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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Towards a Competitive Malaysia #82

Chapter 12: Fragmentation of Malaysian Society


Race Relations in Malaysia

The deadly race riots of 1969 and other minor incidents since then excepted, Malaysia is a model of interracial harmony. It is instructive that the 1969 riots coincided with the modern flare-ups of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. While Malaysians today are living in relative harmony, the folks in Northern Ireland are still busy settling their deadly scores.
Only Canada and Switzerland have a better record. Australians who love to lecture Malaysians on matters racial conveniently forget that it was only recently that they did away with their odiously racist White Australia Policy. Their handling of their own minorities in particular their Aborigines is far from exemplary. Canada offers many useful lessons. It successfully healed not only the delicate and often volatile English/French dilemma, but also its relationships with its indigenous groups like the Inuit and Indians.5 The French separatist movement in Quebec is now dissipating, with young Quebecois more concerned with economics than politics. In the past they were busy memorizing their catechism and lining up to enter the monasteries; today, armed with their engineering talent and business skills, they are busy capturing global markets. Whereas in the past, schools and colleges in Quebec were heavy on religion, today they emphasize the sciences and mathematics. There is an important lesson here for Malaysia.
Race relations in Malaysia are comparable if not superior to that in America. Both adopt radically different approaches in integrating their diverse citizens, and both are equally successful in their own way. Malaysia opts for the salad bowl model; America, the melting pot. The Malaysian model is better suited for the globalized world.
The Americans would have immigrants be acculturated into the mainstream as quickly as possible. This works, at least until recently, for two reasons. The first is that there is a dominant and successful preexisting culture, that of the Anglo-Saxons. Second, those early European immigrants were forced out of their homeland; they were more than eager to integrate. The Russians and Polish with their tongue twisting names readily anglicized them to meld with the mainstream, with Pawlinsky becoming Paul, and Steyvenovich, plain Stevens. The Chinese, brought in to work on the railways, too readily anglicized their names, with Lui morphing into Louie. Not exactly Anglo-Saxon, but close enough, and certainly less Chinese, at least in print. Today even though Chinese New Year is celebrated with exuberance in San Francisco, most American Chinese are indifferent to the occasion, having been totally acculturated to the American way.
Unlike their counterpart in Malaysia, American Chinese have no desire to champion their language, culture, or way of life. They do not seek to have their own schools or have Chinese New Year declared a public holiday.
The recent massive influx of Hispanic immigrants challenged this model. Unlike earlier European immigrants who had to cross the vast ocean and thus had no thought of ever returning home, these Hispanics (primarily Mexicans) had only to cross the Rio Grande or scale the fence along the southern American border.
They come and go frequently and have little need to adopt or adapt to the American way. They hang on to their culture, language and way of life, with little incentive to merge into the mainstream.
They could survive and indeed thrive within their barrios, complete with their own shops, radio and television channels, newspapers and magazines, and other amenities. In tandem with their increasing economic clout is their rising political power. Hispanics also have the highest fertility rates; this translates directly into significant political assets. In the last general elections, the major presidential candidates went out of their way to court Hispanic votes by addressing rallies in Spanish.
There is a growing backlash to their seeming resistance to merge into the mainstream and defying the melting pot tradition. It is as if they are telling earlier immigrants that they need not give up their heritage to be Americans. Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaysia too came not to settle but to work on the tin mines and rubber estates. They were exclusively men and had every intention of returning once they made their fortune. Only a few did. Besides, life in Malaysia as a coolie under the British, though lonely and tough, was considerably better than back in China where they would be preyed upon by their predatory warlords.
These immigrants with their balek tongsan (returning to the motherland) sentiments made no attempt at learning the local ways, much less integrating with the local populace. The exceptions were the “Straits Chinese”—the Nyonyas and Babas—who came much earlier; they adopted Malay ways, including the language and culture.
The dominant culture in pre-independent Malaysia was Anglo-Saxon, the colonialists’. Asian cultures including Malay were subsidiary and subservient, if not actively denigrated. All—Malays, Chinese and Indians—were consumed with trying to be Orang Puteh (White Man). They went to English schools, affected British accents, and wore suits even in the heat of the day. They did so because those reflected success.
When the British left, there was a cultural vacuum. Malays thought theirs was the dominant culture being that Malaysia was Tanah Melayu (lit. Land of the Malays) and they, the indigenous people. Unfortunately, Malays lacked economic power to enforce their contention. The only power they had was political, which they used effectively to enforce the dominance of Malay culture and language.
The Chinese thought that since they were the most powerful economically, their culture and language should be dominant, or at least be given equal standing. The Indians were (still are) marginal players. Not only were their numbers small, they were further subdivided into the various sub-ethnic groups, sharing little in common.
The battle for the alpha race or culture status was essentially between Malays and Chinese. This was reflected in the major racial skirmishes, including the two-week insurrection by the predominantly Chinese Malaysian Communist Party in 1948, and the 1969 riots.
Through legislative fiat, made possible through political power, Malays established the dominance of their culture, language, and mores. However, such matters cannot be mandated except in an authoritarian state, which Malaysia is surely not. Often, it is the market that rules. We see this in America with the increasing prominence of Hispanic culture and language in tandem with their increasing economic clout. In Malaysia, the economic clout of Malays is not commensurate with their political powers. Consequently Malays have difficulty establishing the reality of the supremacy of Malay culture and language.
Malay may be the official language, but Chinese newspapers and publications have a far greater share of the advertising dollar. Officially, Malay culture reigns supreme, but Chinese movies and celebrities command more fans. More tellingly, Chinese New Year holidays have much greater impact on day-to-day life in Malaysia than does Hari Raya. It is this gap between reality and aspiration that is at the root of Malay angst.

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