Kuala Lumpur seems almost cozy against the bigness of Jakarta or the sprawl of Bangkok. For someone born in her suburbs and bred in her metropolis, I’m palpably attached to this bestowed territory. Because I didn’t choose this geography anymore than I chose my lineage. And neither did you.

That means being a ‘Malaysian’ is a gift. To accept this gift, is to jointly celebrate our various origin myths, our collective historical memories, and above all, our attachment to a given territory. There is no other way to be ‘Malaysian’.

We’ve gathered 5 photographers whose pictures will remind us that being Malaysian is so much more than being proud of the Twin Towers, or of history’s greatest female squash player, or even of our fine hawker food. It is a priceless gift, and a heavy responsibility. Now –  more than ever – is the time to look out for your neighbours and appreciate your friends.

Happy Merdeka folks. Protect it. Honour it.

Zulfadhli Zaki

Like most young men he was first inspired by conflict photography. Unlike most young men, he asked, “What things are people at war with locally? Class differences? Social problems? Getting ahead in the rat race?”

This led him to create an on-going project on the vagaries of mental illness, the ones that are sidelined for being incapacitated mentally.

“A huge percentage of people suffer from some form of mental disturbance. But a lot of us are lucky because we have family and friends to share our burdens with. Some have no channels to express themselves, some are abandoned. This photo project made me see how important the family unit is,” says Zulfadhli.

Not so long ago, a girl asked if she could re-post his photographs. She had been a patient herself, now recovered and wanting to use his powerful shots to share her own experience of being institutionalized.

“My message to all Malaysians is to love and appreciate your family while they’re still here. Watch out for each other, and don’t fight over material things like property or money. They aren’t the most important things for a good life.”

Syed Al-Ghamidy

“KL is in the midst of shedding it’s old face. For photographers like us, it’s a privilege that also represents a period of uncertainty. Sure KL has been a city in transit throughout its history, changing from one form to another. But from Chow Kit to Petaling Street, the old buildings are being transformed and you have to ask, what are we leaving behind? What part of our past are we closing the door on?”

To Syed, the old buildings help remind Malaysians what our forefathers fought for. They represent our roots. Now so many are being torn down for a multi-development. “Still, I love chronicling these changes. I want to be the eyes and the voice of this era because it is a privilege to capture and share the changes we’re going through.”

Munirah Rohaizan

Nurul is every bit the voracious student of the lens. Which is special because she’s been published abroad, with several international awards to her name. But would you expect any different from the girl who who forced a mentorship on professional photographer, Kevin A. Logan?

“I  was  in  Dublin  and  he  was  in  Cork,  and  he’d  commented  on  my photos online. Once I found out who he was, I kind of forced him teach me everything he knew. I went down to meet him and we spent a few days taking panoramas and we’d talk online, and then we’d meet when he wasn’t off shooting around the world.”

Nurul’s a dyed-in-the-wool KL-ite, who’s grandmom’s house used to stand directly opposite Masjid Jamek.

“I grew up in what I call old KL. Now there’s Bangsar South, which everyone  knows  as  Pantai  Dalam.  Bukti  Pudoh  has  become  Bukit Bintang City Centre. There’s several places called Damansara but we all know there’s only one Damansara. Why? People should stop messing with our history to give their developments more value.”

Lim Paik Yin

From the objective to the subjective, Lim’s experimental photography is her way of answering what it mean to be Malaysian. In one photo she’s  at  the  Bersih  rally,  capturing  the  crowd’s  reaction  to  a  self portrait. In another she’s discovering what it means to be her parents’ daughter, as they pose in her bedroom.

“Malaysians are a mix of everything, we’re a fusion and that’s why we’re so great. Its like a rojak. We don’t always know what goes in, but it tastes good. I don’t think we’re so hung-up about being ‘pure’ because we’ve seen diversity works.”

“I  start  with  a  question  for  my  photo  projects,  like  what  does it  mean  to  ‘go  home’.  You  should  be  comfortable  at  home, but sometimes you aren’t. I feel sometimes Malaysia is my home, but I’m not always comfortable here. Why don’t I feel at ease?”

“I’ve been told to balik kampung, but who belongs where or who owns what? I can’t provide the answers, but perhaps the questions make us look for our own solution.

Cheryl Hoffmann

“Whenever I stop over in Narita or Hong Kong International Airport, I can always recognize the Malaysians. There’s a feeling about them, that they’re comfortable being themselves, that they love where they come from.”

Hoffmann  has  spent  many  years  living  here.  But  sometimes  she gets caught in the middle. “I tried to enter a jurored exhibit back in Hamilton, Ontario. But I was told I couldn’t because I didn’t live there anymore.”

And over here, she sometimes gets excluded too, but readily says the photography community is growing and opening up to new ideas really fast.

“People aren’t as obsessed with sharpness or perfection. And what I love is that they’ve come to appreciate what I do. I’ve been going to the Nine Emperor Gods festival for years now, along with photographing Mak Yong and Tok Puteri in Kelantan, as well as Kuda Kepang in Johor. And they used to look at me funny, like why is this older foreign woman getting  all  down  and  dirty  with  them.  And  sometimes,  they’re  just  a blur across my lens. But then they look deeply and they see themselves represented in that moment and they get it.”

“Merdeka is a celebration of a place people are proud of and less about throwing off colonial shackles. Its about saying, ‘I’m a Malaysian, this is my home’. I like the fact that there’s a growing number of hyphenated Malaysians, it’s fast becoming our unifying feature.

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