Malaysians use flags to mark independence

From Nola.com of August 31, 2005
By VIJAY JOSHI
The Associated Press

Students wave the Malaysian flags during the Malaysian independence day procession in Putrajaya, the country's administrative capital, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005. - (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Around this time of year, the Malaysian flag is everywhere. Residents fly it from cars and motorcycles, hand-carry it across the country, even reproduce it with rice. Exhorted by their government, Malaysians wear patriotism on their sleeves as Aug. 31, their independence day, approaches.
Just about everyone in this multiethnic country of Malay Muslims and minority Chinese and Indians is caught up in the excitement, in a nation many consider to be a model as a tolerant, Muslim-led society.
But the government's long-held goal of creating an integrated Malaysian identity for the nation of 26 million remains elusive.
Intermarriage is rare. Neighborhoods and shopping centers are often identified by ethnic makeup. In movie theater foyers, friends stick to their group, distinguished by language, religion and race.
"People are tolerant of each other, but we are ignorant about each other," said Chong Eu Pui, a 28-year-old ethnic Chinese.
"To be honest, I have very few Malay friends. They tend to trust each other more. But then the Chinese also tend to stick to Chinese!"
For the ruling coalition of ethnic-based parties, National Day is the cue for drenching Malaysia in state-sponsored symbols of patriotism, most prominently "Jalur Gemilang," or "Stripes of Glory."
Resembling an American flag with an Islamic crescent and star, Stripes of Glory flutters from government buildings, offices, homes and vehicles.
This year 800 school kids and teachers in the northern state of Kelantan created a 23-foot-by-10-foot replica out of rice.
Malaysia's racial patchwork dates to the mid-19th century when it was a British colony and a tin mining boom attracted ethnic Chinese. Indians, meanwhile, were imported largely as laborers and plantation workers.
Today, Chinese control more than 70 percent of the economy, even though they are only a quarter of the population.
Tensions between Malays and Chinese erupted in bloody race riots in 1969, after which affirmative action policies bred a large Malay middle class with privileged access to colleges, loans and government jobs and contracts.
Today, Malaysia is among the wealthiest, most stable countries in Asia a federation where Muslims maintain a delicate but peaceful balance with the non-Muslim electorate.
A common sight in cities is of Muslim women office workers in head scarves and ankle-length dresses and Chinese women in short skirts eating together an Indian lunch of rice and chicken curry. Chinese restaurants stay open during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, and Buddhist and Hindu temples abound, often in close proximity to mosques.
The camaraderie, however, ends after office hours, and co-workers of different races rarely get together with their families or for weekend picnics. Stereotypes abound with Malays thinking of Indians as dirty and lazy, while the others resent the Malays for the privileges they have under the affirmative action policies, evident in job ads that urge Malays to apply.
"We have a sort of functional interaction in this country because you are forced to work together," said Chandra Muzaffar, a well-known social commentator of Indian descent. "But we have not been able to bridge that cultural chasm that exists between the communities."
"But all said and done, Malaysia has done quite well in spite of all the problems of national integration," said Chandra. "I find this is a blessed land in many ways."
National pride is evident when Malaysians take a foreigner to see the Petronas Twin Towers, once the world's tallest buildings, or to sample the country's unique three-culture cuisine.
Ethnic Indians will cheer themselves hoarse for the Malaysian hockey team when it plays against India, and ethnic Chinese will always back Malaysia's badminton team against China's.
"They may feel a little less attached to the symbols of the state," Chandra said. "But it is not so overwhelming that they feel totally alienated from the country."
Krishnan Rajagopal, 25, will attest to that. A member of the 10 percent Indian minority, he has been traveling through Malaysia's 13 states, proudly carrying a huge flag and counting on the hospitality of fellow Malaysians of all ethnic backgrounds.
"Show your patriotism and love for your country by feeding him," urges hitz.fm, the private radio station sponsoring him. "Give him a place to rest in your homes and let him hitch a ride with you on your journey."