John Wong is a business professor at Iowa State University in the US. For more than 30 years, he has mentored the hundreds of Malaysian students coming through the school each year.
I met John when he visited his friends Choy Leow and Connie Cher, fellow Malaysian transplants in the US, over dinner at a Korean deli in Minneapolis.
The kimchi was powerful, the conversation more so, ranging from the impact of 1969 race riots to the meaning of citizenship. Here is an edited version. My interjections in parenthesis.
I left KL soon after May 13, 1969. I was 19 years old. My world had imploded and exploded. I lost two close friends in Chow Kit Road. They were killed.
More than that…leading up to the elections of 1969, I was very concerned about citizenship and citizenship rights. For example, I taught a Sunday School class in church and as a teachable moment, we drafted a letter to the Tunku pledging allegiance to our young nation. I was proud of the democratic process and got a reply from him.
Then May 13 happened.
I left KL soon after and spent three years in Hong Kong. For the first time, I felt I was stateless. All of a sudden, I had to think: What does it mean to be Malaysian Chinese?
I worked in Hong Kong. I joined an export trading company and was the liaison between the company and the local manufacturers. I took some classes at a local college.
Then I landed a scholarship to a private liberal arts college in Iowa for my bachelors degree. I did my masters at Virginia Tech then my PhD at the University of Alabama.
In 1980, while I was teaching, I volunteered to be adviser to the Association of Malaysian Students at Iowa State University (AMSISU). My objective and my aspiration and my hope was to create a community of Malaysian scholars, to help create a sense of Malaysian identity.
In the mid 80’s to early 90’s, there was an agricultural crisis in the US. There were students’ parents who had lost their farms. We turned our annual Malaysia Night into a fundraising. We were raising money for white kids. We raised enough to fund three or four kids for the rest of their program. Everybody came together. The local press called this effort “reverse foreign aid.”
That was the kind of ideal I was trying to inculcate in young Malaysians, in spite of the schisms back home.
Yet even in the US, some of the Malays don’t think of themselves as Malaysian. We once had a group that organised a Persatuan Melayu for all Malay scholarship students which ran as an alternative organization and had its members boycott the Malaysian Students’ Association. They turned around and said “We are separate” in my face.
Expressions of separateness were manifested in different ways. For example, once when the university meeting rooms were being renovated, we held a Malaysian Students Association meeting at a church, which offered us the space for free. The Malay students wouldn’t come. Another time, the international students’ council sponsored a welcome event. Malay girls and boys showed up and were dancing. Then a Malaysian official studying on a scholarship showed up and started taking pictures. The girls ran into the bathroom and hid until he left.
Within the AMSISU, I have always encouraged the celebration of the various Malaysian ethnic cultures that reflect our polyglot society. We are a diverse people. But I have always insisted that these activities and groups must be subsumed under the umbrella of AMSISU because we are, first and foremost, Malaysians. We might be Malays or Indians or Chinese, but we ARE Malaysians. There must be this underlying oneness in the midst of our diversity. At least when the youngsters are here attending university in Iowa.
For example, we have a Lion Dance group that is part of AMSISU founded by Choy Leow in the late 1980s that has performed all over the Midwest. They have become a mainstay of Iowa cultural life and been invited to perform at many state official functions. A recent success and sign of progress is that after many years of exploration and negotiation, we were pleased to welcome into the AMSISU fold a formal and very active Malay Heritage Club. As a result, AMSISU and its constituent entities now enrich the life of Iowa State University in significant ways.
(How many Malaysian students each year?)
It fluctuates year to year, but close to 400 now.
Malaysia night is still going on. Every year we raise money for food banks or for the Red Cross and other causes. We showcase our culture and we raise money.
Last year, the Malaysian ambassador came from Washington. We were doing…Tourism Malaysia. It’s a facade of harmony, a love-in. But in reality they are very distinct communities. Even abroad.
(So why keep doing it?)
Good question. In trying to create this sense of Malaysian identity, I feel like I failed. The secondary objective – leadership training and mentoring – imbuing students with a sense of values, being involved, I’ve found more success.
Now when I go back to Malaysia, I just drop an e-mail to one fellow, and before I know it, through Whatsapp, they call me to makan and 50-something kids show up.
(So these are personal relationships and universal values more so than anything particularly Malaysian, right?)
Ya, ya. Also, the idea of giving as opposed to taking.
(You’ve seen a lot of students come and go over 30 years. How have they changed?)
The students these days come from more affluent families. They are more sophisticated. The level of preparedness of students is higher. A lot of Malaysian students are really strong. They are also not as deferential, some have lost that sense of civility.
(How do you see Malaysia today, from abroad?)
It took me 18 years before I ventured home. The hurt was really deep. Our very constitution includes special rights for the Malays. That ended any and all discussion. I faulted myself for being naive.
I’ve given up on political Malaysia.
But I have not given up on social Malaysia.
I know this is a false dichotomy. It’s the best I can do for now. I have this need to square the circle. My family has been in Malaysia for three generations. I have many relatives there. My roots are deep. My love and affection for the land of my birth and its people are still very strong. I visit often. For a long time I have been living with this inner schism. In some ways, I think I have made peace with myself.