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London 2012 Opening Ceremony

Olympics Opening Ceremony: Lessons for Malaysia

Last night, I watched the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games for the second time, in the solitude of my room. I had a great time watching it with friends at their place for the first time on the actual night, and in general really enjoyed it. That night, I posted this updated on my Facebook account:

I admit that I’m a sucker for all Olympic Opening Ceremonies but today’s was special. It was patchy as a production, didn’t necessarily like the video/live action stuff, but can Danny Boyle tell a story. The underlying narrative was genius and hats off to him for giving so much credit to those who would never usually get attention – from the NHS to the miners, construction workers who built the stadium to the seven young athletes who lit the gorgeous cauldron. Amazing.

 I watched it again because I was still reeling from the show the night before. Plus, having spent the better part of the day reading commentaries and reviews about the event, I realised that there were so many little things I missed. Watching it alone again, and being able to listen to all the commentary, it really did feel like I was watching a different show.

London 2012 Olympic Opening CeremonyPhoto by Shimelle Lane from Flickr under the Creative Common License.

And I still loved it.

Problem was that I got rather emotional watching it the second time – there were many goosebump moments, and a couple of times, I started welling up. It wasn’t just because I thought Danny Boyle had included so many wonderful tributes and thoughts that made it so very British.

At those moments, I started wondering what our show would look like if Malaysia ever got the opportunity to host the Olympic Games (I know we held the Commonwealth Games in 1998, but no one ever talks about the CG’s opening ceremonies). I cringed at the thought.

Now, before you accuse me of being unpatriotic, I think one of the biggest reasons I feel this way is because of all the buzz about the Merdeka Day logo and song that has been recently released (although, apparently, the Gov’t has denied that it is the official logo).

Never mind that the logo is, to put it mildly, ugly as hell, I took great offense to the tagline (and also theme for this year’s Merdeka Day): “Janji ditepati” (which, translated, means “Promises fulfilled”). There is already lots of criticism that has pointed out that it is a propaganda-laced tagline, particularly by the ruling Barisan Nasional party just a few months ahead of the General Elections.

But even if we wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it wasn’t talking about BN’s promises, it really sadden me that for the first time in many years, our Merdeka Day theme, was not about the country or its people. All my life, my understanding of Merdeka Day is to celebrate our independence from colonialisation.

To add salt into the wound, the official song – also titled Janji Ditepati – was all about promises the Government has made and what it has given the people. The focus was on the the 1Malaysia schemes – from BR1m to SK1M to Kedai 1Malaysia. Worse still, the song suggests that it was time for Malaysians to “pay back” – I don’t know about you, but hasn’t it always been the responsibility of the Government to take care of its people … especially when we’re all paying taxes?

But even all that didn’t get to me as much as a couple of the videos that have been created by some people (I can’t seem to find an official video, which makes me believe that it either doesn’t exist or hasn’t been released yet). I was extremely troubled by the representation of Malaysians in one of the videos (a friend suggested the video was more about 1Bangsa than 1Malaysia). The second one had images of “multi-racial” Malaysia that we have all become familiar with, yet they were mostly forced, posed photographs. The photos used from live events, unfortunately, showed how polarised we have become as a country.

Now, I understand that these two videos doesn’t necessarily reflect the Government’s official stand on the issue (although, it’s doing itself no favours in allowing these videos to circulate without an official one which is less troubling) but that these are the sort of mentality that some Malaysians have is, to me, extremely sad.

What do all these have to do with the Olympic Games opening ceremony?

Well, it’s just that I started thinking about how we would portray ourselves as a country to the world. Over the years, many attempts have been made to make our mark. The KLCC Twin Towers is still a global icon and shows that we are not just any other developing country. Our “moderate Muslim” policy has shown how we are (were?) more progressive than some other countries out there. Our national cars, world class facilities and more have shown that we have all the makings of a truly developed country.

Where, though, do we stand in history and culture? What stories will we tell if we get a stage like the opening ceremony of an event the scale of the Olympic Games?

Are we going to maintain the forced image of Malaysian multi-culturalism by portraying a few people of different races standing together smiling? Or do we stick to our long tradition of symbolism and maintain that we need to use the Tiger stripes at every sporting event (even if the rest of the world thinks it’s hideous)? What about the usual stereotype of food – is that our only was of showing our different cultures?

How do we show the diversity in our culture and tradition that really stems from the unique multi-culturalism that forms our social fabric? Or our unique history, well documented in Sejarah Melayu and the history of Malacca, one of the most important trading ports in Asian history?

Will we recognise the kapitan Yap Ah Loy? Or our war hero Sybil Karthigesu? Will we make the effort to distinguish the story of Hang Tuah and his friends between history and myth? How will we reflect the various “pelat” of Bahasa Malaysia in our many states, and will we recognise the orang asli as well as the natives of Sabah and Sarawak? What about the Chitty community? Can we tell people the difference between a peranakan and a Baba/Nyonya? How do our Serani communities fit in?

What about our dying Wayang Kulit and Mak Yong? Do we dare remember the time when rock dominated the Malaysian mediascape, when they were banned from television for having long hair yet we had music stars dubbed the queen (Ella) and princess of rock (Shima)? How about that famous stripper Rose Chan?

I ask because I feel all these (and much more that I haven’t mentioned, and don’t know about) are part of our culture and history – even if they are only understood, appreciated and familiar to certain segments of our community. The problem is, we seem to have forgotten about most of these, or have left them behind.

Granted, compared to Britain, our country is still very young. But if you look at how far we’ve come in a short 55 years, you’d be forgiven if you were frustrated that we haven’t truly figured out our identity as a nation and as countrymen.

I’m only 32 years old but in over three decades, I have seen how a strong, united country is quickly unravelling. It wasn’t that long ago that the late Yasmin Ahmad captured so beautifully our diversity. Yet, and sadly, these days, we are left to ponder if there is place for pluralism in our country.

Most of Britain – even the detractors – came together and celebrated the success of the opening ceremony that everyone felt was truly British.

What is it going to take for us all to come together as well?

In his review of the ceremony, famed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said:

“There were historical elements in the Beijing opening ceremony, but the difference is that this was about individuals and humanity and true feelings; their passion, their hope, their struggle. That came through in their confidence and joy. It’s really about a civil society. Ours only reflected the party’s nationalism. It wasn’t a natural reflection of China.”

It may be a pessimistic view but the opening ceremony that I have in my head  that Malaysia would throw could probably be described the same way he did of his own country. If we don’t want that to happen, we need to take it into our own hands and demand the changes now.

Because I truly believe that we’re better than that.

Midnight Greenwich Meridian Time

Discussion (20)

There are 20 responses to “Olympics Opening Ceremony: Lessons for Malaysia”.

  1. So worth sharing!!

  2. Natalie responded:

    · Reply

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. That same thought went through my mind as I watched the opening ceremony. It’s amazing how Danny Boyle managed to bring out the heartbeat of Britain on that stage that night. At the same time, it’s beyond saddening to be reminded of what we lack.

    • Hi Natalie,

      I don’t think we lack anything, to be honest, other than forward thinking and open mindedness. Our history and culture is as vibrant as the British. I just worry about our attempts to rewrite that history, or at least to pretend is wasn’t there. I am also concerned with sloganism and using symbolism to represent such a diverse community.

      Thanks for your comment.

  3. cashew responded:

    · Reply

    Hey! Great article! Where did you watch the ceremony in Malaysia? Did you watch in online the second time? PS: in case you were interested, I also wrote an article about the hideous logo 😉

    • Hi Cashew,

      I’m in London at the moment so I watched it with some friends. And yes, I watched it on BBC iPlayer the second time.

      Thanks for your compliment, comment and sharing!

  4. Roderick Chung responded:

    · Reply

    Hi Niki, I want to congratulate you on a good article, but also to make a quick point about the age of our nation. We are not 55 years old as the government is always trying to insist (and has successfully persuaded almost everyone). We are in fact only 49, because Malaysia only cam into being in 1963. 55 years ago was 1957 – so by implication, what we are celebrating, when the figure 55 years is used, is in fact Malaya’s independence from the British. Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore (the remaining signatories to the Malaysia agreement) only gained independence from the British in 1963. Then on 16th September, 1963, a new nation called Malaysia was born. So we are only 49 years old. This is an important distinction, otherwise we would be ignoring Sabah and Sarawak’s role in the formation of our nation, and by using the number 55years, would be implying that they were usurped into Malaya. In fact we need to decide whether we are celebrating independence day (Merdeka) of National day (Hari Kebangsaan). I would suggest that National day should take precedence. Cheers.

    • Hi Roderick,

      Thanks for your comment. Just to respond, I don’t think you’ll find anywhere in my post that suggests that Malaysia is 55 years old – I just said that we’ve come a long way in 55 years. I think whatever our stance regarding Merdeka vs Malaysia Day, we have to accept that our country’s modern history began in 1957.

      I understand the importance of Malaysia Day, but I also think that we cannot dismiss Merdeka Day in exchange of that. To do that will be to do exactly what I was mentioning about in my article – these are also important milestones that must not be forgotten. It would be a tragedy if, in our own Olympic Ceremony, that we did not celebrate 1957 as well as 1963.

      In that sense, I disagree with your last line. I think both hold great historical significance, and both must be celebrated.

      • Roderick responded:

        · Reply

        Hi there again Niki,
        I wasn’t suggesting that 1957 is not a significant date in our history,that certainly was not my intention; but what I see is that it is often used as the default date for our nation’s formation, which is quite frankly, incorrect history.
        My point regards celebrating National day was perhaps not made as well as it could have been. The confusion, which I feel is deliberately cultivated, is the use of Hari Merdeka and Hari kebangsaan interchangeably.And also the constant use of the 55 years as the age of our nation. In fact Malaysia Day IS our Hari kebangsaan, since that’s when our nation was born. Your point about understanding the importance Malaysia Day seems to suggest that its not as important as Merdeka. What I was trying to articulate is that there are different Merdeka days for the different components of our federation i.e Malaya(31st August 1957), Sarawak (22nd July 1963), Sabah (31st Aug 1963). But we only share one National day, that is, the date our nation formally came into being, 16th September 1963, (which is rather oddly I feel, referred to as ‘Malaysia day’). In fact for many years it wasn’t even a national holiday-it was only a holiday in Sabah and Sarawak. Hardly surprising then that most Malaysians thinks its not that important, and is unique to Sabah and Sarawak.

        Sorry for the long comment. But I really do feel that its something that Malaysians need to think about. Perhaps you could write an article about it in future?

        Do keep up the good work, and enjoy the rest of your time in London. All too soon it will be time to return home. I was a Chevening in 2001, and enjoyed every minute.

  5. Thoughtful comments for one still in his early 30s. Most of our youth today (20-35) I find, can’t be bothered to think about issues, only chasing gadgets and a high lifestyle. Good luck with your studies!

    • Thanks for the compliment KLGIRL and thanks for the kind wishes.

      Have more faith in our youths – there are many out there who think about issues more than I do, and do much more to further the cause in their many unique ways. I am friends with many of these people and I have great admiration for them.

      Thanks for dropping a note! 😀

  6. Khamir responded:

    · Reply

    Dear Niki,
    Your article really make me sad….about Malaysia today…keep on writing.

    • Khamir, don’t be sad. That’s not the intention of this post! :) Go out and do something about it. A country is made by it’s people. :) Have faith!

  7. I LIKE this a million times!!

    • Thanks Merryn! Really appreciate that. :) Hope the little boy is doing well! 😀

  8. YapThomas responded:

    · Reply

    I watched it over a period of 3 days via YouTube.
    I had a good time watching it and was amazed how well it was produced. Again, it was a pride of a nation that I was saw being produced and showcased to the world.

    Awesome article.!

  9. Well written Mr.Cheong! :)

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