Urban friends and colleagues have asked what actually happens during the week-long birthday celebrations of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan: this year, the events were particularly diverse.
The week began on Monday (12 January) with a tahlil at the Masjid Diraja Tuanku Munawir in Seri Menanti (after one at the Masjid Negeri in Seremban the previous Thursday).
On Tuesday there was a display of over a dozen birthday cakes, presented by hotels and businesses in the state. These enormous masterpieces were the products of much skill and imagination, and over tea the chefs enjoyed talking about their creations which they had laboured over for many days. After being subjected to many photographs, the cakes were shared as much as possible throughout the subsequent celebrations.
Wednesday – Tuanku Muhriz’s actual birthday – began with the parade in the Padang where the Ruler received the guard of honour from the Royal Signals Regiment (of which he is Colonel-in-Chief). The entertainment this year was particularly musical, the highlight being the brilliant rendition of Apo Nak Dikato? by the band of the Royal Armoured Corps accompanied by electric guitar and sung by three soldiers, while 300 infantrymen from the 1st Brigade performed combat moves as flags waved synchronously behind.
For the first time since the Installation Ceremony in 2009, all the Putera Yang Empat were in the Balairong Seri, to witness the investiture. The Sultan of Perak headed the honours list, receiving the Darjah Kerabat (DK). Other recipients included the Chief Executive of IDEAS who received the Darjah Tuanku Muhriz (DTM) and the Managing Director of Teach For Malaysia who was bestowed an Ahli Setia Negeri Sembilan (ANS). In his royal address, the Ruler emphasised that the concept of unity is not limited by skin colour or religion – a similar point was made by the Sultan of Kedah a few days later at his birthday celebrations.
On Thursday morning we were in Bandar Sri Sendayan at the opening of the Safran aircraft carbon brakes manufacturing plant, which I had visited eighteen months previously with the French Prime Minister. The transformation was mind-boggling, but after further phases this factory will be the largest of its kind anywhere in the world: eventually, one in five landings of commercial aircraft will use brakes made in Negeri Sembilan.
Later in Seremban, the royal family foundation Yayasan Munarah thanked donors for recent contributions, and a significant amount was also raised that afternoon thanks to a rendition of Apo Nak Dikato? by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. Amongst the foundation’s immediate tasks is to provide water purification facilities for flood victims.
Prayers on Friday were at Masjid Kampung Beting, where the khutbah mentioned the recent floods and concluded with a call for compassion and generosity: “party affiliation is irrelevant.” The state banquet that evening brought together Negeri Sembilan people from state and federal institutions, and certainly party affiliation came secondary to the enjoyment of the traditional fare: “the only state banquet where petai is served,” said the Menteri Besar.
Back in Seri Menanti on Saturday I launched a community sports programme led by Institut Sukan Negara to foster unity imbued with sports science elements. Before I joined hundreds of schoolchildren as they tried different sports and underwent tests, my speech addressed the adults: “Often, brilliant programmes are conceived, but their implementation suffers due to incompetence or corruption, and those who were supposed to benefit get nothing. That is why I agreed to be patron of this project only if I get regular progress reports.”
At the lake 520 fishing enthusiasts took part in the fishing competition, and the reels were frantic as I sounded the horn to mark its end and gave the prize for the winning nearly-six kilogramme African catfish.
I was absent for the Seri Menanti Royal Cycling Challenge the next day (due to weddings) but was back in the royal town for the inaugural Malam Cinta Rasul in Seri Menanti on Monday, which served as the Maulidur Rasul celebration for the Luak Tanah Mendandong (following the Seremban procession I earlier wrote about).
The Padang was packed with more people than ever before as they expressed their love for the Prophet Muhammad through music, pausing for a lecture that reminded Muslims that it is not just today that the Prophet is being insulted and ridiculed: it happened back in his day, yet he told his followers not to behead the insulters, and instead to lead by a better example.
I am aware of the sceptical attitude of many urbanites towards royal events. But this year, as in previous years, thousands of people from every demographic joined in, heeding their Ruler’s call to live, work and play together.
Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS