ALL Malaysians grow up with significant exposure to the popular culture of the United States, and most encounter some British or Australian culture or aspire to higher education in those countries, so
it is no longer surprising to find ex-Malaysians who are now their citizens.
Any Malaysian rugby fan appreciates the New Zealand All Blacks, many more enjoy their haka and a growing number of academics are recognising the unique linguistic and even genetic heritage shared by Malays, Maori and Polynesians of the Pacific.
But another large, majority white, majority English-speaking country in the world receives comparatively little attention.
There is some curiosity upon discovering that Celine Dion, Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber and Drake are Canadians, but their manner of entertainment is not so distinct that we consciously categorise them entirely apart from Americans.
I know no Malaysian fans of ice hockey or lacrosse, and maple syrup is quite hard to find even in the gourmet supermarkets in Kuala Lumpur.
Thus, in preparation for my trip to Canada to visit several universities keen to learn more about Malaysia, I watched a slew of documentaries concerning this vast country.
I learnt about its foundation myths, its competing narratives of national identity, its ongoing political controversies and the drivers of its popular culture.
Usefully, the recently released expansion pack of Civilization VI includes the option to play as Canada.
The in-game benefits are instructive: you are immune to surprise wars, get extra resources from tundra tiles and the unique military unit is the Mountie, which gets defensive benefits near national parks.
And, joining Gitarja of Indonesia and Suleiman of the Ottoman Empire, you now get to play as Wilfrid Laurier, the real-life Canadian prime minister from 1896-1911.
Since it might be considered bad diplomacy to rely on a computer game to make conclusions about a statesman, I did further research and discovered that he really was a profoundly important figure in the consolidation of Canada.
He broadly promoted a decentralised federation – not just between its original Anglophone and Francophone parts, but its newer territories too – and believed in individual liberty, although his attitudes on race were typical of the time: while immigration was encouraged, non-whites were less welcome (the Chinese were subject to a head tax, while an Order-in-Council claimed that “the Negro race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada”).Having paid the C$185 (RM573) visa and biometric fee, I landed in Vancouver and wondered whether I was suited to the climate and requirements of Canada. It was cold, windy and drizzling (like London but more severe).
Missing my woolly hat, my local hosts remarked that this was a relatively warm day and that it would certainly go below zero (with wind chill) as I travelled further east on my Canada tour.
But there were some beautiful bouts of sun which, between fresh fish and chips and authentic kebabs, facilitated many transfers of knowledge both on the expansive campuses of the University of British Columbia and University of Victoria.
Certainly there is much intellectual enthusiasm across many disciplines to understand and connect with East Asia (often conceptualised as China and Asean countries in contrast with each other) – not only in terms of geopolitics, trade and the sustainability of institutional reforms (of which Malaysia provides a live case study), but also in terms of students and academic partnerships.
I expressed my hope that Malaysian public universities may be more able and willing to engage as greater autonomy and intellectual freedom take root.
In British Columbia, what struck me was the practice of beginning every event with an acknowledgement of the traditional land on which we were located: in this province land is “unceded”, meaning that there were no formal treaties transferring land rights from First Nations communities to the (British, but now Canadian) Crown.
This triggered a new path of discovery because while, like many outsiders, I knew some of the history of atrocities and violence against Native Americans and African Americans in the United States, Canada by comparison did not have such traumatic episodes.
There is an acknowledgement that “Canada was not as bad” but still, the politics of guilt and reconciliation play a big role here, contributing towards the narrative of Canadian national identity.
I was asked how in Malaysia, we also recognise the traditional rights of indigenous people. My stuttered reply was inadequate, mentioning how orang asli communities were accommodated within the adat perpatih of Negri Sembilan, but then not sufficiently highlighting the lack of consciousness and persistence of troubling issues today.
It was the first of many lessons and inspirations I received in this immense, curious country.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of IDEAS.