Saturday, November 10, 2007

Malaysia - Part 1

My sincerest apologies to everyone who was expecting something of this sort in August… I have no excuses, I’ve just been lazy… Anyway, now that I’m finally done with most of my exams and other pressing responsibilities, I decided to just pen down a few things that were in my mind about my experience in Malaysia.

My first impressions about Malaysia were simple – Clean country, humid country. I did not want to prejudice my mind in any way and thought it was best to keep my “first impressions” short and sweet. But there was one tiny detail that I couldn’t stop thinking about. Before I had even flown nearly 2000 miles over the Indian ocean, I was handed a document stating my roles and responsibilities. One of them was particularly disturbing and I quote:

“Interns are required to NOT organise, plan or arrange any sharing session, seminar or talk with any member regarding 3 issues with or without intention:

A. Political issues
B. Religion and race issues
C. Sex and Sexual issues” unquote

Why ?!?!?!? Why should someone be debarred from the discussion of such issues that are delicately inter-woven in any country’s social and political fabric ? I wondered, ‘Is Malaysia just another conservative Islamic country as I had once believed when I was 12 or was I just reading too much into it’. I didn’t have to wait too long for that to be answered.

The first few days at UPM were rather uneventful. I couldn’t help but notice the huge Malay population at UPM, a fairly significant portion of Chinese students and only a handful of Indians. My late-night conversations with some of the AIESECers provided me with explanations to this seemingly insignificant observation.

In whispered voices, I was told how Malays are favoured by the government and how Chinese and Indians are treated only as second-rate citizens – How it’s easy for Malays to gain access to quality education at virtually no cost, how being Malay can earn you a scholarship or even a teacher’s favour and how being Malay assures you of a secure future even if you’re ‘not all that smart’.

I had heard some of these before at the IWE in South Africa, but back then it was just a piece of information that I thought wasn’t worth being investigated further, because after all, did that not happen in my country as well ? My country has, for the past 60 odd years had a policy of reservations to facilitate the development of backward minorities. But this has sparked many controversies in recent years. Just like the Malays, aren’t backward classes in India also being favoured by policy makers (read politicians) ? And just like the Malays, aren’t the backward classes in India also enjoying privileges that may have seemed necessary at one point of time, but are no longer relevant ?

But this time it was different. I was living in this country, I was having conversations with its people. This seemed more real. I could instantly make the connection between the affirmative action policies in Malaysia and those in India. I was tempted to empathize with the Chinese and Indians in Malaysia because I happened to be their Indian counterpart. But I decided that a certain amount of objectivity was necessary and I believed that some more information wouldn’t hurt.

All this was quickly forgotten when my actual internship began. This of course exposed me to other aspects of Malaysian society and culture. In June, we were busy with the MIRACLE Youth Conference. While it was enjoyable overall, I remember two incidents distinctly:

1. I was conducting a session for some of the delegates and happened to talk to two of them. They were dressed decently sporting a t-shirt, a pair of jeans and their hair tied up in a ponytail. They didn’t look Indian or Malay or Chinese. So I asked them if they had a mixed heritage. They said “ No, we’re Malays”. My immediate response was “Oh, you’re Malay, then why aren’t you wearing your headscarves ?” They just looked at each other and shrugged. A few seconds later, I couldn’t believe that I even asked a question like that.

2. On the last day of the conference, we had an incident at UPM. Apparently, a spirit had possessed one of the delegates and she was behaving weird and her friends were hysterical. I was in the meeting room when this took place. While someone came in to announce the news to us, I asked a friend of mine, “Who is it ?” The immediate response that I got was “ Oh, of course, it has to be a Malay girl”. A Malay girl !??! How can one be so sure ? Later I learned that such an incident was quite common especially in Malaysian hostels and it happened only to Malay girls who apparently happen to digress from the norms laid down by Islam. Later of course, some ‘religious people’ were summoned who were muttering some incantations and I could even hear the ‘possessed’ girl screaming. I chose not to witness it because I was still trying to digest the explanation that was given to me.

Now that I think of both these incidents, I can spot a disturbing similarity between them. In both these incidents, we chose our responses based on the stereotypes in our minds. In the first incident, I was quick to make an indirect generalization that ‘All Malay girls wear headscarves and dress conservatively’…. And in the second incident, my Malaysian friends were quick to accept the incident with a grossly simplified explanation based solely on the girl’s identity.

It would be only fitting here to quote a few concepts that I came across while reading Amartya Sen’s book – ‘Identity & Violence’. In this book he very eloquently argues that we have committed the unforgivable mistake of assigning people with singular identities – in this case, a Malay girl. We fail to explore and chose to ignore the plurality of identities that we may have and instead focus on one single identity of a person or community.
I made this huge mistake of singularly classifying Malay girls and now I understand why the 2 girls I spoke to had such an astonished look on their face.

This prompted me to wonder if the same singular classification is in fact the reason why there are so many flaws in the affirmative action policies adopted by both the Malaysian and Indian governments.

In India, backward classes are seen ONLY as backward classes. We tend to ignore the other identities that they might have such as – financially strong, well-educated, prosperous businessmen and so on. So how can their social identity alone be the sole determinant of the reservation policy that we have today in our country ?

Also in case of Malaysia, why are Malays only viewed as Malays/Mulsims ? Why can’t they have multifarious identities such as – progressive, not under-privileged/under-represented and so on.

Wouldn’t it therefore be prudent to base our social and developmental policies on these varied inter-related identities that people might possess ? Wouldn’t that be better accepted by those who are currently dissatisfied with such policies ?

Another experience that remains etched in my memory until now, is the time I spent at the Methodist Boys School. I can recollect this one particular day when I was asked (read demanded) by a teacher to explain in full detail what exactly I’d be talking about during my sessions with the students. WHY should I give you details when you’ve already been briefed before ???? Well, I couldn’t resist, I asked her why and she said she wanted to make sure that we didn’t teach the boys wrong things. Now who decides what’s right and wrong ??? And why this attempt to censor information ??? In my 21 years as an Indian citizen, I have never even once been asked to not say what was on my mind. Never. The lack of this unspoken freedom, which I usually enjoyed in my country, but not in Malaysia, was probably the biggest culture shock that I experienced.

Overall, I believe, it was one hell of a learning experience with lots of ups and downs. I learnt new things about Malaysia, about my own country, I was appalled by a few things and amazed by many more.

For instance, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of respect that a Malaysian had for a fellow citizen, irrespective of his/her race or religion. A lot of the cabbies whom I spoke to were so excited to know that I was a foreigner because after that they couldn’t stop praising their country. It was nice to hear, and it was anything but ‘blind nationalism’ as some might claim it to be. Malaysia does have several things to be proud of.
Also, I was exposed to an environment of moderate Islam. Inspite of coming from a country which has one of the largest Muslim populations in the world (India), I still did not wholly understand Islam and must admit that I had heard more stories and opinions on fundamentalist Islam as opposed to other aspects of it. Malaysia changed that. I got better insights into Islam and its basic philosophy and I saw this beautifully blended into Malaysian culture…

Finally, I’d just like to say that if you’ve actually read this post up till here, you really have a LOT of patience and time. I also want to point out that I in no way wish to demean or degrade any person by what I have written. These are merely my thoughts about my entire experience. I do not claim to be an expert at politics or policy making, but I strongly believe in whatever I’ve said.

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