Every Raya morning, Putri Eliza Megat Nazam would wake up early to help prepare breakfast for her family, a spread which always included lemang, ketupat rendang and other mouth-watering favourites associated with the celebration.
After the Raya prayer, family members would gather in the living room at her grandmother’s house in Perak to seek each other’s forgiveness.
Central to this tradition for many Malay families are the “atuk” and “nenek” or the grandparents at home in the village.
These family elders are the reason hundreds of thousands of Malaysians like Putri Eliza brave hours of traffic on the highways each year as they head back to their home towns in an exodus from the cities popularly known as “balik kampung”.
Traffic jams and crowded R&R stops are the hallmark of this annual migration as families scattered across the country reunite for a few precious days.
But for many households, the balik kampung phenomenon is slowly fading into the history books as older relatives die and younger ones build their lives in the city.
For Putri Eliza, things began changing after the deaths of her grandparents in 2019.
“After that, each family celebrated Raya morning separately before going to visit each other. We no longer gathered at grandmother’s house,” she said.
For many households, the balik kampung phenomenon is slowly fading into the history books.
And although she and her family still return to their home town for Hari Raya, the atmosphere there is no longer the same.
In Putri Eliza’s case, it was her grandparents’ deaths that signalled the beginning of change. Others no longer travel back to the village as their parents have moved to the city.
According to statistica.com, 76.61% of Malaysians lived in urban areas and cities as of 2019.
The website also noted an increase in the country’s urban population from 66% in 2004 to 74% in 2014. Such growth is expected to continue as those from rural areas migrate to urban centres in search of economic opportunities.
Zaid Ahmad, of Universiti Putra Malaysia’s department of government and civilisation, said while massive migrations can still be seen, balik kampung trips will likely decrease in the years to come, mostly due to urbanisation.
While authorities made plans for development and urbanisation, he said, tradition had taken a back seat.
“We did not take into account the social and cultural aspect of urbanisation and the impact of the migration on our value system and our lives.
“The fact that there are fewer students in rural areas shows that urbanisation is taking over kampung life,” he said to MalaysiaNow.
He said Malays, like other Asians, value kinship and stress the importance of blood relations which translates into big, extended families.
But as more and more people become urbanised, he said, such values would slowly erode, affecting the balik kampung culture.
“The second and third generations of city migrants no longer have any memories of kampung life. They do not yearn as much as their parents to go back to the kampung during festive seasons.
“This is compounded by the deaths of the old folks, the centre of these families,” he said.
“The reason why balik kampung is still alive and kicking is because the first generation still lives. In some cases, even the first generation won’t come back.”
Zaid said the problem is managing the shift from rural to city life, taking into consideration the local value system.
“In some cases, even the first generation won’t come back.”
He said a counter-narrative of sorts is needed to retain the attraction of life in the village.
“Reverse migration can be done to attract young people to work in rural areas if we want to keep our culture and value system.
“This can be done with proper planning, with an emphasis on accessibility and infrastructure development in rural areas.”
He envisioned a scenario in which people can live in the village but work in the city with the use of public transport such as high-speed trains.
“Their lives in the village can be as modern as that in the city, and they can also enjoy the rural ecosystem and the ties of kinship.”
Left to its current trajectory, he said, kampung life would soon be relegated to stories and tales, or portrayed only in films and books.
For him, this is a bigger long-term threat than the Covid-19 crisis.
“The people will return to their villages once the pandemic is over,” he said. “For now, the tradition is still alive. It’s the long-term shift that needs to be addressed.”
Back in Perak, Putri Eliza wants to keep the tradition alive even though celebrations are not the same without her grandparents.
“We will still go back to the kampung to meet our extended families. But perhaps we won’t stay as long as we used to. Maybe three days, tops.”