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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Malaysian Culture

What culture isn't

by Amir Mahmood Razak

Wikipedia defines culture (partly) as patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. Acceptable I'd say, but in a pluralistic society like Malaysia, is there one single Malaysian culture? Quite unlikely.

Each race in this country has its own set of cultures and beliefs, passed on from generation to generation. Some hold on steadfastly to the values, some apply them on occasion, and still some totally abstain. Strangely, as I see it anyway, while a modern person may not necessarily live the culture, he or she is likely to defend it to the death.

A burger-gobbling, pop-drinking and fashionable Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan etc. may yet argue till blue in the face that his or her traditional values should not be impeded for any reason. Try telling the above-described Malaysian that he or she can no longer wear kebaya/cheongsam/saree for whatever reason, and the uproar will be louder than the protests on the toll hikes.

My point?

Recently, Malaysian Youth Council President Shamsul Anuar Nasarah voiced his displeasure that stewardesses on Asia's most successful low-cost carrier, AirAsia were not dressed to "project our culture". The dressing was just one example, according to the news report. There are other issues that the council takes exception with, although there were no details.

Dude, what is our culture, when it comes to dressing? And before you say baju kurung, I'm referring to a culture that denotes all the races that make up the fabric of Malaysian society.

Perhaps what you meant to say was hostesses should not be wearing skirts, instead wearing kebaya like the ones on the national carrier. In other words, be Malay.

Right now won't the Chinese, the Indians, the Kadazans, the Muruts and the rest be offended that this Malaysian carrier does not reflect their culture?

I find calls such as the one by Shamsul insensitive. From a cultural point of view, as I have explained, there is no such thing as one identifiable Malaysian culture (boy, am I setting myself up for a backlash here!).

There are other ways AirAsia can promote culture, although the astute businessman Datuk Tony Fernandes is, he'll know that his core business is budget air travel, and not fashion.

Skirt-clad stewardesses may not be a cultural representation of Malaysia, but neither is it wrong. Should other Malaysian brands be tasked with promoting local culture? Should Protons have songket-woven interiors? Should the KLIA be shaped like a mosque? Should the international road entry points have spear-wielding guards instead of gun-toting law enforcers?

So while the outfit of AirAsia's hostesses may not necessarily be Malaysian, it's not wrong either, is it? If you ask me, pitted against a tight kebaya or a saree or a cheongsam, the skirt's functional. Still, I'd venture to guess a hostess wearing pants will probably run faster than those in a tight skirt, but I don't own the airline.

What I wear will not decide my culture. Me wearing hipster baggy jeans with an oversized t-shirt that screams "Yo brudder wassup!", complete with some bling-bling won't make me less Malay, or Malaysian. It will make me less associated with a local culture yes, but in no way does that make me any less a Malaysian - or cultured - for that matter.

I live and breathe my culture, even though I'm in a two-piece suit at work, listen to Nat King Cole and Al Jarreau for my entertainment and enjoy that hearty steak once in a while. My soul, I assure you, is Malaysian.

Good luck Malaysia.

Amir Mahmood Razak is a single father of two, who believes that life would be much better if we take failures as a chance to start anew. He is also a part-time newsreader in the midnight TV3 english news bulletins. This is his write as a columnist of The Sun.