Sunday, August 22, 2010

Malaysia: Motorcycle helmets, modernity, and contradictions

Couple of more thoughts on my recent trip to Malaysia (I still to post some pictures of a fantastic aquarium in Kuala Lumpur). I was struck by the fact that I did not see anyone without a helmet on a motorcycle in Kuala Lumpur. Here is a picture at a random traffic light. I tried hard to find counter-evidence - but did not find one, either on the highway or on the bust streets of  downtown Kuala Lumpur.

Is this a  sign of modernization? An increased value of individual human life and/or a link with a higher level of education than many in the developing world. Yes, I know that helmets are required by law in Malaysia - but then, somebody is enforcing that law quite effectively. As a contrast, here is a picture from Pakistan - where we find many many ordinary daredevils on the street every day:

or some selective use of helmets - again in Pakistan:

I don't know. It is quite possible that helmets do not symbolize anything. But it appears that Malaysia is at an interesting transitionary point. It is certainly more developed than much of the developing world - and, at least Kuala Lumpur, is modern and pluralistic. Yes, there are more conservative, rural areas as well - but my views are based only on comparing urban centers. At the same time, there definitely appear to be tensions between the three dominant ethnic groups - the Malays (also all Muslims), the Chinese and the Indians. While I was there, everyday the newspaper headlines dealt with some aspect of this ethnic-identity debate. The future of Malaysia is definitely tied to how this multiethnic identity is resolved. 

Interestingly, just this past week, Washington Post had an article on Malaysia that talked a bit about this issue:
Malaysia is justly proud of its record in managing what at one time threatened to be a conflict-ridden transition. It also takes pride in its distinctive Muslim culture and in the way its religious and ethnic diversity works in a fast-changing society. But behind Malaysia's new prosperity, seen in glittering skyscrapers and tangles of freeways, there are lively debates about what lies ahead.
Malaysia's challenges involve above all its diverse ethnic, religious and economic identities, and today's debates turn on how the three are intertwined. By constitution, Malaysia is a Muslim nation and its population is majority Muslim. Malays and Islam are tightly linked. That translates, among other things, into legal tussles over whether one can renounce being a Muslim. Malaysians are trying to identify how the country's Islamic identity is distinct and how much latitude there is for different strands of Islamic thinking; how much can Malaysian Islam change as the country modernizes? The country's minorities are largely Chinese and Indian, and they are mostly Buddhists and Christians. How do their rights balance with those of the Malay and Muslim majority, in law and in the society?
The article takes an optimistic approach regarding these debates and I hope this turns out to be the case:

Thoughtful Malaysians worry that Malaysia's successful diversity is being challenged by an increasing de facto segregation in schools and neighborhoods. If the foundation of national identity is indeed that people of different races and religions will live and work together, they need at the very least to know one another. More integrated schools and curricula that highlight Malaysia's multiethnic and multireligious heritage and character are seen as the keys.
Malaysia's lively debates about cool imams, how to curb child marriage, and what should be taught in schools are healthy symptoms of a complex society confronting the complicated realities of racial and religious identities in modern times. South Africa found much to learn from Malaysia when it looked east two decades ago. The lessons continue to this day.

Read the full article here.


Snuze said...

You have not gone to the suburbs or the villages; that's why you don't see motorcyclists sans helmet while you were in Malaysia.


Salman Hameed said...


Oh - absolutely. And i would guess it would be even be different in different cities in Malaysia. But I would take it as a positive that at least in KL and the surrounding areas, people are wearing helmets. In Cairo or in Karachi, you don't see that often (and forget about the rural areas in Pakistan or Egypt...)

Kevin said...

I think people are generally more concerned about losing money by paying a fine to the police (or having to bribe them) than personal safety. :)

Ethnic tensions have been on the rise in malaysia lately, and this is due to the ruling government trying to play its race/religion card to regain and retain power. They suffered heavy losses in the 2008 elections. So by using government controlled media, they are constantly accusing the opposition of being anti-Islamic, anti-Malay, so as to gain support from the majority Malay Muslims.

Kevin said...

Oh, and here's a youtube link for an Al-Jazeera report and interview - that will give you a flavour of some of the recent issues related to ethnic and religions tensions in Malaysia. I believe it will be of interest to you, and the interviewees are all Muslims with very different opinions. :)

Salman Hameed said...

"I think people are generally more concerned about losing money by paying a fine to the police (or having to bribe them) than personal safety. :)"

Hey - at least there is a threat of losing money...

And thanks for the excellent suggestion for video. I'm going to put that on the blog - I think it does a fantastic job of bringing in the different view points regarding Islam in Malaysia.

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