Malaysian Yumpies Just Wanna Have Fun

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Breakdancing at last year's Asian X-Games

Helmi Ghaffar sits at a table at Chinos, a smart bistro near Malaysia's gigantic Petronas twin spires. A Heineken in front of him, he wears a white Ralph Lauren button-down shirt, Calvin Klein blue jeans, Gucci loafers and is oozing Armani cologne. Across from him, his girlfriend, Zubaidah Hashim, is nursing a glass of red wine in the afternoon sun. Clad in a shocking pink tank top and white MNG hot pants, she rummages through her little Louis Vuitton bag. "It's time to upgrade my mobile phone," she says.

Helmi and Zubaidah are new young, urban, Malay professionals—yumpies for lack of a better word. They represent a problem for Malaysia's leading ethnic party and leader of the ruling coalition United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), but perhaps a promise for the country itself. They regard UMNO and politics itself as irrelevant.

This is the generation that grew up in a booming economy, watching YouTube and listening to Britney Spears and Korean pop. They skateboard, rollerblade and even ice-skate. The 60-year-old atrocities under the Japanese occupation of World War II, the Communist insurgency of the 50s and the race riots of the 60s that haunted their parents and grandparents are simply words in their history texts. The New Economic Policy, an affirmative action program put in place to benefit ethnic Malays after bloody 1969 anti-Chinese race riots, has been successful to an extent. Today, despite the fact that inequalities exist, different ethnic groups are better represented in the professions. Nonetheless, the emerging Malay middle class feels short-changed by the NEP as it is universally known.

"I just want to earn more money. Even with my degree, I couldn't find an office job," says 22-year-old Suraya Hamzah, another ethnic Malay, who graduated with an engineering degree from the US last year. Now she is making ends meet with a medley of odd jobs, including working as a waitress and operating her own food stall. "I'm lucky I've relatives in KL (the capital, Kuala Lumpur) and they drive me around. If not, I'm not sure how I'll survive." Asked about her thoughts of Malay supremacy, she said, "I feel so embarrassed."

In the National Youth Survey conducted by the Merdeka Center last August, Malaysia’s young people are most concerned about the economy (31 percent) and social problems (25 percent). On a personal level, career (33 percent), family (20 percent) and education (11 percent) are most important. They regard the most important election issues as the state of the economy (28 percent), government commitment to its promises (20 percent), the education system (15 percent) and ethnic peace and relations (14 percent).

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"Yumpies" hang out at a popular nightclub over the weekends.

UMNO’s preoccupations rank far below these issues. Only 4 percent and 2 percent respectively say the implementation of programs to assist Malays and the primacy of Malays are their most important election issues. Race and religion also linger on the bottom rungs.

Significantly, this doesn’t appear to be a well-to-do, urban, middle-class phenomenon. Of 1,508 respondents, 59 per cent were ethnic Malays, 60 percent described themselves as Muslims and 52 percent were from rural areas. Seventy-three percent were aged 20 to 30 and 72 percent had monthly household incomes below RM3,000. The low income levels probably corresponded to formal education levels – 51 percent had secondary education, 27 per cent had gained diplomas and only 17 percent held advanced degrees.

Most Malays seem to share the same values as their counterparts from other races. The only difference may be that Islamic religious authorities regularly snoop into their private lives. The state's morality police are notorious for their "khalwat" raids. Close proximity between men and women is an offence under Islamic syariah law, which only applies to Muslims. The religious police regularly raid "immoral" nightclubs or break down doors to arrest couples having sex.

This state-sponsored suppression, however, doesn’t seem to slow down the march of Malaysia’s young towards hedonism. Pornographic sites featuring girls in tudungs, or head scarves, and traditional Islamic women’s wear can be found via a Google search on "tudung girls sex.” The youth also often turn to the relative safety of the outdoors – oil palm or rubber estates, secondary forests and even fields of very long lalang, a type of grass – for sex undetected by the authorities’ prying eyes.

"Yumpies" enjoying their night out.

"I don't believe in organized religion. I don't believe in Islam. I want to be free to think what I want to think. Instead of trying to catch us for our ‘sins,’ the government should focus on the economy," says a 28-year-old ethnic Malay who has lived abroad for more than 10 years.

Since 1998, the Malay political arena has changed with the emergence of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), which started when former deputy premier and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed on charges of sexual perversion and corruption that were widely viewed as trumped up. Prior to the party’s emergence, UMNO only had to hold the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. Secular-oriented Malays really had no political alternative.

Unlike PAS, the multiracial Keadilan espouses democratic principles including the rule of law and freedom of speech and proposes to replace the NEP affirmative action program with an income-based poverty eradication program.

Caught between PAS's Islamic morality and Keadilan's liberal democratic ideology, UMNO wants to make itself relevant to the young, but it is not doing a very good job of it. While Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has formulated what he calls a moderate Islam Hadhari (Civilisation Islam) as a framework for a civil society which is "fair to all races,” party stalwarts indulge themselves in fiery racial rhetoric. This only upsets the ethnic Chinese, who make up nearly a quarter of the population, but, if the national youth survey is accurate, it is also alienating young Malays.