We all landed in Malaysia exhausted. The Philippines was hard on everyone: the travel, the pollution and the long days had taken its toll on all of us. Don't get me wrong, the Philippines was a magical experience on many levels, but it beat us up physically and emotionally. We all showed up at the airport looking pretty rough, and excited that our travel day only included a dinner.
So we were a bit shocked when we got to the connecting airport in Kuala Lumpur to learn that we were meeting with the Deputy Chief Minister (think Lt Governor) of Sarawak, the eastern Malaysian state where we'd be spending the first half of our Malaysian trip -- and the visit was a "state courtesy call" meaning we'd need to be in business attire -- and the meeting was 45 min after we landed in Sarawak. Fortunately the parents of our host in Sarawak was kind enough to let us change at her house.
We headed to our first meeting not quite sure why we were in Kuching, the Capitol city of Sarawak. It's a smallish city located on a remote part of the island of Borneo, part of east Malaysia. It has a very tropical feel, located just 1 degree north of the equator, where the length of the longest day of the year and the shortest are separated by only 12 minutes. The weather is very Florida-esque and frankly, I liked the city the moment we landed.
Our first meeting was with the state government. Their power structure is highly centralized, though not autocratic. They talked about the relative lack of poverty and racial strife in a state that is home to 26 different ethnic and tribal groups. The government is hyperfocused on development: industrial farming, hydroelectric and aquaculture - and essentially they use development to buy peace in their state. The leaders were amazingly on message, deflecting any hard question we asked, and the press was very controlled. One paper included a quote from a colleague which bore no resemblance to what he said. That being said, they had a clear idea of what they were trying to accomplish.
The next day we met with opposition leaders who spoke of widespread corruption and a lack of civic participation and discourse. Many of their observations matched my gut feeling about the meeting with government.
However, what was most interesting about the several hours we spent with these leaders was the fact they came from all walks of life: a Muslim woman running the women's empowerment division, their elected leaders represented several tribes who were Christian, while their young social media maven was Chinese. Their platform actually endorsed both naming Islam as the official ceremonial religion of the country, and further enshrining religious freedom in the constitution.
Wandering around town I saw the same thing: extreme diversity coexisting in total peace. Mosques right down the street from churches, Buddhist shrines located in the parks across the street from Hindu places of worship, and young women wearing the hijab would walk down the street with Chinese boys in shorts. I imagine a poll of this town would have found widespread confusion why there was even a debate in the US over whether a mosque could be built in downtown New York City. Here you could almost imagine Christians offering to help their Muslim brothers build a Mosque, while maybe the next week they'd all go work on a Buddhist temple. It's a outward display of religious freedom not frequently seen. Frankly, it was very cool.
Our visit here was much more casual than the Philippines. We went to a cultural center, toured a museum, attended church for a high school band concert and walked through the market. But more than anything, our gracious host Sharon Ling arranged for us to share meals with real people, and gave us time to explore this really interesting town.
On our second to last morning, I went for a long run, made much longer by my getting very lost. I ran down neighborhood streets, by the bus station, along the river, through a park and generally anywhere I thought would get me back to the Hilton. Despite being conspicuous (running white guy in a bright shirt), it's easy to feel very at home here, because everyone here is different.
Cultures are married here. I met a Brit, turned Kiwi who decided to settle in Kuching after working a project in town. He said the town celebrates every holiday, and I saw it with my own eyes. My colleague Nathan Dahm, a Republican state senator from Oklahoma and I walked a few blocks in the Christmas Parade, blending in with a group from a local church, and lining the streets on a dark rainy night were plenty of Muslims and Hindus.
And the band concert we attended was at a local church, though it seemed from the attire of the parents there to see their kids, that the vast majority weren't Christian. You are getting the idea.
It began to make sense why we came. This part of the exchange wasn't supposed to be like the Philippines, which was formal and official. Rather this was pure cultural exchange, a chance to immerse in a town for a long weekend, bond as a group, have meaningful conversations with real Malaysians, and just be a part of it all.
What is amazing about this uniquely unremarkable town is its a place where all of the things that cause conflict around the world manage to survive in peace, because it seems these people have decided to embrace their differences and revel in their diversity. As a result, even though we were clearly outsiders, we all felt very comfortable here, and it showed. We marched in bands, some of us danced at a reenacted tribal ceremony, ate really amazing and exotic food, and some even did karaoke with a Malaysian lounge act, which among other things, performed history's most amazingly horrible rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. It was easy to let your guard down here, because seemingly guards aren't allowed here.
Kuching isn't perfect. There's plenty of dirt around the edges, it's worn in many areas, and the city could use a good pressure wash and paint job. Further, there seems to be widespread agreement -- and in some circles, acceptance that the government does enrich itself. It's also not fancy, as the aforementioned Brit/Kiwi said, "it's a three star town." You will never see it in a travel magazine, and it won't blow you away. But there is something about it.
The people who live here are relaxed and happy, and they content to trade a few luxuries in exchange for peace, mutual understanding and middle class prosperity. After three days here, I get it. Hope to see you again Kuching.
Onward to Kuala Lumpur.