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Malaysia, January 31, 2000

Malaysia is the Mix Master

Amazing. A multi-ethnic island without ethnic animosity

A present to Georgetown on the silver jubilee of Queen Vic II
Yep, the Brits were here
I'd like to find some beijing noodles, please!
No, not Indian.
If they had cash, I'd think it was Hong Kong!
A spacious and poor HK
It takes two to tango!
They don't look oppressed
I love you, honey bunny!
Happily Malaysian
I don't know yet if Penang is representative of Malaysia, but even if the rest of the country is half as integrated, I'll be forever in awe of the success this country is. Preconditioned by reading the Autobiography of Malcolm X on the train ride from Thailand, I was shocked at the harmonic diversity this island presents.

Unlike Thailand, where there is a scattering of very assimilated Chinese, Penang feels more Mainland Chinese than Hong Kong, yet it has more Indians than I've ever seen before. These two groups, with a Malay buffer and a handful of Indonesians and Europeans thrown in, get along on this island remarkably well.

I've looked, read, and asked around, and the usual Hindu and Muslim Indian tension notwithstanding, there isn't any of the racial animosity I'd expect with such large ethnic populations. I've even seen a remarkable number of Chinese and Malay couples and mixed kids, though the Indians seem to stick more to themselves, romantically.

Each ethnic group also has their specific specialty. All the hotels and most of the businesses are run by Chinese, Southern Chinese to be specific. Their shops, selling anything from odd Chinese medicines to the latest electronics, usually have signs in Chinese characters and English letters, with a little Buddhist shrine out front.

The Indians control the restaurant trade on the island (Chinese food is mainly sold from kiosks), with every corner sporting at least three Indian restaurants packed on top of each other. You have to choose carefully, since there are many Northern (Muslim) and Southern (Hindu) restaurants right next to each other, and one will not have the same selection as the other. I have a 50% response rate in asking for lassie's (mango is my fav) so far.

The Malays, which on this island are in the minority, usually run the government offices and civil services. At the post office, everyone was Malay, though the police force is multi-ethnic, with each minority policing itself. Luckily, I haven't dealt with the cops or any other part of the government yet, and I'd like to keep it that way.

All this integration dates back to when Captain Francis Light, of the infamous British East India Company, was sent here in the late 1700's to keep trade routes to China open and grow spices for export to Britain. As was the custom of the British at the time, they imported Chinese and Indian laborers to work the plantations of pepper, nutmeg, and sugarcane. The immigrants soon took over the island from the locals, of which there weren't many to start with, and made it home.

I'm happy to be leaving Georgetown and Penang Island today, for after three days here, I've seen enough. The beaches, while famous, are nothing like Thailand's, and the city is too small for me. Now I wanna get back to the mainland and see the real Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur!

-- February 9, 2000 Update --

After I wrote this page, WeeCheng, a Singaporean with his own world-travel page, opened my eyes to the darker side of Malaysian relations that I, the quick-visit tourist didn't see. Here's his comments:


Despite the apparent ethnic harmony you see, Malaysians are emotional about their ethnic identity and rights.

Malays see themselves as aristocratic and indigenous, and all others as outsiders who should submit to Malay rule. Chinese see themselves as a more commercially smart people who are more sophisticated than peasant-like Malays who mistreated them. Indians feel oppressed by everybody else because they are neither in the ruling nor the commercial class.

Malaysia practices a kind of affirmative action that aims at transfer of wealth from Chinese to Malays (and keeping government jobs and university placements for Malays), and that has led to the large Chinese-Malaysian emigration to Singapore, Australia, UK, etc, in the past 3 decades after the great racial riots of 1969.

U are also mistaken as to the number of Chinese and Malay couples. Many Malays do look Chinese and vice versa because the 'racial stock' is close.

However, inter-racial weddings are very rare between Chinese and Malay because laws now require anyone who marry Muslims to convert to Islam. People are often forced to elope and move out of Malaysia to escape such laws. There are in fact more Indian-Chinese couples as such combinations do not break any laws.

Between the 17th and start-of-20th century, people were more relaxed about Malay-Chinese marriages and a minor ethnic group known as the Peranakan or Straits Chinese did arise out of Malay-Chinese marriages.

Racial relations are more messy than you think.


Since WeeCheng is Singaporean, I have no reason to doubt his commentary, though as a witness to the racial tensions in my country that persist even today, I am still in awe of Malaysia's apparent racial harmony.

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