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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Opinion: Malaysians personify diversity

Opinion: Malaysians personify diversity

Hang Li Po

The best thing about Malaysians in Cambodia is they have lived in a country where they have been required to get along with others from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds – finding it culturally necessary to make others of completely different races and religions feel welcome and included and part of what’s happening.

None of us human beings had any choice about our race.  Our parents provided us with our genetic endowments and ever since we were babies, their nearness to us, their love for us and care for us caused us to absorb as our standard the language they spoke, the food they ate, the religion they practiced.  Newsflash:  our parents weren’t perfect either.  They lived according to language and culture traditions they themselves were taught.  

Only after we became more mature and self-aware did we realize that there were people different from us, of different religions and races with darker or lighter skin pigmentation and diverse cultural, food and language traditions that date back hundreds and thousands of years.

Malaysia has had these qualities of ethnic diversity for hundreds of years and while there has been some tension between the various groups through the years and while there’s even some tension that remains today, the behavioral results are nevertheless spectacular and worthy of recognition.

The history of peninsular Malaysia is a history of arrivals of various peoples over the centuries.  The Sultanate of Kedah was the first on the Malay Peninsula, founded in 1136 and remains one of the oldest and longest-running sultanates in the world.

By the 13th century, Islam had taken hold on the Malay Peninsula, ending an age of Hinduism and Buddhism that was similar in nature and occasionally connective to the then-mighty Angkorian Khmer Empire of that time period.  

During the 15th Century reign of Sultan Mansur Shah over what came to be called the Empire of Malacca, good relationships with China were enjoyed and, according to accounts, he married Chinese princess Hang Li Po. These friendly Malay-Chinese relationships formed an early wave of Chinese arrivals to the Malay Peninsula.

Later, during the Opium Wars largely between Britain and China during the 1840s, thousands of Chinese arrived to work in the tin mines and on the rubber plantations of what was then called Malaya.

The Malay Peninsula was one of the most profitable parts of the British Empire and the world’s largest producer of tin and rubber. Along with Singapore and what were then called the “Straits Settlements” the Malay Peninsula was gradually brought under British control between the 18th and 20th centuries.  

Both Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur are Chinese-majority cities.  Penang is the only state in Malaysia with a Chinese Majority.

Following World War 2, Malaya had to endure what was called “The Malayan Emergency” because the rubber plantations would not have been able to get insurance money from Lloyd’s if the word “war” had been used.  Finally, after the long, bloody communist insurgency was largely petering out by the early 1960s; on September 16, 1963 the “S” was added to Malaya forming the larger federation of Malaysia including Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore at the time.   September 16 continues to be celebrated as Malaysia Day, just as important as today’s Independence Day.  (Singapore was later expelled from the federation, but ended up doing quite well on its own.)

During the course of writing this special report, I had the opportunity to interview about a dozen Malaysians, many of whom I count as my close, personal friends.  They have treated me very well and I love their kindness, friendship and respect.  

Let us celebrate that on this day 54 years ago, August 31, 1957 independence from Britain was granted for all the inhabitants of the Malay Archipelago and Tunku Abdul Rahman became the first prime minister.

Let us pay respect on this special day to all the many kinds of Malaysian peoples for their tolerance, their enlightened policies of investing in Cambodia early, before others dared to come and for their general sense of fun, kindness, and multi-cultural brotherhood that is of very real value to all the Cambodian people and reflects well and with honor on their homeland of Malaysia.



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