On the wrong road to Malay

April 12, 1996

Bill Watson bemoans the arrogance displayed by British academics and the business community towards Malaysia.

When the prime minister of Malaysia speaks British business executives listen nervously, Malaysian students cheer enthusiastically and university-based Malaysia-watchers smile enigmatically. In the past few months it has been fascinating to observe the way in which all three of these constituencies have been addressed in turn by Mahathir Mohamad and his party of government using a rhetoric that is new but which plays on familiar themes.

One of these is Malaysian self-confidence and the elevation of the nation's status in the international arena. The frequently mentioned "Vision 2000" asserts that by then Malaysia will be a fully-developed industrial nation, prosperous and progressive and economically and politically independent. The old rhetoric was one of buying "British last"; the new rhetoric talks of Malaysia's superlatives: the highest buildings in the world; the twin Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur; Dr Mahathir as the first head of state to go live on the Internet. Just recently, however, a new twist has been added to the theme of assertiveness: the projection of the notion of the "new Malay".

This notion, designed to appeal to and encourage young Malay intellectuals - for example, those studying abroad - stresses the importance of Malays being prepared to look outwards and dare to seize the initiative. In this respect there has recently been some debate in Malaysia about whether students are prepared to be more critical and demanding than they were. Certainly some observers think so, and this is a trend which Dr Mahathir wants to encourage.

He has led the way in his outspoken and forthright criticisms of individuals and foreign governments whom he feels want to dictate to Malaysia. Frequently it is not so much the content of the criticism but its tone with its suggestion of a colonial mentality which Mahathir finds so objectionable.

An example of this would be the reference by the former Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, to Mahathir as "recalcitrant" for refusing to attend the Asian Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum meeting in Seattle in 1993. Relations with Australia cooled considerably after the remark, but it was noticeable within Malaysia how much public support Mahathir commanded as a consequence of what was perceived as his determination not to tolerate the perpetuation of a white colonial mentality.

This concept of the "new Malay" and the promotion of assertiveness has considerable implications for the British business community and universities. In the first place it should lead to greater self-searching in relation to the potential justice of Mahathir's charge that we are still influenced by a colonial mentality. Consequently we should be considerably more circumspect in our behaviour.

It is extremely difficult to get this point across either to business people about to take up postings in Malaysia or to academics. Both categories simply fail to recognise how their behaviour and attitudes might be construed as offensive or "colonial". Yet the range of such behaviour is broad and stretches from ignorance of the ways in which body language, forms of address, different eating habits, and even desire to live in expatriate ghettos may be a potential source of disquiet, to exhibitions of bullying tactics in government offices abroad or making unreasonable demands of Malaysian colleagues.

It is no wonder that rather than risk being exposed to such ignorance and rudeness, consciously or unconsciously intended, Malaysians should prefer to do business with fellow-Malaysians or at least with fellow-Asians who do not suffer from the disease of arrogance. Nor is it surprising that large multinational companies in Malaysia should be discouraged from employingexpatriates.

Within British universities the same unconscious arrogance is widespread though its symptoms vary. The irony of the situation is, however, that British academics are blithely unaware of the irritation they cause, since they regard themselves as perfect hosts to visiting Malaysian academics and diplomats, and perfect guests when they in turn visit Malaysia.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been embarrassed at official university receptions when colleagues and senior administrators have talked to a Malaysian visitor about "when we were in Malaysia", how "colourful the batik cloths are", and how they could never get used to "the smell of that awful durian fruit". I have seen the Malaysian visitor make some polite comment, and I have also been able to read her mind and understand her frustration at the way in which her country is constantly being associated with the imagery of a colonial past rather than commended for its present achievements.

I have also observed how as visitors to Malaysia, academics have commented on the funny way in which bahasa forms plurals by reduplication. Their Malaysian counterparts have again smiled while grinding their teeth at such ignorance and superciliousness. Bahasa just means language, not Malay, as the ignorant expatriate thinks - Malay is Bahasa Melayu as English is Bahasa Inggris - and it is of course a failure to observe common rules of courtesy to make dismissive remarks about the language of one's hosts.

The same lack of courtesy and the offensiveness is apparent when expatriates on slight acquaintance express critical opinions on inter-ethnic relations in Malaysia. The latter is an exceedingly complex and sensitive matter and not one which anyone who is not intimately acquainted with Malaysian history and politics should venture an opinion about. But like bulls in china shops, expatriates have no hesitation in expressing opinions critical of government policy.

One underlying reason for the unconsciously superior tone which we in Britain frequently adopt, despite our ignorance of the culture of the non-Western world, is what can be conveniently labelled the Lawrence of Arabia/Kipling syndrome. We sincerely believe that if we turn our minds to it and study the language and culture of other peoples, we can understand their mentality, even better in some cases than they themselves do.

On the other hand, other nations cannot achieve the same understanding of us, and therefore we must talk down to them, simplify and, ultimately, patronise. A measure of the irritation that this cultural arrogance causes can perhaps be gauged from our own experience when the same attitude is displayed towards us by the Japanese who have their own "myth of uniqueness" according to which it is impossible for a foreigner really to understand the Japanese mentality.

The way forward, then, in the first place is to be much more self-aware and sensitive in perceiving how our actions and our speech are likely to be interpreted. In addition, however, it is clearly important that we should demonstrate a genuine desire to know more about Malaysia and Southeast Asia and remedy our woeful ignorance. The United States and Europe should not dominate our understanding of the global situation to the exclusion of other regions of the world. In disseminating an understanding of the non-Western world, clearly the universities have a vital role to play as teaching institutions and as mediators of knowledge to government, commerce and industry, and to the mass media.

It is symptomatic, however, of the condition which Dr Mahathir diagnosed that, far from expanding, our interest in Southeast Asia appears to be contracting. In the last five years the number of centres of Southeast Asian studies in British universities has decreased from three to two. ASEAN nations, then, can hardly be blamed for concluding that Britain still does not take Southeast Asia seriously.

And lest British business stops feeling smug and starts to ascribe our shortcomings to failure in higher education policy it should be pointed out that time and time again academics with an interest in the region have approached British companies for support in promoting Southeast Asian studies only to have been met for the most part with polite dismissal.

This contrasts unfavourably with the situation in other countries. For example, in New Zealand recently a chair of Malay studies was established through the co-operation of New Zealand business funding and Malaysian government initiative. This was the third chair to be so established, the other two being in the US and the Netherlands. Doubtless in time a similar chair will be established in Britain but it will have been too little too late.

Bill Watson is senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Kent.

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