One Jaffna Tamil family’s story of finding their place in a once foreign land.
IT’S been said that individuals of mixed parentage often feel out of place and not particularly connected with their heritage. It’s the same for those of a minority race in a foreign country. Some, however, choose to hold a more positive view on the matter.
“The beauty of being born in Malaysia is being rooted in a heritage that’s diverse,” says Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, a former Suhakam commissioner who is of Jaffna Tamil descent.
His grandfather was amongst the thousands of early Indians and Ceylonese (Sri Lankans) who migrated to Malaya from the late 19th to early 20th century looking for a fresh start. They were attracted by trade prospects and many came as merchants as well as labourers.
Survival was complicated then as the country’s plantation economy was in the primary stages of development, and the Indian immigrants struggled to settle down.
“My grandfather, like others, faced issues pertaining to the work environment as they, as immigrants, had to set up home in rural areas. Public facilities were scarce and it was difficult to communicate with family members many had left behind in Sri Lanka. But my grandfather persevered for he had come for better opportunities,” Jayasooria explains.
Eventually, a number of people from this community rose to important positions in society, many of them active and influential in cultural bodies, religious groups, welfare societies and trade unions. Fortunate ones had family with them, which made settling down easier.
“After his first wife passed away, my grandfather eventually married a Jaffna Tamil woman who had been living in Malaya for a long time. After many years, some opted to return to their homeland, but my grandparents decided to settle permanently in this country and today, we see the fifth generation of our family call Malaysia home,” says Jayasooria, 56.
There is now an estimated two million Indians living in Malaysia, of which an estimated 50,000 are Jaffna Tamils, most of whom make a living as professionals.
To Jayasooria, embracing a sense of one’s citizenship is vital. This sense of patriotism was instilled in him by his father, the ‘We are not strangers in this land and we want to celebrate the heritage that we have here,’ says Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria. legendary Daniel Jararatnam (known in political circles as Banting Jaya) who served his people through community service and political action in the MIC back in the 50s and 60s. His philosophy was simple: help the needy.
Jayasooria watched and learnt from his father and entered politics to bring about positive changes for the Malaysian community, in particular the Indians.
“One must start championing change from a macro perspective,” says Jayasooria, who sought to understand more about his father when he turned 40.
A collection of family photos, letters and newspaper clippings came together in a publication in 2002, authored by Jayasooria and entitled Politics & Service: The Experiences Of Banting Jaya.
“We may have a different origin but what matters is that we have been born here and are Malaysians. We are not strangers in this land and we want to celebrate the heritage that we have here,” Jayasooria says. “My generation is the third in this family lineage and while we and our children have entered into crosscultural marriages, we appreciate and acknowledge that we are truly Malaysians,” he says.
For Jayasooria, this weekend marks his family’s 100th year milestone as Malaysians. Representatives from 30 families within this clan, good friends and well-wishers from Malaysia and other countries will gather in a private community hall in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, to celebrate this momentous event. To them, it is a time of thanksgiving.
“For over 100 years, God has seen us through as immigrants who came as workers to now established citizens of an independent Malaysia. Our identity and heritage lies in a unique combination of our Malaysian citizenship, Jaffna Tamil ancestry and Christian faith,” says Jayasooria.
Happy to be together: Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria and his family.