Malaysia Breeds Taliban
Tanah Rata, Malaysia
I went into town for an electrical plug adapter, and returned with some intriguing insight into Malaysia's ethnic tensions.
I find it quite interesting how easily Indian men in Malaysia seem to open up about what I'd think would be slightly taboo conversation topics. I've been told that politics tend to work their way into chitchat in India, and I suppose I'm seeing a manifestation of the same in the Malaysian-born fellows here.
I strolled into a small convenience store late this evening, bought some tea, and started chatting with the owner, whom I'll keep anonymous, about the city.
"It's beautiful here," I said, as I checked out, "but I feel like I've arrived 20 years too late."
"—35 Years too late," the middle-aged man quickly remarked. "I was born here, and you should have seen it when I was 12."
I heard this, and was hooked. This man had spent his life growing up and living in what has become a tourist attraction, and such people always interest me.
I followed up by asking about how the landscape had changed, and what the town looked and felt like before it was infected by unsightly mega-hotels. His answer took the conversation in a unexpected direction, and focused in on the country's past and present racial discrimination.
He claimed that the hilly landscape of jungle and tea was being chopped up and sold off to foreign investors because the government officials charged with protecting and managing the urban growth of the surrounding cities only stayed in office for five years before stepping down—enough time to line their pockets and live well for the duration.
Continuing, he noted that only individuals who are ethnically Malaysian (and not of Indian or Chinese descent) are allowed to become higher ranking officials in the country—the very type charged with such land management duties—and stated that the racially divided educational system is at the heart of why "idiots" are now in charge.
According to this man, a policy change in 1975 marked a milestone for what now perpetuates massive ethnic tension in Malaysia. It was in this year that the country decided to drop English has its primary language, and switch to Malay.
The Indian population was furious, as a proficiency in English is viewed as vital skill to a successful livelihood, and pulled their children out of public schools. The Chinese quickly followed suit, and all of a sudden you've got Indian, Chinese, and Malay kids in their own, ethnically segregated schools.
The man made a direct correlation between being able to speak English and a person's level of intelligence. He reasoned that since only Malaysians can occupy the positions controlling the important decisions (and 30 years had passed since they stopped properly teaching English), that the positions of power were now full of greedy, uneducated, Malaysian men.
The universities are just as bad, the man continued. Ace Indian students can't get into degree programs because only 7% of the incoming class is allowed to be of Indian ethnicity. At 25%, the Chinese get a larger share of the classrooms, but was told this is because they're group controls a lot of the business interests in Malaysia. So what the Indian kids are seeing is an affirmative actionesque rejection, whereby a Malaysian student with lesser grades/merits is getting a seat over them simply because of their race.
He also shared that Malaysian families are given monetary allowances for school (supplies) by the government, but other ethnicity's are not, and that all contracted construction projects under RM$200,000 have to be given to a Malaysian.
He cautioned me about traveling to smaller towns in the northeast, as Muslims dominated the region. "You won't see it as much here, because of all the tourists," he stated, "but you'll see the hate in their eyes [towards you] there. I've seen the religious Islamic schools; there's Anti-American propaganda, written in Arabic, all over place. The entire area is a breeding ground for the Taliban."
It was a very interesting, and enlightening, conversation. And as I walked back to my guesthouse, I thought: Now I just need to hear the the same kind of raw honesty from a the other races in this country so that I can compare perspectives.