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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.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #45

Chapter Six: Malaysia: Assets and Liabilities

Our Plurality An Asset


Malaysians, especially the leaders, have always regarded their plural society as a liability. If only the nation were racially and culturally homogenous, these leaders would lament, many of our problems would be gone. Such wishful thinking! I argue the contrary. That is, Malaysia’s racial plurality, far from being a liability, is actually an asset. And a significant one at that!

Malaysian policies and strategies are constantly being looked at and analyzed in racial terms. Often the implicit assumption is that what is good for Malays must necessarily be bad for non-Malays, and the reverse, what is good for non-Malays is bad for Malays. This mentality is ingrained at all levels. As noted earlier, Malaysia’s racial plurality is another legacy of the British colonial rule.

The country’s multiracial society has indeed been a source of problems, both past and present. In part this Malaysian dilemma results from socioeconomic divisions paralleling racial lines. This is not a uniquely Malaysian problem. With the massive migrations and arbitrary drawings of political boundaries in the last century, many countries have ethnically and culturally diverse populations. Today’s headlines are filled with tragedies consequent to those diversities: the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; the genocide of Rwanda; the continuing sectarian strife in Northern Ireland; and ethnic hostilities in Sri Lanka.

Malaysia too has had its share. Fortunately its race relations have improved considerably but occasionally there are flare-ups that rudely remind everyone that race can still be an incendiary issue. The most recent was the 2001 riot in Kampong Medan, a squalid suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

The frightening aspect of that outbreak of hostility was that it was triggered by a trivial neighborly dispute over a wedding that was held on the same day as a funeral. It just so happened that the principals were of different races. Perhaps that should not surprise anyone. However, it was disappointing to see the response of the authorities. For a long while they completely denied what was apparent to all: that the whole affair was racial. Belatedly the prime minister and his deputy admitted the obvious, but not until they had exhausted their credibility.

Handled creatively, Malaysia’s plural society could be turned into a considerable asset. Malaysians are exposed daily to all the great traditions of Asia. Walk down any street in any town and you will see a mosque, Chinese temple, Hindu shrine, and even a church. In any one city block one can savor Asia’s many culinary delights. Roadside stalls peddle Malay sate, Chinese noodles, and Indian curry. (And also lately, hot dog and hamburger stands!) There is also a remarkable degree of racial integration in all spheres of social and economic life. When seeking medical care, buying stocks, or hiring a taxi, one is likely to encounter Malaysians of different races.

What is truly remarkable about this is, unlike the integration in America where each minority group tries hard to blend into the mainstream, Malaysians proudly maintain their own racial and cultural identity. Unlike minorities elsewhere, the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia do not feel obligated or forced to assume a Malay identity or to change their names or manner of dressing.

In America by contrast, within a generation the children of immigrants would lose their identification with their parent’s culture. German-Americans would anglicize their names and prefer roast beef to sauerkraut. My American-Chinese colleagues hardly celebrate Chinese New Year. In Thailand and Indonesia, the Chinese have to assume local names. Outward expressions of their cultural traditions are prohibited. By comparison, Chinese New Year and Deepavali are nowhere more exuberantly celebrated than in Malaysia. What is even more remarkable is that such ethnic displays do not evoke hostility among Malays. On the contrary, Malaysians join in to celebrate each other’s festivities and enjoy the public holidays!

Left to their own devices the various races in Malaysia would by the nature of human dynamics continue to forge closer. It is only when their leaders start to “champion” for their rights that they begin to view each other in terms of “us” versus “them.”

In this regard I am extremely concerned over recent tendencies among young Malaysians to segregate themselves racially. This does not bode well for the future of Malaysia. The authorities would do well to study the phenomenon and quickly ameliorate it.

Malaysians are already steeped in the ways of multiculturalism. Most are multilingual, especially non-Malays. Many Malays unfortunately are still trapped by inappropriate nationalistic instincts and remain handicapped by their monolingual capabilities.

Malaysians are thus better prepared for the global world, having learned to live in, and tolerate or even celebrate the different cultures and lifestyles. When Malaysians travel abroad and encounter different customs and ways of doing things, they are not shocked or surprised. They are already used to these differences back home. In contrast Americans, used to the single cultural ways at home, react with horror when they see Vietnamese eating dog meat or Arab women segregating themselves.

For Malays, the country’s racial and religious plurality presents yet another advantage. The mere presence of a large number of non-Muslims is a check on the reach of the political ambitions of extremist Malay Muslim politicians. If not for the buffering presence (and voting bloc) of these politically significant non-Muslims, Malays would by now be deeply split along religious lines in the pattern of Algeria and Iran. Fundamentalist Muslims cannot enforce their strict uncompromising code on the rest of the country because of the presence of large numbers of non-Muslims. Thus progressive and liberal Muslims are protected from the coercion of extremist Muslims. For this reason I have little fear of Malaysia ever turning into another Algeria or Iran. Sadly, moderate Muslims have yet to appreciate this very significant contribution of non-Muslims. Even PAS is fully aware of this new political reality of countervailing forces. PAS is now attempting to soften its message in order to appeal to non-Muslims.

Contrary to prevailing opinions, I posit that the greatest threat to Malaysia’s stability is not interracial but intra-communal, specifically intra-Malay strife. Today’s Malays are becoming dangerously polarized with a shrinking moderate center to serve as a conciliatory buffer. Absent this, the sizable non-Malay population serves this vital function.

There are three potential fault lines along which Malays could fracture: religious, ideological, and socioeconomic. It is unlikely that any one factor could precipitate a severe crisis, but a confluence of any two or all three could trigger violent eruptions. The protracted animosity between poor rural Kelantan (controlled by Islamic PAS) and the central government (led by secular UMNO) is a reflection of this dangerous confluence of factors.

In my earlier book The Malay Dilemma Revisited, I explored in greater details these various fault lines that could potentially threaten Malay society: the religious disputes from early in the 20th century between young progressives (Kaum Muda) and their more conservative elders (Kaum Tua) to the more recent all consuming, totally unproductive, and highly divisive kafir-megafirkan (the righteous versus presumed infidels) debates of the 1980’s; the ideological disputes between pro- and anti-royal elements of the 1980’s that pitted the sultans against the executive branch; and the political conflicts between socialists and conservatives.

Malays are also increasingly strained along socioeconomic lines. Income disparity is widest among Malays. Vision 2020 reiterates much about an economically just society, and the nation has been remarkably successful in reducing the gross disparities between the races. There is, however, no comparable commitment to ameliorating inequities within Malay society. Unchecked this inequity will continue to fester.

These squabbles among Malays – “fundamentalist” versus “moderate,” urban versus rural, rich versus poor – cannot be lightly dismissed. Should they escalate, non-Malays would be forced by the sheer dynamics of the conflict to take sides. And should they (non-Malays) choose the wrong, that is, the losing side, the subsequent retributions then would be doubly vicious.

The nation’s multiracial society can be harnessed to bring out the best of each community. Malays, seeing the industry of Chinese, cannot help but absorb some of that positive trait. Malays are indeed spurred by the competition from non-Malays to do better. Malays in Malaysia are much more competitive than those in Indonesia as a result of their exposure to significant non-Malay cultures.

Living abroad I meet many new Chinese from Taiwan, China, and elsewhere. Of these our Malaysian Chinese seem to meld readily in their new environment because they are used to living with non-Chinese in Malaysia. Prior to Hong Kong reverting to China, a number of its residents migrated to Canada, just for “insurance.” It did not take long for them to run afoul of Canada’s zoning laws when they started building huge mansions with gaudy color schemes on their tiny city lots. They were used to that in Hong Kong and could not understand why their new Canadian neighbors would object.

This intersection of the different cultures can also result in the opposite, that is, it would bring out the worst prejudices on each side. During British rule when the various communities were effectively compartmentalized, whenever the various communities interacted, there would always be suspicion and deep distrust. Today with all Malaysians committed to the nation, there is a greater willingness to learn from and understand each other. Given such a milieu it tends to bring out the best in everyone. This is precisely the atmosphere in America. Arabs and Jews may kill each other back in their homeland, but in America they are in business together. The Catholic and Protestants may be at each other’s throat in Northern Ireland, but in America they are husband and wife. One of my colleagues is a Tamil happily married to a Singhalese. Back in Sri Lanka they would be slaughtering each other.

Americans are now recognizing the contributions of the various immigrant groups. Average Americans, especially those living in California and other states with sizable minorities, have a definite advantage over the British and Germans in this regard as they have been exposed to and are familiar with cultures other than their own. Viewed in this light, Malaysia’s multiracial society is a definite asset.


Next: Bless Our Geography!

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