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CULTURAL VACUUM: The average man on the street in Delhi or Kuala Lumpur has only superficial knowledge of each other
JOY was etched on the face of Ng Siew Choy, the dim sum chef at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, when spoken to in Bahasa Malaysia.
The young man, who has been abroad for years, longs for a bit of home, which is rare in the Indian capital, where little is known about Malaysians despite Malaysia being among a number of nations with which India has forged a strategic partnership.
Choy, as he prefers to be called, is sometimes thought to be a Chinese national or even from the northeastern belt of India where locals have Chinese features.
The fact that Malaysia is a nation of diverse ethnic groups, languages, cultures and religions is often lost on the average north and, indeed, south Indians, whose view of the country is a vague mosaic of facts and conjecture gleaned from friends and relatives who have worked there at some time or the other.
A few of us were at the restaurant, where he dishes out light eats around the clock, after a long day at Sapru House recently where we had engaged Indian academics and members of the diplomatic corps in discussions on how to take the conversation between our two countries a notch higher.
Crucial to achieving this is a better understanding among both people of the nature of nationhood on both sides with the myriad complexities and ground rules that dictate the manner in which they operate.
There was a distinct exuberance among participants invited by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis) and the Indian Council on World Affairs at the third India-Malaysia Strategic Dialogue as we discussed how to turn the discussion between both countries into tangibles.
There was also the sobering ground reality that both nations needed to keep the conversation on track and not be lost in the euphoria following mutual visits by prime ministers lest the ennui that stalks diplomatic ties that are overly comfortable strikes.
One participant asked a pointed question that never really received an answer over the two days: "Why after thousands of years of historical, cultural and economic linkages are we still talking of the need to understand each other?"
It is an unfortunate fact that the average Hindi-speaking north Indian knows precious little of Malaysia beyond what he has gleaned from actor Datuk Shah Rukh Khan's movies or faintly remembered media reports of former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad telling the world a thing or two.
He may also have little to share in terms of the historical commonality based on the fact that his knowledge of the Malaysian Indian stems from the lifestyle, mores and culture of the nearly two million Tamils who constitute the predominant component of the Indian community in Malaysia.
Does the average north Indian know that Malaysians of Malay, Chinese and native origin in Sabah and Sarawak together form nearly 92 per cent of the population, wielding a political and economic strength that could lead to mutual benefit beyond shores?
This has perhaps left a huge vacuum in their knowledge bank in terms of the cultures, languages and way of life of lands and people in Malaysia that could prove crucial in realising the economic understanding forged between the two governments.
I hasten to state that many Malaysians of Indian origin are no better, mostly culling information about their brethren in India from Tamil and Hindi movies that provide artificial insights into life in the sub-continent.
Today, despite close political and economic ties engendered by geopolitical realities, it is sadly true that the man-on-the-street in Malaysia knows more about London and New York than he does about New Delhi and Chennai and their denizens.
His knowledge may stem from the limited association he has with Indian nationals working here who are largely in the information technology industry or in the service industry within which they have made a mark as restaurant assistants.
This has led to a blinkered view of the Indian national as either one who speaks English with a thick Indian accent or one who does not know English and communicates in pidgin Bahasa Malaysia or Tamil.
About the first thing that needs to be done is the bridging of this information gap. It is imperative that ground-level initiatives be embarked upon to get the ordinary Malaysian to know the ordinary Indian national to enable overarching political and economic ties to truly succeed.
I believe greater effort must be placed into Malaysian initiatives to allow Indian tourists to learn about Malaysian culture, bearing in mind that there is no single face to it. This means taking Indian tourists into Malay, Chinese or native enclaves, of which there are many, to meet ordinary people and understand their way of life.
Education is another area that shows promise in ensuring greater understanding between Indians and Malaysians. The nearly 2,000 Indian students studying in Malaysia and the estimated 5,000 Malaysian students in India can become ambassadors in their own right for their home countries.
In terms of cultural cooperation, the best thing to happen in a long time in terms of people-to-people contact between India and Malaysia was the establishment of the Indian Cultural Centre in Kuala Lumpur in February last year.
It is an example of how new modalities can be developed for greater people-to-people engagement that constitute the foundation on which economic integration, defence cooperation and a strategic partnership can be engendered.