Why we Argue: a lesson in peace from Sabah

South Korea and North Korea. India and Pakistan. Japan and China. Canada and America. Australia and New Zealand. And my personal favourite: Malaysia and Singapore. 

Neighbours fight. It’s what they do. If they’re not at war with each other, they still like being rivals. My country is better than yours because…

Singapore and Malaysia had an ugly divorce some 51 years ago. A divorce that made our founding father Lee Kuan Yew cry on national television. Since then, a lot has changed.

But we still haven’t stopped bickering. 

Culturally – I think Singapore and Malaysia are similar. Politically and socially, it’s a whole different ballgame. Our governments argue about all kinds of things that are beyond the scope of this humble blog post. 

Besides, I don’t talk politics. Let me tell you what the man on the street argues about. 

“My Nasi Lemak is better than yours,” Sonya says to me over Skype. nasi_lemak_01aWe laymen really know what’s important. Good breakfast food…and a happy stomach. I’ve heard and participated in this ridiculous argument too many times over. It comes with the territory. 

“The kind of stuff people talk about,” Sonya says with laugh.”Sabahans don’t care about such things.”

She’s right. We humans talk about all kinds of nonsense. 

Sonya’s from Kita Kinabalu in Sabah. There is an ocean separating Sabah from mainland Malaysia: where the country’s capital Kuala Lumpur is. Geographically, Sabah is closer to Brunei and Indonesia than it is to mainland Malaysia. about-sabah-map“Sabah is chilled,” Sonya says. “There’s no rat race and no competition: that stuff you feel in a big city. It’s not in Sabah’s vibe. Everyone is from different ethnic backgrounds – but there is no distinct difference.”

Sonya grew up trilingual. Her parents are Chinese-educated so she spoke Mandarin at home. At school, she spoke English and Malay: Malaysia’s official language.

“People ask me ‘what language do you dream in? I always answer – depends on who’s in my dream.”

I laughed. I know that feeling all too well. 

Aww… Isn’t she a cutie. (Image courtesy of Sonya)

Sabah is home to Mount Kinabalu: a UNESCO world heritage site and the highest mountain in Malaysia. Home to more than 4,500 species of flora and fauna, the nature out there is really something. 

I’d love to go. It’s not far from Singapore, too. People – don’t you see, it’s worth making friends with your neighbours. We should stop all this senseless bickering. kina_balu_from_pinokok_valleyI met Sonya in Australia. The land down under is a popular university destination amongst Southeast Asians. We both went to the University of Melbourne.

“Australia was convenient location to go to,” she says. “I have relatives there. I like doing creative stuff. I wanted to do art: craft and design. But there’s no guarantee of jobs in Malaysia. So I studied mass comm instead. That way I could be creative and get a job. After graduation, I returned to KL to work. 

Sonya with her friend Joe-Ann. (Image Courtesy of Sonya)

“But people try to categorise you more in KL. In Sabah, people don’t feel as threatened by ‘the Other’. We don’t really talk about religious differences. It’s not a big topic, so it’s not a problem. 

“But Sabahans are not aggressive enough. We’re generally ok and accept things as they are. We lose out in terms of national politics and cultural stuff.

“At the same time, I don’t want us to be aggressive. We are calm. In the past couple of years, more Sabahan artists are creating stuff and putting themselves out there.”

But it was in Australia where Sonya ‘found herself’. She was far away from her family and it helped her develop who she is. 

“Meeting people from different backgrounds,” she says, “made me reflect on my own upbringing in contrast with other people. 

“I didn’t have a culture shock when I moved to Australia because I was prepared to be exposed to the stuff I was exposed to. I didn’t go in with a preconceived idea. But I was surprised there were so many Asians.”

A Totoro phone. I approve. (Image Courtesy of Sonya)

I laughed. Indeed. We are everywhere, aren’t we? Nasi Lemak for everyone.

Oh yes. But is it Singaporean or Malaysian? 

Ok…simmer down now, no arguing.

“It made me feel comfortable,” she says. “There were a lot of people like me. They were from somewhere else, but still had an Asian upbringing.

“Currently, I study in Germany and I’m the only Malaysian at my school. There aren’t many Asians. It’s very European and not something I’m familiar with.”

Sonya’s been there for a month. It’s still early days. Now, I have a reason to go to Berlin. 

“Geographically,” Sonya says,  “Australia is closer to Asia – so there’s more cultural understanding. A lot of Australians have travelled to Asia and know Asia – even if it is stereotypical stuff.”

If I have to hear chewing gum jokes one more time…

“Relative to Australians,” Sonya says, “Germans are straightforward people. They don’t bother with unnecessary niceties. People don’t ‘shoot the breeze’ like they do in Australia.”

The Aussies do have a reputation for being laid-back. The Germans, not so much. Sonya is currently studying Public Policy at the Hertie School of Governance.

“Why public policy?” I asked.

“I want to go back to Malaysia and make a difference, no matter how small or insignificant. I’m interested empowering people to own their stories and their citizenship. Stand up for it. I want to work with the local community to figure out what they need instead of imposing stuff. I feel that a lot of development in Malaysia could be more inclusive.”

Despite what the Herald Scum, I mean sun is saying – not all international students who study in Australia want to stay. Not all foreigners who come to Australia want to plant roots and watch them grow. 

I definitely didn’t. And neither did Sonya. This ‘taking our jobs’ and ‘taking our place in universities’ was simply…ridiculous. 

Image Courtesy of Sonya

“I was open to staying in Australia,” she says. “But my heart was in Asia. I was watching stuff on the news and was really far away and couldn’t be involved. I cared more about what was going on at home in Malaysia. 

“Each country has its own sovereignty to decide who to let in and integrate into their society. But as a country, if Australia can take in foreigners, they should.

“They should grow their industries and create different industries that do not exist right now.  Expand their labour force. This ‘taking our jobs’ rhetoric is dangerous and creating a lot of fear. Instead of trying to fit more people into a box, they should expand their box.”

The PR process in Australia is complicated. It’s one big song and dance that I don’t particularly care for. Like Sonya, Asia is where my heart is. Nothing can ever change that. 

Having said that – I do miss my friends. How can I not? We’d shared so much over the years. When you’ve lived somewhere for a long time you build up some history, whether you like it or not.

Good thing we humans invented airplanes. 

“I’ve gone back to visit Melbourne for holidays,” Sonya says. “To see my friends. I miss the way of life there. It will always be the place where I ‘found herself’. It will always kind of be home to me…but not really.”

Well – it’s nice to hear that Sonya feels that way. I doubt I’ll be setting foot in Australia anytime soon. But you never know. I have lots of friends there.  

“I’m actually not a people person,” Sonya says. “But my best memories of Australia are all the people I met. I’m grateful  cause they’ve shaped who I am.”

I’ll drink to that. All Sonya has to do is get on a plane and I will cook her a warm meal and pour her some sake. *hint* *hint* *nudge* *nudge*

My house is your house. Mi casa, su casa. 

Image Courtesy of Sonya

“For now,” Sonya says, “my plan is to go home after finishing up my studies in Germany.I hope to have a job that allows me to travel. Going outside Malaysia gives me a more wholesome picture. Being away helps me to refresh and gain a new perspective. If you stay at home you get comfortable and stagnant.”

Tis true. 

Life is fundamentally about growth. Comfort zones don’t make us always make us lazy. They do encourage it, though. 

But now I need to ask a very important question: just where is the best Nasi Lemak?

Hmm…Ok children, simmer down now. There’s no need to argue. 

The thing is: we fight with people we care about. We argue with people who matter to us. And most importantly, we almost always fight with people who are close to us. 

I look forward to the day that Malaysia and Singapore stop bickering; and the day that Pakistan and India stop fighting. It’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime – or ever, but one can hope.

Anyways, I don’t talk politics – only people. 

In the meantime, it’s good to know that Nasi Lemak is available in both Singapore and Malaysia.

Unfortunately, it’s not available in Germany and Japan: where Sonya and I live.

That’s why Sonya and I don’t bicker. You’re lucky if you live someplace where you can have Nasi Lemak – and eat it, too. 

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