For many in the U.S., or at least my overly privileged liberal arts circles, Malaysia is “random”. Vietnam, Singapore, even Indonesia make sense…but Malaysia? Is that an island off of West Africa? No sir, no it’s not.
To their right, Malaysia is pretty much left out of U.S. government and media’s rhetoric. For American’s to know anything about Malaysian geography, food or culture they would have to do some personal research, which god knows we’re too lazy to accomplish. If it’s not in a Huffington Post headline or coming out of John Stuart’s golden anecdotal mouth, we’re not paying attention.
I have decided to spend a year in Malaysia teaching English for some specific reasons.
Firstly, Malaysia will not be “random” for much longer. In the next decade Southeast Asia will dominate international headlines and here is why. As the world finally settles into its post cold war mentality, cultural understanding is increasingly important, largely due to the tech boom of the past decade. Without the fear of imminent war, states are more confident trading, accepting visitors and increasing general wealth. What the now and the future hold is a race for resources, instead of an arms race. Southeast Asia is not only a multicultural hub, it holds vast natural resources and is rapidly growing economically. From an aggregate of all Southeast Asian states, the state department says the region is growing by 2% GDP every year. How does Malaysia standout in this important region?
Malaysia has modeled itself as a portrait of ethnic harmony with its population being 50.4% Malay, 23.7% Chinese, 11% indigenous, 7.1% Indian and 7.8% other. And even though it is officially an Islamic country (proven by the Islamic crescent moon and star on the Malaysia flag) its population is as diverse religiously as it is ethnically: 60.4% Muslim, 19.2% Buddhist, 9.1% Christian, 6.3% Hindu, 2.6% Traditional Chinese and 1.5% other. If Southeast Asia is a melting pot, Malaysia is a melting pot within the melting pot. As its economy grows it will have to confront the inevitable challenge of opportunity inclusion.
According to a World Bank report Malaysia plans on becoming a high-income economy by 2020, needing 6% annual GDP growth. If this dream becomes a reality Malaysia will have to spread economic opportunity to all. Poverty reached a record low or 4% in 2009, but income inequality is still high at about 30%. Historically, ethnic Malays have been left with the shorter end of the financial stick, with Chinese holding real economic power. To combat an ethnic competition and even violence, Malaysia will need to make itself even more attractive to foreign investors, enhance social protection programs for low-income workers and shift the informal economy into legitimate firms, strengthening market competition.
Malaysia is important, and becoming more important every year. It will be put under the international microscope soon enough and spending a year there will give me a decent leg up on all those pundits and satirical comics.