HCMC Dining Guide

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Malaysian Primer

I'm low on brilliant insights into Vietnamese culture and society at the moment, so I'm going to jump ahead a bit and talk about one of the places I'm visiting over the Christmas holiday: Malaysia. Since many of you probably know little about Malaysia thanks to its nearly invisible presence in mainstream news outlets, I decided to write a little bit about this relatively quiet country. A disclaimer, before I begin: this post will probably piss some people off, and is a change in tone from my usual discussions.

Malaysia has a population of about 28 million and a strange geographic layout: One part of the country takes up the southern half of the Kra Isthmus, which stretches down from Myanmar and Thailand like an arm reaching out to Indonesia, while the other half sits across the South China Sea on the island of Borneo, which it shares with Indonesia and tiny Brunei. These two regions are most commonly referred to as Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, respectively. Malaysia is a democracy, with a government structure modeled after the Westminster parliamentary system, which is unsurprising given the country’s British colonial roots. Independence from the UK was achieved in 1957, and Malaysia has experienced rapid growth since the 1980’s, allowing the country to become one of the most modern and prosperous places in Southeast Asia.

The name of the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, which is where I'm staying, literally means “muddy confluence,” thanks to the city’s location at the point where the Sungai Gombak and Sungai Klang rivers meet. Over the years Kuala Lumpur, or KL for short, has transformed from a humble town settled by Chinese tin prospectors in the 1850’s to a modern, cosmopolitan city of 1.5 million, with a metropolitan population of almost 8 million. The city is home to the iconic Petronas Towers, the tallest twin towers in the world, and an array of Chinese, Indian, and Malay cultural influences. This polyglot mix has turned the city into a gastronomic playground, and I can’t wait to stuff myself silly on all kinds of delicious dishes. My Christmas meal will most likely be a little unorthodox but, when in Rome…

One reason I decided to visit Malaysia is that I’ve heard almost nothing about it since I’ve come to SE Asia, which seems odd, considering Kuala Lumpur is the 4th most-visited city in the world after Paris, London, and Singapore. (Surprising, isn’t it? I would’ve never guessed. Now I just need to get to Paris and London and I’ll have the top 4 taken care of.) Everyone here loves Thailand, and plenty of people have spent time in Cambodia, Laos, and Indonesia, so why not go to Malaysia? I’ve already been to Cambodia, I’m going to Thailand in February and hopefully Laos during the summer, and Indonesia seems to be experiencing every natural disaster possible, so the choice wasn’t a difficult one.

Another reason is to educate you, dear readers. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve enjoyed showing people back home, through this blog and my pictures, that Vietnam is not some third-world backwater. Malaysia provides another great opportunity to inform people, for one simple reason: the official religion of the country is Islam. This will be the first majority Muslim country I’ve ever visited, and I’m actually very excited about this fact. Now, I’m not a religious person by any means, but I do believe that people of all faiths should be treated equally. Well, maybe not Scientologists. Moving beyond religion, I believe that all people should be treated equally. Therefore, a major pet peeve of mine is the wave of blatant Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry that is currently sweeping across the U.S. (See: the completely overblown backlash against the proposed Islamic Community Center in Lower Manhattan, or the threatened burning of Qurans in Florida.)

It really annoys me when ignorance of a subject becomes acceptable to a large part of society, and ignorance of everything related to Islam and Muslim life is now the norm in discussions about those topics in the U.S. For example, some people equate studying the Quran with extremism. How Muslims reading the Quran is any different from Christians reading the Bible I’ve yet to figure out. The mainstream belief seems to be that all Muslims are potential terrorists who want nothing more than to destroy the U.S. This is simply ridiculous, and ignores the fact there are over 1.5 billion Muslims in the world – generalizing about a group of people that big is just asinine.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t extremists. Osama bin Laden and his minions disgust me just as much as anyone else, and there are some truly repugnant leaders in charge of certain countries. Muslim terrorists have committed appalling acts of violence over the last two decades. But extrapolating the beliefs of groups like al Qaeda and Hamas or megalomaniacs like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the entire umma, or global community of Muslims, just gives these outliers what they want – a clash of civilizations between the supposed “Muslim East” and “Christian West.” It also ignores the great diversity within the Muslim community – there are millions of African Muslims, Arab and Persian Muslims are completely different, India is home to the third-largest Muslim population in the world, etc. Also, Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country in the world (and not located in the Middle East), is a democratic ally of the U.S.

Malaysia is a case study in proving that Islam really can be a religion of peace, at least when practiced by the vast majority of its believers. While Islam is the official religion of the country, the freedom to practice your chosen religion is written into the constitution, and the ethnic melting pot that is Kuala Lumpur shows how different religions and different cultures can co-exist peacefully. Indian Hindus, Chinese Buddhists, and Christians are all welcome in KL. Unfortunately, the government of Malaysia isn’t quite as accepting as its people: several prominent political writers and bloggers have been arrested in recent years, and certain factions within the national political parties are becoming more radical, both morally and religiously. Hopefully these trends will be reversed, so Malaysia can continue on a path of multicultural development.

I realize I am saying all of this before I’ve even been to Malaysia, but I have total confidence that my opinion won’t change after the trip. I will return totally unscathed and un-persecuted and show, much to the chagrin of Fox News, that the notion that all Muslims should be feared is complete bogus. Hearing the call to prayer emanating from the minarets of KL’s mosques on Christmas Day will be disorienting, but if it sounds this hauntingly beatiful (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfgu81igf10), I won’t care one bit. Neither should you.

1 comment:

  1. Amen my brother. Amen. I for one am quite jealous of your upcoming trip. Enjoy it!