By Allen Lian Jun Yi
Allen Lian Jun Yi is a very lucky young man pursuing Environmental Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He thinks that systemic inequality and racism are destroying Malaysia, but the people can overcome by fighting back together.
“But Malaysians don’t care about the environment! Ha-ha…”
I had heard that many times from my peers after they found out that I want to be an environmentalist. I would laugh along lightheartedly because we Malaysians joke about our carelessness all the time. In fact, to Malaysians, the slogan “Malaysia Boleh” has a double meaning – both negative and positive. To be fair, we do care about a lot of things, but especially race and religion.
Any talk of unity in Malaysia is never easy because of the colonial residue of divide-and-conquer politics and the segregation between races and religions in this country. The ghosts of race and religion- racial and religious stigma- roam freely in Malaysian society, but because it is a taboo to talk about ghosts, we keep quiet and suffer. Under the atmosphere of the politics of race, religion and capitalism, we have developed a culture of fear and competition, not one of compassion and collaboration that we dearly and urgently need. The fear of losing (kiasu) and the intense pressure for competition have kicked us deep into the boxes of race and religion, and pitted us against each other. Every day, we experience psychological and structural segregation based on our supposed race and religion, wondering when our ideal Malaysian society is going to hatch.
What is the ideal Malaysian society? Perhaps just as we are diverse, we have different answers, but I draw my inspiration from the Malaysian rainforest. In the Malaysian rainforest, the ghosts of race and religion don’t exist. In fact, unity is so natural in nature (duh). I mean, just look at the Malaysian rainforest- it thrives on its great biodiversity and the interconnectivity between all its components. Inside the green lungs, there are pokok meranti, balau, kapur and many more, but really they are just pokok-pokok. “Who cares you pokok apa, aku pokok apa, kita pokok-pokok sahaja,” you can hear them say if you listen closely enough. My ideal Malaysian society is also my ideal human society- one that thrives on compassion, diversity and the interconnectivity between all human beings, because kita manusia sahaja.
Yes, I do find hope for more unity among human beings, for who can live without hope? I have found hope in my passion that is shared by many Malaysians. That shared passion is compassion which I saw hatched on Malaysian soil not too long ago.
During my university break, I joined a sea turtle conservation program in Terengganu organized by the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS). Because I had never explored the east coast of the Peninsula, I was very excited to go. Moreover, when I learned that the other three people carpooling with me would be women, their names “Wan”, “Elizabeth” and “Shirley” occupied my mind for days. On the day of departure from KL, I realized that they were old enough to be my mother or grandmother, but that didn’t make the trip any less enjoyable and inspiring.
Before long, I could tell that Wan, Elizabeth and Shirley were kind and compassionate people. Seriously, their compassion is beyond human. On our way to Terengganu, Wan and Shirley talked a lot about their shared passion- saving and taking care of street cats that were sick or injured. They talked about the horrible conditions they found those cats in, the cruelty of certain people who tortured street cats, the brand or kind of food that they feed their cats with, and other interesting stuff about adopting street cats. Oh my, I recalled rearing fishes in my “Horlicks” jars and seeing them die because I didn’t know how to take care of them. Luckily, I quit that a long time ago. Our driver, Elizabeth, was a European from Switzerland who had chosen to live in Malaysia after retirement because she loves to explore nature in Malaysia. I asked her about Switzerland and one of my favorite childhood books, “Heidi”. Heidi is a Swiss girl whose compassion for the less fortunate people around her makes her a universal darling. Elizabeth said “Heidi” is indeed very famous and that Switzerland is a beautiful country. “So is Malaysia,” she added.
Throughout the 4 days and 3 nights, we had many adventures and bonding activities. We explored a nearly pristine beach and the coastal forest; we trekked through a hillside rainforest and a mangrove swamp; and we collected plant samples to construct educational posters. The best experience, however, had to do with the conservation work for sea turtles. In the sea turtle sanctuary unknown to the public, we found home and felt like a loving family.
“Seekor penyu sudah bertelur,” our leader Hashimi announced to us around 2am. We got our vehicles and went to the area at the beach where a green turtle had just laid its eggs. Pak Mat, the master of detecting exactly where the eggs were buried, poked lightly into the sand using a stick and gestured to feel the flow and softness of the sand. After what seemed to us a ceremonious dance, Pak Mat pointed out the exact spot for us to dig. Impressive! We soon saw the white eggs that looked like ping-pong balls, except they are filled with life. Every one of the 12 participants took turns to lie on the sand and stretch our arms to gently pick up the eggs and put them into several pails. It was a very calming act, as we knew that we were basically tending unborn babies and we had to be our gentlest self. It was sad to think that those unborn babies had become refugees since birth, but we had to relocate them to the hatchery so that sea turtle egg traders can’t steal them from the beach. When we shared our experience with each other, many of us said things like, “they were so soft and fragile”, “I was trembling inside” and “I felt like touching life”. I guess it was like seeing and touching newborn babies; we realized that life is so fragile and miraculous at the same time, and to be able to take care of those in need is the bliss of life. Why fuss over our differences when we have so much beauty of life to share? Unburied. Compassion.
In the hatchery, we buried the newfound ‘refugees’ to incubate them. We were lucky because the earlier batch of eggs was estimated to have just hatched and it was time for them to see daylight and embrace the sea. The moment we uncovered the hatchlings, the energy and life in them as they crawled vigorously were thrilling. We screamed awkwardly in joy. They were ALIVE! Unfortunately, not all of the hatchlings were strong and energetic. We had to be sharp to separate some hatchlings that appeared to be weak and inactive from the energetic crowd into another pail. They might be injured or suffer from malnutrition.
But isolation wouldn’t last. The journey to the sea was a journey that all the hatchlings must take on together. We could not wait too long because the hatchlings would soon become too tired of crawling. Quickly but carefully, we released all the little sea turtles at an appropriate distance from the seawater. They must crawl through the distance, seeing the moonlight and listening to the waves beating onshore, so that in the future they would know to return to the same beach, to give birth to a new generation. Watching the little sea turtles crawl was amazingly touching: weren’t we all like them, crawling and leaving home into the ocean of uncertainty, trying to survive and live fully? The only difference is that outside predators hunt the little sea turtles, but human beings harm each other for money and power. As we looked at the sea and the horizon, we realized how troubling it is to think of our society.
During the program, I was also blessed to meet the family of Rose and Bond. Rose and Bond brought their children, Jasa and Jati to the US at a young age to seek a world-class education. Imagine the courage and difficult decisions it took for the family to live in a foreign country across the Pacific Ocean. The sacrifices were made for Jasa and Jati’s education and future in this globalized world. “When you are in the US, you’ll find that there are different kinds of people, but education in the US wants you to think critically about society,” Rose encouraged me after I told her that I am preparing to further my higher education in the US. The family came back to visit Bond’s kampung in Terengganu. Bond talked about many changes around his kampung, some were good, some were bad, but his kampung was definitely still home to him. On the other hand, Jasa and Jati were troubled and restless. They were no longer familiar to Malaysia. They barely spoke Bahasa Malaysia and they couldn’t really imagine themselves living in Malaysia again. I could relate to how they felt. Even growing up in Malaysia did not stop me from being alienated by the politics of race and religion and capitalism. I felt constantly pressured to belong fully to my supposed race and compete hard for No. 1s and A+s, because success means self-interest, PhD and money, so I was told. It must be very difficult for them. I didn’t know that Malays too face an identity crisis in Malaysia, but I learned from the example of Jasa and Jati that we shouldn’t let our supposed race, religion and even nationality limit our footsteps on this planet Earth. If Malaysia is our home, we will stay, or as travelers, we will always come back, and make it better for all human beings.
So what does Malaysia need? I think the world needs more compassion and actions, as does Malaysia. Compassion, the ability to care for those in suffering and in disadvantage, and our actions to help them are key to unity in Malaysia and worldwide; because we are all human beings regardless of race and religion; because we live in a world of sufficiency. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”; indeed there is so much love and beauty in life to share. We learn from nature that the world is one of diversity and interconnectivity. We also learn from people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela that human beings have great capacity for love and compassion. We do not need a culture of fear and competition. For instance, the highly competitive and individualistic society of the US has bred staggering inequality- a path we don’t want to follow. What we need is a society based on compassion and collaboration, and we can’t do that being enclosed in the boxes of race and religion. We must think out of the “boxes”. We must incubate the eggs of compassion.
By the way, recently, hundreds of thousands of Malaysians, regardless of race and religion, have spoken out and taken actions against a rare earth mining company because it threatens the environment, and the health and livelihood of Malaysians. No matter which side you are on, you have to agree: who says Malaysians don’t care about the environment?! I say Malaysians care about the environment because we care for each other. We just have to open our hearts.
Are we ready for unity? Hatch! Compassion.
Pic credits: Forest by CeeKay’s Pix and Turtles by arjandijksma