I was at the Ramah Mesra for Brunei Muara District last Sunday, the customary culmination of His Majesty the Sultan’s Birthday celebration.
At these events, associations, organizations, businesses and schools turn out at the “Padang” of each district and put on a display of affection and loyalty to the Ruler. The event consists of an oath taking, traditional performances, exhibitions and a tug of war competition.
Before lunch, the morning program culminates in a walk-about by His Majesty and his family among the different groups who have gathered at the Padang, organized into different tents and exhibitions.
In my mind there is no-where else in the world where a head of state, a ruler will mingle so freely, closely and openly with the community. It is a testament to the warmth and generosity, to the kind nature of His Majesty that people of all shapes and sizes, of all backgrounds and status may come and wish him well on his birthday. His Majesty descends onto the Padang with little or none of the accoutrements of state to essentially be with his people. Everyone has a chance to greet His Majesty – civil servants, business owners, police veterans, school children asking for selfies (invariably granted), bankers sweating in their suits.
It is truly a display of a special bond. We should all feel lucky to be a part of it.
Since I started (and stopped – and started) writing this column, there has been a great up-surge in social media connectivity, not just in Brunei but around the world. It is a fact of life these days that news is spread by non-traditional means. As a result many of us have had to bear witness to the ugly side of the Brunei character. Videos and commentary have circulated of people helping themselves to a large cake made available to the public at this event. It is not the fact that people help themselves to this cake, but the manner in which they have done this - descending on the cake like a cloud of locusts, without any care for manners or decorum - shoveling large chunks of cake into whatever receptacle is at hand, using paper plates, cardboard boxes, their bare hands. Young and old pushing and shoving as if they had not eaten in days. It is a sight that will leave you open-mouthed.
A mea-culpa on my part. I was responsible for one of the tents on Sunday. We were lucky to have had a sponsor for a large and beautiful birthday cake. We thought we were prepared - we had a chef on hand to portion the cake, take away boxes at the ready. Once the official party had moved on however, there was no stopping the free-for-all. We pleaded for calm, but the crowds had none of it. One well dressed and able-bodied man I had asked for patience even grabbed a slice of cake, licked the top and placed it back saying, “go ahead, take my share!”, all the while laughing like a hyena. What struck me was not just the ill manners of the crowd, but the mean spiritedness- absolutely not in keeping with the “mesra” of the occasion.
One must ask why have we come to this? Many people have said that even in places of great poverty and need, people do not behave in such a loutish manner.
Is it a terrible sense of entitlement? That everyone should expect, nay demand their share of the cake? Is it a result of plain greed, or that “if I don’t get my share, some one else will and I will lose out”?
When I was growing up and attending weddings with my parents, we were told never to take to too much food at the buffet and never to go for seconds. Firstly, the idea was not to bring shame on your family, to act as if there was not enough food at home. Secondly, the idea was also to leave some for others.
That’s perhaps what it is, a lack of basic human dignity, a lack of appreciation of your own self and a lack of appreciation of the worth of others.
Perhaps the greatest gift that we could hope to bestow on a ruler, like a child to a parent, is to show that we can live with self-reliance, grace and dignity.
Illustration by Cuboi Art.
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