Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I have a deep connection to Malaysia. In 1985, I moved there from the US on a six-month lecturer contract without knowing much about the country, its people, history and cultures. I ended up working for five years for two different American university twinning programs under the auspices of the openly discriminatory tertiary educational institution, Mara Technical Institute, which was created exclusively for members of the Malay ethnic group (with a small number of native students from East Malaysia thrown in for appearances' sake).

Soon after arriving in Malaysia, I learned about the "race riots" of 1969, the "special rights" given to the Malay people, and the resentment that this caused amongst members of other ethnic groups. Realizing that "affirmative action" (as we call such programs in the US) is at times justified, I was able to rationalize my work on behalf of the government and the Malays when the programs I served were providing educational opportunities for a group of students that was mostly from rural and impoverished backgrounds.

What I could not help questioning was the considerable number of middle- and upper-class Malay kids on our campus, guys and gals who were getting a free ride just because they were Malay and not because their parents could not afford to send them to school. In fact, I even had the son of Malaysia's foreign minister at that time in one of my classes, and I watched in wonder as he was chauffeured to school and eventually drove his own BMW to classes.

I worried then about how the college-age children of the underclass of other groups were faring. But I became even more in tune to those folks' plight when I married a young woman of mixed Malaccan Portuguese and Chinese/Indian descent, a girl who had excelled in secondary school but was not offered a single ringgit by the government for her educational studies. The hypocrisy of the New Economic Policy's mandate to assist the poor "irrespective of race" really hit home.

It's 20 years later now, and I have watched Malaysia sink further into the abyss of ethnic divisiveness, much of that caused by communal arrogance, authorized greed, blatant corruption and a host of wayward government policies. It's easy to be depressed by the situation, even though I feel that I am now "part Malaysian." And it's rare when anyone might see light at the end of that long tunnel.

Tonight, however, I saw just such a light when I read the Merdeka message written by Sharyn Lisa Shufian, the 24-year-old great granddaughter of Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman.

Rarely do I give over space on my blog to the writings of others, but this is just such an occasion.

Please read Sharyn's message and see why I feel that those of us who love Malaysia can have some hope:

Both my parents are Malay. My mum's heritage includes Chinese, Thai and Arab, while my dad is Minangkabau. Due to my skin colour, I am often mistaken for a Chinese. I'm happy that I don't have the typical Malay look but I do get annoyed when people call me Ah Moi or ask me straight up "Are you Chinese or Malay?" Like, why does it matter? Before I used to answer "Malay" but now I'm trying to consciously answer Malaysian instead. 

There's this incident from primary school that I remember till today. Someone told me that I will be called last during Judgement Day because I don't have a Muslim name. Of course, I was scared then but now that I'm older, I realise that a name is just a name. It doesn't define you as a good or bad person and there is definitely no such thing as a Muslim name. You can be named Rashid or Ali and still be a Christian.

I've heard of the 1Malaysia concept, but I think we don't need to be told to be united. We've come such a long way that it should already be embedded in our hearts and minds that we are united. Unfortunately, you can still see racial discrimination and polarisation. There is still this ethno-centric view that the Malays are the dominant group and their rights must be protected, and non Malays are forever the outsiders.

For the concept to succeed, I think the government should stop with the race politics. It's tiring, really. We grew up with application forms asking us to tick our race. We should stop painting a negative image of the other races, stop thinking about 'us' and 'them' and focus on 'we', 'our' and 'Malaysians'.

No one should be made uncomfortable in their own home. I know some baby Nyonya friends who can trace their lineage back hundreds of years. I'm a fourth generation Malaysian. If I am Bumiputra, why can't they be, too? Clearly I have issues with the term.

I think the main reason why we still can't achieve total unity is because of this 'Malay rights' concept. I'd rather 'Malay rights' be replaced by human rights. So unless we get rid of this Bumiputra status, or reform our views and policies on rights, we will never achieve unity.

For my Merdeka wish, I'd like for Malaysians to have more voice, to be respected and heard. I wish that the government would uphold the true essence of parliamentary democracy. I wish for the people to no longer fear and discriminate against each other, to see that we are one and the same.

I wish that Malaysia would truly live up to the tourism spin of Malaysia truly Asia. Malaysians to lead - whatever their ethnic background.

Only ONE NATIONALITY -MALAYSIAN. No Malays, No Chinese, No Indians - ONLY MALAYSIANS. Choose whatever religion one is comfortable with.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Last...Lecture

It must say something about the times we live in when even the "last lecture" of a dying professor can be commercialized to such a high degree.

That's what I thought when I wanted to add a link on this blog to the late Randy Pausch's famed speech at Carnegie Mellon for all my students to see only to discover that the lecture was now a whole website, a book, and other odds and ends. My gut reaction was to can my intentions.

Is everything really for sale? I asked myself. Let's look for a speech by Martin Luther King or Barack Obama.

Then calm took me under its wing again, and I capitulated. There are so many reasons that the Pausch lecture is interesting, we shouldn't be dissuaded by the hype.

So here it is, ladies and gentlemen, Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. Just be careful about bumping into the hawkers in the door way.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Riding the Cultural Rails

How can a person explain the power and significance of cultural identity in a way that's not overly simplistic and trite, especially to a kid like my daughter Billie, who's lived in two countries and traveled the world, or to students like the ones I'm now working with, most of whom have grown up in multicultural societies such as Malaysia and Singapore and who have also traveled extensively?

One way would be to show them the Academy Award-winning documentary film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport. The main focus of the film is children, European Jewish children, who -- until Hitler's pogroms of the late 1930s -- were shown to have had many of the the same preoccupations as kids today, worrying about who was going to come to their birthday party, what Mom and Dad could afford to buy them, and whose heads they would turn with a smile and a wink.

Proliferation of the Nazi creed, centered on German ethnic pride and
politico-economic ambitions, changed all that. While Hitler and his circle of sadistic henchmen laid the foundation for war in Europe and proposed the "Final Solution," they also worked hard spreading propaganda among the masses, much of it aimed at creating a sense among their fellow Europeans that the Jews were dirty immigrants, an inferior, money-grubbing race, whose very existence was undermining the progress of the Germans. Within that prescribed belief system, the Germans were touted as the master race, creators of a unique civilization, the original and most highly cultivated of all peoples. (Of course, using the term race in this manner is a misnomer. Social scientists generally avoid the term, but if they must, confine its usage to descriptions of physical attributes. Physically, the so-called Ashkenazi Jews are similar to Europeans. It is really only in culture, and in the perceptions of what culture entails, that they differ.)

In the film, period photographs and archival film footage are woven together with the individual stories of half a dozen Jews who escaped the increasing hostility of the Nazis because they had been selected into a special program initiated by the British government that would allow nearly 10,000 children under the age of 18 to leave their families and travel by train westward from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia for foster homes and youth hostels in Great Britain.

One thing that seemed amazing to Billie was how similar the Jewish kids were to those of the land they were leaving. "What made them different?" she asked.

That's when I stopped the DVD player and did my mini-lecture on the religious beliefs of the Jews and how they differed from the German Lutherans and the Czech and Austrian Catholics basically by virtue of not adhering to the New Testament of the Bible. I mentioned how they looked physically similar to their neighbors, had many of the same values for family, hard work and a good education, and could even speak the same languages, but because they held different religious beliefs and traditions, and because many of them were successful in business, the arts and professions such as law and medicine, they were viewed suspiciously

And that was enough.

Soon after nearly 10,000 of the young Jews had arrived at their destination and been set up with surrogate families, war was declared between Germany and Britain, and the kindertransport ended. All communication between the kids and their increasingly forlorn parents was also stopped. Ironically, even in Britain there was enough suspicion that these German Jews might have some allegiance to their homeland that a whole boatload of them, mainly teenage males, was shipped off to Australia. (Toward the end of the war, some of these would return to the UK to train and fight on behalf of their adopted homeland.)

What was it about the Jews that made them so hated? In Hitler's eyes, they were clearly different, a group of people who competed with his own for resources, stealing, as it were, their livelihood in the place that he felt should be the lebensraum, or living space, for the Germanic peoples above all others. This exclusivity, along with the negative stereotyping and hate-mongering, was easy to peddle, especially as Germans of every walk of life were striving for renewed greatness after the calamity of their country's defeat in the first world war (1914-1918). The Jewish kids might have looked and sounded like acceptable Europeans, they might have shared many traits with the peoples their ancestors had been neighbors with for a thousand years, but what they didn't share was a common identity, and without that, they had no safe place in Hitler's vision of destiny. 

Into the Arms of Strangers , exploring through its subtext the link between what is seen as familiar and what is foreign, ended with what we knew would come to pass: the war ended as the Germans were beaten, and the kindertransport kids survived while most of their parents were executed in the Nazi camps (along with 1.5 million children and millions of others). The life stories of the interviewees wrapped up with a mix of triumphant tales and tearful reflections.

Sadly, long after the DVD players have been turned off and the deservingly positive comments on the film shelved away, the twists and turns of race and ethnicity continue, and the bumps in our road to better intercultural relations remain.