It is 7:25am in a quiet suburban city in Selangor, Malaysia. Sitting by a bench in my school cafeteria, I rummage through the many contents of my Adidas backpack to fish out a navy blue necktie. I quickly drape it around my collar and tie it into a knot to complete my school attire.
7:30am sharp and the school bell rings. It is Monday and so all teachers and students wearily make their way to the assembly site to sing the national anthem. Through a couple of croaky speakers, the Malaysian national anthem is played whilst a school prefect steadily raises the national flag. We all silently murmur the words of the song, "Negaraku... tanah tumpahnya darahku..." (which translates from Bahasa to "My country... the land on which my blood is spilt...") before heading to our classrooms.
For all my primary and secondary school years, this was the routine every Monday morning. But growing up, I never really considered myself patriotic. To love my country was in all honesty, a very bizarre concept for me to comprehend. "Why was I obligated to have such strong feelings such as love towards a piece of land? What has it ever done for me?" I used to selfishly think. And so singing the national anthem in high school on Mondays often felt hollow and meaningless despite the powerful lyrics.
Now, almost 8 years after graduating from high school, singing that song truly stirs something in my being. I refuse to be identified as anything other than Malaysian and I have become so much more aware of current national issues.
What happened in those eight years? What changed after high school?
It soon became clear to me that it was university; it was university in Britain that I owed for my newfound patriotism.
Feeling more patriotic for your home country when living abroad seemed to be a common theme with the international students I knew. Why? Well I guess it was because new situations like leaving the comforts of home to study in a foreign country presented us with a "clean slate". Nobody knew anything about us and so our immediate reaction was to create an identity for ourselves. When making first impressions, we relied on our nationalities to give us this initial identity in the culturally diverse environment because it instantly summarised a large part about us in just one word. This strong identification with my own nationality when living abroad intensified my love for my country unwittingly.
Besides that, university demographics especially in the UK tend to be very diverse. So I have had the great privilege of meeting many different people from various backgrounds whilst studying abroad. I have experienced their cultures and grown through their company and amidst all this, there came a point when I realised just how unique and wonderful my own culture really was. Socialising with other students helped me recognise how fortunate I was to be able to grow up in a place that until then, I never really considered special.
Finally, we tend to take things for granted when we have them and only understand their true worth after they are gone. Growing up, I took the delicious food, the unique language, the sunny weather and the overall peace back home for granted. I would have readily traded all that back then for a life in a more developed country in the West. But after living in the UK for almost 6 years now where those things were no longer at my doorstep, I have come to realise how nothing quite compares to the place I call home.
As the 13th Malaysian general elections draw nearer and nearer this year, I feel, for the first time, responsible for the future of my country. I have therefore registered myself as a voter and am extremely excited to be part of the upcoming election process. I also intend to return back home (despite how much I love Britain and in spite of my home country's many untold problems) after completing my studies in Cambridge. I genuinely have come a long way from the boy who would lip-sync the national anthem at school assemblies on Mondays.
Sometimes the most important lessons in life are found in the unlikeliest places. I knew that studying in the UK would teach me responsibility, independence and maturity. Patriotism on the other hand was a real surprise and perhaps it came with maturity, but I am tremendously grateful for it nonetheless because I now see that loving that piece of land is no obligation; it is a gift you willingly give.
For who else will love your country, if not for her people?