A catchy tagline from the Tourism Department, it’s not hard to guess what it means. Malaysia is a ‘bubbling, bustling melting pot of races and religions’ offering an ‘exciting diversity of cultures, festivals, traditions and customs’ (www.tourism.gov.my).
I’ve found myself in the unexpected situation of living in Kuala Lumpur, the federal capital of Malaysia. Malaysia’s not really been high on the tourist trail with people from Europe (I myself am from the UK), nor has it really been at the forefront of political discussion: it doesn’t take any aid and it hasnt yet provoked the US or UK’s meddling in it’s affairs. I seem to remember one news item before I came here about a caning ordered by the Sharia court, so I suppose it’s been tarnished with being one of those extreme Muslim countries. This country defies all assumptions however; here’s an overview of the good, the bad and the ugly.
Indigenous Malays only make up just over 50% of the population. The official statistics are Bumiputera i.e. indigenous (67.4%), Chinese (24.6%), Indians (7.3%) and Others (0.7%) (Department of Statitistics, 2010).
Tension between the races has been evident since the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Despite the Malay majority, there was a large division of wealth between the chinese who control the majority of the economy and the Bumiputera who are seen to be more rural and poor. The incident of 13 May 1969 saw sino-malay sectarian violence erupt and led to a national emergency. This was exacerbated after the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action policy trying to bring native Malays more forward in the economy. Some argued it reduced non-Malays to the status of second-class citizen.
Today, it’s true that tensions are less obvious in social life and there is big emphasis on living together in harmony but prejudices and stereotypes continue to manifest themselves (Eurojournal of Social Sciences) and Malaysia still experiences skirmishes similar to other multi-ethnic/ religious nations. E.g. in 2000, a clash between Indians and Malays resulted in the death of 5 Indians, an Indonesian worker plus over 30 were wounded (South Asian Analysis). The Indians in particular have felt that not enough help has been coming their way to alleviate them out of their current status (Time). (As recently as 2011, Indians have protested over the introduction of the Malay language novel, Interlok, which depicts the Indian community in a derogatory way (National Express, 2o11). The presence of racial tension is claimed by many to be used by the political parties for their own gains i.e. to create divisions and increase backing for their own parties. So incidents such as the above usually result in high-level political rallying.
As part of the ‘other’ category in data on the demographics of Malaysia, refugees make up a large part of this division. There are nearly 90,000 refugees in Malaysia (Malaysia Digest), mostly from Burma as well as other ASEAN countries. Malaysia has always been a haven for refugees since the Vietnam war but ironically it is a country that has not signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees and is doing it’s utmost to curb numbers, using special civilian police corp ‘RELA’ to crack down on illegal immigrants or negotiating illegal ‘swaps’ with countries also trying to solve it’s refugee problem (BBC). Perhaps we’ve forgotten which party in this relationship really has the problem.
Malaysia is a middle income country and ranked 61 on the Human Development Index (UNDP) which places it in the category of a country with high development. Talk on the street often claims that Malaysia is a ‘second world country’, a country with ‘first world ambitions but third world mentality’. That it’s soft services do not quite match up to it’s hard infrastructure. Delving into these claims leads back to inequality and divisions between the races which probably goes beyond the remit of a mere blog post. But the common belief is that there are high levels of inequality in the country i.e. the rich are quite wealthy, while the poor quite poor. However, this hasn’t been reflected by the Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index, maybe there is still a lack of data (The Star); or perhaps the Government affirmative action policies aimed to redistribute wealth may well be paying off.
As a pleasant contrast to the West, which is facing Economic turmoil, Malaysia is seeing a rise in investment confidence and was ranked 27th for ease of doing business by the World Bank. It’s economy is traditionally based upon natural resources such as palm oil, tin, rubber but today the economy is based on a more diverse range of service and manufacturing sectors not to mention oil and gas, tourism and science and technology. It is the third developed economy in South-East Asia after Brunei and Singapore and the 28th most developed in the world in terms of purchasing power parity – i.e. how much will a basket of goods cost compared to other countries.
These economic conditions are therefore extremely attractive and the main hubs, namely Penang and Kuala Lumpur, find themselves invaded by foreign blood, increasingly by the year: hunting business opportunities or handsome packages by Malaysian based companies or subsidiaries of more global firms. Where the west is struggling to provide jobs to its overqualified workforce, Malaysia can happily absorb this, offering a better quality of life and a window to explore the rest of Asia through cheap travel. I myself would never have imagined funding a 2 bedroom apartment with it’s own gym and swimming pool and a job that carries Director at the end, in London.
The entering of the expats is sometimes a bone of contention however, as they are construed as taking jobs from the local workforce (Malaysia Today). On the face of it, it seems that inter-mingling of locals and expats is not that deep. Media linking expats to each other is plentiful and probably an economic institution by itself, that they have really built their own communities here.
However, Malaysia is more than just a melee of Asian faces, rich foreigners and a ‘better quality of life’. It’s like being on holiday every weekend! Whatever, your bag, choose from a hundred experiences in Malaysia – roadtripping to Taiping to see the famous Lake Gardens, lying in the lap of luxury on the island of Langkawi, admiring the British colonial heritage of George Town, Penang or the Portuguese settlement area of Melaka, mosque touring or jungle trekking in the depths of Sarawak. Maybe you just want a day out shopping – you’ll spend half the day deciding from designer stores and bling bling downtown or in one of the 68 malls of KL, or to root out hidden gems in the small markets and shoplots out of the City Centre including one of a kind dresses or quirky imports from Korea.
Islam is the official religion in Malaysia and 61% of it’s inhabitants are Muslim but an Islamic state? Not officially although the subject does instigate debate. Family issues can be tried in Shariah Courts, but the non-muslims are not bound by the laws governing this sphere.
‘Makan Makan’ (Eat Eat!)
Malaysians think food at all times! Eating out is the culture and is cheaper than cooking at home! Especially if you go to the Mamaks (Indian Muslim food cafeterias), which are somewhat of an institution here. Chinese Kopitiams are also a traditional eatery but there is still no lack of medium to high end haunts that are surprisingly affordable. Food defines Malaysia and it’s refreshing to see that you can make a living out of meal times. There are 26 million search results for food blogs in Malaysia and many are more than just a hobby, although they may have started out that way. From humble beginnings they flourish to be fully fledged businesses, conducting organised reviews, hosting banner adverts and selling groupon style vouchers. Some of the more popular ones get over 5k unique visitors per day. They make for pretty good entertainment too, so instead of trying to entice you into Malaysia by describing ‘tantalisng tastes’ (or other foody phrases like that), carry on your reading with one of these.