10 things I’ve learned from 10 years living in Malaysia
I’ll always be Irish but I feel very lucky to call Malaysia my home
Marc de Faoite: ‘I have consistently found Malaysians to be extremely friendly, kind, and generous, and though I will always be Irish I consider myself very lucky to be able to call Malaysia my home.’
When I first came to Malaysia I was at a crossroads in my life; a dusty crossroads in Southern India to be precise. One road was a dead end. I knew this having travelled it as far as I could go.
Another road led to a partially burned bridge. On the opposite bank lay a place where my younger self had been relatively content. I wasn’t sure if the bridge could be repaired, or more to the point, whether “relatively content” was a worthy aspiration.
Another road led back to Ireland, but I had spent my entire adult life in self-imposed exile, and a retreat seemed like admitting defeat.
There were others paths too, but I took the one that led to the woman who would later become my wife. She was the only reason I chose Malaysia, her home country.
After a few years in Kuala Lumpur we moved to the island of Langkawi, where we live in semi-seclusion teaching yoga and meditation. In my spare time I fit in a bit of writing short stories and reviewing books for a Malaysian newspaper.
Here are some of the things I’ve learned about Malaysia during the past decade of living here.
1. All Malaysians are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Malaysia is ethnically diverse and being a member of a given ethnic group confers advantages and disadvantages. For example - everyone has freedom of religion, except ethnic Malays who have to be Muslim. Almost one-third of the land in Malaysia is classed as Malay-Reserve and can only be owned by Malays. Where I live that figure is closer to 95 per cent. Other ethnicities wishing to live in these areas have to rent, since they can't legally own their homes.
2. Primary school education is split along linguistic lines.
Malaysians can attend Malay, Chinese, or Tamil language schools, representing the languages spoken by Malaysia’s dominant ethnic groups. In theory anyone can attend any school, but in practice it is extremely rare for anyone who is not ethnic Indian to attend Tamil school. It is becoming increasingly common for middle-class Malays to send their children to Chinese language schools, but the majority of Malaysians tend to be schooled in the language of their ethnicity.
3. The government is made of a coalition of ethno-centric political parties.
The dominant party represents ethnic Malays, with other parties representing ethnic Chinese and Indians, plus some other minor parties and independents. Though technically a democracy, Malaysia has never had a change of government since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957.
4. Freedom of speech is a privilege, not a right.
The government directly and indirectly controls almost all the media. Occasional voices of dissension are heard in online news outlets, but the internet is strictly monitored. Websites critical of the government are routinely blocked and it is not uncommon for people to be arrested for an indiscreet Tweet or Facebook post. Anything deemed critical of Islam is not tolerated and many Malaysian Muslims are increasingly moving away from a moderate stance, calling for laws that will allow stricter penalties for crimes, including whipping and amputation of hands.
5. Healthcare is almost free.
With a network of government hospitals and clinics, healthcare is accessible and affordable for almost everyone. Malaysia also boasts world-class private hospitals. Dentistry is also very reasonably priced.
6. It’s summer all year long.
Being close to the equator, Malaysia’s climate is very stable with little seasonal variation apart from the monsoons, which affect different parts of the country at different times of the year. The average daily temperature hovers between 30 and 34 degrees Celsius with swelteringly high humidity levels. From this safe distance it is actually possible to miss soft Irish weather and it soon becomes easy to understand why Malaysians spend so much time hanging out in air-conditioned shopping malls.
7. Malaysians love food.
Since the weather so rarely changes people don’t talk about it in the same way the Irish do. Instead Malaysians talk about food. Malaysian’s are very proud of their culinary heritage, and rightly so. Each ethnicity has its own specialities, but their recipes also influence each other to a greater or lesser extent. There are street-side food stalls and food courts everywhere and eating out is very affordable. The dark side of this is that not all the food is healthy. For many Malaysians sugar is a food-group, and deep-frying is often the default method of cooking. More than 45 per cent of Malaysians are obese, topping the rankings in South East Asia.
8 . Malaysia has world-class infrastructure.
Malaysia has motorways that rival any in the world and most roads are in much better shape than the ones I remember growing up in Co Meath sometime in the latter part of the last century. Postal, telecom, and electricity services run smoothly throughout most of the country. Free wifi is available in most mid-range food and beverage outlets. Domestic water is occasionally stretched, particularly in the greater Kuala Lumpur area (home to a fifth of Malaysia’s population), but for the most part everything runs very efficiently.
9. Malaysia is a nature lover’s paradise.
Malaysia boasts some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, particularly its rainforests and coral reefs, and the country is home to many rare species including tapirs, pangolins, orang-utans, tigers, and rhinos, all of which are unfortunately endangered, either due to deforestation for palm-oil plantations, or from illegal wildlife trafficking.
10. Malaysia’s greatest asset is its people.
Malaysians are very laid back, with most Malaysians, especially outside urban areas, taking life as it comes. In the past ten years I have consistently found Malaysians to be extremely friendly, kind, and generous, and though I will always be Irish I consider myself very lucky to be able to call Malaysia my home.
I confess there are times I’ve thought of leaving. But the reasons to leave are always outweighed by the long list in the plus column. Like my younger self, Malaysia also finds itself at a crossroads right now, and some of the roads lead nowhere good, as can be guessed from reading this short list. There are days where I find it hard to be optimistic about whether Malaysia and I will have a long future together. I certainly hope so. I feel like I’m doing my best.
But as I’ve learned the hard way, there sometimes comes a point in relationships where either party is faced with irreconcilable differences, and paths must inevitably part.
This article was edited on October 14th to correct a factual error.