SEPTEMBER 14 ― My friends warned me to ensure that my African-American friend, Ken Porter, kept his passport on him at all times during his week-long visit to Malaysia and to have a 24/7 United States consular number on hand.
They were afraid Malaysian police, who have racial profiling tendencies, might pull us over and arrest him.
Thankfully, nothing happened to Ken during his trip here except for an incident in Melaka where two corrupt police officers pulled us over and demanded a RM100 bribe for a minor traffic offence (going straight from a lane that was meant to turn left). When I refused to pay the bribe and insisted on receiving the RM300 summons, they let me go with a warning.
Ken came to Malaysia last month on a youth leadership exchange programme ― the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Fellows programme organised by the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL) ― after I participated in the programme earlier this year and spent six weeks in the US, interning with his non-profit organisation, Mikva Challenge.
Since Ken, a 26-year-old Chicago-based community organiser and veteran from the US Navy, was interested in education reform and policymaking, I set up school visits and meetings with senior government officials and politicians for him.
We visited Chong Hwa Independent High School and SMK Aminuddin Baki. We also met with Education Ministry unit Education Performance and Delivery Unit (PADU), Universiti Malaya historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim, Klang MP Charles Santiago (DAP), Federal Territories Minister Khalid Samad’s office, Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan, my own Malay Mail bosses Joan and Leslie Lau, as well as Umno Youth chief Datuk Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki and Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali.
This was Ken’s first trip to Malaysia so I was anxious for him to see Malaysia’s “truly Asia” side and good governance practices by Malaysia’s first-ever alternative government, Pakatan Harapan (PH).
Although I can criticise the government as much as I like, I wanted my American friend to see the good side of my country. At the same time, I didn’t want him to be confined to my urban liberal bubble but to see the arguably larger conservative section of Malaysia.
Our first stop in Kuala Lumpur was a Merdeka exhibition at Carcosa Seri Negara that omitted reference of the social contract, the thorn in the nation’s side that we are still trying to deal with today.
Khoo later explained it to Ken in a brief historical overview of Malaysia, a country that did not have to fight for its (Malaya’s) independence in 1957 as the British decided to just hand it over after staying long enough to defeat the commies.
My bosses and Gan explained changes in the media landscape that had long been controlled by the previous Barisan Nasional (BN) government. Chinese independent secondary school Chong Hwa and government secondary school SMK Aminuddin Baki illustrated their curriculums.
Chong Hwa, particularly, impressed Ken and me as the school staff were very prepared for our visit, right from the moment they directed my car into a parking lot until our meeting with the principal, vice-principals and some teachers, where they showed us four videos narrated by an MC.
At the end of our meeting, they gave us a laminated photograph of our picture with the principals in front of the school’s giant Malaysian flag creation for Merdeka. The Chinese school’s discipline in following the itinerary to the minute and the extent of their preparation for our visit (even preparing table name holders during the discussion) were incredible.
Although I have always believed in a single education system, our visit to Chong Hwa has made me think twice about abolishing vernacular schools (though in any case, Chong Hwa is a private school). Discipline is something more Malaysians could learn.
Surprisingly, my Democrat-supporting and anti-gun rights friend’s favourite meetings were with the conservatives ― Ibrahim Ali and Asyraf Dusuki.
Ibrahim was his usual boisterous self as he stressed the need for pro-Bumiputera affirmative action, complaining about how non-Malays were richer than Malays because the former controlled the spare parts industry and could participate in lucrative businesses like gambling and entertainment outlets unlike Muslims. Tok Him and I even exchanged our The Misunderstood Man and Unapologetic books with each other.
Asyraf, whom I once publicly criticised on YouTube for saying that atheism was unconstitutional, was a lot more measured as he described Umno’s “moderate” approach to Islam and explained how the Malay-Muslim majority in Malaysia looked at things.
At the end of his trip, Ken told me he liked the fact that Malaysians were concerned about racial unity (or lack thereof), unlike Americans who couldn’t be bothered because they were more individualistic.
So, as much as we complain about how divided we are, our frustrations about the state of the nation also mean that we care. We care that we are not united.
We are not apathetic. We want to do something about it.
We may have different ideas about how to be more united as a nation, but diversity of opinions is normal in a democracy. We just need to keep talking to each other and perhaps exchange books.
Malaysia Day doesn’t necessarily have to be celebrated through maudlin 1Malaysia-type videos, where a Malay, Chinese, Indian, and Sabahan or Sarawakian talk about their love for each other’s food, as if our country is nothing more than the stuff we put in our mouths and expel from our bodies after.
We can celebrate Malaysia Day by talking about difficult issues, like the values Malaysia should stand for or our goals as a nation, and welcoming strong disagreements from fellow citizens.
Paradoxically, our differing but passionate beliefs about these things are what brings us together.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.