Thursday, December 08, 2011

Malaysia Wrap

On previous trips to Asia dinner was sometimes a hunk of tofu and some yogurt and fruit from the local supermarket because I couldn't decipher the menu in restaurants or I couldn't stomach the possibility of eating dog or donkey.

I ate in real restaurants in Malaysia.  English is something of a bridge language between the races in Malaysia as well as a mark of class and prestige so restaurant menus are in English. The British had a colonial history in Malaysia so it's real English that almost always makes sense to my American eyes and ears. And the food is belt busting great too. There are plenty of Indians so there are Indian restaurants as well as those great Nasi Kandar joints. The Chinese are very big in Malaysia and many of them are Eleanor's Fujian peeps to boot so she quizzed the waiters and ordered for us off the menu. 

I'd like to know more about race relations here but two weeks won't be enough. The Chinese are the economic engine where ever in Asia their diaspora has taken them and Malaysia is no exception. Many Chinese seem to live their whole lives in Malaysia apart from the majority Malay.  Among their own kind they speak their Chinese dialect at home and among their own and English in business. We were befriended by a Malaysian Chinese woman on the bus to Penang who told us flat out that she spoke Hokkien and English but not the national language of Bahasa Malaysia.  A Cantonese man in Penang told us casually over dinner that in his opinion without the Chinese Malaysia would be Iraq.

Many of the Chinese seem to be one flavor or another of Christian, yet another factor that differentiates them from the majority Malay Muslims. Malaysian Indians do much the same although some of them are Muslim.  My guess is that the Malay resent the Chinese to this day (and vice versa), in 1969 that resentment was made formal in race riots that officially killed nearly 200.  Majority Chinese Singapore was once part of Malaysia but broke away after an earlier series of anti-Chinese race riots.

The Malay feel threatened by the success of the Chinese and the other non Malay ethnic groups in Malaysia. The majority Malay control the government and have made Islam the official state religion.  Each day the local English language newspapers are filled with domestic political stories and photos, almost always of  Muslim women politicans in their head covering or male Muslim politicians wearing their chosen headgear of a black pillbox hat.

But this isn't Saudi Arabia, you're free to buy pork, wash it down with a beer and then stumble into the street and get hit by a car driven by a woman. Strange to me, the public spaces have been full of the sounds of Christmas, including some very religious Christmas songs and displays that in the States would make the ACLU wail all the way to the Supreme Court. 

But there are in your face reminders that Islam is the state religion. In our hotel there was a quran by the bedside.  We stayed in a part of town called KLCC.  It's an immaculately tidy government created showcase mega-development anchored by very upscale shopping and the Petronas Towers, which represent the state owned oil company. There's a beautiful park in KLCC and inside the park is a mosque which blasts sermons and calls to prayer at daybreak.  Many women wear a kind of head and neck covering open balaclava that leaves only the face visible.  Women visiting from the Middle East are easy to spot, they dress for Islamic success in a head to toe in a black shroud with only a slit showing to the world for their eyes.

One other ethnic group that I had never heard of before is the Kristang.  They seem to be non Malay mutts, a product of Malaysia's European colonial past.  Tony Fernandes, head of Air Asia and one of Malaysia's most prominent entrepreneurs is Kristang.

So Malaysia has had a difficult and somewhat bloody multicultural history.  What else?  People smoke, even in Starbucks.  It gets two showers a day, smotheringly equatorial hot.  Forget about winter, Kuala Lumpur is less than 250 miles from the equator so the sun is up at 7am and down at 7pm with only slight variations throughout the year.

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