Blog: Getting to know our neighbours

Defining ‘Australia in the Asian Century’ has been the subject of some debate since the release of the Federal Government’s White Paper in October last year.

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But how much do we know about the neighbourhood we are calling our own?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied takes a closer look.

Last month I found myself in the hot and humid Malaysian city of Kuala Lumpur with five other ‘cultural exchange’ participants and a diplomatic entourage. I was a guest of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and our mission was to learn as much as we could about this nation’s rich tapestry in one week.

Malaysia is often seen as an exemplary model for Muslim countries around the world; a country with a Muslim government where halal food is abundant and hijab fashion shops sit comfortably next to Chanel and Hermes.

For me, the opportunity to delve beneath the surface was an experience that offered much to reflect on, particularly for a migrant Muslim who calls multicultural Australia home.

A country of primarily three ethnicities, Malay (60.3%), Chinese (22.9%) and Indians (7.1%), the Malaysians have an interesting political landscape. Curiously, what it means to be Malay is embedded in the constitution of the nation; someone who is born to a Malaysian, who professes to be Muslim, speaks Bahasa Melayu (the Malay language) and adheres to the Malay customs.

The comfort with religious identity that seems prevalent in Malaysia is in stark contrast to the strongly secular environment in Australia. The promotion of pro-Bumiputra policies (affirmative action policies for ethnic Malays designed to create opportunities and increase their share of corporate wealth) are also an accepted part of the nation’s landscape – at least by the Malays that we spoke to.

The policy has definitely created a strong Malay middle class, so in that sense it has worked. However, it has created a sense of resentment among people of other ethnicities, which feel discriminated against in their own nation.

The Chinese and Indians seemed frustrated at the fact that they are essentially relegated to second-class status. For me, this brought to the fore issues around personal and national identity and how policies are implemented, however well-intentioned.

As Australians it seemed natural to be shocked at a policy that discriminates based on racial identity, but we would do well to remember the Northern Territory Intervention. We too applied policies that discriminated based on race and ethnicity for a particular socio-economic objective.

It is interesting that both the Australian and Malaysian governments have been comfortable in continuing such policies, particularly when there have been such strong expressions of disapproval in both nations.

A week in Malaysia barely scratched the surface of this complex country, but it was apparent that Australians should not strive to change our neighbours, or that we should change to suit their ways, but that we become cognisant of the fact that our practices and make-up are different and that difference should be respected.

As neighbours we should focus on understanding the perspectives of our fellow Asia Pacific nations and realise the importance of history in their actions. Rather than always viewing them through the prism of an Australian lens, we must appreciate that there is more than one set of lenses to be worn.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is an Australian Muslim who was born in Sudan and grew up in Queensland. She is a mechanical engineer by profession and is the founder of Youth Without Borders. Yassmin was the Queensland finalist for Young Australian of the Year in 2011.