Encik Ahmad asal dari mana?” my colleague asked the driver, breaking the silence of the ride.

I stole a quick glance at the driver of the MPV. I didn’t know his age, of course, but by the greying hair on his head and the wrinkles on his face, Encik Ahmad was probably in his fifties.

Mak orang Melaka. Ayah orang sini,” he replied.

‘Sini’ was Singapore. Encik Ahmad is a Singaporean Malay.

I could not remember when was the last time I came to Singapore, but I knew that it was a long time ago. Maybe around ten years ago. I’ve heard and I’ve read of the country’s unprecedented growth, so when I had the opportunity to visit the country a few weeks ago for a law conference, I looked forward to seeing how much it had changed since my last visit.

Indeed, Singapore has changed a lot. I could not remember much of my visit the last time, but I was very sure it looked nothing like the Singapore of today. For one, it was a very orderly country. Nothing like the bustle and the chaos of Kuala Lumpur. The streets are clean, too clean. It’s like they’ve been educated to do things a certain way. Do not litter. Do not jaywalk. I noticed that Singaporeans even smoked at specially designated smoking areas littered around the city-state.

One cannot help but be overwhelmed at the magnitude of it all. Singapore’s skyline is dotted with tall buildings. If in Kuala Lumpur we see the city’s personality in its people, in Singapore, the buildings and the architecture speaks of the country’s soul. In a country as orderly as Singapore, its the buildings – the skyscrapers, the malls, the quint shops, the apartments – that stands out the most.

Yet its the people that I’m most interested in.

Like Encik Ahmad, who still has family in Malaysia.

Mak saya ada di Melaka. Baru hari tu masa raya saya pergi lawat dia.

“So Encik Ahmad ni orang Malaysia asalnya?

Tak, orang Singapore. Passport pun Singapore. Duduk Singapore sepanjang hidup saya.

Encik Ahmad then started talking about his work. He had nothing but good things to say about his employer, a Chinese Singaporean who is an associate of ours. I could see that he enjoyed working for the man. He told us that he’s always willing to come whenever he’s called, even if at night or if he’s on leave. He even said that he’s willing to work during Hari Raya if his employer asked him. Of course, his employer never did.

Yelah, daripada duduk rumah kena keluar duit, baik kerja. Duit masuk kalau kerja.

Hard to argue with that logic.

Hari itu, ada pegawai kastam ni buat ‘beng’!” he suddenly said. I have no idea what is ‘beng‘, but I assumed that it was something like ‘bengang‘.

Dia boleh tanya saya kenapa saya ikut mak saya dan bukan bapa saya.” He was referring to his nationality, why did become a Singaporean like his mother and not Malaysian like his father.

Saya lawan balik. Saya cakap siapa lagi susah lahirkan saya, mak saya ke, ayah saya? Mak saya kena mengandungkan saya, lahirkan saya, besarkan saya. Mak lagi susah!

His annoyance at the custom officer’s totally uncalled for question was quite interesting. He must have been closer to his mother than his father. Maybe his father did not do much when he was growing up. I do not know, nor did I probe further. What was evident was the fact that he obviously values his mother’s contributions more than that of his father.

Maybe also, at some subconscious level, he’s annoyed at the officer for questioning his nationality. As far as he’s concerned, he is Singaporean. Why should he be questioned on it?

Encik Ahmad has nostalgic memories of what Singapore used to be, probably in the days of his youth. He talks about how some of the land in Singapore used to be a part of Johore (no, he isn’t referring to Pulau Batu Puteh). He also talked about the some areas being ‘man-made’ (perhaps referring to the island nation’s reclamation activities). “Tak tahulah kuat mana tanah ni. Jangan tenggelam satu hari nanti sudah,” he said, pointing to the road before us.

But he found particular glee when he narrated to us of how the President’s place is supposedly haunted. No President of Singapore can ever ‘tahan’ to spend the night there. That was the site of the Singapura dilanggar todak legend, he explained. According to the legend, many centuries ago thousands of swordfishes ‘attacked’ Singapore, so much so that many lives were lost. I recommend you to read the tale yourself, its part of the Malay Annals or Sejarah Melayu epic.

I wondered why he was so amused at the ‘supernatural’ story that he narrated to us of the place hallowed by Singapura’s very well known legend? Perhaps he sees these ‘beings’ as a manifestation of remorse that a nation with a proud history of kesultanan Melayu has now seemingly lost many of its heritage.

But apart from that, I could not detect a hint of regret from Encik Ahmad on the fact that he’s Singaporean.

Saya dulu hidup susah. Tapi anak-anak saya sekarang alhamdulillah. Saya beritahu mereka, jangan jadi macam saya. Jangan hidup susah macam saya.

I didn’t know what his children does, but from the tone of his voice, I would imagine that they would have done well for themselves. At least, they’re better off than him.

Jangan sampai jadi Melayu Singapura, has always been the rallying cry of Malay nationalists. The fate of the Singaporean Malays have been the subject of laments amongst the Malay community. Supposedly, the numbers of the Melayu Singapura is dwindling. It is said that Singaporean Malays have been marginalized by the larger ethnic Chinese community, so much so that they now serve merely as an exotic showpiece to display the country’s unique diversity. The ‘sad fate’ of the Singaporean Malays served as a caution to Malays across the causeway, to justify continued affirmative action and the need to defend Malay rights. Jangan sampai jadi Melayu Singapura, we’ve been told again and again.

I wanted to see for myself whether this is true. Are Singaporean Malays really marginalized?

My conversation with Encik Ahmad did not provide me with a definitive answer. If indeed they were marginalized, I could not ascertain so during my short visit to the country.

But what I did gather from Encik Ahmad is that he has no reservations about his nationality. He make no qualms that his Singaporean. He accepts it, and gets on with his life. Perhaps even if there is marginalization (intended or otherwise) on his ethnic community, he still regards Singapore as his home. His ibu pertiwi.

I think back at the situation in Malaysia. Ethnic marginalization, or at last ethnic preference, exist our country, to varying degrees. The Malays who feel marginalized by the country’s economy, the non-Malays who feel marginalized by the government’s affirmative action policy or the East Malaysians who feel marginalized by the West Malaysians. Yet whatever ‘marginalization’ these communities might think they are subjected to, at the end of the day, Malaysia is their ibu pertiwi.

The Malaysian view of the island nation is one of disdain and envy. Envy, at the success enjoyed by a nation with limited resources. Disdain, at how the country’s people had supposedly ‘sold their soul’ to enjoy such success.

But regardless of what citizens of both country think of each other, the fact remains that Malaysia and Singapore share common roots. Many Malaysians and Singaporeans have family ties across the Causeway. Ties that cannot be denied by mere decades of separation.

And so too, are the fates of the two countries are intertwined. Each needing the other, whether we wish to acknowledge it or not.

Dulu senang nak ulang-alik. Sekarang dah pecah, kena pakai passport!

With Encik Ahmad’s final words, I pondered at what could have had the two sibling countries not decided to part ways so many years ago.