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Nov 2, 2010

Arab City: Remaking European Enclaves


Some weeks ago a friend of mine sent me a shocking link to a development project called "Arab City". (http://www.myarabcity.com/). At first I thought perhaps this would be like a theme park until I began to read more about the project. The project was endorsed by Melaka chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam and would include "...The third phase of the Arab City will comprise an Arab Village on a 6.5 acre site (2.6ha) in Kampung Jawa (http://beachfrontpropertyforsale.blogspot.com/2010/02/arab-city-melaka-to-cost-more-than-rm1.html)" This means that there would be residences created for Arab City geared towards foreign company owners at prices that most Malays would not be able to afford on land that was a traditional Malay village in an area that is a national historical area not just for Malays but for the entire Dunia Melayu (the Malay world). Furthermore to add insult to injury, the businesses will all be Arab and foreign owned (except McDonalds and Western businesses will not welcomed--which may or may not be such a bad thing except that it also excludes Malaysian businesses as well). According to http://www.malaysiapropertynews.com/2009/02/golden-corporate-awaits-nod-for-arab.html
even the food will cooked by Arabs directly imported from the Middle East and Malaysian food would be excluded. Malaysian women will also be excluded as they plan to bring in Arab women (http://www.eturbonews.com/16054/malaysia-targets-arab-female-tourists) The development company responsible for this plans to build more Arab Cities in every major Malaysian city. The Malaysian government considers this a great opportunity to bring in Middle Eastern currency into Malaysia and to showcase Islamic brotherhood. From the Arab perspective, the major complaint is that Malaysia is not Arab enough for their tastes and want to see more of their homelands.
Firstly, the land being used to build "Arab City" in Melaka and other places are historical areas and should be preserved not just for the good of Malaysians but for future generations within the Dunia Melayu and by extension all Austronesian speaking peoples. Melaka was one of the great Austronesian empires. In addition, traditional kampungs or villages in Malaysia are rapidly disappearing as cities grow and lifestyles changes. It is important that we maintain traditional kampung as a way to remember one's roots. To make a city catering towards an alien population on land that was a traditional kampung in an area of great significance to the Dunia Melayu seems rather counter-nationalistic. One might use other colorful adjectives to describe people willing to sell their national identity but I will leave it to the reader.
Secondly, building an area in the name of trade that caters exclusively to a foreign population and in which Malays will not even own businesses in that area seems exactly like the British and European enclaves in China and in SE Asia in the last two centuries. The Chinese economy would never have established itself what it is if it did not dismantle the European enclave system in the 1949. The enclaves were a source of corruption, illegal smuggling, and a plight on Chinese sovereignty. In addition, closer to Malaysia, the Dutch began their colonization of Indonesia through creating enclaves.
Thirdly, since businesses are going to be Arab owned and the managers will be Arabs, how will that ultimately benefit Malaysians? The argument of the government is that it will create 1,000 jobs for Malaysians. But the question is what type of jobs will be created and what type of trade will be conducted. When a foreign business establishes itself in a new country, one of the major considerations will be how to remit profits. Empires and businesses are not charity organizations. They need to look at the bottom line. The major purpose of an Arab businessman establishing a business in Malaysia or anywhere will be the profit margin. Ultimately, these businesses since they are owned by non-nationals will remit their profits back to their Middle Eastern countries therefore contributing to their own economies. Malaysia may get 1,000 people being hired as menial laborers, stock boys and dishwashers--since cooks, waiters, hair stylists, and spa helpers will be imported Arabs--but the bulk of the profits earned will be remitted back to the Middle East. This seems like short sighted planning on the part of the Malaysian government and not in the interest of national economic planning or for that matter, national security, when you consider what is occurring in the Middle East. Economics is an extremely important consideration in these matters because poor economic planning leaves one's political decisions vulnerable to economic pressures and the nation's future handicapped. Having these Arab cities in major Malaysian cities is nothing more than a modern version of European enclaves of the last century.
Fourth, there seems to be some misconception among a few Malaysians (and Muslim Filipinos for that matter) that Arabs are not capable of capitalist exploitation and colonialism because they share the same religion. Greed and the lust for power is not the monopoly of the US and European nations. Greed is found in every society and the thirst for power can be found in the histories of every religion and every nation. Arabs are not beyond exploiting other nations in the same way they were once exploited by the Turks, the British and the French. Arabs also have a long history of exploiting both Muslims and non-Muslims just as Europeans have a long history of exploiting Christians and non-Christians. At times Europeans and Arabs worked together in exploiting other peoples. For example, most of the slave trade in Africa was carried out by Arab rulers, especially in Zanzibar and , and sold indigenous Africans to the Portuguese and the British. The result was that Arab rulers and the Europeans both enslaved more than 9 million Africans and exterminated nearly 10 million more. In addition, the simple fact that both Malaysians and Arabs are both Muslim does not also mean there will be no exploitation because of the feeling of a shared Islamic heritage. Christians have exploited one another and waged war upon one another for the last one thousand years. Likewise, there have been wars waged by Muslims against other Muslims for the last one thousand years and Muslims have exploited one another. Sunni exploited the Shiia. Shiia exploited the Sunni. Arabs exploited the Persians. Arabs exploited the Turks. The Turks exploited the Arabs and so forth. Unfortunately, greed and power (which is the basis for colonialism) are found in every human society. More unfortunately, some of the worst atrocities and human rights violations have been done in the name of religion.
If it was truly in the name of Islamic solidarity and cultural exchange, then why are there no "Malay City" in Dubai or Yemen? Why are there no reciprocal cultural centers? Why are they importing their own cooks and even hair dressers? Is it because Malaysians are not capable of cooking "authentic" Arab cuisine after the supposedly 1000 years of cultural exchange? Or are they implying that Malays are dirty cooks and are "impure" as Muslims? That Malay culture is somehow inferior to Arabic culture? Where is their respect for Malay traditions? Would a Malay Muslim be allowed to wear a baju Melayu in even Yemen or Oman? No, they would be told to follow the adat (customs and traditions). Yet in Malaysia, the Arabs are re-enforcing their adat by building their own enclave? Doesn't that sound exactly like what Europeans used to do during the height of the Age of Imperialism?
Malaysians should be proud of their history. They are part of the larger Austronesian civilization. But they should study history very carefully and not forget the lessons learned by Indonesians and Chinese and not be blinded by feelings of religiosity. Malaysians need to safeguard their sovereignty--both economic and political--and their cultural identity for the sake of future generations of not just Malaysians but all Austronesians.

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