When we aired the possibility that we were considering visiting Malaysia rather than our initial choice, Thailand, we encountered the same stern objection from several well-meaning friends: “The Muslims”. We were warned that Aussies don’t go to Malaysia any more because “The Muslims” hate the West and are inhospitable and rude to travellers from Western countries. Since most of the folk who offered us this advice acknowledged that it derived from hearsay rather than personal experience, we decided to take our chances.
I like to think of myself as liberal and open-minded. I am a fervent believer in multiculturalism. I have probably rubbed shoulders more often with more nationalities than most, having worked for nearly 20 years as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, mostly with Asian students. Through numerous exchanges in and outside the classroom, I gained a privileged understanding of many cultures. Like any teacher with half a clue, I realised very early in my career that the role of teacher and student is frequently reversed. And the greatest lesson I took from my years in the ESL classroom – a simple but profound one – was that our commonalities far exceed our national and cultural differences. Scratch the surface, and people are pretty much the same the world over.
Well and good, but I am not immune from the demonising effect of the media’s relentlessly negative portrayals of Muslims. Let me not abdicate responsibility for my own perceptions and attitudes, either. I am not well disposed towards Muslim fundamentalists, or those of any religion; I find disconcerting their righteousness and characteristically simplistic adherence to archaic dogma. Further, the blind faith of the fundamentalist is all too easily manipulated and exploited by corrupt leadership with self-serving and hateful personal agendas, the horrendous results of which require no elaboration. And unlike fundamentalists of other faiths who do not readily show up on the community radar screen, the stereotypical Islamic traditionalist in Australia is impossible to miss: severe-looking Middle-Eastern males, bearded, wearing a fez or similar, the females curtained from head to toe in black – not an easy fit with the rest of the community. Indeed, there is a common perception here (and again, I am talking stereotypes) that Muslims, unlike most other immigrant groups, shun inclusion in – and even despise – the greater community. This perception is reinforced by injudicious public commentary from loose-wire elements of the Muslim leadership, the sparkiest of ‘em being good ol’ Sheikh Hilali, mufti of Australia and a public relations disaster of Titanic proportions. This foolish man’s gaffes are legendary and need no regurgitation.
Add all that up, toss in 9/11 and the propagandist leanings of Western news coverage, and it is hardly astonishing that the general Australian public are, at best, wary of the Muslim minority within their shores. If I am to be completely honest, I cannot claim any moral high ground here.
Thus, I set off for Malaysia with some trepidation concerning possible Muslim hostility, wondering also whether the obvious and often uncouthly expressed disdain for Australia of former PM Mahatthir had filtered down to the population at large. The beaming smiles of the two female Malay Muslim customs officers – wearing colourful headscarves and long dresses – who waved us through the border check with a twin chorus of “Welcome to Malaysia” was a warming first impression and set the tone for our entire experience of Malaysia and its people.
I will dispense with detail and cut to the chase: we found the Malaysians – Malay, Chinese and Indian; Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu – to be welcoming, helpful and friendly everywhere we went. From Melaka to KL to Penang to the Cameron Highlands, they are as hospitable, as warm and charming a people as any I have encountered.
The Malaysian Muslims are nothing like the Middle-Eastern stereotype. Indeed, several we spoke to distanced themselves from their Middle-Eastern counterparts, asserting that the cultures are “at other ends of the earth” (and expressing some indignation at the “superior” attitude they perceived in Middle-Eastern tourists).
The Malay women, in particular, made the black-robed, burqa-wearing female Muslim stereotype look very Dark Ages. Colours are in for Malaysian Muslim women, black most decidedly out. The more formally attired wear headscarves and full-length dresses, colour-coordinated, elegant and feminine, with – get this – strappy (and decidedly sexy) high heels completing the look! Many others, while retaining a headscarf, favour fashionable casual tops and tight jeans – and those ubiquitous high heels. All wear makeup, impeccably applied. These sisters are all girl, and they know it and show it while retaining an underlying modesty; an eye caught roving may draw a coy flashing smile, momentarily overriding the reserve that is always there like a finger wagging “now now, enough of that”.
There is nothing meek or subservient about the Malay gals – none of that dutiful trailing-ten-paces-behind-the-man stuff. It seemed to me that gender equality is well established in Malaysian society. The women appeared to be matching it with the guys in the workplace; many were running their own businesses, and those sharing shop counters with males did not seem to be taking submissive roles – on the contrary, they came across as generally confident, some downright feisty.
Granted, the traveller’s observations are inevitably superficial. I have no idea of the proportion of women to men occupying seats of power in Malaysian society, for instance. I did glean through our frequent conversations with Malaysian people that all three ethnic groups identify their country as Islamic. This shows up in exclusivist government policy that favours Muslim Malays for senior government positions, for example, and discourages marriage between non-Muslims and Muslims. We were told that “religious police” enforce a law that demands that in any such marital union the non-Muslim converts and actively practises Islam.
It might be expected that non-Muslim Malaysians would resent being on the wrong side of this blatant political bias, but those we spoke to seemed accepting of the situation. Some even suggested that the Malays, as the original inhabitants, should receive favoured treatment! And although we found that individuals were not averse to criticising the other ethnic groups when pressed, it was mostly in a light-hearted, jibing manner, not dissimilar to the verbal flour bombing that a hint of provocation might detonate between Sandgropers and Vics, or Melburnians and Sydneysiders.
As in the ESL classroom, where ethnicity and nationality soon melted away and no longer consciously registered most of the time, a few days into our Malaysian visit the label “Muslim” started to fade. I still chuckled inwardly from time to time at the anomaly of hip-hugging jeans and high heels on Muslim women, but in time, even that novelty waned (though – I confess – the allure of the anomaly did not).
Spending time in Malaysia had the effect of altering quite dramatically my perspective on Australian Muslims. In Malaysia, there were only a few Western tourists; thus, I was a minority in a country in which Muslims predominate. As such, the focus tended to be on me, the Other. We demonstrated genuine interest in the locals and they responded magnanimously, keen to share their food, customs and culture with us. In KL, a group of Muslim schoolgirls having lunch in a park giggled, waved and cheered when I sought their permission to take a picture, clearly delighted that the foreigner considered them photogenic (see pic below).
In the small town of Tapah, way off the beaten tourist track, we sat down at a Malay restaurant at sundown and were promptly joined by the owner, his wife and children, and another local family eager to chat while our dinner was being prepared. And so on – warm, hospitable people everywhere we went. In Australia…
…the focus is still on the Other, but I am at the opposite end of the telescope. The face of Islam I see is grim, turned away. No easy banter here; no open smiling people; no confident young women in colour-coordinated scarves and dresses with open-strap high heels. None of the relaxed self-assurance of a people who are at home in their own country, who take it for granted that their government supports and understands them. And what might an Australian Muslim see if they were ever to look back at me, looking at them?
Perhaps there is a simple equation that explains it all: you get back what you give out. Perhaps nothing in humanity is that simple. And perhaps mainstream Australian society has something to learn from our Malaysian neighbours about basic hospitality, welcoming new arrivals and freely sharing our culture as a matter of course.