The story of a nation is seen through the lives of its people. The Malaysian Insight speaks to citizens who were born in 1957 and are as old as Malaya’s independence. Their stories offer a glimpse of what being Malaysian means to them.

PREJUDICE and discrimination seemed to be a universe away during Kong Yong Thing’s childhood of school and basketball games with Chinese and Malay friends in Kuala Terengganu, the capital of the Malay heartland state of Terengganu on the east coast of the peninsula.

The idea that race could determine one’s path and choices in life first hit him as he prepared for tertiary education. It was a coming of age for the second-generation Malaysian Chinese, whose parents left China for Malaya when they were just teenagers.

Kong, the seventh of eight siblings, studied at the only English school in Kuala Terengganu, Sekolah Sultan Sulaiman.

 “It was a time when you never bothered to think what race you were,” said Kong, whose family rented a house on Jalan Masjid in front of Masjid Sultan Zainal Abidin.

His father, who came from Fujian province, pulled trishaws, worked for the city council and did a host of odd jobs to survive after arriving in Malaya. He then ran a bicycle shop.

Kong’s mother, now aged 88, helped her parents make soybean curd, or tau foo fa, which was sold at the market.

“When we were younger, we made money by planting the beans. As young boys, we would earn pocket money by grinding the beans (as well).

“For four gallons of soy milk, we got around 20 cents,’ said Kong, who today runs a small construction business.

The first time he was aware of the disparity between the races in Malaysia was when he turned 17.

“It was then I felt the New Economic Policy (NEP) and then you realised the world isn’t really fair. How come you’re on the waiting lists when all your Malay classmates who didn’t pass could go on to Form 6?” asked Kong.

“You get discouraged at first and you don’t understand why. Even if you get good results for the HSC (Higher School Certificate), you can’t get into university, but all your peers that didn’t even get the certificate could get into university.

“You feel the difference, but after a while you aren’t bothered. You find your own way.

“It is a strange country,” said Kong, who was born in October the same year of Malaya’s independence from Britain.

The second time he was aware he was different, was on a trip to Kuala Lumpur in 1976.

“Two years after graduation we went to Kuala Lumpur. A whole bus of Chinese people went to Chow Kit road. And everyone stared at us like trouble was coming.

“We never thought of the racial problems in the country, because all of our friends never talked about it. Up until today, we are still friends, but times are changing,” said the 60-year-old.

The NEP was introduced after the race riots of May 13, 1969, as affirmative action plan to level the field for people of all races in all sectors, including jobs and education or university quotas.

Chow Kit Road in Kuala Lumpur was the epicentre of the racial clashes that scars the nation to this day.

Kong said many Chinese understood the need for NEP, but they were unhappy with its implementation.

But he doesn’t blame the government or his Malay friends for NEP.

“It’s more about understanding the need for the policy, and how to implement it. This is what our government needs to deal with.

“Sometimes the government asks non-Malays about the NEP. And if we say we are not affected by this, it won’t be the truth. So, it’s just how we deal with it.”

The father of four said his children didn’t really talk about the NEP any more, as they had more choices and were better protected today.

“They want the fastest way out of college, and so they go for private colleges, and most of them don’t want to go to public universities.

“Their generation’s way of thinking is different. When we were their age, we didn’t think about our future, but now, they think about what courses they want to take,” said Kong.

The simple life

After not getting a place at a local university, Kong went to the capital and enrolled in a diploma for construction at TAR College. Upon graduation, Kong worked for a few years in the city, but his yearning for the simple life in Terengganu brought him home again.

“I couldn’t handle the environment. Here, going to the office takes five minutes, but in KL, you can struggle from 6am to 8pm. I had no life, so I came back to the east coast. One has more working hours in KL than living hours in KT,” said Kong.

Growing up in KT, his only worry was how much pocket money he could make by helping his mother grind soybeans.

Despite all the negativity around him, Kong said migrating overseas was not an option.

“A lot of people make their money here to run away and leave others behind. It’s just running away from your problems. There are ways to solve things other than running away.

“Our country, after so many years, we are still harmonious. Our country is very unique.

“If the government had the right political views, our country would be better. One of these days, they will change,” he added hopefully.