Mary O’Donovan shares with us her experience of having Mano Maniam explain his Malaysia and his truths.

On Saturday, 27th July 2013, I had the privilege to meet and listen to Mano Maniam give a talk on what Malaysia means to him. I’ll momentarily digress and attempt to explain who he is. I do say attempt, because this man is many things, and if one was to try to capture who he is in a few simple words, one will inadvertently miss out on many aspects of this great character.

Mano is a scholar who has taught in many universities, both in Malaysia and overseas. He is an actor who has portrayed many characters in both film and theatre. He is a poet, a writer, an environmentalist, an activist…the list continues, but last Saturday, to me, he was a man who provoked thought through his rather unusual but very interesting way of telling the 30-odd people who came to the Pusat  to hear him talk and explain to us what Malaysia means to him.

He started off with an around-the-room introduction and as each spoke about who we are, he took the time to acknowledge an aspect of what we had said, and as we became more comfortable with being there, this man, whose words commanded great attention, began to take us all on a journey.

He asked us what we thought was prevalent in Malaysia today and people spoke out about education, Islamisation, the oppression of women, electoral issues, freedom, inequality, and crime. Lastly, I said “racism”..

He looked at me, the girl visiting from Australia, and then asked the group, “Why did it take a visitor from overseas to be the one who said what we all live and breathe on a daily basis?”

Mano’s journey through words and drawings took us from the time of dinosaurs to the present day, and as he spoke, he never told us what we should think; he never stood up on some soapbox demanding to be heard; he never raised his voice in anger, and he didn’t need to. He knew he had a story to tell and with that quiet confidence of his, he spoke in a voice which was almost soothing to listen.

I looked around the room and I could see that those around me where equally intrigued and mesmerised by the way he spoke. His teaching was almost subliminal and I found myself over the next few days thinking about what he had said, and I realised that the impact of his story wasn’t actually apparent on the day itself, but in the days that followed.

The main premise of his story was, to question who are we, and how are we defined in Malaysia? He spoke of growing up in a time when race wasn’t really a defining factor.

It’s interesting —  this seems to be a reoccurring theme among the many Malaysians I have had the pleasure of meeting. They speak of a time when their friends were Malays, Indians or Chinese and segregation wasn’t apparent, but they also speak of today, when race as a dividing factor has become more obvious.

During my last visit to Malaysia, just under a year ago, I spoke about the racism that I noticed; perhaps it was somewhat subtle, but it existed, and I actually spoke about how surprised I was when people spoke out angrily when the Prime Minister announced that the ‘Chinese tsunami’ had played a major factor in the election.

Why was I surprised? It was because all through the lead up to the election, the media made constant reference to which race each candidate appealed to. Some candidates were even bold enough to express that if people voted for a certain candidate, it would be a downfall in the teachings of Islam.

He spoke of the time when, as a young man, he went to India for the first time, expecting to be returning home and coming to the shocking realisation that he wasn’t an Indian —  India was only his ancestry and he was a Malaysian. Perhaps this was the the exact moment that he became passionate about speaking his truth.

This appears to be a reoccurring theme among many Malaysians. Never have I heard in Australia that I am Irish because my dad migrated to Australia many years prior; it has always been accepted that I am an Australian. This is the same with the Italians, Lebanese, Chinese and anyone else who has a different ancestry. We are all Australians because we were either born there or chose to make it our home, but here, in Malaysia, one is constantly defined by their race. So was it really a surprise when I mentioned racism at the beginning of the talk?

To me, this was the point that Mano wanted to make: “Forget about labels and all those things. Talk about mankind and life.”

This brought him to his next point: What does culture mean to him? To Mano, values, identity and soul are derived from culture, and from these three things, we have attitudes. He told us the story about Viktor Frankl who, while in a concentration camp and despite having lost everything, remained alive while those around him died, and he deduced that it was because he had hope. To Mano, he could be left with absolutely nothing, but no one could take away his very being. Hence, he will continue to speak out for everything that he believed in. His parting words were, “The challenge at the moment is who you are. Ask yourselves, who are you, and the answer will come down to your values.”

Mano wove a colourful tapestry through his words. And like any tapestry being woven, the picture isn’t clear at first, and one will often question why a dark thread is being used in that place and why the same colour is being used again and again. Sometimes even when the tapestry is complete, the picture isn’t apparent until some time later. And even then, one will go back to the tapestry and look at it from a different perspective and realise that what you thought you saw at first, isn’t how you see it now.

For those who don’t know what UndiMsia is, I shall give a brief overview: UndiMsia is a non-partisan movement geared towards educating the youth of Malaysia ‘through the use of simple, do-it-yourself citizen action tools’, and one form of educating the youth is known as UndiMsia!Chats which are held at the Pusat Rakyat LoyarBurok (the Centre) on Saturdays.


I am a recent graduate of law and I am currently doing an internship in Lord Bobo’s Asylum (MCCHR). I am currently visiting from Australia.

3 replies on “Malaysia, According to Mano Maniam. #UndiMsiaChats 48”

  1. Have you heard of any country where there are vernacular schools? The very people who are claiming they are segregated by race are the ones fighting to keep these schools open. How many Chinese people are willing to stand up and call for the closure of Chinese schools in the name of Malaysian unity??

  2. Saluton Mary,

    I would like to suggest you reading and pondering further if Australia is providing mother tongue education to all her citizens. Just like you have the choice to learn Irish and speak Irish.

    Besides, I also hope you can ponder further with the article 'English in, Culture out,,, ' which is happening in Australia and what you are going to help the community the moment you return to Down Under.

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