The mix of culture, language, and religion I find in Malaysia is at once comforting and disconcerting. On the one hand Malaysia and the US share in being home to people who come from different places, eat different foods, speak different languages, and practice different religions . This is comforting because it means that Malays are tolerant of differences and, unlike my stay in Japan, I don’t have to bear the embarrassment and frustration of always being a foreigner. On the other hand, I am beginning to see the subtle, but ever-present signs of frustrated race relations.
I believe that racial and ethnic tensions manifest in lack of opportunities for meaningful employment, and education as well as lack of access to public services. In Darfur, for example, the struggle over resources turned into an ethnic conflict to such an extent that the conflict was finally labeled genocide, which the UN Genocide Convention, 1948, defines as act with the intent to destroy national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups. Full-blown ethnic conflicts are difficult to reconcile. Consider Kosovo, Lebanon last summer, Bosnia, Cote d’Ivoire, Iraq and the list continues. If access to resources is not distributed in an equitable fashion, I fear that these inequalities will turn into full-blown ethnic conflict, which as evidenced by history only turns into long, bloody conflicts.
Here in Malaysia the races seemingly get along. Chinese, Indians, and ethnic Malays eat together and share a fusion of culture. By 7 AM the nearby park is filled. Tai chi practitioners, Muslim women clad in head coverings, old and young, healthy and disabled, Chinese, Indian, and Malay gather to get in their morning exercise. But under such a serene sky, perhaps there is a torrent waiting to pour down. Ching Ching, the executive director of eHomemakers jokes with an ounce of discontent that pork is no longer widely available, that the market rarely carries it and she has to buy it as if on a clandestine operation. She jokes that turkey was outlawed because “halal” (prepared according to Muslim rule) turkey could not be procured. She jokes that maybe one day the elaborate structure dedicated to Prime Ministers’ wives might someday be used by her ethnically mixed organization. Every joke is a repressed feeling of frustration and I’m sure Ching Ching is not the only one who harbors such frustration. Now, she jokes but there is nothing to laugh about in the tone of her voice.
That is why eHomemakers and Salaam Wanita is such an important project. More than empowering women, the existence of such a peaceful, ethnically mixed and fair project is a statement. It brings attention not only the plight of urban poor and women, but also to the challenges that Malaysia faces as a heterogeneous democracy.
Posted By Mariko Scavone
Posted Jun 13th, 2007