It is amazing to know how others think and picture our own culture. During my stay in New York (1998-2001), I often met American who has very wrong impression and fatal misconception about Malays people and Malays culture.
“You are too serious for a Malay,” an American friend once told me.
“I thought all Malay are lazy and inefficient, but you are different. You are a hard-working Malay,” another foreign colleague told me another time.
Wait a minute. What make my American friends think so wrong about Malay?
Aha! Some admitted that they have read travel books on Indonesia and listened to tourist-bus anthropologist during short trip to Southeast Asia.
The popular description of Malay in the travel books or the tourist guides are like this: Malays are friendly race of people; always smiling and laughing; people who enjoy an easy life and who are not familiar with hard work. (Goenawan Mohamad, Sidelines, 1994)
Basically, Malays are inefficient people with no spirit of perseverance; creatures who are easily swept away by sudden emotion. Just remember that the English word ‘amok’ is of Malay origin –for the Malays can suddenly draw their kris (a traditional dagger) and start stabbing wildly…
Another English word adopted from Malay language is “sarong”. The sarong is a rectangular piece of cloth about 200 centimeters long, variously patterned, with the two ends of the cloth seamed together to form a cloth ‘tube’. Malays are sarong-wearers.
Americans believe the saying that “You are what you wear”. Since the sarong is considered as an impractical article of clothing, so the sarong-wearers are impractical persons. Am I, as Malay, impractical? Am I too serious for Malay?
No, I am just ordinary Malay. I am friendly to anyone. I like to smile and laugh if there is reason for that. If I always smile and laugh with no reason at all, I must be crazy. As human being and Malay, of course, sometimes I may be emotional. But, I will never do run amok and stabbing wildly other people with my kris. I am not a psychopath. I am not Jack the Ripper.
How to correct misconception?
My three-years in New York opened my eyes that those who live and think in America (the West) are not aware of other cultures, especially minorities such as Malay culture.
As Kishore Mahbubani wrote in The National Interest (1992), the Western mind believes that it understands all the worlds, since it is open to all ideas and closed to none. The paradoxical result of this deep-seated assumption is that the Western mind is actually unaware of the limits of its understanding and comprehension.
I always try to explain to my American friends on how terribly wrong their conception on Malay or Asian culture and correct those mistakes. I always make an attempt to open new windows in their mind by explaining “the truth” about Malays and Malays culture.
I say to them that people only believe what they want to believe. I quote what American philosopher Eric Hoffer  says “There is a tendency to judge a race, a nation or any distinct group by its least worthy members”. If the least worthy members of a race are lazy, then the entire race appears lazy. If they are corrupt, then the entire nation is corrupt.
If there are a few that have no love for their native land, then the whole group will be judged accordingly. And if there are some who are unable to work according to the demands of modern life, then people will say, “It’s a matter of mentality, brother”.
I remind them on the perils of generalization. You can’t judge that Malays are lazy people because some of them prefer to enjoy an easy life and who are not familiar with hard work. You can’t judge that Malays are impractical because they wear sarong.
I would say that their (Western) assessment of what is ‘practical’ is not the same as ours (Malays). To us, the sarong is a technological invention precisely right for countless uses. We wear it as part of ceremonial dress, but we also wear it to go to the toilet. We can use it as a type of blanket to ward off the cold, and we can also pull it over our head to keep out of the burning sun.
If we want to run fast we can hitch it up to be like a pair of shorts, by twisting the corners and tying them at the back. We can use the sarong as a mask and when not in use as an article of clothing, the sarong can become at once a wrapper and container for carrying books when we move house. Yes, as Goenawan Mohammad mentioned, it was surely a genius that discovered this article.
After telling what was wrong, I urge my foreign friends to respect Malay and other culture. Sometimes, people have misconception or even prejudices about other culture without realizing that. American take for granted that Malays are lazy people because one of Malay they know is someone who is unable to work according to the demands of modern life.
On the other hand, Indonesian has prejudice about Yankees because some media portray America as a land full of gun-toting, bible-bashing, and collagen-filled lunatics. Japanese was stereotyped as “the economic animal” only because they are hard working people.
If we want to live in peace with other cultures we must respect them to live in harmony with them. We have to get rid of stereotype and prejudice. If there weren’t any respect there would be a clash of civilization. Prejudices based on cultural differences often caused wars. People killed each other only because they looked or acted the other way.
I always remind my American friend that there are a lot of different cultures around the globe. And there are so many things in cultures that other cultures dislike and that usually leads to an argument. What we think in our culture is right isn’t might right in some other culture. That is why we need to learn and understand other cultures.
If we respect other cultures and nations, we don’t have to fight.
If we have understanding with other cultures and nations, there would be no clash of civilization.
If we could understand each other cultures, we would be able to discus worldwide things and problems, for example, the green house effect and pollution.
God bless us with the beautiful rainbow, why we pick only one color? I am interested in different cultures. Like the colorful rainbow, they are fascinating.
Goenawan Muhammad, Sidelines: Thought Pieces from Tempo Magazine, Lontar, 1994.
Goenawan Muhammad, On Sarongs and other such things, Tempo Magazine, 21 April 1984.
Kishore Mahbubani, The West and the Rest, The National Interest, Number 28, Summer