WHAT does it mean to be Malaysian? For CW Vong, it was growing up listening to tales of corruption and racism. But does the recent rise of civil society movements signal times are changing – as are the people?
I did not go to the Bersih rally here in Melbourne. I have not, in any way, ever lent support to any political organisation in Malaysia, be it those currently in office or their opposition. Admittedly, I do not know if my name and identity card number has been used to vote without my knowledge – which is always a possibility in my country. Personally, I have never seen the inside of a voting booth. I have avoided matters of a political nature regarding my country my entire life.
‘Why?’ you ask. Because, truth be told, I have never believed that my country could change and that it was worth sticking out my neck for. Mr Anwar Ibrahim is only the most famous of many who have been through the ISA. I have kept silent. And so have many of you. So why should I be so emotionally charged after watching a demonstration video?
Malaysians, let me tell you my story. Your story might not be the same as mine – I do hope it is kinder – but this is what I learned about Malaysia as I grew up:
When I was about 11-years-old, I came back to Penang after my family had lived in Glasgow, Scotland, for four years. I came back with a strong Scottish accent, a smattering of our national language, Bahasa Melayu, and I was completely unable to speak Chinese, my own mother tongue.
Linguistically, life was a challenge. In Scotland, I had faced some racism in the form of a scuffle or two with children in the playground, since I was the only yellow dot in a sea of white. But otherwise, I had been left reasonably unscathed. The form of racism I met with in Malaysia was more insidious – and possibly more harmful.
As I attended primary school, my relatives were quick to warn me about the two other major races, the Indians and the Malays. Indians were labelled as “sneaky” and “untrustworthy”. Today, I still meet the odd Chinese uncle who will quote at me possibly the most racist quote I have ever come across: “If you meet an Indian and a snake on the road, you hit the Indian first.”’
Malays, on the other hand, were labelled as the lazy bunch. Stupid and lazy. My elders told me if ever a Malay achieved anything academically, he must have either Indian or Chinese blood mixed in him somewhere. How seriously was I to take these statements? I am still unsure. As a child from a Confucian culture, you were meant to nod and accept everything your seniors told you.
I wonder how the other two races view us Chinese. I had an Indian friend confess to me once that he and his mates would share stories with each other, howling in laughter, about the Chinese they had just cheated in some recent transaction. Was it some form of vengeance?
I also once read a poem, from one of our school textbooks no less, about a Malay grandfather telling his grandchildren about Hari Raya, the Muslim new year. In the poem, the grandfather makes mention of how they would go to town and buy fireworks from Chinese traders for exorbitant prices. But, he said, it was alright to be cheated by the Chinese just that one time a year, for the sake of Hari Raya.
How strange it was to continue the next few years making friends with these two other races. In fact, because I could not speak Chinese or any of its dialects, my best friends were often either Malay or Indian, with whom I could communicate in English without shame.
Why didn’t my elders ever tell me that Indians were one of the most fun races ever to be around? That if you wanted to throw a good party, invite some Indians to run it and they will show you the real meaning of a good time? Why did they never tell me that Malays have one of the most welcoming, caring and comfortable cultures I would ever come across? That if a Malay becomes your friend, you are his brother? Why did they never tell me of the wisdom you could gain by fasting with a Muslim through the month of Ramadan?
At age twelve, real tragedy struck. I became subject to the racial preferential treatment that my government had been practicing for thirty years. I scored decently for my UPSR (the end of primary school exams) with 3As and a B but was denied entry into the most prestigious secondary school in my state, Penang Free School.
Meanwhile, some of my Malay classmates were entering this school with strings of Cs and Ds on their result cards. Looking back, I realise that at 12, I did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. Nor did I fully understand the frustration of my parents. Perhaps the silent racism of the generations before me was not entirely unvalidated. Perhaps the racial preference reinforced by the government had deeper ramifications than we think. How are we to measure these things?
My story ends well though, as years later I would have the grace of academia to win an ASEAN scholarship to Singapore and be blessed to have parents who could provide me with the finances to study in Melbourne, Australia. I feel pained for those forsaken by our country’s system – those who could have received the necessary tertiary education to bolster their careers and put them in a strong position to contribute to society.
I have stayed here in Australia almost ten years now and currently work in a suburb called St. Albans. St. Albans is an interesting suburb because of its muliculturalism. There are Sudanese, Vietnamese, Albanians, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Indians, Slovakians, Romanians, Ukrainians and many others besides.
While it might be pushing it to say they live in completely harmony, there is at least an honesty in their dealings with each other. They like and dislike openly. Could we at home in Malaysia co-exist were we to be honest with each other? Or is silence the only way we are to survive, pleasantly singing Negaraku while black marking each other behind backs?
I learned many things growing up that I was taught never to say aloud. As mentioned, I knew that to trust or befriend any Indian or Malay too closely was seen as a foolish act. It always made me laugh, though, that the Chinese trust each other only as far as they can throw a rock.
As a student, I knew that my government would give someone else better opportunities than I on the grounds of his skin colour. Out of hours, school teachers would whisper to me that they knew for a fact exam results were doctored according to race. After all, how did a weak, recalcitrant student who had been barely scraping passes through school suddenly produce an A in an official exam?
As a student, I was told that the education system was shoddy, which is why we practiced mathematics from Singaporean work books. Many people viewed teachers as stupid and incompetent. Being a teacher was the worst career you could choose according to anyone who was not a teacher, and only those who were incapable of anything else became teachers. This was strange to toggle in my head, having an auntie who is a teacher and pretty good at what she does.
As a teenager, the horizon darkened, as I was told that there were those who had scored straight A’s in their exams but denied entry into university because of racial quotas.
I learned that if you wanted to escape a traffic fine, you kept RM50 ready to pay the policeman a bribe. I learned that if you wanted to make sure you kept your shop lot safe from vandalism, it was a good idea that when your local police station called you up to contribute several thousand dollars for their annual dinner, you did not deny them. I learned that if you delivered the baby of a police officer, you did not charge them the surgery cost.
I learned that if you wanted to open a business you needed a Malay partner. I learned that the government was full of Malays and it was hinted that all they did all day sometimes was photocopy a few papers, and if they had to do any real work like serve you at a post office counter they would pull a long face. I learned at the post office a sign instructed you to wish the counter person good morning. But once I did wish them good morning, I was lucky to receive a grunt in response, reinforcing my low opinion of them.
I was taught that our highways were dangerous, heavily taxed and that all the bus and truck drivers were on drugs while driving. Most bus and truck drivers were Malay or Indian. I learned that you could get stolen goods that “fell” off the back of these trucks if you knew the right person. That person could be a doctor of a well established private hospital. That doctor was Chinese.
I learned that the states in the north were governed by Muslim fanatics and were being trained to get involved with the troubles of the Middle East. I knew that corruption happened and that we lost millions if not billions of dollars a year to it. I knew my country was held together by a strained tolerance and that our unity was a farce to cover up a precariously balanced economical functionality. I knew of friends and family who had suffered because of these things, unable to earn a living or cheated of money and recognition.
I was told the elections were a farce and I had many strange letters to unknown people coming into my mailbox during elections. These people were known as “phantom voters” and I suspect were already deceased. I knew that in my household, we did not bother to turn on my television to know the election results. I had learned that not only would my country not care for me, worse, it would put me down for the sake of some unknown person hoarding power and wealth somewhere up the political chain.
I knew myself and many others were fleeing the country because we were scared of these things and we wanted a better life elsewhere. I knew that my country and those not as fortunate as myself would suffer because I and others were leaving them behind, taking our talent and contribution with us.
I knew these things and I have kept silent all this while. So have many of you. Because how could these things change? How could we say anything and not receive repercussions? What and who did we owe to justify us making a stand and a sacrifice for these things? So best we let our country be.
Best we let it rot and die.
Our beautiful country of Malaysia.
Have you ever truly thought about how beautiful our country is? Have you felt the soft white sands of Langkawi and felt the breeze driving in from the Indian Ocean? Have you stood in a darkened room and heard the tropical storms thunder overhead and lash with ferocity as the clouds move in from the South China Sea? Have you ever pondered the silhouette of our mountain ranges and felt the call of the wild and ancient jungles thrum through the air? Have you felt the fragility of the species we hold in our hands, the tapir and the orang utan and the Sumatran tiger – creatures that, if we are not careful, will soon be fossils and pictures in children’s books? Do you comprehend the riches of the earth our country has been blessed with? Fertile land for farming, lush jungles for lumber, rubber and palm oil, and the black gold of the earth from our coasts.
Have you just stood in the middle of a sweaty, smoke filled hawker centre and marvelled at the banquet of smells and tastes before you? Such a fantastic palate, that I have never heard a single foreigner complain of it. Have you looked at the faces buzzing around you in our shopping malls, and known the immense weight of history and tradition we carry from the mighty civilisations that emerged from the holy Ganges River, the vast Yangtze River and the archipelago of Southeast Asia? Do you wonder at our wonderful tapestries, the gongs and chants from the temples, the smells of incense, the flash and colour of our parades, the solemn call of mosques in the evenings, hundreds of dances and song, more religious festivals than any country in the world, our languages and our rich historical inheritance?
As unpatriotic as any of us could be, how could we not love Malaysia?
When I watched the Bersih videos, it was not just the political movement that got me. I agree fully with the call for fair and clean elections. But what was overpowering, was seeing thousands of people, of every age, of every colour, from every segment of society, from all walks of life, come together and say, “We care. We will not let this country rot and die.”
I never believed I would see such a thing. I never believed my people, a people that did not trust each other and insulted each other in silence, could ever really unite. Yet here they were, standing together in the streets, getting beaten up and having water sprayed at them. Hurting. But united. So from their hope of a better future, from their faith in each other to stand as one over a country they love and their love for the land and its people, I too draw faith and hope and love.
Malaysians, our time is short. The world changes faster and faster everyday and as the old Chinese curse would have it, we live in interesting times. Today, Europe, that was once the mightiest power on earth, threatens to topple spectacularly. America, the world’s super power, is fearful of its own internal workings. And the Chinese dragon shifts restlessly from slumber. Our world has been globalising for decades now and that pace has simply accelerated. The world is tense and troublesome enough to navigate without our own internal strife.
Our economy has been sluggish and in recession for two decades now. While times were good, we could make up for the corruption of our country. But now there is no more leeway for such activities. Our corruption must stop. And let us not just point at our politicians, although they have much to answer for. Let us not just point at our policemen, as easy as they may be to target.
It was my silence that has brought us here. It was your silence too. It is our silence that has made this land groan under our feet. We are the cause Malaysia suffers. We are the reason our rich and poor divide widens. We are the reason we practice a civilised, governmentally endorsed racism. We are the reason our rainforests are dying and smog blankets our atmosphere. We are the reason so many of us do not return to our own country and instead hope to live in foreign lands.
Malaysians, can you change? It will be difficult and we are working against decades of culture and practice. There will be, and have already been, casualties in multiple arenas. There will be a price to pay for the way we have lived. May others, with more wisdom than I, find the way through to a better future.
But as long as we keep our silence, our country will suffer. May whatever powers that govern our universe have mercy upon us.