Friday, January 21, 2011

21 January 2011: Friday Travelogue - Malaysia Masala

Normally, Friday Travelogues are meant to serve as recaps of the previous week's posts, but given the combined paucity of blogging with the plentitude of experiences here in Kuala Lumpur, I thought I'd use this as a chance to provide a few glimpses into the wonderful diversity that is Malaysia.

Many will speak of Malaysia as Christians do of the Holy Trinity: one nation of (at least) three distinct ethnic/religious groups. Officially, Malaysia is an Islamic country, and all ethnic Malays are considered Muslin by birth. The domes of mosque dominate KL's skyline, and Islamic architectural forms have influenced both corporate buildings, as well as the construction of former colonial seats of power in KL's central Merdeka Square. The Muslims are amazingly tolerant - I was especially surprised to find so many Islamic agencies, many run by the state, on hand at the Hindu celebration of Thaipusam, whose wild extravagance could not furnish a more polar opposite to the more reserved ethos of the followers of Allah.

While the Malays have risen in prominence due to an aggressive government program of positive discrimination, the ethnic Chinese are the economic powerhouse of Malaysia. The Chinese experience reads much like the journey of the Jews in American and European history. Imported or driven to south by the British colonial project and forcefully employed in the mining of tin and other sultry hard labor, the Chinese built on their relations with home, as well as a rigorous work ethic, to amass wealth, power, and influence, despite being derided by their Muslim neighbors as amoral and unclean. If you see a woman minus a headscarf wearing a short skirt or tank top, chances are she is Chinese. While most Chinese Malaysians are either Buddhists or Taoists, many also engage in some form of ancestor veneration. The pictures below are taken from a temple tucked away in an alley in KL's lively Chinatown, which is bustling in preparation for Chinese New Year. Due to the government's spirit of openness and tolerance, the whole nation gets into the swing of things, with shopping malls decking out in red and yellow in anticipation of the Year of the Rabbit with vigor that rivals our own December trimmings!

Malaysia's Indians, particularly her Hindus, have already made several appearances on this blog, particularly in connection with their celebration of Thaipusam, from which some of the pictures below derive. Like the Chinese, most Indians came to Malaysia during the days of the Empire, mostly from India's lower castes, in search of opportunity. Unlike the Chinese, their low social standing has been maintained, perhaps not unrelated to their darker skin and the greater divergence of their religious practice with the monotheism of Islam and the stoicism of Chinese spirituality. KL sports a vibrant Little India, and Hindu temples abound in the most unlikely nooks throughout KL. A small percentage of Indian-Malaysians are practicing Christians, particularly in the Anglican Communion congregations.

While it would be wrong to idealize Malaysia's relative unity within diversity, equally tragic would be to undervalue the remarkable manner in which three very distinct ethnic groups, each of which contains within itself a plethora of religious and cultural expressions, manage to coexist, maintaining their relative distinctiveness and particularity, while also encountering one another in ways that bring into being an undeniably Malaysian synthesis. Particularly in the mouth-watering array of Malayisan foods, which blend the best of traditional Indian, Chinese, and other Southeast Asian cuisines into a culinary ecstasy of goodness, it is clear that whatever obstacles continue to inhibit the development of "One Malaysia" as the campaign runs, even so, we have much to learn from this Muslim nation which manages to tolerate without subsuming difference, celebrating value without undervaluing paticularity.

A word should be said in closing about the underbelly of this otherwise beautiful land. As in any story of progress and vibrancy, scapegoats kneel beneath the foundations, holding the whole edifice on their backs. In the case of Malaysia, the ethnic Orang Asli, the last remnants of the peninsula's indigenous population, bear this burden (Their plight is expertly detailed in Eliza Griswold's chapter on Malaysia in her must-read The Tenth Parallel). In addition, government toleration is not all its advertised to be - its still illegal to evangelize or even to translate the Bible into Bahasa Malayhu, and a local pastor even told me reports of the government swooping into Indian funerals to claim the bodies of Hindus who they've reported to have had death-bed conversions to Islam. Political prisoners are routinely denied due process, and censorship hangs a heavy curtain over the freedom of the press and media. These and other injustices are not to be taken lightly - nor are they to be too harshly judged by those of us who are citizens under a government who is not above its own forms of bending the rules of freedom and equality to suit the spread of its own Gospel. Its been an honor, a privilege, a joy and a shock, to have been given the opportunity to get to know this beautiful country, warts and all, over the past two weeks. I pray these steps have not been my last journey with the people of Malaysia.

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