The pomp and pageantry accompanying the passing of Queen Elizabeth ll was watched by countless people around the world.
Many withstood the cold nights and the long, tiring wait of hours just to pay a few minutes of respect to the late monarch. I myself was riveted to the TV for hours on end each day, foregoing some of my regular, much enjoyed TV series. Why is this so, one may ask?
For many, this reverence must seem excessive, even a little unthinking and colonial. The British Empire, after all, had dark, shameful historical moments of violence and bloodshed. So much for the rule of law.
Racism and discrimination, the unremitting arrogance – contained in phrases like “the white man’s burden” and “a civilising mission” – have long been critiqued by scholars and activists alike and by the ordinary person in the street, those multi-racial folk who are anything but ordinary. Rightly so, as history that is worth remembering must be viewed from fascinatingly different perspectives.
Why then my personal interest in the tradition, the pomp, the ceremonial pageantry of a funeral that has behind it all the trappings of power? Perhaps it is because the Queen has behind her the weight of a history and culture that, because of colonial expansion, touched millions worldwide.
I believe that many of us post-colonials, like it or not, were schooled in the British educational mode. Many of us senior citizens remember with unapologetic fondness the poems, limericks and hymns we learnt in school. Some of us still know the lines by heart.
And yet being schooled by the ‘agents’ of empire need not make us unthinking, subservient followers. To love the cultural heritage of the English (Shakespeare, Wordsworth and so on) does not and must not mean one loses all discerning critique, nor must this love inevitably supplant our own Asian cultural heritage. I love Malay writers and vernacular Malaysian writers (from translations of their work) as much as I love Alfred Lord Tennyson or Virginia Woolf.
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Schooled by Anglican missionaries in St Mary’s School and then in Victoria Institution for Sixth Form, I cannot think of a more colonial mode of education. Even after our beloved country achieved its independence, the tonality of the British public school still lingered on.
Do I regret that education? No, because I valued the dedication of well-trained teachers, both foreign and local (some locals trained at Brinsford Lodge in the UK) who gave me such joy in the English language, who made me mind my punctuation and my arithmetic (though I barely passed maths).
What I do regret is the exclusion of a local cultural and linguistic focus, which meant I only learnt Malay, a language I also love, in Standard Six. Having no knowledge of written Chinese, I also miss out on the elegance, conciseness and intellectual depth of Chinese writers. Indeed, I can only write my own name in Chinese after much practice.
Empire also meant profit and economic gains. The opulence accompanying the funeral of the Queen must remind many of how the imperial coffers were partly filled by the wealth garnered from the Empire.
Many recent posts on social media remind us angrily of this, some in such brutal language that it makes one cringe. This kind of unmitigated anger reminds us of what both Sartre and Fanon said – that “the oppressed can become the oppressor”.
While at a university in California completing a postgrad degree decades ago, I was fortunate enough to enjoy the calm insight of an older professor who told me that the mature, thinking mind does not view any issue one-sidedly. Such a mind is able to hold in balance numerous perspectives without losing logical thinking.
At that time, many in academia were using, passionately and brilliantly, what was called postcolonial theories and subaltern theories to critique the legacies of imperialism and colonialism. I admire the scholarly contribution of many such insights on Empire but with age, at 74-plus now, one sees human actions more calmly and compassionately.
While one must not forget or elide the horrors of colonialism, one must be vigilant so as not to ignore the horrors committed by local figures of power. Quite a few colonised leaders colluded with the colonialist powers in the long history of humanity for their own gains.
When I teach Things Fall Apart by the well-known Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, I alert students to Achebe’s honest wisdom concerning the power struggles, the violence that was already present in his community before the Europeans came. Achebe admits that his own tribal past was never a glorious “technic-colour idyll”. Sure, that past had its glory, but it also had its shame.
Historical records tell us of many empresses, emperors and rulers worldwide, of whatever ethnicity, who have left a horrendous record of cruelty.
Nonetheless, as post-colonials, we must guard against using the Queen as a benchmark of royal behaviour because that would mean returning to the colonial hierarchy by putting her at the apex of royalty.
We have had many Asian and non-European rulers who have been exemplary in their reigns albeit with very different cultural tonalities. We should not forget to honour them.
Royalty, like all of us, are human beings. In the Queen’s own roles as daughter, sister, wife, mother and grandmother, there would have been many relationship challenges. Like some of us, she must have experienced the pain of knowing that one cannot predict the behaviour of one’s children. Indeed, no human being can foresee the ebb and flow of human emotions.
The private side of the Queen, her innermost thoughts and feelings, her anguish and her anxiety are customarily hidden from public scrutiny. Like many of us, she must have grieved alone, for as she herself puts it: “Grief is the price you pay for love.”
For me, a Christian, it is deeply encouraging that she refers often to her faith in God. I am sure those of other faiths would also comprehend her need for an inner sanctum of peace and strength.
Queen Elizabeth, like any human being, may have had her failings, but it is her public face of grace, calmness and dignity that we recall.
Her long reach in terms of time in her 70-year reign means that, for me, her life somehow connects with my own and indeed with my older relatives. I can barely remember the pomp of her coronation in 1953 (I was only five) but I can recall, if vaguely, how we all congregated at my granduncle’s house, which was a solitary bungalow commanding a good view, as it was elevated on a small hill, just down the road from Merdeka Stadium. From that elevated spot, we could enjoy a clear view of a procession in honour of her.
Life today, especially public life, can be filled with speed, haste and hurry, leading to a lack of grace, a diminishing of politeness. It is thus so good to recall a monarch who can retain tranquillity in the face of demandingly stressful circumstances.
Today, we hear so often of road rage and other kinds of rage as when a customer shouts at a hawker just because he did not get enough ikan bilis. We do need to reflect on how valuable self-control is.
A little magnet on my fridge reads: “Keep calm and drink tea.” Perhaps the Queen did just that, though not always with Paddington Bear.