Monday, September 7, 2009


Let's Remain Beautiful Malaysians
By : Joe Chelliah

I was fortunate to have been associated with Malaysia’s cultural plurality all my life. I have seen beautiful Malaysians for a major part of my life. Let us remain so and not get ugly.

Till about the 1980’s or so almost all Malaysians were simple and humble folks who clearly fitted the early British description of Malays as “nature’s gentlemen”. Malaysian humility was unbelievable and still remains so in the more rural areas. The Malays in particular were very soft spoken and also very mild mannered. Haughty and arrogant behaviors which can be more easily observed today amongst all Malaysians alike are a far cry from the day to day life-styles of the early Malayans and Malaysians.

Malays were softer spoken and level headed unless provoked with anything demeaning especially about Islam. They would also be greatly offended if you touch or smack their head or songkok (headgear). All Malayans led simpler lives untouched by the lure of unrestrained modern day consumer economics. Rulers and community leaders were well respected. Teachers, irrespective of race, were always a close second in terms of this kind of respect and endearment from one and all. In the 1960’s and 70’s teachers performed with much sincerity and a firm commitment towards students. Parents were wholly supportive of whatever teachers did to their children – even if the children were given a good whacking. This lasted till about the late 1970’s.

However, unlike earlier times the Malaysian economy began to see vast growth since the 1980’s. Politicians began meddling in just about every sphere of Malaysian life also around this time. The civil service slowly began to grow and also become almost entirely Malay with the urban drift that followed in the 1980’s. Today the “nature’s gentlemen” are a rare species. Many Malaysians have become a different sort of human species as compared to their simpleton forefathers. A new ugly Malaysian began to emerge together with this new found wealth.

Racial politics too began to permeate every sphere of Malaysian life as politicians began partisan politics. Armed with a Malay majority in the civil service, army and police the nature of Malays now began to change. Concepts like bumiputra (sons of the soil) came into vogue. The early Malays who adored the English were replaced by a new type of “hate the British colonialists” variety. History books were rewritten with an overtly nationalistic twist. Religion too started becoming a divisive factor amongst Malaysians. Hitherto unheard of non-Muslim festivals too started becoming more prominent as a direct consequence of Muslim posturing in Malaysia. As more money flowed in the national economy corruption began to have a field day. Even agencies such as the Ant- Corruption Agency were unable to check the growing corruption amsongst Malaysians.

The rift in ethnic relations was also becoming increasingly apparent. Non-Malays were increasingly not happy with the racial quotas and affirmative action for the Malays in almost all spheres of life. They began to grumble openly pertaining more towards the implementation aspects of such policies which did not really trickle down to the needy Malays. Affirmative action for Malays was initiated by the British long before Merdeka itself. It can be argued that the natives of any country should not suffer the same fate as the natives of the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands and even South Africa. However, there should be fairness to all in any affirmative action.

Non-Malays who were born and bred in Malaysia had also come to consider themselves as native to the land as time went by and have become uneasy with the affirmative action policies. I must say here as a fact that when I joined the teaching profession in 1960, the State Education Office of Negeri Sembilan could have easily passed of as an Education Office of Sri Lanka as it was staffed almost entirely by Sri Lankan Tamils – from the peon to the Chief Education Officer. But of course that is history and the situation has been corrected to the extent of over-correction today.

I attribute the much of the current unpleasant and deteriorating race relations in Malaysia to basic human greed. It’s all about economics. The gradual increase in per capita income and the onset of the economic policies that were accelerated since the early 1970’s favored the Malays more and has made it possible for a newly emergent middle class of Malays. The availability of education, particularly secondary education even in the most remote areas of Malaysia also aided the rise of the middle class which now began migrating to the urban areas of Malaysia in search of jobs. This brought about a change in the population demographics in Malaysia, particularly West Malaysia.

But in spite of all the developments that have taken place since Merdeka the rich have not been really affected too much adversely. They still live in the best neighborhoods, drive the best cars and live a life of luxury that middle class Malaysians, let alone the poor, can only dream about. They can and will leave the country if anything untoward were to happen here and live as comfortably anywhere in the world with their wealth. Governments and policies can change but the rich will remain unperturbed. However, the average Malaysian from laborer to tycoon is generally having a cushy life here compared with many other poorer countries in the world today. Even foreign workers in Malaysia get a little dose of this affluence.

We have come a long way from the early Merdeka years during which time the bulk of Malaysians were dirt poor in the kampongs and rubber estates. Even a bicycle was a luxury then as was eating out with the family. Only the affluent people ate apples, butter and jam while the bulk of the populace thrived on biscuits and roti kering. Today almost every working Malaysian has motorized transport and eats out of the home quite often at KFC, McDonalds or even Pizza Hut and these places are not cheap either. Even at 3 a.m. the 24 hour “mamak” eateries are well patronized. As long as this happens Malaysians are safe. Well fed people do not start revolutions.

In any case, as long as we remain a wealthy nation that we have become we may as well become beautiful again and strive to get rid of the “ugly Malaysian” image once again by just reverting to being the nice people our fore parents were.