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.


Family and society

Society is an agglomeration of individuals, pairs or couples, families, clans, and even tribes, backed by a shared location, possibly of diverse cultures, and bound by a unit of governance, occasionally by overlapping levels of government. For instance, my society is ruled by 3 governments. Links between the member units delineated above will include those of a mutual-dependency nature, viz.  buyer/vendor, or boss/employee or bus driver/passenger, etc. Otherwise, the member units will be free to vibrate and move around in the manner of molecules in a medium, relating in a non-binding or casual manner with others, while yet guided by an agreed code of conduct.

The only member unit of a society with responsibility of a non-commercial nature for others is the family unit. Its responsibility is to prepare its young to participate as full members of their society when they become adults. The way the senior members of the family unit (which might include the grandparents and even uncles and aunts) carry out this significant core responsibility will no doubt  reflect the values of the culture (and religion) into which they themselves were born, as well as their position on the ladder of spiritual progress. Their past lives, social conditioning, and their view of a desired future for the family can be expected to colour their performance as guides.

Without family, can society exist? That is, what will take society into the future? With increasing dysfunctional families in the more youthful nations of the Western world; their burgeoning rights-demonstrations reflecting the individualism of the modern West; the growth of single-parent families; and a dearth of civility (even in my parliaments), what is the likely future for society? Read ‘On family and society’ in ‘Musings at Death’s Door.’ This book was recommended by the US Review of  Books and endorsed most supportively by a renowned Australian professor of history and politics.

Family structures

It seems that, in all of Asia, the Mediterranean nations of Europe and, probably in old Europe, it is the extended family which has surrounded and sustained a growing child. I know nothing about family life in other parts of the world. That 3 generations could live together, with mutual support, appears to me to be quite reasonable, and to be respected. Some exploitation and/or abuse will, no doubt, occur; but cannot be assumed to be endemic by those who have no relevant experience.

In such societies, the old do not have to live alone, unless they chose to. In addition, the extended family is generally surrounded by, and socialises with, relatives. The exceptions to this pattern of communal life may occur in the early stages of migration.

I grew up in Asia in an immigrant family. While I obviously cannot remember how I was brought up as an infant, I observed how my sisters and cousins were cuddled, petted, massaged with oil daily, and held in the arms of visitors. Often the babies would fall asleep in their arms. I believe that babies so treated grew up feeling protected and confident. Yet, as we grew older, there was no more of that pampering, resulting in, I believe, a certain attitude of self-sufficiency and independence.

Through chain migration, my nuclear family was supported by a continuity of cultural traditions. Eventually, extended families would evolve in this community. Would it not be fair to say that, from the viewpoint of a young child, the extended family would offer greater support than a nuclear family? I have some evidence that this is so.

Further, bonds established within a clan, with (say) one’s cousins, are likely to be as durable as the bonds between siblings. My experience confirms this; one can be parted by an ocean, and yet remain bonded with other members of the clan.

Pairing and bonding

Does not every baby, whether human or animal (possibly bird too) know precisely which of the adults it encounters is its mother? I wonder how the babies do this. This question also applies to the obverse. For example, as seen on tv, penguins can find their offspring amongst the multitude of squawks and identical-looking young ones.

Is that through a sense of smell? If so, how sensitive can this be? Or, can it be the pattern of an alleged electromagnetic vibration and radiation of a sought individual being in tune with that of the seeker? A professor of anatomy at a prestigious American university claimed, through his research on allergies, that a certain level of dissonance between the vibratory radiations of an object (say, a rose) and a human individual would result in the individual suffering an allergic reaction. Could the opposite apply between mother and infant, triggered by the shared genetic influence? That is, is there a symbiotic resonance electromagnetically between infant and mother? In the event, could there not be a comparable resonance between an infant and its genetic father?

While smell or personal vibrations may explain bonding between an infant and its parents (it should be noted that Earth and everything on it vibrates all the time, each to its own rhythm), how explain pairing between adults? Does successful pairing involve compatible vibrations? Conversely, if marital stress reflects incompatible vibrations, could it be the case that vibratory patterns can be modified in time by changes wrought within one’s mind during a marriage?

Today, in Australia, the probability of a marriage breakdown is high. What happens to the psychic need of a young child denied the presence and comfort of its father through marital separation? With mothers who have to go to work, or who value their careers, what happens when an infant is left in the care of professional carers who cannot obviously provide that comforting smell or vibratory touch? Will the child grow up psychically deprived to some degree?   

The family – what is it?

Would a pack of dogs living and running together constitute a family? Or, would a lion with its females and the cubs it has sired, constitute a family? Would sunyasins or monks living in an ashram or monastery constitute a family? Or, would a hierarchically- structured cabal of criminals constitute a family?

Traditionally, in human societies, family has implicitly involved a minimum of 2 ingredients: mutual support and responsibility (with authority for leadership vested at the top of any pyramid which might exist). Were these to be necessary criteria for defining a family, a loose pack of dogs, even if led by one accepted as leader, would not qualify; but the lions above would. Would it be correct then, to include as family, members of a monastery (or ashram or commune) or those knit tightly in a criminal enterprise?

On the other hand, were the inclusion of offspring to be an essential component of a family, only the lions above would qualify. In the event, going back in time to the earliest humans, that is, to the life of the foragers and (possibly thereafter) to the hunter/gatherers, was it the results of procreation which identified, as a potential family unit, the children and their parents? Would this unit then provide intensive support and protection to the children by their parents, while operating within a wider congregation of mutually-supportive like-minded individuals tracking together?

The question which now arises is whether, like some birds and animals, pairs of which are bonded (even for life) through nesting and procreation, early humans also paired when they produced children, with implicit responsibility for their offspring? Or, did the children belong to the collective, there being no responsibility by their parents beyond their responsibility to all other members of the group?

Was this pattern the original family? That is, was the tribe the original family?


The welfare of the children and the State

In Australia, the State can intervene in family life where dysfunctional families are involved and, subject to available resources, can seek to protect the children affected. However, when the daughter of friends of mine left home as a very young teenager to live with her best friend and her single mother, the authorities would not intervene. They could not even tell the parents where their daughter was living, they said.

Were not the parents responsible for the child until she was 18, when she would be deemed to be an adult? Yet, a precedent had been set. A child had been granted the right to divorce his parents, presumably with assistance from officialdom.

Children in families disfigured by parental tension can be affected by the State only when the Family Court is involved. When I last looked at it, male lawyers decided the relative rights of divorcing parents, generally favouring the mother – allegedly because, as it was once claimed, this is what the community expected. I did wonder how they ascertained that.

When the mother denied or reduced the father’s right to continuing some sort of relationship with his children, reportedly nothing happens to remedy the situation; the Court did not enforce its own decisions relating to the right of the father. Worse still, another bureaucracy decided the percentage of the father’s income to be paid to support the children he might not see as often as had been decided, perhaps never. The percentage was based on total income; that is, before compulsory deductions such as tax and superannuation.

Did this practice reflect a certain moral judgement? The view being propagated by the ‘sisterhood’ in the community was that it was physical violence (later extended to include psychological and oral violence) by men that was responsible for marital breakdown. What about female violence? I can testify to its reality from personal experience. I wore scratches on my face for 2 years (in 2 countries), without retaliation. It was an interesting experience.

Reportedlyy, many fathers subject to this financial burden quit their jobs; others were reported to be suiciding at the rate of 1/week. I do not know if this situation applies now. A few women of my vintage have told me that their sons were reluctant to marry and have children in these circumstances. What sort of society are we allowing to develop?

Do governments have a role in strengthening the family and thereby society?

Who cares for the psychological needs of the children?

The ethos of individualism of nations such as Australia may have leached into rights-filled communities, aiding those who are inclined to be whingers. The following story is, I believe, an indication of the partial deterioration of society in modern Australia.

I knew a man who had established 5 businesses. He managed one, and his wife managed another. One day he found himself locked out of his home; and his wife walked away from the business she was managing (so he said to me) . This left him with a huge debt, resulting in him sleeping in his car for a few months.

He was fortunate, his friends thought, that his wife had not taken out an Apprehended Violence Order against him. That seems to be the practice when a wife chooses to be vindictive. There may, of course, be situations warranting such an order. When one of these is delivered at a man’s work, the damage to his reputation can only be guessed at. A magistrate in Australia’s national capital once wrote in that city’s newspaper that he would issue the order when requested; but he could not investigate the need for it.

The man in this story went with the flow (so to speak), which enabled him to collect his children for a day’s outing each Sunday. One Sunday, he was sighted sitting in his car, outside the family home, crying; the children were not allowed out. They were little children. They were the innocent sufferers, perhaps with only one of their parents morally responsible for their unhappiness.

The feminists would no doubt argue that the woman had the right to do what she did. Others might claim that it is better for the children to be denied the father in order to live without turmoil in the home. Why turmoil? Isn’t civilised behaviour appropriate and possible? Or, would that diminish certain adult wants, whatever they might be?

Two serious questions arise: Why not separate sexual freedom from family responsibility? Does the lifestyle wants of an adult always over-ride the psychological needs of children?

Whingers Galore

Australia is now a rights-infused society. Increasing numbers of people, including our youth (and even children) are reported to be whingeing publicly, noisily, about an expanding range of freshly-coined rights which are not being adequately met by the government – that Significant Other which disperses our money relatively freely. After all, every grant of any of these rights would most likely cost scarce taxpayer money.

It is surprising that there can be so many ‘glee clubs’, members of which will not be financial beneficiaries, supporting claims which might need some debate and proper evaluation. For example, currently the nation is being swamped by unlawful arrivals who can be identified only by themselves – because they make sure that they carry no document of identity – but a host-nation glee group demands that all such arrivals should be as free as selected immigrants, but without a need to be self-supporting.

But, governments are not allowed to introduce new taxes (eg. a wealth tax or death duties) or to increase tax revenues by removing exceedingly generous concessions which were once part of either pork-barrelling, or squeezed out of government by vested interests; or by removing sundry gifts introduced at an earlier election time. As we are repeatedly informed by our media (which normally needs bifocals), politics has replaced policies.

Thus, by and large, both politicians and the spokesmen for sundry interest groups (eg. the welfare industry) ignore the obvious – that the monies needed come from hardworking people, not from an official printing press. The claims made are indeed quite remarkable, but apparently justifiable because they represent an asserted right! Can there be many other countries which enable such stances?

What then of responsibilities? Are unemployed individuals and child-free couples required to move to where the jobs are? Are such dependent-free people allowed to move to low-employment districts and remain on welfare? Are the self-employed allowed to do the same? Are the able long-term unemployed able to qualify as disability pensioners (which gives them more than the dole)? It is not difficult to identify some of those in these categories in one’s district.

Who pays for all this? Not the high income individuals and corporations which can move money around the world or have valuable tax concessions. Not long ago, a medical specialist whom I knew had managed to reduce his tax rate to that of a shop assistant through legal means; he was an honest man.

So, who is responsible for an inequitable economy resulting partly from burgeoning asserted rights assailing the honest?

Family, society and the State

As a staunch anti-communist (through bitter experience), with the highest security classification available to a federal official in Australia, and as an anti-colonial (from experience again), I do not want the State to tell me how to live my life. I do not also want my politicians and their bureaucrats to intrude their religious prejudices into my freedom. My antecedents did not put up with the shenanigans (antics) of those they referred to as ‘upstarts,’ the British colonial administration, for me to have my life as a free citizen, in an allegedly free country, constrained by those with a sectarian religious bias. And there is plenty of that in public policy, where it shouldn’t be.

Yet, while some of Australia’s key social policies are influenced by the values emanating from Rome, Australian society is being stressed by the breakdown of family; by the re-definition of family; by the expanding dependence on the State (that is, on hard-working taxpayers) by proliferating single-parent families; and by very, very young children (even infants) brought up in institutional child care, thus deprived of the love and guidance that is available only from a mother at that early stage. While a father or a full-time nanny is a reasonable substitute, the issue is simple: in whose body did that baby develop? And do not most mothers yearn to cuddle and caress their babies and little children? This is beautifully brought out in my low-employment district where mothers are seen with their little ones in public.

But then, was not institutional upbringing the norm in communist-controlled nations? There, it was the productivity of the State; here, the wants of adults prevail. In Australia, in spite of the whingers, there is financial security. However, expectations (more likely, demands) over-ride reality; the reality which was experienced by their own parents and their antecedents, and shared with the rest of the world.

‘There is no such thing as society’ is an utterance attributed to Mrs. Thatcher of the UK. Will someone now intone that there is no such thing as family? Read Francis Fukuyama about the deterioration of family in the USA. Since Australia is a reliable follower – from wars, to food, to accents, to foreign policies – why not societal behaviour?

The breakdown of family

As nations we may not be quite civilised because greed predominates. What of family and society? Has the individualistic ethos of the immigrant-created nations of the West derailed any aspirations by their citizens to develop their spirituality through building up an enhanced sense of community? As a bicultural Asian-Australian formed by the communalism of my antecedents in Ceylon and Malaysia, but with my feet deeply grounded in the West, I can see the increasing barrenness of society in my adopted nation.

Change is ubiquitous. Is there anything which, over time, does not change? Society changes, as many a conservative family or society has discovered to its dismay. I have been changed by the new nation into which the spirit world (so its representatives said) placed me, with me reciprocally contributing to certain necessary changes in Australian society. Having lived a highly-interactive and contributory life for more than 6 decades in Australia, achieving leadership positions in civil society, I can claim to have had my fingers on Australia’s pulse for an adequate time. Why am I now disturbed by some of the ways my adopted nation has changed?

When I arrived during the White Australia era, family life (and its mores) were little different from what I had experienced. The male breadwinner was supported by his spouse through maintaining the home and bringing up the children. (There were exceptions, of course.) Hardship was the norm, as was self-sufficiency, with some help from good neighbours and relatives. Public transport supplemented the use of one’s legs. Neighbours talked to one another, not being isolated (as now occurs) by car ownership. Children created their own enjoyment, even making their toys. (I did – from kites to tops, to a high jump frame, to bows and arrows.)

At mealtimes, the family ate together (generally at set times), and brought one another up to date on their respective activities and experiences. ‘Structured rituals’ represent the basal level of communicating within families. Read Francis Fukuyama’s ‘The Great Deterioration.’

Now, most of that has reportedly changed. The sense of co-dependent communities, of a cohesive family, and of mutual individual help, seem increasingly part of history. Worse still, families are breaking up, with children denied the love and care of both parents, in so many instances, because of the asserted rights of the adults (especially in relation to career, sexual activity, lifestyle, location of residence and, strangely, getting onto the public teat); the needs, especially the psychological needs, of the children, and the psycho-genetic bond between child and absent (often, forcibly absent) father are ignored.

I have not heard of any objectively reliable research on the emotional and psychological impacts of family breakdown on children. Children will adapt on the surface. What alternative do they have? What of their emotional and psychological pains? Do these not matter?

Recently, a retiring member of the Family Court, which has the difficulty of adjudicating between contesting parents, was reported to confirm what many us have been told – that many women claim falsely that their child’s father had molested the child sexually, with no evidence provided.

The core question here is – without cohesive families can there be society? Without a cohesive society, will pack behaviour be the norm, with the State and faceless bureaucrats determining how people live? See ‘The Dance of Destiny’ Part 2.