Category Archives: POLITICS



Malaysian time sometimes means nap time

Besides China (maybe Germany) America has the most time-conscious people in the world.  We eat lunch at our desk, we work from home and vacation days are more rare than Friendster users.  On the cooler side of the pillow is the rest of the world, most of which enjoy longer meals, stress free work environments and an emphasized notion of ‘happiness’.  The dichotomy forces an identity crisis in many young Americans working abroad.  As an American, recent college-graduate, teaching English in Malaysia for one year, I’m exposed to this dilemma on a daily basis.  Should I bridle all expectations and cultural norms or pack my ethics and beliefs to share with the host country?  To what extent should expatriates be expected to immerse?

The World Does Not Run on American Time 

Working in Malaysia is, simply put, fascinating.  Everything from renting a car and paying a utilities bill to finding a real cup of coffee or new pair of shoes is different. For example, before finding real caffeine one must filter through four or five Nescafe serving stalls.  Sometimes, walking outside can be exhausting (due to the unyielding dry heat).  And to compound the scorching weather, the new environment comes with new societal values.

In Malaysia, time is not put on a pedestal.  Instead, respect and politeness are prized, crossing major race groups.  The heavily politicized education system, of which I am smack in the middle, is a perfect case study to analyze how this plays out in daily life.  When given a project to complete a detailed report on major projects conducted in the classroom for publicity brochures, deadlines are irrelevant.  The supervisor, whom assigned the project, will rarely check or even request the completed report.  This means the report will go unfinished or, if it is especially important, finished at the last minute, conveniently leading to less than perfect brochures or even the brochures being forgotten about entirely.  Consider this a paraphrased, yet chronic scenario.

Why is the scenario so prevalent?  Professional interaction is viewed as needless stress, generally impolite and respectively informal.  The supervisor, in fear of losing workplace ‘face’ (respect), does not wish to be seen as rude, disrespectful, or purveyor of stress.  The employee, aware of this Achilles heel, consciously dodges the assignment.  No accountability, no motivation.  It is a hard scenario to fathom for most Americans.  If the same events were to play-out in an American school, voices might be raised, punishments may be doled out and feelings would generally be disregarded.

But let’s remove the Western lens.  Instead of focusing on the unfinished product, a Malaysian would likely focus on the general happiness maintained in the workplace.  If a report is handed in late, it is still received with a smile.  This assures no stress and no tarnished pride.  If anyone raises their voice, hurt feelings would linger for months, being more detrimental to work than not finishing one assignment.

In what virtues should value be placed: work, time and efficiency or respect and pride?  The two are not mutually exclusive, but difficult to amalgamate.  If an American working in a Malaysian school were given the assignment, they may meticulously finish the report but in a bullish manner (i.e. asking for exact deadlines, criteria, etc.).  The Malaysian supervisor, fixated on politeness and respect, would care little about the meticulously finished product, if the correct respectful interactions were not conducted.

Mutually Beneficial Growth 

I have not learnt how to be patient with inefficiency; I have not grown accustom to a non-work focused society; and I do not plan on becoming more acute to other’s feelings in the work place; and no, overall my personal and work related values have not changed.  I have, however, grown an ability to find worth in seemingly erroneous behavior.  Simultaneously, those I work around have grown an ability to find worth in stress and directness.  Discovering value in a different system (weather that system be with new friends, in a different neighborhood, or even in a new cuisine) has the potential to strengthen your own, on a personal level this is the most significant aspect of cultural sharing.  Retaining personal identity while thriving from exchange.

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one malaysia


I draw from personal experience to discuss racial divides in Malaysian politics and the effect it could have on the nation’s future

Imagine a country with limited historical baggage, vast untapped resources and a potential model to help bridge East/West divides. Malaysia brings these ideal circumstances to actuality, currently carrying a frontier-like-potential unlike any other country in the world. If the U.S. hopes to benefit from ties with this eventual high-income economy, attention must be paid to upcoming domestic changes within the Islamic state.

As the 2013 Malaysian General Election looms, current Prime Minister Najib Razak is showing signs of concern. On March 24th, he awarded 1,000 taxi driver permits to frustrated auto owners unable to continue paying high rent on their vehicles, using this gesture as an example of his party’s fulfillment of policy promises. When first elected in 2008 he ran on an economic platform assuring increased worker rights and, with plenty of help from state-controlled media, he’s been able to tactfully project his agenda.

The Barisan Nasional‬ (a coalition of 3 major race and religion-based political parties) has maintained autonomy from the government since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. In 2008 it suffered a historic blow, losing the majority of parliamentary seats to Pakatan Rakyat (an evolving coalition of opposition parties), and recent polls suggest the upcoming elections may deliver a similar outcome.

Malaysia’s strategic importance grows as Obama shifts gears out of the Middle East, but the BN’s loss and future electoral prospects could compromise this critical U.S. ally in the region. The self-described rainbow nation has a rising GDP, wealth of natural resources and, most importantly, retains a unique bridge between Islam and modernity. If the BN loses the upcoming election, relations between the two nations will undoubtedly fluctuate, and potentially regress. It would be wise for the U.S. to pay close attention to a potential BRIC member, and position itself wisely post-election. Because Malaysian voting patterns are highly dependent on race relations at the local level (community separation, party allegiance, personal pride, etc.) dissecting Malaysia’s race-based society is essential to foreshadowing shifts in the country’s political makeup.

Inherent Race Consciousness

Malaysia’s three most populous race groups are the Malays, Chinese and Indians, the former indigenous to Malaya and the latter two brought as laborers by the British in the late 19th century. The Chinese were able to economically flourish due to their financial competency and British favoritism while the Malay’s and Indians dominated the lower class. This colonial legacy is visible today from crime rates to the classroom. Schools are racially categorized in Malaysia (reminiscent of 1960s America) as Malay, Chinese, Indian or Mix. Subjects like Math, English and Science are not taught by any certain race, but individual classes are usually racially separated. When you walk into a Malaysian classroom, the students are neatly divided up by race and gender; Malay boys on the right, then Malay girls, then Indian boys, then Indian girls, etc., hinting at what an early age race goggles are acquired. Youth are encouraged to befriend within their race and gender by their parents, schools and communities, arguably impacting decision-making as adults.

There are two central reasons for race consciousness: saving face and ethnic pride. The latter stems from cultural ties with the motherland; Malaysian’s usually don’t call themselves Malaysian, but rather Malay Chinese, Malay Indian or Malay. Following the traditions and cultural practices of the motherland helps distinguish them from other groups. Yet this typical goal for a Malaysian is culminating into a national identity crisis. Few agree on determinants of “Malaysian-ness” because race and ethnicity, for the most part, trump nationality.

Saving face is another phenomenon magnified in Malaysia due to the strong ethnic pride. Seen as polite and respectful, Malaysians are docile and reclusive. Being outspoken is interpreted as combative and aggressive due to highly sensitive individual ethnic pride. In an academic setting, it is extremely rare for a student to take a risk and answer a question in class because they do not want to be “shamed” in front of others. It is also common for students to duck their head and say “malu cikgu” (literally, “shame teacher” in Bahasa Maleyu) when asked a question. Even more rare, is the student’s ability to tell a teacher they are wrong; instead of admitting a mistake as a virtue, they see being vocal as confrontational because reputation is put on a high, teetering pedestal.

These seemingly micro issues translate into a salty national pickle. Malaysian youth are brought up segregated and unaccustomed to working with one another. As adults they find jobs where they can be surrounded by their own race, translating into racially divided professions with racially predicated wages. Votes are, therefore, made within the context of a particular group, not as a unified nation. If Malaysia has an Achilles heel, it’s segregation. To reach its goal of being a high-income economy by 2020, this crisis must be addressed.

Najib’s One Malaysia Campaign

Najib has taken on this colonial legacy with his hallmark One Malaysia initiative; a political strategy to unify Malaysia’s racially divided populace. The initiative has a few distinct interpretations, the first being an umbrella term for Najib’s cross-racial campaigns. He’s implemented a nation wide student discount program, increased construction of affordable housing projects and subsidized medical clinics, all branded with the One Malaysia logo to assure an echo of national unity. The second, bleaker, interpretation is that the movement is a scheme to assure the 57-year-old coalition’s success in the upcoming race. The opposition criticizes one specific campaign (“The Back To School Fund” that gives families of students attending public school 100 ringgit (33.3 USD) cash, annually), saying the BN is literally buying votes. There are obvious pitfalls and holes in some initiatives, but there is no arguing Najib has taken on a lofty challenge. National unity is the first step to growing economically, politically and socially, and the PM is proving his cleverness by killing a plethora of birds with the metaphorical stone that is, One Malaysia.

But like any other leader, Najib isn’t perfect. From opaque elections to control of the media, the administration has been criticized for numerous suspicious practices. Most recently Najib’s party has been criticized for attacking a strong critic of the administration, Ambiga Sreenevasan. Not only has her house has been the site of many protests, but she has also received numerous death threats, even in Parliament. Najib must further unite his own party and provide safe avenues of dissent so Ambiga, and other critics, feel like there are sufficient avenues for free speech.

Segregation in Malaysia will not disappear overnight or, perhaps ever. But Malaysian politics must evolve. It has a rare opportunity to exemplify political evolution within a decade (something America needed 200 years to accomplish). Though the SEA tiger’s economy is thriving and its diplomatic tendrils spreading, it is in peril of falling into a dark abyss. It will take a savvy leader to ensure that prosperity is spread throughout all its groups and that this opportunity to unify the country is swiftly acted upon.


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POLITICS: Economics Brief

wire b and w

During the latter half of the 21st century Malaysia’s economy was dependent on exporting raw goods such as palm oil, rubber, and tin.  But during the 1980’s Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad started diversifying into manufactured goods and tourism, helping the economy grow 8% annually until 1997 (the start of the Asian currency crisis).  More recently, Malaysia’s economy has been growing due to its “foreign friendliness” helping it become a middle-income economy.  Malaysia is open, privatized, and safe to trade with and invest in.  According to an International Finance Corporation poll it is ranked 18th (out of 135 economies) in ease to doing business with.  Malaysia’s economic reforms, like the Economic Transformation Program (ETP), are continually attracting foreign investment.  A World Bank article notes that specific bureaucratic hurdles like construction permits and land transfer registrations have been streamlined to reduce time of completion, an attractive incentive for foreign companies.

POLITICS: History Brief

cleaning lady reflection

Malaysia’s history goes back as far as the Early Stone Age, but for concisions sake I’ll give an abridged historical overview.  The Northern Peninsula of Malaya was a British colony until Japan took it over during WWII.  Following the war, the British returned as an imperialist power, but Malays were hit with the independence bug during the Japanese occupation and gained its freedom from the Queen in 1957.  In 1963 Singapore and North Borneo joined Malaya to form the federation of Malaysia.  Following independence the first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was left with a diverse population of ethnic Malays, Chinese, and Indians and a scattered region; issues were bound to arise.  Firstly, Singapore gained independence in 1965 rocking the newly formed Federation’s stability.  Secondly there were clashes with Indonesia over claims for North Borneo, which continue today.  Finally, a Chinese backed communist insurgency sparked an “Emergency” in the 1970s, inspired by the successes in Vietnam.  It took the inspirational leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad in the 1980s, overcome these obstacles and steer the country into peacetime and economic prosperity.

POLITICS: Why Malaysia is Not so “Random”

dull bag


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.