The more different, the more similar

Cross-culturally, in Singapore and in Malaysia, as in Australia, the governments emphasise one nation. They are successful, to a degree. In Singapore, there was apparently some effort to keep the proportions of each community stable. Notwithstanding some confusion about Confucian principles building the island state (all the nationalities working together built the state, and Confucian ethics are common to all faiths, surely), the people in Singapore live and work well together, sharing in the annual celebration of one nation with resounding support.

It is good to see the various people intermingled in the housing complexes. It is interesting to see three generations of Chinese dressed in three styles of clothing walking down the street: Grandma had her ‘pyjama suit’, not in black but in a floral pattern; Mother in a floral dress, and Daughter in jeans and a T-shirt. Older Ceylonese women can be seen wearing Punjabi-style clothing or, like the daughters, in slacks or jeans. Daughters are wearing shorts, too. Cross-cultural styles of clothing, food and lifestyles are not new.

What is new is the uniformity of modern youth. They, as in Australia, are dressed alike. Hairstyles, clothing, manner of speech, speech accents, social affectations, ambitions, mixing with everyone in the same way in the same easy manner, are all common features. With light-skinned people, it is difficult to identify their national origins; with the darker-skinned people, it is only slightly easier (there is a little less choice). They come across as Singaporeans – these are the educated ones.

In Melbourne, in a working class suburb, I once noticed four young boys dressed identically: Adidas-imitation shoes (the then preferred style), jeans, T-shirt, and a short haircut. Their accents were identical and their speech modes uniform. Only their physiognomy suggested various origins: Slav, Greek, Turk, or Italian. The better-off youth in Australia, too, are equally uniform in dress, behaviour, speech and even in appearance; ethnic origins are not easily discernible, except by guessing from shape of nose and so on. In Malaysia, the middle class is comparable to those in Singapore and Australia in its uniformity.

In both countries overseas, origins are more readily manifest with the less sophisticated being less Westernised. The differences notable are, in part, in their clothing styles. More commonly it is in their use of their own language – as in Australia with first generation migrants. Language is excluding. The use of a common language is conducive to social cohesion across community barriers. Yet, even where a number of languages are audible, there was a clear sense of a people being in harmony; there was give and take, courtesy, friendliness in ordinary transactions, indicating that the ‘other’ was accepted (more than ever).

In a Chinese provision shop in Singapore, the owner touched his left hand to his right elbow as he gave me change with his right hand. In spite of my accent, he saw me as an Indian, and offered me a traditional courtesy – which actually is not seen as much between the Indians themselves. How much more could he be culturally sensitive? I was very impressed.

Throughout the whole of Malaysia I found successful integration. As I drove west to east along the highway separating Malaysia from Thailand, and then down the east coast to where the turtles visit, I found the security most impressive. I was driving a local car when I was stopped at a security checkpoint and asked for my passport, not my identity card. How did they know that I was a foreigner? I liked that. My people were safe.

Along the east coast of Malaysia, Malay businesses were proliferating. Yet I was told, with wealth coming into the area, especially through oil exploration, that the local Malay farmer was being squeezed. His purchases were rising in price faster than the price of his farm products. There were diesel-powered Benz cars everywhere, driven by Malays. It was good to see.

(Not every developing nation achieved economic progress after independence – there being few countries which had escaped the clasps of colonialism. As the above extracts show, the terrain of my birth and growth was displaying a smooth blending of the descendants of those who had made a substantial contribution to the territory they had entered as immigrants. The credit for that is attributable to the people involved.

Have these nations continued to grow since my memoir was written? Obviously, when it is evident that the growth was planned. This is something that Australia might emulate.)