January 12, 2013 was a memorable day for Malaysians: tens of thousands of people gathered around Kuala Lumpur Merdeka Stadium to express their views on politics and other issues.
For the first time, it was a legal gathering after the passing of the PAA (Peaceful Assembly Act) late last year. Although the PAA has been widely criticized, one essential point of the new law is that it is now legal for people to gather in a public assembly, thus allowing demonstrations to legally take place in Malaysia for the first time.
What made this event truly special was the color code adopted by the protesters. Malaysians all got together to convey a message to the government, however it was not only one message, but in fact four, and to make this clear, each participant wore different colors according to the cause they were supporting.
This is the ultimate show of functioning in a collectivist society: it is not enough to protest with all your friends, you join forces with other causes to give more weight to your event … and somehow feeling secure that you are not the only one to protest.
Why is that so?
In the beginning, the Malay people were traders. The foreigners, whether they were Indians, Arabs, Chinese or Europeans, who first came to the peninsula and settled later, were also traders. Network and group affiliation do help trade to develop and run smoothly.
Looking back to Malacca, one realizes that Sultan Iskandar Shah, the founder of Malacca, clearly understood how some people prefer to interact with people who are close to their own culture. In the early administration of Sultan Iskandar Shah, there were four PenghuluBendahari or port administrators, each of them in charge of a particular group of traders, and able to converse with these traders in their own language, thus reinforcing the sense of familiarity and group.
The idea probably sprouted from the fact that to the Malays, it wasn’t a good thing to be a lonesome trader, and somehow, these PenghuluBendhari would be the head of a group that could replace a family away from home.
When a Malaysian describes him or herself, it will often be in relation to others and the groups they belong to, rather than a very personal list of qualities and weaknesses, as we tend to do in France. It is very difficult for a Malaysian to exist on their own.
As a Chinese proverb goes: “It is easy to break a single chopstick, but you can’t break a bundle”. Strength is in the group not the individual.
How does that translate in everyday life?
Malaysians find comfort in working or having fun in groups. It is common, for companies to organize family days or Annual Employee dinners. These events are meant to bring people together, and are seen as important dates for the employees. It helps to foster the family spirit.
Along the same idea, a well spread practice in Malaysia is the gotong-royong, where employees, neighbors or friends get together to accomplish something together (Spring cleaning of the office, painting of a public community building or simply helping a friend). People offer their help for free, as long as there is food to share!
When interacting with people, Malaysians are aware that whatever one does has repercussions on others: colleagues, family members or friends. Being cautious about the reactions and way of thinking of the group is essential. People value their relationship with others more than the “right” to express their personal views and opinions. Before speaking up, they prefer to enquire the point of view of their peers; Malaysian will feel more comfortable expressing a general consensus rather than a personal opinion.
There is nothing worst in Malaysia, than to go against the group by voicing an idea that is not shared, and might cause discomfort and embarrassment to someone.
In contrast, French people value and promote their individuality. Debating, the national sport, is all about having a discussion where everyone has a different opinion. When engaging in a verbal joust, the debater, who defends a personal point of view skillfully, is praised for his eloquence. In Malaysia the enthusiastic debater would be criticized for being impertinent and bad mannered.
One of the by-products of KL112, was T-shirts promoting the different causes. In Malaysia, common symbols are an important part of the group identity and often, people will wear theiruniforms to clearly show where they belong. Uniform for the French people is the ultimate loss of individuality. When the management of the French School of Kuala Lumpur raised the idea of implementing a uniform, even the primary school pupils staged a protest to complain!
In order to connect with Malaysians, it is important “to belong” and be part of the gang. As a Mat Salleh, you will never completely blend in, but you can at least try. It does take time for most Malaysians to feel comfortable and truly open up to outsiders. Yet if you listen, show interest, inquire about why people do the things they do around you and if you show your friends and colleagues that you care, then you stand a very good chance of becoming part of the family.
And surprisingly, you’ll realize that within the family, as long as hierarchy is respected, it can be acceptable to express your opinion.