ALL Malaysians have had to forego the usual birthday celebrations at least once since 2020: depending on the date, some have had to stay home twice in a row without public acknowledgment of their aging. Some may secretly prefer this, but if social media is any indication, birthday parties are back with a vengeance.
Birthdays of heads of state remained public holidays during movement control orders, but without any of the official events traditionally associated with them. It was therefore exhilarating that this month the anniversary of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negri Sembilan was once again celebrated. Although some aspects like the military parade could not yet be reinstated due to current Covid-19 restrictions, most events were able to take place with physical distancing.
The most visible part of the proceedings, by virtue of media coverage, remains the main investiture ceremony. This year’s Speech from the Throne praised the collaborative efforts of people across the state to overcome the pandemic and recent flooding. Indeed, at the Temporary Relief Centers (PPS) in Jempol earlier this month, it was heartening to see that managers and volunteers came from all races and religions.
The list saw only 27 people receive awards bearing the title of Dato’, including distinguished doctors, soldiers, lawyers, businessmen and a priest, alongside singer Aishah (of the Fan Club of 1980s based in New Zealand). In addition to this, many people received medals for their service and contributions to the state.
No honors system is perfect: there will always be people deserving of recognition who will go undetected, while some recipients may not be universally admired.
But as I’ve written before, overall it’s a wonderful thing that people from such different backgrounds can receive public appreciation for the good work they do.
The investiture also allows the performance of ancient ceremonies: the establishment of royal insignia, for example, carried out by officials who take their duties very seriously, in accordance with their matrilineal clan affiliation.
Some of the treasures, such as keris and spears, date back to the arrival of the first ruler Raja Melewar to Negri Sembilan from Pagar Ruyong in 1773, after being invited by local chiefs to rule over them.
Outside the palace, a host of events were held, attracting people from across the state. Londa Naga Lake saw anglers vying for the biggest catch, although apparently the usual tussle could not be held with physical distancing. At Seri Menanti padang, budding flight engineers submitted their radio-controlled planes to battle it out, while nearby esports enthusiasts battled it out for FIFA dominance. At SK Tunku Laksamana Nasir, the sepak takraw tournament saw new trios dominate: previously, those from the fire and rescue service took the steps of the podium.
But this year’s highlight must have been the Jelajah Keilmuan – perhaps best translated as a “Journey of Knowledge” – cycling around Gunung Pasir, one of the traditional “luak” or territories of Negri Sembilan that fall under from the jurisdiction of a responsible penghulu to the Yang di-Pertuan Besar.
Starting from Seri Menanti, my brother and I joined over 200 cyclists from across the state, stopping briefly at the Balai (i.e. the official residence) of the penghulu which was joined by the Ibu Soko. There we learned about the history of the area – from the initial migration of settlers to how Raja Melewar arrived, while two old cannons on display nearby pointed to remnants of the Bukit Putus War of 1874.
From then on, it was the natural elements that told the story: hills that formed ancient trading routes, ponds where giant freshwater prawns (udang galah) grow, rice fields that have fed generations (and where a generation ago it was common for bomoh to conduct rituals to increase fertility), and stunning waterfalls that belie the devastation of flooding downstream just weeks ago.
Indeed, a common thread present in so many recent conversations with the residents of Negri Sembilan – whether along the rural tracks of Gunung Pasir, or beside the squash courts at Chung Hua High School in Seremban, or near the beach in Port Dickson, or among those with strong political wings – is the strong awareness of the impact and relevance of the past, and the need to make the right decisions for the future. More than ever, there was enthusiasm to start the year on an optimistic note, and the Yang di-Pertuan Besar’s birthday provided an opportunity to focus those feelings and take action.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is the second son of Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.