Seeing what’s happening in the world from my safe and cozy vacation bubble is not easy. Admittedly I’m somewhat of a news junkie, so only seeing snippits online makes me feel somewhat disconnected….not always such a bad thing, I know. But it’s hard not to feel and hurt and want to be informed when I see what’s happening in the US, Syria, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, France, Turkey, and the list goes on. When I see the xenophobic powers at work in the Brexit mindset and the horrifying polarization of a madman such as Donald Trump. When the #blacklivesmatter movement is minimized yet scrutinized with equal measure. When Islam is painted with the broadest of brushes, incongruent with everything it stands for. And when I can find more mention online of the newest celebrity rift or video game than I can that the Borneo Orangutan was just listed as “critically endangered” which means it will likely be wiped off the planet in a few decades….what the hell is a ‘Pokemon Go’, anyways???
However, through it all I stumbled upon a place where there is some semblance of harmony among people that I didn’t expect, but is no less refreshing. Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur to be exact as I’ve admittedly only been there and the island of Borneo during my stay in the country.
With a population of 30 million, Malaysia is almost split into two, with mainland Malaysia on one side of the China Sea and the large island of Borneo on the other. Its official language is Malay although English, Tamil, and Chinese (Cantonese) are spoken widely, and it is quite common for people to speak at least three languages, sometimes more. The population is roughly divided at 50% Malay, 25% Chinese, 10% Indigenous and 7% Indian and by religion at 60% Islam, 20% Buddhism, 10% Christianity and 5% Hindi.
Malaysia’s largest city of Kuala Lumpur (called KL by Malaysians) is an accurate representation of that mix and frankly a bit of an anomaly in much of the world these days. As I wrap up my Asian backpacking extravaganza, I have yet to come across any other place where so many different types of people – colour, class, ethnicity, language, religion, gender, and ideology – coexist so peacefully.
I was only in KL for a few days, but I thought the best way to see the city and learn about it was through what seems to be the great unifier of all things – food. I did an incredible food tour which took me to many different parts of the city, the most interesting for me being Little India and Chinatown. Both neighbourhoods looked more like a miss-mash of people than areas designated for those of their community and their community only, but thankfully the sights and smells and textures associated with those cultures were omnipresent.
And when I wandered the city’s main sites the following day on my own, seeing the Petronas Towers and KLCC, the National Mosque and Islamic Arts Museum, the mall and connected subway system, or even the airport for that matter, I was hard-pressed to find uniformity in what people looked like or sounded like or the company they kept. And I loved it. I was so intrigued that I bugged my cab drivers, I hounded my tour guide, I asked a plethora of questions, and I stared at and studied everyone. How could people with such diverse histories and religions and cultures enjoy such peace? The answer I was given time and time again was, “we just do”.
In Canada, we have a peaceful multicultural mix as well, but the demographic is different. The general hues are different. A place like KL is not supposed to be peaceful if you listen to western news, if you pay attention to western social media, if you buy in to western fear-mongering and hate rhetoric that is so pervasive right now about the dominant religion that make up KL citizens – Islam. But it is.
Now I’m sure there is division there. There is talk and concern about the rise of Jihadist extremism as there is in other places, and when I was there, there was an explosion in a nearby town that was blamed on an ISIL-affiliated group. However, it’s such a minority of the population and collective mindset, and from what I saw and was told and how I was treated, people were harmonious, respectful and above all, kind.
When I think of Malaysians which includes the Malays, the Sikhs, the Muslims, the Chinese, the expats and many others, I see what’s right about a society, what works and what is needed. And as I wrapped up my quick stay in KL – I ate a Halal lunch served by a Malay in Little India before taking a taxi to the airport driven by a Chinese man – I was further convinced that we can coexist; we can find harmony. Society does not have to be so divisive and we don’t have to fear the ‘other’ as is perpetually being fed to us.
So when I’m back on my side of the world in a few weeks, and I’ve got my trusty, sensationalized media outlets back to tell me about all the global divisions and the people we need to blame for them, I can think back on KL if I ever want confirmation otherwise.