What we can all learn from Malaysia: Cultural Inclusion

Photo by Leigh Griffiths (Source: broadsheet.com.au)

Recently, a full-time HKU student from Estonia published an opinion article on South China Morning Post about the lack of diversity in the university. As a blonde Caucasian woman, she feels that she was treated as their “pet gweipo” (meaning: pet Caucasian woman, generally carries a negative connotation), used as a token in the university’s promotional brochures to promote an illusion of diversity. It caused a huge uproar in the HKU community — offended locals, indignant admission officers, empathetic non-locals…

In the politically correct world we live in today, any kind of racial, sexist, or discriminating slurs are big “No-No’s,” words more forbidden than saying the F-word in a meeting. Movements promoting democracy, gender equality, and egalitarianism are championed more than ever before. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have gotten ourselves on to the express train to the land of Ideals. Have we gotten too ahead of ourselves? Are we really seeing change or simply illusions of change? And more importantly, how can we achieve this seemingly elusive cultural diversity?

The truth is, we are focusing on the wrong word. It’s easy to achieve diversity, it’s hard to achieve cultural inclusion. If you want diversity, all you have to do is throw a bunch of people from different cultural & ethnic groups together in a community and voila. To drive home the point, here’s a definition of cultural diversity: “ The existence of a variety of cultural or ethnic groups within a society” (Oxford Dictionary).

A community with cultural diversity is like a savanna — it’s home to a wide diversity of animals (antelopes, zebras, lions, cheetahs…), yet there’s minimal interaction between these different groups of animals. Just like these different animal species, different cultural/ethnic groups speak different languages, eat different foods, have different values & preferences. So is it surprising to find that these people will naturally form their own niche groups with people of their own kind?

As a third culture kid, I grew up overseas in Malaysia. With a longing to rediscover my Chinese roots, I decided to come to Hong Kong for my university degree. And I quickly realized the uniqueness of Malaysia. Though from a tourist’s perspective, Hong Kong may be just as diverse as Malaysia, it lacks something Malaysia has. Cultural inclusion.

In Malaysia, there’s 3 major ethnic groups: Malay Malaysian, Chinese Malaysian, and Indian Malaysian. Though each retains its own cultural identity, at the end of the day, they identify themselves as Malaysians. They are well accustomed to the different religions & social etiquette of one another, and most remarkably, they can proficiently speak more than 1 language. In fact, it’s normal for a Malaysian to be able to speak 5 languages/dialects: Malay, Mandarin, English, Hokkien, and Cantonese; since they grow up learning to speak different languages to different ethnic groups in this unique cultural environment. The result? Cultural inclusion. No language barriers. And a combination of food cuisines (Chinese/Malay/Indian dishes) are served on dinner tables. No illusion of diversity is necessary.

How many countries can we count from the top of our head that truly achieve this level of integration and inclusion of different cultures? More importantly, how many countries need this?

“ Diversity is the mix. Inclusion is making the mix work.” — Andrés Tapia

However, before we get ahead of ourselves, let us hop off the express train headed to the Land of Ideals. Malaysia is not perfect, and any Chinese/Indian Malaysian will tell you that — not all of the ethnic groups are equally treated by the government. But it has a unique cultural environment that is worth examining.

Complete cultural inclusion is like the asymptote of an exponential function — we can get so close to it, yet never reaching it. Yet, if we can realistically look at where we really are in regards to racial, gender, and cultural inclusion, we can get that much closer to shattering that illusion. It’s not about how many racial or ethnic groups we can get on a university promotional brochure or the statistical pie charts showing the impressive number of countries represented by the student body. It’s not about being politically correct and trying to create an illusion of an ideal community. It’s about taking that step yourself to get to know someone from a different ethnic group and creating that inclusion in your own life. It’s about discovering the shared humanity among all of us, that we have more things in common than that which divides us.

Side note: This is just one perspective I embraced growing up overseas. However, we all have unique experiences, which shape our perspectives and worldview in a certain way. Feel free to share your perspective, your stories of cultural inclusion, racism, or even your experience as a third culture kid!

BDS · Full-time dental student, write for fun

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