Watching yet another round of useless U.S. presidential primaries that helped solidify the inevitable shift towards a twenty-first century version of 1930’s Germany, the real life American Horror Story played out in three more states as American voters continue making the biggest mistake in the history of free elections. Flipping through Facebook looking for anything positive, I stumbled on a new report from Condé Nast Traveler that ranked Penang the number two place in the world to retire. Citing the convenience and ease of the MM2H Visa along with access to historic architecture, culinary delights, a thriving art scene, international standard health care and an English-speaking community of expats, this didn’t really surprise me that much although that’s higher than most rankings I’ve seen in the past.
Further noting Georgetown’s UNESCO status, proximity to Singapore and many beaches, the brief caption summarized some of the best highlights. While agreeing with many points, I’m unsure what target audience the magazine hopes to lure in. Given the millions of serious inquiries by Americans about moving to Canada should President Trump become reality, I’d almost swear it’s for disgruntled but sane American voters not so pathetically angry and broke like the newly created populist rebellion crowd. Add in the fact that they’d rank a Muslim country so high while conveniently forgetting to mention the official religion and you’ve almost got a scandal on your hands at least according to any CNN exit poll of Republican voters who almost unanimously agree with barring two billion people from the entering the world’s model of freedom.
Having spent the last eight months as an American expat in Penang, Diane and I vouch for many of the positive points made in the article. But given the tumultuous state of the world and the dangerous rash of anti-Muslim attitudes now poisoning America, it’s hard to see Americans choosing peaceful Malaysia despite the nation’s track record as a moderate nation that’s never had any religious related terrorist activities on its soil. I’ll go on record any day defending the Malay people as some of the kindest and most tolerant people you’d come across anywhere in the world. Completely opposite of religious stereotypes, the Malay people are peaceful, non-confrontational, and tolerant of all religions and races. Refreshingly comforting, we feel safer here than in a gun happy nation dead set on bringing white supremacy attitudes to the nation that yields the world’s most powerful military.
Rankings aside, Penang continues to offer an attractive lifestyle albeit not as exciting and culturally rich as Kuala Lumpur which brings me to the theme of the post. Sitting down to a quiet afternoon magazine break on the balcony, surprise engulfed me when I picked up the February issue of Expat magazine and read the editor’s opening message. Probably the country’s best source for all things involving expats, the magazine’s parent company is The Expat Group of Companies, a leading media organization dedicated to the positive reinforcement of all things Malaysia. Detailing opportunities given to expats of all nationalities, they talk about current events, travel, lifestyle and expat issues.
Along with articles and information about expat resources, the magazine’s also always addressed the concerns of expats from the annual haze problem to the government’s official stand on various policies that affect everyone’s well-being. Often surprisingly critical of the current Malaysian government’s policies, they sometimes challenge activities and actions that run counter to Wawasan 2020, Malaysia’s official doctrine as a peaceful nation promoting racial harmony and tolerance whose primary goal is achieving fully developed status by 2020.
Despite political division among Malaysia’s races, Expat magazine always stood by its commitment to supporting the nation as a safe and excellent place for expats. Never devoting an entire editor’s message to the topic at hand, the long time publisher begins this month’s magazine with the following quote:
In the last year, we’ve heard an increasing number of expats, including senior members of the diplomatic corps, tell us that they have real concerns about the Islamisation of Malaysia. By this, they mean the increasing influence of more extreme religious elements and the apparent reluctance of the government to make clear their opposition to such shifts. Many Malaysians have also expressed their concerns about this trend, including Malays. The G256 Group is one such group. They were formed by some influential Malays, mostly government officials, who support moderation and are concerned that Malaysia is ceasing to be a moderate Islamic country which respects all religions and their right to freedom of expression.
Aside from the disturbing similarities to a Trump presidency albeit in the opposite direction, the statement reflects sentiments expressed to us by many (mostly Chinese) residents of Penang on our various Uber trips around the island. Always eager to speak to foreigners, it seems most Penangites feel strongly about the topic but seem relatively un-threatened or even indifferent given the large Chinese influence and a state government that’s run by the opposition party. Of course, it’s always best to never offer opinions or political views of the nation kind enough to host you as an expat so we just listen diligently and nod our heads a lot.
Similar to the San Francisco Bay Area, a relatively liberal area of the United States, the mainstream thinking of government officials is often different in Penang given its long history of Chinese occupation. Practically dominating most businesses on Penang, their contribution to the continued success of Malaysia’s second most populous region remains unmatched so it’s understandable if there might be some underlying jealousy or envy among Malays and even Indians. But if it’s there, it lies dormant and there’s no signs whatsoever of any fundamentalist religious intentions that we’ve noticed.
Having visited several Chinese museums offering great insight to a 125 year struggle for equality as an ethnic minority, we think the Chinese people from Penang have come too far to give in to anything resembling a radical state that discounts their status as citizens of Malaysia. Although we’ve heard stories as wild as suggesting a split from the country similar to attempts by Quebec and Scotland, it’s highly unlikely given the weak currency, lack of popular support and domination of certain critical infrastructure by state-run companies like telecom and power lines. Headlines dominate the front pages here as much as anywhere else in the country but most expats living in Penang are unlikely to feel any immediate threats to their future based on increased fundamentalism, discrimination, hate crimes or even changes in attitudes. Riding the bus daily, we regularly see Malaysians offering the same courtesies Americans once did from giving up seats to the elderly regardless of their race, going out of their way to tell someone they dropped something and always chasing down foreigners when they forget their change.
The editorial message continues and talks about extreme punishments like public executions and efforts to introduce such measures, the alliance between rival political parties that ignores other religions and court decisions like banning non-Muslims from using the term “Allah” to speak about “God“. The publisher reminds long-term expats that the Malaysia they’ve grown to love is slowly becoming less moderate and even mentions how many MM2H holders are already expressing interest in residing elsewhere. Given how he spends an entire paragraph telling expats that as foreigners we have no say and that “the goals set out in the Government Transition Program are less likely to be met if we see a shift towards a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam countries“, I was left wondering if he’s advocating getting out while we still can (for Americans that would surely mean before a Trump presidency), or simply expressing his unusually strong freedom to criticize the government as a foreigner.
Malaysian people we’ve met would never show intolerance, hatred or even have the gall to begin learning how to be argumentative. Totally contradicting Trump supporters, many of whom believe that “every Muslim is a terrorist“, in my mind the Malay people represent hope that religious differences bear no meaningful place when it comes to living peacefully with one another. Yes, we’ve heard the rumors but honestly, we’ve not seen anything but kindness every time we step off the plane and head to the immigration counter.
Finishing his editorial message one step short of sounding like he’s given up hope, it left me wondering if his message is a desperate appeal to one of the true moderate Muslim nations left in the world. Is he trying to appeal for them to not give in to the likes of a society filled with border walls, xenophobia, religious persecution and hatred of non-Muslims or is there some other reason not really clear to expats in Penang? Who’s correct? Condé Nast or Expat magazine? Here’s the last paragraph of the publisher’s message:
We have been actively promoting Malaysia, at various levels, to expats and the international community for 20 years and this is the first time we have belt concerned by such developments We very much hope the government will clarify that it will not permit this shift towards more fundamentalist thinking to take place.
Probably the last thing we needed to hear, I wrote the editor and asked for comments or clarification and suggested he use the magazine as a forum to promote overseas expat voting for Americans during this election. Unfortunately my email went unanswered leaving us wondering about the future of expat life in a moderate Muslim nation given a fast changing world. Citing many dangers to American expats in my recent post, its bad enough watching the social degradation of my homeland from overseas without having our safety and welfare compromised from 7,000 miles away.
Carrying little weight in world affairs relative to other larger and more influential nations, Malaysia still represents Southeast Asia’s strongest economy with millions of Western investment dollars tied up in the nation’s infrastructure and I’d be hard pressed to recommend that anyone should leave the nation based on one editorial but also wonder why Condé Nast chose now to increase visibility in Penang as a retirement destination. Clearly the editorial opinions expressed in the nation’s leading expat publication suggest otherwise. Meanwhile our landlord surprisingly announced to our property agent that she wishes to sell our condo unit but agreed to let us renew our lease until July 2017 with a clause guaranteeing our tenancy until that time. Many Penangites told us this is the quietest Chinese New Year they’ve ever seen due to worsening economic conditions, implantation of a GST last year and a severely weakened Malaysian Ringgit. Appearing to damage the financial standing of many Malaysian citizens, it’s eerie how that parallels the main reason for America’s insane love affair with a billionaire psycho.
Planning on moving to Chiang Mai, Thailand next summer anyway, Diane and I would wait out another disastrous U.S. presidency from overseas just like we did in Canada during the Bush years. But our admiration for one of the few nations we’ve found where tolerance remains stronger than hatred remains and we hope Malaysians resist anything remotely resembling fundamentalism as we all watch the 21st century unfold. The verdict for now: As they tell you when a stock you own begins looking shabby; Hold tight and wait for further developments.
If you’ve seen the editorial message, please let us know your opinion by commenting or sharing your thoughts. Or, if you have any suggestions on how to help save America from a dangerous Fascist president, please help me convey the message that’s fallen on 150 million deaf ears.