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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Discovering Malaysia

Selemat Pagi fellow Scholars!

I just arrived back from Kuala Lumpur a few nights ago, and don't even know where to begin in recounting my vibrant and exciting experiences. I suppose the city itself is a good start…KL is a bustling metropolitan city and provides an interesting - and sometimes surreal - mix of a fully developed state (I had my Starbucks next door, a metro line around the corner, and was taking classes at a top-rated university) and a developing state that constantly reminded me of family trips to Bangladesh – the pollution was pretty overwhelming, government corruption is rampant, and KL is the only city in Malaysia that has reached a modern level of development. The Malaysian people are incredibly friendly and open – I was pretty much always mistaken as a Malaysian, so I was able to fully immerse myself into the culture and get to know some really interesting people and sometimes their families. The greatest interactions I had in KL were with cab drivers – not only can these men (and occasionally women) carry on a long conversation on Malaysian politics, they can easily debate the pros and cons of Barack Obama's potential rise as the next US president (not too surprisingly, not one person I met during these five weeks had any interest in another Republican president…), and discuss any number of foreign affairs issues without question.

Speaking of politics, I took two courses during my stint in Kuala Lumpur, both through American University in Washington, DC. The first course dealt with globalization, governance, and human security in Malaysia and Indonesia; the second covered regional issues in ASEAN, and the effect of the rise of China on Southeast Asia. The classes' set-up was seminar-style discussion from 10 am to 1 pm, and then following lunch upstairs in the various Indian, Chinese, and Malay food stalls, we'd meet a speaker at 2 pm. Both classes were incredibly engaging – my professor is one of the foremost scholars on Malaysian politics and Southeast Asian relations. She is a Malaysian herself and met her husband while he was working for the Foreign Service; essentially, she knows everyone there is to know in Malaysia, so our speakers ranged from women's rights, human rights, and foreign labor activists to the Prime Minister's advisor (who we met in the equivalent of the Malaysian White House) and the former Deputy Prime Minister (who we met in his multi-million dollar mansion for tea) to students from both the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization and the Malaysian Military Staff College. We took classes at HELP University, which is a private institution that provides a stepping stone for those wishing to get their degrees abroad and improve their English, making HELP an international institution with students we met from all over Africa, East Asia, and the Near East.

The political climate of Malaysia is very intricate and complicated. Upon Malaysian independence from the British in 1957, the majority Malays, of which a small class were brought up as ruling elites by the Brits but were mostly still living in rural, poverty-stricken areas, rallied against a constitution that held the three major ethnic groups of the country – Malays, Chinese, and Indians – as having equal rights. The British colonial power had recruited the Chinese and Indians to tin and rubber plantations, respectively. The Chinese experienced growth and wealth in the prosperous tin industry, and at the time of independence held a greater percentage of the country's wealth than did the majority Malays, who held less than the Indian population as well. In holding onto the reaps and rewards of what they believed to be their country, the Malays secured a preferred status in the constitution and Islam as the state religion, but with religious freedom for all non-Malays. (Malays can convert out of Islam, but face a very long bureaucratic process and social ills.) The political climate since independence was peaceful and the economy was growing rapidly until the watershed moment in Malaysian political history: the race riots of 1969 when the majority United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party lost their majority in Parliament to the opposition Democratic Action Party and Gerakan, predominantly Chinese parties. Shortly thereafter the New Economic Policy was enacted, requiring that the economy would be divided evenly between the three ethnic groups. The motive behind this was to pull up the Malays from their status as rural farmers to have equal footing and investment in the country's economy to quell any future outrage. While the NEP has visibly improved Malay holding in the Malaysian economy, it has created animosity within the Chinese and Indian groups because the NEP is essentially affirmative action measures – quota systems in public schools, cheaper loans and housing rates for Malays, and greater ease at securing a job – all for the majority population, marginalizing minority groups to a greater extent.

Despite the ethinic tug-of-war, Malaysia is a beautiful and prospering country. I woke up every morning to a great view of the KL skyline from my window, including the Petronas twin towers, which were the world's tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004 and a symbol of Malaysian oil wealth. The religious diversity is apparent on every corner; ornate mosques stand next to Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist temples. Malaysian food is perhaps the best testament to a united Malaysia; Chinese, Indian, and Malay all enjoy each other's culinary offerings, a popular conversation area being the "Mamak" stalls (Mamaks are Indian Muslims, mainly from South India – roti cenai, basically paratha with curries and veggies, is a favorite dish). Food is very cheap – a meal rarely cost me more than $2 – and the mix of rich Asian flavors and exotic proteins (shark, crab eggs, squid tentacles) definitely helped me put on a few pounds. The tropical fruits are really delicious; I loved to snack on rambutan, dragonfruit, starfruit, mangosteen, and really sweet Asian pineapples.
We travelled to several cities outside of KL as a group. Putrajaya, the country's administrative center, was built by former PM Mahathir Mohammad in only 10 years time, right before the Asian Financial Crisis of '97 – this is where we visited Zaki, one of the current PM's controversial advisors. We also visited the city of Melacca, a few hours outside of KL. Melacca has a culture of its own, a mix of Portuguese, Dutch, Malay, and Chinese influences – "Baba Nyonya" cuisine is exquisite, and only found in this part of the world. During the last weekend of our stay, our group was sponsored by the US Embassy to take a trip to the east coast of peninsular Malaysia to a city called Kuantan where we met with 100 Malaysian university students and went through several dialogue sessions on our impressions of each others' countries, campus life, and pop culture to learn more about the US and Malaysia. Lucky for us, US tax dollars allowed us to stay in a gorgeous resort right on the beach – Malaysia's dense forests, rich wildlife, and beautiful beaches are to die for. Needless to say, it was the perfect ending to a fascinating and life-changing experience for me.