspect).

Anyway, after some introspection, I do think I’m a closet chauvinist. Perhaps I’m not the idealist I once was any more.

[ GhL ] :
Honesty is the first step.

29 08 2007

A very insightful read indeed..thank you very much!

[ GhL ] :
Thank you for reading, lordapprentice. Let’s make this work, shall we?

29 08 2007

I understand where you are coming from…It’s difficult when we are brought up with this sort of surroundings that promotes racism day in and day out that we fall in the trap of succumbing to those we hate most by generalizing the actions of a few to a whole race (referring to what you said about would I want my daughter to date an Indian or Malay boy) Talking about the flag, I would never carry the flag on windscreen or my car or wave it around because I believe it doesn’t represent Malaysia as I see it. But things have changed..I have changed. I’m not saying I would wave the flag but I’m willing to make a change within myself to rid myself of any form of discrimination, racism or any such notion for my country, for my people and take action. Someone told me once” How are you going to affect change if you yourself are not willing to change?”…

30 08 2007

You can’t talk to a Malay neighbour without feeling awkward? Whow which neighbourhood are you from?? Oddly enough I’ve never had that problem in my area.

There’s always been this talk about racism in Malaysia, so am I just lucky that somehow, despite all this deep-seated racism, most of my friends are not Malays, and that the last thing that comes to my mind when I’m talking to them or having them over for lunch at my house is that I’m socialising “with the enemy?”

I guess I must be. Lucky me

[ GhL ] : You take my words too literally, kampunghouse :), I was giving an example when I said that. I’m glad you have no problems relating to the people of other races. I have absolutely no problem talking to Malays myself — I have some very good Malay friends — but I know plenty of people who do, not because they have actually had race relation problems in the past, but because there is a ‘reactionary racism’ perceptual problem: “they are marginalising us, therefore they are not good people”. We need to recognise that the chauvinism runs both ways sometimes, before we can work on fixing it.

30 08 2007

dear ghostline,

read that you’re having a merdeka get-together in singapore. i study in ntu right now. when and where is the get-together? i’d like to be a part of it!

[ GhL ] :
Hello Satya, we’re planning it now; it will be more of a private gathering due to restrictions on events here, but you are welcome to join us. Contact me directly at and I will update you shortly.

30 08 2007

whoops! should have properly introduced myself. i’m satya… a melaka-boy in singapore… reader of haris’ blog. just started reading yours too. would like to attend the merdeka get-together… if it’s not like a closed event or something.

[ GhL ] : no problem satya, we’re trying to finalise the venue — some difficulties with the previous one — and will let you know.

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