Friday, March 26, 2010

Malaysia's City of Harmony: Kuala Lumpur

Neither of us is particularly enthusiastic about museums, especially the underfunded and propaganda-heavy Southeast Asian variety. But it's 100 degrees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a bustling and relatively young city that is a haven for corporations and immigrants, and besides visiting malls, museums, and ethnic enclaves, there's not all that much for tourists to do. As much as we enjoyed the National Museum, which featured air-conditioning and all sorts of entertaining historical simulations (one, for example, illustrated how Islam spread into Malaysia), the tremendous emphasis on multiculturalism and tolerance aroused in us some suspicion.

In spite of the recent church bombings, KL has a reputation--no doubt inspired by the Malaysian government--as a city of racial and religious harmony. Even Lonely Planet brands the city, emphasizing that churches, mosques, and Chinese temples as well as head-scarved Muslims and Chinese women in mini-skirts all "coexist harmoniously." As we learned from our wonderful "couchsurfing" host, the peace is forced; the large minorities of Indians and Chinese (Buddhists, Hindus and Christians) face institutional discrimination at the hands of the Malay (Muslim) dominated government. Most slots in public universities, for example, are reserved for Malays, while Indians and Chinese who wish to learn are rerouted into expensive private schools. The issue of mixed marriages is resolved by requiring the non-Malay partner to convert to Islam and change their name. Moreover, the Malaysian notion of "Chinese" or "Indian" is plain weird: our host, whose family has been in Malaysia for many generations, is considered Chinese because her great, great-grandfather immigrated from China. By that logic, Ali is Ukrainian-Canadian.

To top it all off, following ethnic/religious violence in 1969, the Malaysian government banned public opposition to the "racial situation." As our host put it, "there's no point talking about it because it's never going to change."

Malaysian Islam may be relatively moderate, but it's certainly in your face. The National Mosque is full of leaflets defending Islam against harmful western stereotypes and, at the same time, instructing foreigners on how to convert (it's very easy). There is even an exceedingly friendly Muslim woman at the entrance to the mosque who instructs all female tourists in how to wear the required purple cloaks (see pictures). The Islamic Arts Museum was full of beautiful and characteristically intricate art, but also sold books featuring theological debates between Christians and Muslims (inevitably, the Muslim scholar won). We couldn't help but feel that the women wearing burqas along with high heels or lipstick, or while sitting in a swimming pool, were pressured to do so.

As it turns out, like in Saudi Arabia, Muslims are under the watch of the plainscloth Islamic police, who have the authority to punish their co-religionists who act outside the boundaries of Islamic law. Still, we were struck by the number of working women--cops wearing headscarves beneath their berets, women in suits wearing headscarves--and by the occasional sight of hooded young women holding hands and laughing flirtatiously with boyfriends (husbands?) on the train or in the cinema. Nothing is as simple as it seems.

Our visit to Malaysia marks the beginning of the third and last leg of our adventure. We've done India and Nepal, we've done SE Asia; it's hard to believe it, but we only have two more countries to see, and we'll be back home in a month. We are definitely tired of hotel rooms and non potable tap water, but are finding plenty of inspiration to keep exploring.

1 comment:

Yael said...

I can't believe y'all are almost done! what an adventure. i expect a full update when you get back. :)