My experience of family and society in Malaysia

I am now a bicultural Asian-Australian, having been formed by the communalism of Asian societies, and subsequently solidly grounded in the individualism of the modern West. Yet, my life as a recluse during the past 2 decades is little different from the life recommended in Hinduism for those of us empty-nesters who have no further responsibilities in relation to either family or society; that is, for me to seek to return (eventually) to the locale from hence my soul had left many, many lifetimes ago.

This involves developing a spiritual perspective of human existence. It is not an easy task, with both stomach and feet settled securely on Earth, while the mind and soul flit around seeking an enduring glimpse into the non-material realm, the sphere of the spirit. In this attempt I am guided by the metaphysics of Hinduism, especially through the Upanishads. (Read The Upanishads by Easwaran.)

Growing up under British colonialism in a territory in which toiled a vast mixture of imported ethnicities; living a life of mutual co-existence with one another and with a tolerant host-people, the Malays; and with each ethnic community retaining its cultural and religious traditions without displaying any discernible prejudice towards the others (life was difficult enough not to waste any energy on prejudice), I was privileged to develop a tolerant multicultural perspective. My generation, through a shared education in English, showed the way to true multiculturalism. My extended family today displays Anglo-Australian (including a substantial German and Italian input), Burmese, Chinese, Indian, and Malay genes.

The society in which my family lived was 2-tiered. At a conservative level, we were a tightly-knit , integral component of a tribally-focused community, and tradition bound. At another level, we were multi-ethnic, borrowing clothing styles and enjoying one another’s culinary tastes and styles. Irrespective of ethnicity, families were led by the male bread-winner, the wives either homebound or working. The children studied, and studied, often driven by slaps and minor beatings, because there would be no future without an education.

Personal respect as well as respect for age and for authority was the norm. That still applies, and across ethnic lines. Increasing wealth and security has not diminished civility. In my case, relatives provided a social surround. Indeed, even today, relatives provide that surround. Temple-attendance and religious festivals lifted us from the mundane to an appreciation of God who, we hoped, would look after us. Since there is no state welfare, families remain cohesive and supportive.

Talking to many, many post-war European immigrants in Australia, I reached the conclusion that their lives had been little different from mine, especially for the Mediterranean immigrants.