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A Failure to Acknowledge Rights

Today, on September 16, 1963, my country was born out of the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. The official celebration happens on August 31, 1981, when Malaysia gained independence from the British. But today was the day we became what we are, geographically and spiritually.

On August 31 this year, I began reading Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Reviewers are hailing this book as one of the most important ever published. The stories in this book are definitely important, as are the struggles they highlight and the efforts they promote. The ideas it espouses, about the most effective means of disseminating foreign aid, are worth reading both critically and thoughtfully. I would refrain from saying it is life-changing, but as fodder for thought, as a clarion call to some of the most important crises and struggles humankind faces, it is an important book to see the light of day.

The very first page of the book tells the story of a Cambodian girl who was smuggled and sold to a brothel in Malaysia. After escaping by climbing over a clothesline pole many storeys high from the apartment where she and other girls were held at, beaten, raped, drugged and humiliated, she made it to a police station. While reporting on the abuse she faced, the police arrested her for being an illegal immigrant. Later, a policeman drove her to the border for what she thought was deportation. Instead, he sold her to a Thai brothel across the border. When she finally escaped again, she was able to make it back to Cambodia, where she now thrives.

The point I wish to make about this, and how it connects to Independence Day at all, is about the profiteering that essentially lies in all my countrymen (and women). It is this profiteering that allows us to willingly facilitate the importation, legal and otherwise, of thousands of women onto our shores every year, for every task from housecleaning to prostitution. It is the same profiteering that belies the basic tennets of our country, and our fight for independence. Now, some parts of this profiteering spirit clearly worked for us-- we did negotiate independence bloodlessly from the British, as the desire to run our own futures for our own benefit reached a pitch.

Others, like the profiteering that drove our founding fathers to split this country's rule according to racial lines, are not. This is the profiteering that seeded such concepts as Malay Dominance, the idea that 60% of our population has natural economic and legal rights and privileges over the other 40%, even though all 100% have spent the last 53 years working to build the country together. This same profiteering gave allowance for a racially split educational system that is failing to build cohesive Malaysians, and consistently failing to build Malaysians who can effectively think, creatively inspire and lead the country in the long term. This is the same profiteering that is today breaking the country apart, because after 53 years of us telling ourselves, "all Malaysians are equal, but some more than others," we've hit the point where we actually believe it.

It is not just the Malays, neither a single ethnicity, religion nor culture, in spite of what some recent demagogues may think, but all Malaysians who are fault for our country's sundering. When I say our founding fathers sold us short, I mean all our founding fathers. Why did any of the races represented, throughout those negotiations after WWII to create a new nation, ever think retaining separate micro-cultures, with strongly delineated walls between them, was a good way to build a united Malaysia? How does having politics decided along racial lines, discussed along racial lines and voted along racial lines give us cohesion? It is one thing to expect that cooperation between the races will persevere, that racially-split dominant political parties can just get along with each other no matter what. It is another to expect that seeing our history, culture and laws as a nation through this lens will actually help bring us together. It has not. The story of Malaysia right now says it very clearly has not. We're profiteers. We want our 30% guarantee into employment, businesses, schools and investments. We encourage it by saying nothing about the students who are locked out of public universities, of the people who can't find jobs or get shoved aside for promotions because they're not the right colour, of the frustrated and determined Malaysians who leave the country, never to come back, because other nations understand their worth as whole human beings, not an 'other' percent of the population.

We are dying. We are dying as a culture, because our roots to a strongly nationalistic culture was near bankrupt from the start. We are losing our hold on the country, because we refuse to see beyond these firm racial blocs, and acknowledge that our fabric's real strength is its diversity, it's ability to understand each other in more ways than just tolerating our neighbours, it's spirit of full cooperation without accusing any one side of not being Muslim, Malay and more headcovered than thou. We likely have lost vast swaths of our history, of that diversity, of those roots that tell us that we overcame a loose collection of sultanates brought under the British for convenience -- sultanates who didn't necessarily agree with each other, who were a diverse population of migrants from all over Southeast Asia and beyond, yes, even those different sub-groups who call themselves Malay -- and became, for a little while, a unified Malaysia.

I barely recognise my country anymore, not from the news that trickles abroad, and even when I was there on the ground. I suspect there will come a time when I will truly no longer recognise it, and it scares me. I wish not to think that the country I remember is all rose-coloured glasses. But I just don't know.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 17th, 2010 02:21 am (UTC)
I must learn more before I next fly there.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )