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Insights from travel in Malaysia.

By Euan Thomson in All Sorts

insights from contradictory aspects of multiculturalism in action

SOME OF YOU KNOW THAT not long after my partner Malcolm died in 2012, I was befriended by a young Chinese Malaysian and have since visited Malaysia with him on three occasions, each visit including a stay with his family on the island of Penang. I am immensely privileged to be welcomed into this family and to enjoy their hospitality, their lifestyle, their festivals and the food for which Penang is famous.
The initial impact as you leave the air-conditioned airport complex is the incredible heat. Just 5o north of the Equator Penang has a tropical climate, warm and humid with a day-time temperature around 35oC. Soon you become aware of an array of different smells in this city where food is cooked outdoors and sold along almost every street. Incense burns in the multitude of temples and on the shrines that are inside and outside most Chinese homes and businesses. The amplified calls to prayer from the minarets that rise above the numerous mosques are another surprise, especially when they wake you before sunrise. The traffic is chaotic with endless motorbikes weaving their way between the cars, trucks and buses that crowd the roads from early morning until late in the evening. It is like Auckland without road rules. Even pedestrians have difficulties with the uneven footpaths being places for café tables or for parking motorbikes making it necessary in many places to walk in the streets.

The family business is the daily supply of fresh banana leaves to the many Indian restaurants in “Little India”, an area within the historic island capital Georgetown. I particularly enjoyed travelling there with “Papa” on his early morning delivery run when the air was balmy and the town just waking up. There is a Chinatown too, much of which is identifiable by its rows of narrow shop-houses, the ground floor devoted to the family business with accommodation on the floors above. Georgetown has been recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site and, with its ancient fort and colonial buildings, its Chinese Clan Houses decorated with ornately tiled roofs, is a fascinating blend of architectural styles.
Ethnic Indians are about 10% of Penang’s population, the majority being Chinese with Malays comprising little more than 30%, the reverse of the situation on mainland Malaysia. There are also people from Burma, Thailand and Indonesia as well as people who are of mixed races including those of British and Portuguese ancestry. This intermingling of races, cultures, religions, cuisines, architectures and languages makes Penang, and Malaysia as a whole, such an interesting place to visit.
The urban area of Penang has spread far beyond the confines of Georgetown and most of the island’s flat land is sprouting high-rise apartment buildings and luxurious private homes. Buildings are under construction everywhere and on each visit I have been taken to explore a vast new shopping mall, favourite places for all Penangites to escape the heat of the streets.
The island has a spine of steep, jungle-clad hills rising in places above 700 metres. The family home is on the coastal plain on the far side of these hills, similar in location to Wellington and the Kapiti Coast. It is a place of traditional fishing villages and orchards, but with modern housing development adding to the mix.

I understand there is a social security system in Malaysia and all employees are required to have health insurance, but I wonder how many of the thousands who are self employed have access to medical care for themselves or their families. More than once I observed old women who could barely shuffle waiting tables in street-side restaurants. In such places blind people who sell tiny packets of paper tissues are led between the tables and are generally well supported by the diners, but I saw very few beggars despite the obvious poverty.
How can I connect any of this with Connections? I have been particularly interested in the way that religion is so important to most of the many people who share this small island. It certainly perpetuates divisions between the races who tend to live in segregated communities, to attend segregated schools, to marry within their own ethnic group, to attend separate places for worship and even to be buried in racially divided cemeteries. Moslems dominate politically and may be resented by non-Moslems for perceptions of institutionalised favouritism in employment and education. If a Moslem marries a non- Moslem he or she must by law convert to the Moslem faith.
It is in the temples to Commerce that these diverse peoples come together and manage to peacefully co-exist. I often wondered what a woman who was completely clad in black with only her eyes visible was thinking of the Chinese girls in short tees and shorter shorts, (or what their husbands were thinking for that matter.) The festivals of all the different religions are celebrated in the malls and all are welcome, no matter whose God they worship. How is it possible for these diverse peoples to coexist when, in so many other countries, even where people speak the same language and worship the same God, they are at war? Perhaps Malaysia has some lessons that would benefit our world in the 21st Century?
Euan Thomson