My Malaysia, too

So Tariq Kamal has passed the ‘50 Posts to Independence‘ baton on to me. His contribution to the project is a good read, despite his insistence that it was terribly rushed. Mine is also terribly rushed, not because I didn’t know about it but because I’ve been busy. OK, that’s just an excuse. But anyway, like everyone else who has contributed to the project, I was given a week to write this, a week that ends today. I picked at it here and there, in between exam proctoring sessions and marking and meetings and lots and lots of family time. Rushed as it is, I hope it will suffice.

Here’s my contribution, post #40 in the countdown to independence.


My relationship with Malaysia and Tariq’s are different in many ways. His is the story of a Malaysian, born into a prominent Malay Muslim family, who tasted freedom from the oppressive weight of his culture and religion overseas but then somehow found Malaysia was indeed a part of who he is anway. As he says, “It’s shitty, but it’s home. You can’t take that away from me.” Nor could he take it away from himself. What was supposed to be a glorious freedom from the shackles of all that Malaysia represented became instead an awkward distance that brought with it an important realization :

But this is home. I learnt something in that dark and empty year – that I would not be able to dig out being Malaysian from my pscyhe in pretty much the same way I’d be able to dig out being male, Malay, Muslim or middle class. It’s there. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

My story is different, but the same, but then again different. It’s different because I’m not Malaysian. It’s the same because, like Tariq, I moved away from home and learned to appreciate it, that it is a big part of who I am. But then again, my story is different because I’m here to talk about what Malaysia means to me, not Canada. That’s going to be a tough one though, because my Canadian-ness—my foreign-ness—is a big part of who I am here in Malaysia. Tariq’s story is that of someone who was pulled back to Malaysia. Mine is the story of someone who is being pulled—and pushed—away.

My name is Jordan MacVay, and I am not Malaysian. I’m from Canada, a country that is different from Malaysia in too many ways to list here, although similar in more ways than I might be willing to admit. In the year 2000 I fell in love with a young Malaysian woman. In 2001 we were married. In all the time in between I had to come to terms with an important fact: she would have to return to Malaysia upon completion of her studies. That meant I was going to leave Canada, to emigrate to Malaysia. And in 2002 that’s excatly what I did.

I remember sitting on the plane, watching out the window as my home faded away beneath the clouds. A longtime genealogy buff, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I would not be the first person in my family to say goodbye to his home and set out for a new one. My family history is full of stories of people who left their homelands and settled elsewhere. At various times throughout the last few hundred years they set sail from Scotland, Ireland, France, and England on crowded, leaky, disease-laden ships and began new lives in what is now Atlantic Canada. They took that great leap into the unknown. They had all done it long before I did it. I clung to that thought as the plane touched down in Malaysia, my new home.

But my experience would be very different. Those people who populate my past were pioneers who helped shape Canada into what it is today. Everything was new and different to them, but they made it their country. They made themselves at home, and made a home for themselves. They embraced their new home and it embraced them. When I stepped off the plane in Malaysia, I was entering a land that was only someone else’s home. A land that had its own history, its own delicate issues. And its own rules. Not used to embracing newcomers, it politely nodded to acknowlege my presence, then turned away to tend to its own affairs.

In the four years since, I’ve managed to get the occasional glance in my direction, even a grunt or two. But those glances and grunts often give me the very clear impression that I’m supposed to just stay out of the way. After four years, I haven’t been recognized as anything more than a visitor, one whose employment is temporary. One who is expected to eventually leave.

There’s been some shoulder tapping: Excuse me, Malaysia. I don’t want to leave. I’m not a visitor, I’m an immigrant. I’ve settled here. Permanently. I intend to make this place my home.

Yeah, I’ll assert myself. I’ll stand up for my rights, such as they are. But why? Do I really love Malaysia?

You know, for all the complaining I do about this place, you’d think I hated it. I do complain about this country. Its rude drivers, its rampant racism, its ridiculous immigration policies, its ruthless politicians, its rotten environment, its ‘religious’ issues. I complain about them all. Can someone who complains so much possibly love this country?

To be perfectly honest: I still don’t know. It’s a strange, strained relationship.

Canada isn’t perfect, it has its problems too. But that’s the thing, I can complain about them. I can speak and be heard. Canada is my home. In Malaysia, my place is to be seen and not heard. As a visitor, I have two choices: I can enjoy my visit and leave without having caused any problems, or if I feel there are things I don’t like I can just leave now. Even if I had Permanent Resident status, I would be prohibited not only from voting but also from participating in politics in any way. That broad prohibition is the government’s way of saying “If you don’t like this place, just keep your opinion to yourself, because there’s nothing you can do.” Even if I were to somehow be granted citizenship here, I would be able to vote, but what’s the point? I would still be a second-class citizen, with fewer rights and privileges than a ruling class that is extremely sensitive to perceived threats and jealously guards its ‘rights’. And even if I had the same rights and privileges as members of that privileged group, I’d be denied several freedoms that I had become accustomed to back home, most notably religious freedom and freedom of speech. But I’m not a citizen of Malaysia, or a permanent resident. And I don’t know if I ever will be. I’m just a visitor.

I can feel myself being pulled away by my homeland, a place where I belong and which belongs to me, while at the same time I feel I’m being pushed away by this other place, where I often feel like an intruder. Should I just leave? Do I really have any reason to stay in this country?

Canada has immigrants, even Muslim immigrants. They are generally embraced, as long as what they do is not incompatible with fundamental Canadian values. And I think that’s fair. But now I’m an immigrant. I believe immigrants who can’t live in accordance with a country’s fundamental values should go back where they came from. Does that mean I should leave Malaysia? Again, do I really have any reason to stay in this country?

I believe I do.

Yes, I complain. But am I complaining about fundamental Malaysian values? Am I complaining about things that make up the foundation of this country, things that would lead to its collapse and ruin if they were taken away? If all those rude drivers, all that rampant racism, all those ridiculous immigration policies, all those ruthless politicians, that rotten environment, and all those ‘religious’ issues are all really essential pillars of Malaysian society, then perhaps I will eventually leave. But for now I just refuse to accept the idea that the things I complain about are fundamental elements of what Malaysia is and what it wants to be. I believe there are plenty of Malaysians who complain about the same things. I believe there are many Malaysians who want Malaysia to be better. I believe there has been a vision of Malaysia all along in which the things I and many other people dislike about this country do not belong. I believe many Malaysians simply want their country to be better, to be all the things it could be.

I don’t know if that will ever happen. And if it does, I don’t know if I will stay long enough to be a part of it. But I do know that soon Malaysia is going to celebrate 50 years of independence, and God willing I’ll be here to be a part of it. Because somehow, Malaysia has become a part of who I am. And that means, for now, that I have a reason to stay. This is my wife’s homeland. She is a citizen of Malaysia. My relationship with her has given me a relationship with Malaysia, a relationship that has plunged me into a few troughs but has also raised me up on glorious peaks. Not only that, we’ve got a child, and he’s Malaysian. His name is Alisdair Imran MacVay. He’s my flesh and blood, and this is HIS country. He was born here, and he’ll likely spend at least the first few years of his life here, if not most of it. No matter what happens later, whether we leave here or not, whether he wants to love Malaysia or not, there is no doubt that Malaysia will always be a big part of who he is. Like Tariq, he might not be aware of it at first, and maybe, like Tariq, he won’t want to be. But wherever he goes it will be there, inside of him. Part of him, as he is part of it.

I’m still trying to figure out how much I really love Malaysia, and whether I want to stay here—and whether Malaysia wants me. But I do know that there really are things to love about Malaysia. Happy memories, friendships, my wife, my son. My connection to them doesn’t make it any easier to get Malaysia’s attention, but that doesn’t matter. Because Malaysia is a part of me now, whether I like it or not, and whether Malaysia likes it or not. So go ahead Malaysia, you can ignore me, you can keep calling me a visitor, you can even make me go back home. But you can’t keep me from thinking of this place, in some small way, as home too. Like someone once said: it’s shitty, but it’s home. You can’t take that away from me.


Thanks to Tariq for choosing me to be part of this project. I consider it an honour. I also feel honoured to be able to choose Najah Nasseri to continue the countdown. Hey Najah:

Ring ring.

Seven days.


It’s all good.

Here are all of the contributions to the project: