Remaining with my people, my family — A. Hilyati
JUNE 14 — I’ve been reading the “Why I Stayed” and “Migration Stories” in The Malaysian Insider for some long time, but after reading Yee Ziherng’s article and the comments it prompted, I was moved to write in and share why I stayed.
First though, to understand my viewpoint, you’d probably need to know a bit about my background. My father worked in the Malaysian foreign ministry and took his family with him on postings. As a result, most of my childhood was spent overseas. I spent most of my time in international or foreign local schools and had almost no contact with Malaysians who weren’t in the same isolated position I was.
Growing up, I mostly learned my “Malaysian-ness” from my parents, from distant remembrances of visits back here, and second-hand, from books, newspapers and anecdotes from relatives and friends. Then in 1999, when I was 18, I followed my parents back to Malaysia.
Boy, did I have culture shock.
I was flabbergasted by the “tidak apa” attitude, the corruption, the apathy, the incessant and frankly exasperating obsession over race and religion, the self-imposed segregation – the list goes on and on.
It didn’t help that by almost any definition, most Malaysians would consider me shockingly Westernised and liberal. I’m “different”, and not everyone deals well with someone who doesn’t fit into the tidy labels Malaysians seem to reflexively put on each other.
More disheartening still, I heard so many people commenting about how “their” people were being discriminated against, or overlooked, or not supported enough. Then they’d talk about how “their” people will suffer when “things go bad”, as though sufferings by other races don’t quite count.
I kept silent and I listened, but in my mind I thought: look, it’s not just the people from one race or another who will suffer if things “go bad.” It’s all the folks who think or behave or look a little different, the ones who don’t quite fit in with whatever “our kind of Malaysians only” model is being touted that day.
It’s people like me, who despise the constant harping on race and just want to be left in peace, but still get caught up in it. If the shit really hits the fan, I’ll be in it just as deep as you are.
I was also shocked by how apathetic Malaysians were, always waiting for the world to change for their benefit. I was even more startled at how aggressive people would get when this was pointed out, and how they would point to someone else who needed to change to make things better!
One example of this I see regularly, especially on Internet forums, involves almost any attempt to compare Malaysia to the United States in terms of equality between the races and access to economic opportunities. Almost always, there would be an outcry from at least one commenter, along the lines of:
“Oi, don’t compare Malaysia and US lah! US respects human rights, especially of minorities, and freedom of speech, and equality! Here in Malaysia/Bolehland/[insert denigratory term] where got, politicians and other races here will just manipulate and suppress everyone, waste yr time and effort!”
I respectfully disagree with these comments, because I believe there are valuable lessons Malaysians can take from studying the history of the United States. During my time overseas, I attended an American high school for three years and my American history teacher was a lovely black lady who firmly drummed into her students the realisation that the rights all Americans enjoy today were gained only by the efforts of people willing to fight for their freedom.
We learned of times, as recently as the 1960s, when even in the United States those liberties were denied to those who didn’t have the “right” skin colour or religion or creed. We learned about the entrenched segregation, grinding poverty and lack of opportunities that led to a quiet death of hopes and dreams.
We also learned about the people who fought against discrimination, to change the law and public opinion, the ones who stood firm against public ridicule and personal ruin, endured beatings and water cannon blasts, but kept fighting to change the world for themselves and their children.
They were professionals, clergymen and labourers, rich and poor, white and black — people from all walks of life, who shared a common belief and kept the faith that things would get better.
And we learned it was because of their sacrifice, the marches they made, the blood they shed and above all, their patient and unyielding push for change that the United States has progressed to where it is today, a nation known for equality and opportunity and fairness for all.
I believe that the same quiet, steadfast courage found in those Americans who fought for change is also here, slumbering, in Malaysia. In the last 10 years, I’ve seen a similar spirit which will awaken in Malaysians, even if it is in fits and starts. I saw a bright spark during the 2008 General Election, when for the first time it seemed that Malaysians had shaken off their apathy. I still see glimmers of it now, as I hear of more and more young Malaysians working quietly to improve their own nation and future.
Seeing that progression, small, slow and hesitant though it is, gives me hope for the future and makes me glad I stayed. Don’t get me wrong — disillusionment and despair still threaten to kill that small flame of hope every day. It still flickers on days when the papers are full of scandals and shenanigans, when I see one more instance of a Stupid Malaysian acting the fool, or when I read the comments from other readers who’ve seen that hope die in their own breasts and can’t stand to see it in others.
But even then, when I think it over, I re-affirm my choice and stand firm behind it. This is my home. These are my people, my family. For better or for worse, I’ll stand with my own and I have faith that when we work together, we will weather whatever storms come our way.
* We asked Malaysians to tell us in their own words why they stayed... instead of migrating. This is one of the stories.