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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, May 01, 2011

Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #63

Chapter 8: Culture, Institutions, and Leadership

Negeri endah kerana penghulu. (Great nation, great leader.)
—Ancient Malay Proverb

There is now gradually emerging a common Malaysian culture. Part of this is the result of a deliberate official policy, but more likely it is the natural consequence of people living and working together. I posit this process would have gone further had there been no governmental policy promoting a common culture. It is a predictable human reaction to be defensive and protective of one’s heritage when threatened.

In America there is no stated policy of Americanizing new immigrants, nonetheless new arrivals are always eager to join the mainstream. Within a generation, new Americans are already fully acculturated. Similarly, early Chinese immigrants to Malaysia, the “Straits” Chinese, readily adopted the Malay language and way of life precisely because the government and polity of the day were not harping on the issue of a “national” culture. Likewise, early Indian Muslim immigrants to northern Malaysia blended easily with native Malays, aided undoubtedly by the commonality of religion. Mamak Malays, as they are called, are fast vanishing as a subculture as they have become completely assimilated, with some becoming ministers and even Prime Minister!

This common Malaysian culture may not be apparent to those living in Malaysia as the evolution is subtle, but it is there. It is certainly obvious to foreigners and Malaysians residing abroad. I can always tell a group of Malaysians regardless of whether they are Malays or non-Malays. The obvious give away is the language. I do not mean the distinctive Malaysian accent or such peculiarly local habit as ending every word and expression with lah, rather the sentence structure, manner, and style of language. Many linguists now recognize Malaysian English as a distinct entity: Manglish. Appropriate enough name, for to the uninitiated it does appear that the language is being mangled. Case in point is the tendency to verbalize nouns as in, “I story you one day,” meaning, I will tell you the story or explain it to you one day. Similarly, “I off the air-conditioner,” meaning, I have turned it off.

When Malaysians travel in a group abroad they love to display their identity by wearing the same set or colors of clothing. Of course Malaysian-tailored suits are a dead giveaway! As the locals would say, “Ta’ada cutting lah!” (No style!) To be sure, Malaysians are not as self-conscious of their group identity as the Japanese, who would typically line up behind their banner-carrying leader.

Another distinctively Malaysian cultural trademark is the utter lack of respect for time and punctuality. I have never been to a Malaysian function that started on time. Delayed events happen even in the West, but what is remarkable is the utter lack of a sense of urgency among Malaysians when things are tardy. Foreigners in Malaysia discover soon enough the concept of “Malaysian time.”

I recently received an e-mail enquiry from a non-Malaysian editor in Malaysia about excerpting my first book in his publication. I replied immediately, as I do all my e-mails. It is no sweat; all I have to do is click the reply button and type a few words. No stamps to lick or envelope to stuff. Imagine my amusement when he responded back that I must have left Malaysia a very long time ago as I have lost that Malaysian habit of ignoring enquiries!

Similarly, ostentatious living, in particular lavish weddings, luxury cars, and first class travel, is fast becoming a Malaysian cultural artifact. Senior Malaysian government officials routinely travel first class and stay at five-star hotels. If comparable California state officials were to do the same, they would be publicly excoriated for wasting taxpayers’ money. And California is many times wealthier than Malaysia! Nor are such extravagances restricted only to government officials. Even university deans and external examiners are given first class air tickets, while at the same time claiming that they have no funds for their libraries and laboratories. Misplaced priorities!

Similarly with mega weddings; initially they were restricted to royal families. Today children of every big shot fancy themselves as princes and princesses. Each wedding appears more gaudy and lavish than the previous one. The recent marriage of Abdullah Badawi’s daughter was even more spectacular than that of a princess, and topped the earlier extravaganza for Sammy Vellu’s (a federal minister) son. There was no sense of embarrassment on the part of the participants. I shudder to imagine the next real royal wedding. Malaysians, and Malays in particular, take to heart the tradition of the wedding couple being the king and queen for the day.

The gala wedding of Abdullah Badawi’s daughter deserves scrutiny for another reason. A recent editorial in the New Straits Times, the mainstream paper owned by the ruling party, carried a laudatory piece on the deputy prime minister. One of the items mentioned was that the man did not even own a house; he had sold it earlier presumably to finance his daughter’s education. Very praiseworthy! The article went on to highlight Badawi’s humble and common origin. Obviously the essayist was totally oblivious of that recent mega wedding which was so generously covered by his own paper! Badawi may not be able to afford even a terrace house, but he sure could put on a lavish wedding. And this man has no qualms on lecturing Malays to be prudent in our ways!

On a positive note, another Malaysian tradition is the “open house” to celebrate festivities. This was initially a Malay phenomenon for Hari Raya but it has now spread to other festivities including Christmas and Chinese New Year. Undoubtedly sociologists will find other common elements among Malaysians.

These will undoubtedly increase as Malaysians become more integrated. Such commonalities aside, Malaysians still very much retain their distinct and diverse cultures. Unlike Americans, Malaysians do not subscribe to the “melting pot” theory, preferring its own “salad bowl” model instead, where each element retains its own distinctive color and flavor. In their totality the various ingredients create a unique blend that is the Malaysian culture.

It is generally recognized that Malay culture is the defining characteristic of the “Malaysian” culture. An extreme few would have Malay culture be the Malaysian culture, but this is nothing more than the conceit of control freaks who feel that they could impose their views on such an elusive entity as culture. To pursue the culinary metaphor, Malay culture is the lettuce or greenery of the rojak (salad), the dominant or primary component. There may be other ingredients like onions and black olives, but they are there to enhance the overall flavor and appearance. Too strong an onion or too many black olives, and the overall flavor will be spoiled or it would no longer be recognized as rojak.

In my discussion here on the role of culture in contemporary Malaysia, I am purposely restricting myself to the culture of Malays. I do this for two reasons. One, it is the defining culture and more importantly, the culture of the ruling elite. Two, I am familiar with it as it is also my own culture. By doing this I do not mean to denigrate or dismiss the other cultures that make up the Malaysian mosaic.

Next: Economic Culture of Malays


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