What happens after a country splits apart? Forty-seven years ago Singapore separated from Malaysia. Since then, the two countries have developed along their own paths. Malaysia has given preference to the majority Malay Muslims -- the bumiputera, or sons of the soil. Singapore, meanwhile, has tried to build a meritocracy -- ostensibly colour-blind, yet more encouraging perhaps to some Singaporeans than to others.
How have these policies affected ordinary people? How do these two divergent nations now see each other and the world around them? Seeking answers to these questions, two Singaporeans set off to cycle around Peninsular Malaysia, armed with a tent, two pairs of clothes and a daily budget of three US dollars each. They spent 30 days on the road, cycling through every Malaysian state, and chatting with hundreds of Malaysians.
Not satisfied, they then went on to interview many more people in Malaysia and Singapore. What they found are two countries that have developed economically but are still struggling to find their souls.
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This is a story about Malaysia and Singapore--or Malaya, if you will.
I use "Malaya" because I grew up thinking of the two countries as one. As a little boy, I remember travelling from Singapore to Malaysia, sitting in the backseat of my dad's car, swerving through Malaysia's old single-lane highways, evading smog-emitting trucks piled high with oil palm fruit. We would visit relatives, sometimes five or six homes in a day, popping our heads in to sip tea, nibble cakes and watch the oldies play Cupid--"Is there a nice boy for her in Singapore?"
We would stop at roadside vendors, slurping up tropical fruits for a song, and yet still wonder, all the way home, whether we had just been fleeced. We would, in short, soak in Malaysia, her people, her nature, everything about this vast country.
Our country, we sometimes thought. Well, if not exactly our countrymen, then our cousins, our brothers from another mother. Malaysia is a 20-minute ride away. Malaysians speak the same languages and eat the same food. We had a separate passport that allowed us entry to (peninsular) Malaysia and nowhere else, as if to signify that we were special, less different than the rest. It was as if God had created another Singapore, right next to us, and blessed it with more land and lower prices.
Political divisions and developmental ideologies didn't bother me back then. I was young and eager and just wanted to go on a road trip, to leave Singapore's urban madness for some country adventure and kampung durians. As I grew older, my youthful naiveté slowly gave way to curiosity. Malaya, as I slowly realised, is actually made up of two quite different countries.
How can that be? Malaysia and Singapore are, after all, physically divided by only a narrow strait. They were connected politically for centuries. So how come the countries are so different now? Why is Singapore so much more economically developed today than Malaysia? How is it that the ideologies, cultural narratives and ways of thinking vary so much across the narrow border? Is it all because of the invisible political line that divides us?
Sudhir was born in Singapore to a Marwari (Rajasthani) mother and a Malayalee (Keralite) father. After completing high school and mandatory military service, he left Singapore for the US, spending six years at Berkeley and Harvard, where he became very concerned with issues of social justice. Sudhir returned to Singapore in 2005, and currently lives there with his wife and their two cats.
Sudhir's literary and research interests are about the way grand political and social systems influence ordinary people's lives, their worldviews, and their interactions with each other. He hopes to follow his first book, Floating on a Malayan Breeze, with narratives on Asia's other great societies.
Sudhir's day job is as a senior editor with the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). He has written for a variety of publications, including The Economist, The Online Citizen, The Straits Times and Yahoo!.
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