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Amused at Fort Cornwallis


By OOI KEE BENG. Penang Monthly Editorial April 20201

AT THE WATER’s edge, my soul sighs. This has something to do with the sound of waves. Things may seem serene, but I cannot forget the power the sea withholds. I am lured by the ceaseless roll of water on sand the way I am persuaded by a cat’s welcoming purr. I embrace the moment of peace, yet I am aware that a tiger lurks within, that a storm hides beyond the horizon.

This is the allure of the ocean. But just as the cat will strike and then just as suddenly slip away as if nothing of consequence has happened, the waves can turn ugly to release a fury beyond my ability to prepare for, and then turn tranquil again. Lulling me to swim in it even.

It is true that islanders are often poor swimmers, if they are swimmers at all. Somewhere off the coast promise and excitement always lurk, but also danger and death. There lies a borderland not to be taken lightly.

The open sea, the open sky; these define my puny physical home. The infinite world exudes uncaring power, and in doing that makes islanders belong and provides them a space where temporary peace is felt. They are close to Nature but are not responsible for it. In fact, they are her paltry victims, pawns of no importance, squatters in time and space.

This keeps them humble.

The tranquility that islands offer is of the kind that forts offer. Walls may stand solid but they signal persistent and overwhelming dangers; cannons may provide comfort, but their impact is often pathetically weak.

The sea and the sky bring foreign things. Birds contribute their droppings, and boats drop their cargos. Tides wash diverse flotsam ashore, and planes deliver motley passengers. And with them come all manner of material—some of great value no doubt, but pestilence as well. Islands suffer lack to be remedied, be this fresh water, the latest electronics or viable land.

The sea and the sky take things away as well. Unlike roads on land, sea lanes are fluid. The rules of sea travel are not cut in stone. They are written on water and in the wind. Beyond the horizons, other lands beckon, and the waters are merely distance to traverse to places where grasses are greener and pavements more golden.

Already before modern machines strengthened human will, the seas had allowed for alien cultures to meet, to trade or to do battle, without bothering with proximate nations in between. A Bugis boatsman could set sail in any direction he liked—to China or to Cham, whenever frivolous Nature permitted. And pirates made easy prey of sailors losing their way.

Islands are, in essence, abodes for the humble and the vulnerable. At the least, they are humbling places. But they are also home to the hopeful and the obstinate.

No symbol depicts my tropical island better than the coconut palm. Its fronds are made to sway while its trunk stands solid. It orchestrates creatures big and small to obey its pace, and it welcomes man, monkey and mynah to its shade, its drink and its meat. It grows firmly on sand but sends its seeds off by sea, the way islanders do.

A tropical islander lives indiscernibly with daily weather changes. My cool mornings are followed by searing afternoons, and later perhaps by rainy or breezy evenings. Or perhaps not, it’s not predictable. But behind me stands a rigid range of hills giving spiritual support and physical shelter.

Such are the conditions of insular peace.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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