Yep, the Brits were here
No, not Indian.
A spacious and poor HK
They don’t look oppressed
I don’t know yet if Penang is representative of Malaysia,
but even if the rest of the country is half as integrated, I’ll be forever
in awe of the success this country is. Preconditioned by reading the
Autobiography of Malcolm X on the train ride from Thailand, I was shocked
at the harmonic diversity this island presents.
Unlike Thailand, where there is a scattering of very
assimilated Chinese, Penang feels more Mainland Chinese than Hong Kong,
yet it has more Indians than I’ve ever seen before. These two groups, with
a Malay buffer and a handful of Indonesians and Europeans thrown in, get
along on this island remarkably well.
I’ve looked, read, and asked around, and the usual Hindu
and Muslim Indian tension notwithstanding, there isn’t any of the racial
animosity I’d expect with such large ethnic populations. I’ve even seen a
remarkable number of Chinese and Malay couples and mixed kids, though the
Indians seem to stick more to themselves, romantically.
Each ethnic group also has their specific specialty. All
the hotels and most of the businesses are run by Chinese, Southern Chinese
to be specific. Their shops, selling anything from odd Chinese medicines
to the latest electronics, usually have signs in Chinese characters and
English letters, with a little Buddhist shrine out front.
The Indians control the restaurant trade on the island (Chinese food
is mainly sold from kiosks), with every corner sporting at least three
Indian restaurants packed on top of each other. You have to choose
carefully, since there are many Northern (Muslim) and Southern (Hindu)
restaurants right next to each other, and one will not have the same
selection as the other. I have a 50% response rate in asking for lassie’s
(mango is my fav) so far.
The Malays, which on this island are in the minority,
usually run the government offices and civil services. At the post office,
everyone was Malay, though the police force is multi-ethnic, with each
minority policing itself. Luckily, I haven’t dealt with the cops or any
other part of the government yet, and I’d like to keep it that way.
All this integration dates back to when Captain Francis
Light, of the infamous British East India Company, was sent here in the
late 1700’s to keep trade routes to China open and grow spices for export
to Britain. As was the custom of the British at the time, they imported
Chinese and Indian laborers to work the plantations of pepper, nutmeg, and
sugarcane. The immigrants soon took over the island from the locals, of
which there weren’t many to start with, and made it home.
I’m happy to be leaving Georgetown and Penang Island
today, for after three days here, I’ve seen enough. The beaches, while
famous, are nothing like Thailand’s, and the city is too small for me. Now
I wanna get back to the mainland and see the real Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur!
February 9, 2000 Update
After I wrote this page, WeeCheng, a Singaporean
with his own world-travel page, opened my eyes to the darker side of
Malaysian relations that I, the quick-visit tourist didn’t see.
Here’s his comments:
Despite the apparent ethnic
harmony you see, Malaysians are emotional about their ethnic
identity and rights.
Malays see themselves as aristocratic and indigenous, and all
others as outsiders who should submit to Malay rule. Chinese see
themselves as a more commercially smart people who are more
sophisticated than peasant-like Malays who mistreated them.
Indians feel oppressed by everybody else because they are neither
in the ruling nor the commercial class.
Malaysia practices a kind of affirmative action that aims at
transfer of wealth from Chinese to Malays (and keeping government
jobs and university placements for Malays), and that has led to
the large Chinese-Malaysian emigration to Singapore, Australia,
UK, etc, in the past 3 decades after the great racial riots of
U are also mistaken as to the number of Chinese and Malay
couples. Many Malays do look Chinese and vice versa because the
‘racial stock’ is close.
However, inter-racial weddings are very rare between Chinese
and Malay because laws now require anyone who marry Muslims to
convert to Islam. People are often forced to elope and move out of
Malaysia to escape such laws. There are in fact more
Indian-Chinese couples as such combinations do not break any
Between the 17th and start-of-20th century, people were more
relaxed about Malay-Chinese marriages and a minor ethnic group
known as the Peranakan or Straits Chinese did arise out of
Racial relations are more messy than you think.
Since WeeCheng is Singaporean, I have no reason to doubt his commentary, though
as a witness to the racial tensions in my country that persist even today,
I am still in awe of Malaysia’s apparent racial harmony.