Sometimes you need distance to have some perspective. I was just in Tokyo again to speak at a women's conference.
One night I had the opportunity to have dinner with some 80 Malaysians living, studying and working in Japan. As always, Malaysians living abroad are just Malaysians, and not divided by race.
They introduced themselves mostly by state and by what they are doing – which truly covers a whole range of things from setting up Malaysian restaurants to working in Japanese and multinational companies to setting up their own IT companies to do some very innovative work.
What I found most interesting is that they speak to one another in English, Malay AND Japanese, thus adding another layer of common understanding among them. It was refreshing to be among them because conversation with these Malaysians is so much less toxic than at home.
Their group, which actually numbers some 2,400, meet fairly regularly and talk about what’s happening at home, thus giving lie to the notion that Malaysians abroad don’t care about Malaysian issues.
According to them, they have had heated debates about issues like hudud but it doesn’t break up the group. That should really be applauded. I can’t imagine anything similar back home.
Meanwhile, staying connected with what’s happening in Malaysia through social media becomes a real chore. Oh, for some civility in our discourses!
To be in a country where people are so considerate of each other that they won’t even subject others to embarrassing personal noises and then read of the way we talk to each other back home, is surreal.
If the cleanliness of toilets is the mark of modern civility, then Japan wins hands down. And this is also a country where when a male politician makes sexist remarks about a female colleague, the government actually feels embarrassed and makes him apologise.
No hope of any such thing back home, of course. Our ministers can make condescending remarks about the poor and homeless, even in a month where we are meant to be restrained in our words and deeds.
And while there are bigots in Japan too, they are seen as mostly cranks and don’t get much airplay in the media. Ours, on the other hand, are free to say any crazy thing they want, confident that they will not only be covered but actually lauded.
At the women’s conference, I spoke about how Muslim women are getting more empowered all around the world.
I didn’t expect any real interest in it but at the reception afterwards, the participants queued up to talk to me, patiently waiting their turn as each woman and I had a short conversation and then took photographs.
Imagine how long the 10th or 12th person, let alone the 20th, had to wait if each one took five minutes with me. But nobody hogged my time and everyone politely waited.
No doubt somebody will say that it is because Japan is so homogenous that it is much easier to get on with one another. And speaking the same language helps in keeping the same norms and values within the community. That may be true to some extent.
But while Japan may seem racially homogenous, there is still a certain amount of diversity in terms of types of Japanese people.
Not all Japanese men are “salarymen” these days and although still behind compared to other countries, the women are moving forward, so much so that their prime minister has a plan for “womenomics”.
And while they may all speak the same language, they also now speak other languages much more than before. None of the women who chatted with me needed a translator. Many had lived and worked abroad and some were running big multinational companies. So they were a very sophisticated group.
But being homogenous does not preclude extending the same norms and values to non-Japanese. Go to any store and you won’t get any less than the usual high standard of service.
That’s because every employee knows that the reputation of the store is on their shoulders. I have yet to meet an indifferent salesperson or someone who didn’t know how to answer a query I had.
Being helpful is part of their value of being considerate of others. Perhaps we should send our ministers and civil servants to Japan to learn this. I noticed in talking to some of the Malaysians in Japan that they have absorbed some of these values, which is a really good thing.
Unfortunately, it may make it difficult for them to adapt to life back home again. Imagine going to a store and asking a salesperson something and they simply disappear rather than admit they don’t know the answer.