Today marks one month in the Klang Valley and the more time that has passed the more confident and comfortable I feel with my surroundings, the work I am doing, and the new culture I am experiencing. From catching a teksi, to navigating the LRT/monorail system without asking for directions, to remembering to turn the water heater on before getting in the shower, it is all making more and more sense. I am living in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur called Petaling Jaya. KL, as the locals call it, is the capital of Malaysia. It is no hipster-dwelling, granola-eating, little rainy city in the PNW, folks. KL is vibrant and expansive. Where in Seattle I occasionally ride the light rail, in KL I have already frequented the commuter train, the light rail and the monorail to get around. Where the Seattle skyline is famous for the Space Needle, the Petronas towers in KL are the tallest twin towers in the world. The city limits house 1.6 million people, but almost 6 million people dwell the surrounding metropolitan area. Before coming here one person called it, “the New York of Southeast Asia,” which could not be truer.
I grew up in the Bay Area and have lived in Seattle for the past three years, but without a doubt Malaysia is the most ethnically and religiously diverse place that I have ever lived. About half of the people who live in Malaysia are Malays who practice Islam, the official religion of the country. Bahasa Malay is the official language of Malaysia, but English is also taught in the schools. About a third of the population is Chinese Malays many of whom are Buddhist and speak Chinese. Less than a tenth of the population is Indian Malays, who speak a variety of dialects including Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, and Urdu and who largely practice Hinduism. The remainder of the population is native Bumiputeras, and other minorities and migrant workers from all over Southeast Asia. Almost everyone that I have met speaks at least two, usually three or more languages.
Before researching Malaysia, I knew little of the ethnic, cultural and religious context of Asia, let alone Malaysia. So as a white Anglo-Saxon protestant, experiencing life surrounded by individuals who represent each of these ethnicities, are multilingual and practice religion different from my own is interesting to say the least. Lately though, it has become evident that even though differences may stand out at first, the similarities I share with those around me are far more important. For instance, I have gotten close to many of the staff at the organization where I am working because with each of them I share a passion for justice that demands that the rights of all individuals be recognized. Some of my most insightful interactions have been borne out of shared interest in politics or music rather than differences in lifestyle or culture.
My internship is with an organization called Tenaganita, in Malay this translates into Women’s Force. It was founded as a women’s rights organization focused on improving wages, living conditions and treatment of women working in plantations and industrial sectors. Over the years, the scope of the organization has grown to include the protection of the rights for all refugee workers, undocumented and documented migrant workers, domestic workers, trafficked persons, sex workers and people living with HIV/AIDS. Currently the organization has three focus areas: refugee and migrant workers rights, anti-trafficking in persons, and business responsibility and accountability. My scope of work will be related to the Domestic Worker Campaign. The campaign has a goal of working with a coalition of civil society organizations to change the Malaysian laws so that domestic workers are granted the same labor rights as all workers in Malaysia. Currently, Malaysian law labels domestic workers as “domestic servants,” which excludes them from laws protecting hours of work, rest days, occupational safety and health, etc. The first few weeks have consisted of me becoming familiar with Malaysian laws by reading, a lot. I have also spent significant time understanding the perspectives of key stakeholders by transcribing key informant interviews.
I am stimulated by the work of the organization, by the diverse and intelligent people I have met so far, and by how alive the city of KL is. I crave the challenge that comes along with being forced to question what I know to be true. My understanding of the world around me is grounded in my values, but shaped by my experiences. This is an experience. I look forward to the coming weeks!
So much has happened in the past few weeks that it feels like more than a month has passed. I have grown very comfortable with daily life in Malaysia, so much so that it is not uncommon for people to recognize me as that mat salleh who lives on the corner. Mat salleh is to Malay, as gringa is to Spanish, as mzungu is to Swahili. I am ok with being called a “mat salleh” here. It is used colloquially to refer to Westerners, so if that’s how I am referred to behind closed doors, I’d rather just embrace it face-to-face.
I have stayed especially busy attending film screenings, political forums, court cases and human rights discussions. After attending so many of these events I have begun to see familiar faces. These are the social justice junkies of Malaysia, the people who raise their voice at every human rights abuse, mobilize voters at every election, and rally for signatures for every petition. As I like to call it, this is the community of “people who care about stuff.” Activists who are aware of injustices, connected to causes, and most importantly are actively engaged in the path toward justice. Activists in the United States enjoy freedom of speech and press freedom that Malaysian activists do not share. Censorship, religiously based content restriction, and accusations of sedition are not uncommon for journalists and NGO workers to face here. I have grown to admire these advocates of social justice for their willingness to sacrifice their freedoms in order to create a better Malaysia.
Work with the Domestic Workers Coalition has kicked into full gear. Before the end of the month we will hold a training session for domestic workers about their rights. The goal of the training is for each participant to understand the rights that are stipulated in their contract and to be able to demand the universal labor rights that we all deserve. An additional goal of the training is for these domestic workers to be able to inform and support fellow domestic workers in their community. We are also developing a briefing kit for members of parliament to in response to an upcoming private recruitment agencies bill that will be introduced during the current legislative session. I have spent time weekly at the shelter doing art with the women. The art projects often allow the women a space for reflection and to share stories of their life, their families and most importantly the hopes that they have for the future.
These activities have given me many reasons to be stimulated by my time in Malaysia, but I have also come to realize that being abroad is hard. Whether it’s the bugs, the humidity, being sick of eating rice, or becoming impatient waiting for a teksi, sometimes the frustration gets the best of me. When this happens I take a deep breath and refocus my energy on remembering what motivated me to come here.
I have learned to welcome the unknown. I have accepted and grown comfortable in situations where I lack control. Most often this occurs when I make evening or weekend plans. When I plan to meet up with someone I never really know for how long I will be gone or where I will end up. This past weekend I had plans to eat lunch with a few friends. Not only did we go for lunch, but by the end of the day I had spontaneously helped coach a soccer practice, watched a movie in 3D and gotten drinks at the Skypark on top of a mall. Speaking of malls, Malaysia has a lot of them. I think I have been to more malls in the past two months than I have in the past four years. Typically malls are for shopping, but more often here they are for window-shopping, especially when it means getting out of the heat and enjoying air conditioning for a few hours.
In Malaysia there exists a dichotomy between the image of development that the government aims to promote and the reality of the situation here. It is no secret that the Malaysian government has the goal to achieve a developed nation status by 2020. Malaysia is an oil rich country and high-end shopping malls would not be able to sustain business without the support of a strong economy. At the same time, if you ask any Malaysian they’ll tell you that buildings and urban infrastructure are built as quickly and cheaply as possible. Often at the hands of migrant workers who are underpaid and whose rights are often unprotected. Journalists and media sources face harassment and censorship. The opposition party has heavily contested the past three general elections for gerrymandering and voter fraud committed by the leading party. Development is more than having a strong economy, it is having the infrastructure to sustain growth, it is the promotion of human rights for all who dwell within your nation, it is press freedom, and it is unbiased democratic elections. Albeit many of these qualifications for development are the result of my upbringing as a United States citizen, but from my perspective, Malaysia will only succeed at becoming a developed nation if the institutions that exist for the benefit of the public, the government and the civil society organizations, are working together and not in stark opposition of one another.