On Malaysia Day my sister and I visited a pop-up event called Riuh: a platform claiming to represent young Malaysian creatives.
Tropical and floral prints. Rose-gold accents. Vintage aesthetics. Vanilla-scented candles with a Bibliothèque design. Typo graphics.
All was very pretty at first. Yet our interest didn’t take long to wane. We’d seen all this before. It felt like another day walking into Cotton On or Pull & Bear. The target audience is some millennial hipster on Tumblr.
It isn’t a problem on its own, of course. But since when did this scene represent the future of Malaysian culture, as Riuh seems to claim?
The further our modern aesthetics flairs, the more it begins to resemble the design typical of western brands. Perhaps this is the new ‘creative uniformity’—a glaring oxymoron per se—in light of globalisation. Or, have we begun, at some point or another, to mistake the dominant western culture as our ‘modern-ness’?
The only thing I purchased was a book, which proves to be under heavy western influence.
The local born-and-bred author speaks of Malaysia from a strangely foreign perspective. She refers only to the KL Towers as a prominent location in KL. She serves her characters both ‘tikka masala’ and ‘butter chicken’ in a meal—which, I learned from an Indian friend, are the exact same dish!
(Only ‘butter chicken’ is likely what some Westerners refer to as tikka masala.)
Perhaps it was a lack of understanding on the author’s part… And maybe I’m just being hypersensitive to western influence on Malaysia.
Raised in an Expat community, a wonderful thing to me about growing overseas is: being so away from home forced us to stick to our culture more fiercely than ever to cope.
The result is a community ripe with diversity. True, certain values have come to be mainstream among us. Say, the western idea of how early we must become ‘independent’. But every ethnic group generally has enough pride to hinder any racial hierarchy from happening.
Four years ago I returned to Malaysia.
I needed not only adapting to an entirely new culture, but also seeing others handle mine—namely the vaguely Western values we now regard as ‘modern’.
There was a ‘popular clique’ during high school where people gauged their ‘coolness’. How Western they were—How well they knew very specific bands like Arctic Monkeys and The Beatles! How much Abercrombie & Fitch they wore.
The conversations were unreal.
“You don’t listen to the Beatles?!” said in the same tone as “you don’t know the Earth goes around the Sun?!” Later I made a friend who said to me, “I’ve been told I have Western values” in the same way someone would boast that “they’ve been known to have an open mind.” As if some quality inherently ideal.
I put this down to the new ‘global justice’ movement. Granted, it has achieved wonderful change. But since its loudest proponents are American (Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and so forth), it is easy to mistake ‘tolerance’ as a western idea.
Say, feminism. With such a broad coalition across the world, local contexts can be forgotten. Say, this new idea: ‘sexual liberation = female emancipation’. It absolutely is, but it often becomes ‘female emancipation = sexual liberation’. It’s rare to find a romance on Netflix that doesn’t conclude with a sex scene.
In my ‘Eastern’ experience, where sexuality is not as openly discussed as in the West, we have ways besides nudity to express our womanhood.
Our political system also began seriously deteriorating when the ‘global justice’ system started taking off. Although dirty power play isn’t new, it was the previous administration that really added fuel to the fire. The ‘Asian values’ so-promoted was to blame for putting our heads down and tolerating the injustice.
Come the digital age and exposure to social justice, the entire institution of ‘Asian culture’ gets deemed outdated.
My many friends express how they couldn’t wait for university life in Europe, where people are supposedly politer, cleaner, more democratic, and progressive. You name it.
A lot of them would then find: it’s not the utopian afterlife long thought, but just another society with its own values and purposes.
What we have
We mustn’t forget that Malaysia has a unique multiculturalism. Malaysia is no stranger to tolerance!
I. Unique ethics
We mustn’t buy into the one-dimensional stereotype that Asian values are archaic and repressive—‘uncool’ and ‘un-modern’. (What is ‘Asian’, anyway?)
One thing I remarked upon coming to Malaysia was the willingness to follow superiors. Annoyed at first, slowly I began to admire people who seem to know when to respect superiors who deserve what they earned.
Where I grew up, resentment for superiority was normative. Being fond of a teacher, parent, or boss was completely ‘lame’. It surprised me how Malaysian students would even offer gifts to their teachers on special occasions!
I also like the strong family values: the ‘culture’ of your elderly parents living with you, and giving back to them when you’re older, rather than completely fleeing the nest.
II. Artistic schemes
In arts, we have our own aesthetic values refined by rich histories imbued with multicultural dynamics.
A common theme in Malaysian art is ‘hometowns’ and ‘cultural roots’. I think this is highly personal and unique.
I notice many Malay rural houses have very bright, contrasting colours. We have our own colour schemes!
Malay batik, Peranakan patterns, Chinese brushstrokes, Hindu architecture, shadow puppets, our rainforest, our music, our languages.
The danger of mistaking Western design as ‘modern’ is the gradual loss of what we now have.
According to a dear friend of mine—a native of my childhood home, Muscat, Oman—the vaguely ‘Western globalisation’ is happening in the Arab world too.
He talked with contempt about up-and-coming musicians whose portfolios consist mainly of acoustic covers of Shawn Mendes and the Chainsmokers.
(His pain is understandable, since his sister—Amal Waqar—is also a professional musician, who specialises in the traditional Oud).
I felt the same terror by what I saw in Riuh. I realised this was someone’s idea of ‘up-and-coming’ culture in Malaysia.
Chilling me is a future where Malaysia would—bit by bit—no longer be distinguishable from the rest of the world.
Written by Natasha binti Nor Azmi
Featured image from urbanscapes.com.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and they do not necessarily reflect the position of UNMC IGNITE.