Wednesday, December 10, 2008

An Outsider's Perceptions of Malaysia

I was in Malaysia for only 2 days and a night. Most of my knowledge of the country comes from the Singaporean Straits Times, an otherwise anti-Malaysian (and I would argue somewhat anti-Muslim) organization that has an agenda in showing Malaysia in a bad light.

Here's what I know: Malaysia is a former British colony, and has been independent for about 50 years or so now. Blessed with a small but steady supply of oil and gas, a steadily growing population, fertile land, and a background of mature British common law, it has evolved into a robust economy, is a regional player in South-East Asia and has a decisively Muslim identity.

Industrially, Malaysia's doing very well. It manufactures its own cars, the Proton; the engine is Japanese, but they design the chassis, assemble it, and market it under their own brand. Although the butt of many jokes, it's still something to be proud of, and reflects the industrial and entrepreneurial spirit in the country.

Politically, Malaysian democracy is beginning to show signs of maturing. The opposition party has been making in-roads despite government interference with the media and the political process. Mahathir Mohammed set the precedent for this with the Anwar Ibrahim fiasco. Not surprisingly, most of the Malaysians I spoke to about politics had a deep-rooted aversion for it. The political landscape is dominated by dirt.

Socially, their racist, pro-Malay, affirmative action policy, known as the Bhumiputra (literally, "children of the soil") laws are being publicly challenged, their vibrant ethnic minority communities of Buddhist Chinese and Hindu Indians are getting a greater voice in the goings-on of their country (and have actually allied with the hard-line Islamic groups, obviously a marriage of convenience at this point) and the ruling party coalition that has been in power unquestioningly since inception, the Barisan Nasional (BN) is showing signs of cracking. Some parties and politicians are defecting for the opposition that is running on a wave of populist support against the establishment.

But it faces lots of tricky challenges. A wave of political religious conservatism has put in jeopardy some of the freedoms ethnic minorities used to claim. A case came up on a recently deceased individual who was officially non-Muslim, but some individuals claimed he had secretly professed his Muslim faith. Though their evidence was flimsy, the case was handed over to a Shariah court, and the remains were laid to rest according to Muslim rites, much to the dismay of his family.

Recently some quarters have suggested shutting down vernacular schools, i.e., the Chinese and the Tamil schools in Malaysia, and unifying it under the dominant Malay school system. Thankfully, the ruling party disregarded it, as did the Malaysian royal family. The French can afford bigotry in the name of secularism, and the Singaporeans can afford marginalization in the name of unity, but a Muslim country doesn't have such a luxury. And in all honesty, they're all the better for it. It's the right thing to do. Diversity is a blessing.

A controversial ruling was the recent religious ban on yoga for Muslims. Something clearly silly and actually targeted toward Muslim women who were taking it up in the droves (yoga generally appeals to women more than men). The basis was that the Hindu chanting that came along with the yoga was deemed un-Islamic, although the fact of the matter is that only a minority of yoga schools do religious chanting, and these would most probably be reserved for an exclusively, or majority Hindu crowd. Religiosity in general is on the wane in the world today, and most common, everyday activities have been secularized for easy consumption by a wider audience, so I doubt this was ever really a pressing issue.

Speaking of pressing issues, where are the fatwas speaking out against poverty, denying women education, abuse, and human rights? Why is it these issues are ignored for novels and cartoons all the time?

The Malaysian flag has the distinctive red, white and blue of the American flag, with the stripes representing the states in the federation, but with the exception of an astronomically feasible depiction of the crescent and star (as opposed to the Pakistani impossibility of a star inside a moon, something many Indians get a good laugh out of).

Speaking to Malaysians, they are certainly proud of their country's achievements. Malaysians are proud of it as one of the few majority Muslim countries that have built a robust, stable infrastructure of education, healthcare, and democracy, something probably no other medium- to high-profile Muslim country can claim. And this is to the credit of the minorities within Malaysia as much as the Muslim-majority Malays.

Its national identity is a complex beast. The architecture in Malaysia is uniquely South-East Asian, while being modern, and faithful to Islamic roots. Many people have criticized the overly Islamic slant Malaysian architecture has taken, and to a limited extent I concede that. Some buildings in Putrajaya looked like pseudo baked-mud houses of North Africa or the Middle East, complete with wind towers, an innovation made for desert climes, not the tropics.

Barring a few exceptions, on the whole, it's really not so bad.

If American public architecture traces its roots to European influences, honestly I don't see why Malaysia should apologize for its Islamic-influenced architecture. A lot of it is well-integrated into the local vernacular, and they have clearly chosen it as an integral part of their national identity. All they need now is to repeal discriminatory laws against ethnic minorities.

Kuala Lumpur is a vibrant city, and full of life. Although crumbling around the edges, and like most urban centers, it has its fair share of inhospitable, uncooperative denizens. It is, however, a very well-rounded, modern city that's bustling with life, and I could imagine living there (my metric for a city I like or dislike). Anybody looking for something, no matter what it is, will probably find it.

I, for one, found their road signs very amusing, though. The Malay language has been Latinized to fit the times, having been written using the Arabic script previously (what Malays call Jawi). So taxi, for example is called "teksi." An executive cab is "teksi eksekutif." A bus is a "bas," a university is "universiti" and science is "sains." Good fun!

See the good in foreign countries, and the bad in your own. The Sufi practice of dropping a bad habit and replacing it with a good habit applies to matters of public service as well.

Malaysia looks a lot like what Bangladesh might look like, I imagine, when we become a newly industrialized country in a few decades.

And I, for one, like it.


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I write essays in my spare time on things that are important to me. The ones that I feel are any good, or make any sense, I put them up here. :)