The Left, the Right, and How Politics Changed My Trip to Malaysia

The Left, the Right, and How Politics Changed My Trip to Malaysia

“Why are there so many flags?” I asked my boyfriend, Daniel, as we meandered down the streets of Penang during out trip to Malaysia. Dozens of sailor-blue banners with images of the scales of justice lined the highways, and we had to duck underneath them to get anywhere.

He shrugged, and we continued our way to the collective of hawker stalls that Penang is famous for. We were looking forward to trying some fried oysters and rojak, a dessert with pineapple and apples covered in a special sauce.

The image of the flags waving in the wind stuck with me, however, and I soon began to see another type. This one was a light blue with red around the sides and a large “O” in the center.

Several days into our trip to Malaysia we heard about the election that was going on in the country. It was surprising that we had heard nothing about it before, as it was slated to be one of the most influential races in Malaysian history. After doing some quick online searches, we found a tale of corruption, tax laundering, and the campaign of a 92-year-old former prime minister declaring he would restore order.

We found a tale of corruption, tax laundering, and the campaign of a 92-year-old former prime minister declaring he would restore order.

I’ve had a hard time engaging myself in politics lately. Much of it has to do with my own country’s difficult situation, and the helplessness I feel as a citizen of the United States. It could have been very easy to ignore the politics surrounding this election and the problems facing the Malaysian people and just enjoy the delicious food, gorgeous nature, and the hospitality of the locals.

But it was fascinating to see individuals so involved in their electoral process, and that the battle between the Malaysian political parties of the left and right so mirrored our own. I began asking about the election at restaurants and hotels while taking time to read about it online too.

As travelers, it’s understandable to want to escape the realities of the corrupt system we deal with at home and to remain outsiders to the internal problems a place is facing. It can seem like it doesn’t affect us if we’re just visiting and that it’s others’ problem, not ours. The truth is that politics can make a difference to us when we travel. A more authoritative government can fine a traveler for spitting in public (Singapore), or jail you for not paying proper respect to the country’s monarch (Thailand). A more relaxed system can allow visitors to drink in the streets (many places in Europe).

To make connections with the local people, we need to understand the issues that make up their daily lives.

Most of all, to make connections with the local people, we need to understand the issues that make up their daily lives. As I began research and learned that the former deputy prime minister had been jailed by the current one for sodomy, I could understand why the Malaysian people were so passionate about bringing order back to their society.

Almost every business was closed on the day of the election, and there was anticipation in the air the entire day as voters went to the polls. One of our waiters at dinner that night proudly displayed his ink-stained finger—a sign that he had cast his ballot.

Daniel and I eagerly searched for the results of the election the next day. In a major upset, the 92-year-old former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, won the election and vowed to correct the current government. He also banned his rival, Najib Razak, from leaving the country and avoiding charges for money laundering.

I could have ignored the outcome of this electoral race, but I would have felt as though I was missing something essential while visiting Malaysia. My understanding of the people and of our world grew by acknowledging that this event was so important to the citizens of a country I had become very fond of. Politics doesn’t necessarily define a country, but the people of a country makes its politics—and a greater understanding can lead to deeper connections to a place and to locals on our travels.

About Alex Schnee

Alex SchneeAlex is a traveler, journalist, and author. She eats a lot of pizza.

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