by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 9 January 2016
Two years ago I wrote in a magazine run by Malaysians in Melbourne about my visit to Sydney as part of the Australia-Malaysia Cultural Exchange Programme. My highlights were meeting the Governor of New South Wales of Lebanese descent and Australia’s first Muslim federal Member of Parliament of Bosnian descent, seeing the Gallipolli Mosque built by Australian Muslims of Turkish descent, learning a little about Aboriginal Australians and the initial British settlement of the continent, and meeting a wombat at Taronga Zoo.
I was back in Sydney to witness the famous fireworks in the harbour heralding the new year and took the opportunity to mop up key tourist activities that I didn’t do last time. I defied my fear of heights to climb the Harbour Bridge rich with historical anecdotes about its construction, and visited Bondi and Manly beaches where you can see people in diverse selections of attire enjoying the scalding sun and freezing Pacific.
Instead of being shuttled to various meetings I was much more able to observe the living characteristics of the city. One was the strong public engagement to promote the institutional memories of places and things. While my hosts (who divide their time between London, Tehran, Kuala Lumpur and Sydney) generously took me to explicitly historical venues, in the public parks much ado is made about old chairs, trees and bridges linked to personalities of the past. Even in the more residential neighbourhoods there are plaques set in the pavements that illuminate the history of particular streets, which do much to encourage a sense of civic belonging. This is something that could be very easily done better in our cities.
I was also able to observe everyday interactions between Sydneysiders who have become increasingly multiethnic over time. In particular, I noticed that professions that in other countries might be visibly dominated by one ethnic group – like taxi drivers, shopkeepers and waiters – seemed to be much more diverse in comparison. In Sydney you can use Uber to summon taxis (unlike in Kuala Lumpur where you use Uber to avoid taxis) and from the drivers of Vietnamese, Greek, Chinese and British descent I learned a great deal about individual experiences of immigration and integration: all overwhelmingly positive.
Everyone knows something about Malaysia, whether through a person or through our food, including at the top echelons of society: one senior judge of New South Wales (the judiciary is decentralised in Australia) spoke wistfully about the state of rule of law in Malaysia.
When I meet Australian diplomats they often say that they see their country as in a natural extension of Asia: a much stronger statement than the US pivot to Asia or Britain’s rekindling of ties with Asia via the Commonwealth. More than 100,000 Malaysian-born people live in Australia (more than in either country): recent census data confirms that these are mostly ethnically Chinese, but anecdotally, Malays are on the rise too (I am told ironically that this includes children of people whose rent-seeking and political activities have created the push factors out of Malaysia in the first place). This, in addition to the rich educational links and visibility of Malaysian-connected celebrities like Poh Ling Yeow and Adam Liaw of MasterChef fame and tennis player Nick Kyrgios, will augment the bilateral relationship.
Already in 2016 we have seen predictions that our brain drain will continue, notwithstanding the courageous efforts of those trying to stem the tide, particularly when people in all sectors come home for the holidays and report the lives they are able to sustain abroad: my former piano teacher has moved to Melbourne where he is able to earn more in Australian dollars than he used to in ringgit.
For some time the prevalent discourse on Malaysians not returning home is that it is a bad thing and that efforts must be made to repatriate and retain talent. In the short to medium term this is certainly true. But if in this generation we are unable to do this, there may be a long-term prize if we are patient. In other countries which once experienced hardship and strife, former citizens or their descendants are encouraged to return to the country of their births (or of their forefathers) precisely because they possess skills and talent garnered in their new countries that could be of use in the homeland – just as Indian Prime Minister Modi did in Wembley Stadium in November.
Perhaps in a future generation, a Malaysian Prime Minister will be able to go to Perth or Melbourne or Sydney and attract an audience of thousands of Australian citizens of Malaysian descent, and tell them that they are welcome, and will thrive, in Malaysia.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS