Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Many Faces of Kuala Lumpur

Walk down the street in Kuala Lumpur and the variety of Asian ethnicity really blows me away. Smiling, headscarf donning young Muslim women mix with Indian women in saris, Chinese in business suits, and so on. Refreshingly, caucasion faces are rather few. This is, after all, Asia. I've not been in a country before with such a variety of Asian ethnicities living together, and as a first time visitor it looks like a great model of different races with different beliefs living together in peace. After talking to friends I've come to realize the situation is not as perfect as it seems.

The primary racial groups are the ethnic Malays, and then the Chinese and Indian minorities. Malays are granted a certain amount of preferential treatment in university admission and government job placements, among other things, but the other side of the coin is that they have additional prohibitions placed on them by law, like being unable to eat pork, which the other ethnic groups are not subject to.

Things move along with relative peace, but there are deeper underlying problems with the current arrangement, which reached a bloody climax in 1969 when the ruling coalition was momentarily deprived of power in place a of a pro-chinese party, resulting in street violence with the Chinese being targeted specifically and suffering the worst as people were killed and business burned.

It's a complex subject that I have an admittedly basic Understanding of, and it's tempting to say that, well, today's Malaysia is among the most prosperous nation in South-East Asia, so why rock the political boat? But that is exactly the justification the goverment puts forth to stay in power. If you take us out of power, they say, you'll be inviting a repeat of the bloody events of '69. Malaysia is under pretty heavy surveilence by a sort of secret police, and the media doesn't enjoy nearly the freedom I'm seen in places like Thailand, the Philippines, or even Cambodia.

And on I go about a subject that I know little about. Any Malaysians care to comment?

All that said, I had a brilliant time in the country and met lots of interesting people, thanks to my gracious hosts, Sze and Spes. Thanks guys!

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