Malaysia–A Unique Brand of Islam

APRIL 2007 — I had remembered Malaysia from our visit in the 1980-81 time frame as being quite interesting because of its ethnic mix. It’s a place where you can sense the clash of civilizations. The Malays are the dominant grouping, with about two-thirds of the population of about 20 million. The Chinese, who came as traders or merchants from the north, make up 30 percent plus. And Indians, many of whom the British imported as laborers in the rubber plantations, make up 4 or 5 percent. After a nasty bout of racial strife in 1969, Malaysia had become something of a sleepy place, quite insulated from the rest of the world, it seemed.

So, upon arrival at Kuala Lumpur’s vast new airport, I proceed to immigration, and there a young Malay woman wearing a scarf on her head and the robes befitting her Islamic tradition starts to inspect my passport. I hear a faint drift of music in the background. I drill in my limited auditory faculties, and it sounds like American rap. It IS American rap. It’s Eminem. I can’t resist asking her, “Is that rap?” Yes, she says. Doesn’t everybody listen to it?

That started my reintroduction to Malaysia after an absence of at least a quarter of a century. The ironies abound—whereas Cathy and I drove from Singapore to Malacca and then to Kuala Lumpur with only goats and motorcycles on the roads, today there are six- and eight-lane expressways running right next to the distinctive onion-shaped domes of mosques. You can see the women in head scarves eating at McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken. There are Starbucks joints everywhere it seems. “They listen to Britney Spears and eat donuts from Dunkin Donuts,” says my friend Assif. In short, Malaysia is a place where Islam coexists with what we in the Western world regard as modernity. If nothing else, Malaysia is proof that Islam does not have to be in fundamental conflict with modernity. It can be a layer of civilization and culture that coexists with others.
The national language is Malay, but it has absorbed many English words. School bus becomes “bas sekolah,” police becomes “polis,” and central becomes “sentral.”
Here are my notes:

–They drive on the left hand side of the road, as the British mandated. So I now have spent more than two weeks in countries where they drive on that side. I obviously didn’t get killed crossing the street. My worry now is that I’ll get back to Manhattan and get nailed looking the wrong way on 42nd St.

–The explosion of wealth is amazing. My friends Assif Shameen and Laxmi Nakarmi take me to the shopping mall beneath the Petronas Towers, the tallest buildings in the world. There one finds Cartier, Givenchy, Chanel, Hermes, Gucci and all that. Malay women, wearing their head scarves, buy some of it; but the other big shoppers appear to be the Saudis who have adopted K.L., as it’s called.

I was early for what the locals called “Arab season,” but I saw a few dozen Saudis. Their women wear all black, and some of them even wear the veils that cover their faces. Yet, they too have embraced some aspects of modernity—I saw a couple of them talking in a very animated way about their VCR camcorders. I also saw many places that catered to the Arab crowd with Arabic signs and places for Arabs to sit and smoke the hookah.
–A word about my friends. Assif is a Pakistani by birth, a non-practicing Muslim. He has lived all over Asia and Australia over the years, but now he lives in Singapore, about a 40 minute flight to the south. (Singapore is right on the equator, by the way; I’m deep in the tropics here.) Laxmi is Nepalese by birth, but adopted Korea as a story and Korean as a language, even married a Korean woman. We worked together for many years at BusinessWeek. Then in my subsequent incarnations at Chief Executive and elsewhere, I assigned stories to Assif. Laxmi invited both of us to the conferences he organizes in Seoul. The two of them are best friends; together, we are a merry band of three. Laxmi left for Seoul the first night after my arrival, but Assif stayed with me for the better part of four days and organized my schedule of appointments.

–The mix of cars on the road was interesting. The government monopoly is Proton Saga, which got a lot of its technology from Mitsubishi Motors. The Saga is the dominant vehicle plus another Proton brand called Waja. I see lots of Toyotas and Nissans, but in my four days, I only saw one American marque—it was a Chevy product and it was made by GM’s Daewoo unit in South Korea. Not a single other American car. The rich drove Mercedes, BMWs and even a couple of Porsches.]

–The food here is just great. I ate a lot at the foreign correspondents’ clubs in Tokyo and Hong Kong for cost reasons, but everything here is half as expensive as. (My Hilton Hotel room costs only $100 a night.) So we ate great curry, great Thai food that made me break out in a sweat, Nasi Goreng from Indonesia, Japanese sushi, etc.

But the alcohol policy is bad. To get my evening vodka was painfully expensive. As a matter of religion and national policy, they make hard alcohol very expensive and portions are miserly. That did not warm my heart. Beer is served in more abundance, and the economics made it the beverage of choice.

–They smoke here more than I am used to—mostly cigars, it seems. But in a handful of cases, I could also smell the distinct odor of the clove cigarettes that they smoke in Indonesia, which I recall from my travels there. There are many Indonesians living in Malaysia because this country has been relatively more prosperous.

–The races are getting along, partly because there has been such an explosion of wealth. If everyone is rich, there’s nothing to argue about. But race lies just beneath the surface. We had one Indian taxi driver, a Sikh, who really vented about the “bumis,” or bumiputras. That’s what the Malays call themselves, the sons of the soil. They must own 30 percent of every company, and the best jobs are reserved for them. They dominate the government. “They are a lazy race,” says the driver, who’s looking for a tip and is trying to engage his passengers.

The Indians in Malaysia come from all over India. Aside from the Sikhs, there seems to be a multitude of very dark-skinned Tamils, from the very south of India. Many of them are dark enough that they would be confused as African-American in the United States. The Indians don’t cooperate among themselves because they are from so many different ethnicities and castes. They tend to be professionals—lawyers, doctors, and the like. But our driver complains that they are discriminated against very badly.

The Chinese come from several places in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, and Hainan Island. There are at least five different ethnicities or tribes represented. For the most part, they are businesspeople. In all my reporting for a story about Malaysia’s stock market, for example, everyone I met was Chinese.

The different ethnicities communicate with each other in Malay or English. But I noticed that, when the Chinese and Indians are among their own kind, they revert to their own dialects and/or languages. The Chinese make jokes about what bad businesspeople the bumis are. I’m sure the Malays would have a few choice words about both the Indians and Chinese, but I didn’t actually get a chance to probe their attitudes.

I see some interracial dating and some interracial friendships—but not many interracial marriages or families. Mainland Chinese are everywhere. Whole busloads of them. They are like the Ugly Americans once were or the Japanese were a couple of decades ago. They are loud and get on their cellphones in coffee shops and places where they obviously should maintain a bit of decorum. They also are arrogant—they have money. Lots of it.

The Japanese are major investors, but are not as visible as the Chinese. They owned the Hilton where I stayed, for example.

–My macro conclusions are that any notion Americans have that countries of the world need American capital or American know-how to raise themselves economically is very dated. Malaysia is still very much a developing nation, much less sophisticated than Hong Kong is. But Malaysia has some strong dynamics for growth. Malaysians can work with the Chinese, Japanese, Europeans and Arabs to get most everything they need. I’m tempted to conclude that nations such as Malaysia are pursuing their own paths in a post-American era. They don’t need our moral approval or our economic guidance. I think many Americans harbor this image of their country as being a moral and economic leader in the world; no one can get ahead unless they have our blessing. That’s a kind of missionary mentality, and it’s all wrong in today’s world. I think we need to recognize it’s a different game, a different era.

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