Malaysia & Thailand: The Odd Couple

Buddhas in Bangkok's temple district
Buddhas in Bangkok’s temple district

Over the past few years I have spent extended periods of time on both sides of the Thai-Malay border living in the two neighboring countries that bisect the Malaysian Peninsula. Sitting up my last night in the garment factory/townhouse I have been lodging at on and off in Bangkok for the last month before heading back to Kuala Lumpur, the striking contrast of the two capitals seems to become much clearer.

Walking out the main assembly floor everyday past young Thai workers sewing together everything from bean bags to garment straps offers a visual of the first major contrast. Atop of the main production area is a small wooden platform with a Buddha solemnly perched hands over knees that looks over the tireless crowd in a pious gaze past an odd variety of incense and food offerings stacked in front of it.

Thailand is over 95 per cent Buddhist, much like most of the countries in the Greater Mekong Subregion. The narrow border that splits the country from Malaysia in the south plays a much larger role than it appears to have, acting as a greater divide that sections off Southeast Asia: one majority Buddhist to the north and the other majority Muslim (consisting of Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) to the south, with the Philippines taking up the role of the majority Christian outlier.

A large swathe of southern Thailand is Muslim, but the majority Buddhist country’s relations with the minority group has not been one of peaceful inclusion. Southern provinces have been rocked by bombings and related violence for decades, a frightening historical precedence that could reiterate with similar religious tension being seen today in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

Malaysia is a majority Muslim nation, but too often undersold as the most diverse city in the Far East. This contrast in ethnic diversity becomes noticeable as soon as I walk out into Bangkok any day of the week. It is a Thai world built open elitist Chinese traditions, lacking conspicuous outside influence having never been colonized by the West.

Kuala Lumpur, while absorbing some of the mercantile Chinese traits from migrants hailing from Fujian, is a colorful collage of Asian faces that cannot be matched by even by other British colonies such as Hong Kong or Singapore, the latter of which is approximately 72 per cent ethnic Chinese. On Kuala Lumpur’s increasingly crammed overhead rail system, Indian faces in traditional saris blend together with Muslim Malay women in their electric-colored hijab, who in turn can be found standing beside a Chinese flipping through that morning’s Sinchew, a Mandarin daily newspaper.

It is this mix of multiculturalism that has bestowed Kuala Lumpur one of its finer assets: a competitively high English proficiency level. Dangling along cabs or tuk tuks in the sea of Bangkok traffic, it is near impossible to have an English conversation. Indeed, Thailand has one of the lowest English-proficiency levels in the region. Service sector workers across the city will be bound by monolingualism.

In the lead up to the formation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, it is this particular shortcoming that has Thais on the edge of their seats. Inability to communicate using the world’s business medium will give Malaysians and Filipinos the upper-hand in a liberalized job market, a part of the greater integration planned for the AEC.

Leaving Thailand tomorrow for the short time being, it already becomes clearer how much more the former state of Siam will have to broaden itself to compete in this new community, all at the same time finding a way to allow new immigrants from the region to assimilate while not succumbing to exclusive nationalist policies seen in Kuala Lumpur.

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