A ringgit is worth more than a Penny, so a squabble goes

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JUNE 9 — Hoorah Penny! Hoorah Sam! Elation over ex-Malaysians victorious in the Australian polls divides opinions at home.

When middle-class Malaysia raises a triumphant fist to celebrate those in lands far and near but not here, nor of here anymore, it’s palpable the extremities of views.

Congratulations to Penny Wong’s return as minister in Anthony Albanese’s cabinet, and kudos to Sam Lim, a belated politician via two stints as a cop in both countries before winning the parliamentary seat of Tangney from the ousted Liberal Nationals.

Why are political developments Down Under divisive in our Equator Zone? It’s complicated as most discussions about nationality and home are bound to be.

Middle-class Malaysia’s sentiments are mixed with personal thoughts about multiverses — me as Penny, or me as Sam in those dimensions. Perhaps for young middle-class Malaysians, this is not merely a 'what could have been' but their near future.

And this is how it grates, to those who made Malaysia their cause.

How can Sandakan born-Wong and Muar-born Lim, claim their Malaysian heritage?, they ask. They’ve given up on Malaysia.

Have they? The good news — and it is good news — captures the essence of how citizenship unintendedly challenges a far more overarching construct: the sense of belonging.

While nationality defines what people are legally, culture tells people the stories they can access and where their ties are.

Ethnonationalism perverts both, in order to stoke primitive tribalism. Fortunately, it continues to die as multiculturalism dominates and spreads the idea that we are not one thing nor are countries just one people.

But it does bring about complexities, accompanied by intrigue.


They did leave Malaysia, though in an intensely connected world animosity towards those who switch citizenships seems increasingly hollow.

The global zeitgeist is to maximise opportunities which includes relocation. Citizenship is a functional part of life to most globalised individuals.

In a cynical or perhaps philosophical perspective, it is easier to move things where it is pliant than endeavour to turn obtuse parts of the world pliant. They replicate Bruce Lee’s entreaty to be like water.

However, in practical terms, nationality still determines loyalty in a world of nation states.

While her formative years were in South Australia, till her early thirties Wong could fly visa-free to Kuala Lumpur. Only at the start of the new millennium, she denounced her Malaysian passport. Lim was already in his forties when he moved to Western Australia.

Theirs was a conscious choice to pick Australia. The same goes for hundreds of thousands of ex-Malaysians who are Singaporeans. Born here, they picked elsewhere later.

Yet those choices do matter, even if those risks are remote.

If Malaysia went to war with Singapore — far, far likelier than Australia — the direction to train our guns is unambiguous.

But above nationalism is the sense of belonging and that is impossible to be exclusive. If to them durian is more personal than Peking Duck or a warm July barbie (barbeque to the rest of the sane world), can they claim their Malaysian heritage? Cultural ties obviously cannot be reduced to acts and preferences, which is why my half-Australian niece and nephew cannot claim Malaysia just because they eat an inordinate amount of chicken rice just like their Malaysian cousins.

Heritage is complicated but it is always individual.

If the Malaysia in them speaks to them, whether they are now Australians, Singaporeans, Americans or British, then it is mean-spirited of us to deny them that sense of belonging.

More pertinent, they do not need Malaysians to agree in order to claim their heritage.

A caveat is obviously necessary for politicians — they follow Elections 101, assume all possible heritages to connect with the maximum number of voters. Us So, we stayed, and they did not.

For those here, realities of the Federation of Malaysia hits directly and daily. But so do the joys of being Malaysian.

The advantage, there is no discolouration of our claim to the country. It is ours regardless of how a minority of our fellow citizens seek to narrow definitions, rights and access.

But a country is not easy work. The nation state is a challenge.

Australia had a White Only Policy till 1974. It went through its own evolution as a young nation — not unlike us — grappling with distance from Europe and its closest continental neighbours all Asians. Those insecurities played out and backed state-level xenophobia.

That is not the Australia of today.

Therefore, the parallelisms are stark. In that Malaysia is in terms of age arriving at the same juncture as Australia when it made its own U-turn away from race politics.

Paradoxically, Malaysians who remain can shift Malaysia from ethnonationalism which warped Australia up to the 1970s and give Malaysia the leg up to build a more egalitarian society based on fair go and equality.

Admittedly, self-serving conclusion. One can show better character to fight the harder battles here in Malaysia and fix it, rather than move to nations who did the hard things before to fix similar problems.

Either choose to be a fixer or one who wants to benefit from the fixes a generation prior completed.

Those who remain here with idealism seek solutions for future Malaysians — wherever they are from — and those who leave for places with a better system live off the progress fought for successfully by preceding generations.

They can of course choose to improve their adopted countries, as Wong and Lim chose to do in Australia.

Tomorrow Malaysia’s problems are not insurmountable whatever the presumed brain drain. To spend time pouring scorn on those who opted out of the Malaysian Project is counter-productive.

As the past decades prove, it is better to harness the common heritage. Malaysia’s superior entry — as compared to many other Asean countries — into continental giants China and India leans on their diaspora here. Chinese-speaking and Tamil-speaking Malaysians as envoys, entrepreneurs and consultants, directing benefits back to Malaysia.

Those ties aid in overcoming some of our economic problems.

The summary on heritage on top of citizenship is layered extensively.

These are concepts, the idea of heritages criss-crossing borders and boundaries set by passports owned. Is it right to leave or stay? Those are questions for all people, not just Malaysians.

There are huge numbers of Australians who settle across the world, from New York to Shanghai.

When the convenient veneer of ethnonationalism is stripped away, the modern state is conceptual and requires foundations and structures with participation to continue.

Migration is a constant today and therefore omnipresent, and from that greater numbers of humanity claim a multitude of heritages.

In the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the result of the track and field women’s 10,000 metres was as follows, gold to Netherland's Sifan Hassan, silver to Bahrain's Kalkidan Gezahegne and bronze to Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey.

Yet, all three grew up in Ethiopia, even if only one runs for her country of birth. Imagine the three of them walking the streets of Tokyo looking for an Ethiopian restaurant to celebrate their victories.

There will be more Wongs and Lims. It’s time to stop worrying about who has left, may leave, or rue their successes elsewhere. Better to turn to those who are here to see how to galvanise Malaysia.

Leave Australia to count its own Pennies.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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