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The Soft Prejudice of Cultural Relativism

We’ve arrived in Perlis and are spending the night here, not too far from the Thai border. By some minor miracle, the Rickshaw did not break down today, although when it came off the ferry (really a glorified sampan), it was missing a few things, including our tools and some petrol. However, another Rickshaw appeared to be missing its entire engine, so I think we got a better bargain.

What really irked me today was a remark by one of the organisers as we were about to set off. She apologetically informed the assembled teams that we would be accompanied by a police escort for at least some of the way from the Butterworth wharves to the Thai border.

“We’ve tried to explain that we don’t need an escort,” she said, “But they insist. It’s their way of showing hospitality, you see.” Left unsaid was the implication that the Malaysians really did not understand the spirit of adventure nor what The Adventurists and the ASEAN Rickshaw Run participants were trying to achieve.

My team, of course, was really annoyed by her remarks but we did not say anything. Still, it is part of a general theme of orientalism that we find frustrating, and are generally exhausted by. It’s the same school of thought which tries to explain Chinese realpolitik by correlating it to Chinese shadow puppetry, or explains religious extremism divorced from social, economic, and political realities.

What Xin Hui pointed out was that the Malaysian police were not trying to be hospitable. They were just trying to save themselves as much hassle as possible. The only way for the 20 or so surviving tuk-tuks to reach Thailand was via the North-South Highway. Along the highway, stops were spaced far apart, as were petrol stations, and there was no easy access to mechanics or any form of repairs. If any tuk-tuk broke down, it would effectively be stranded. Imagine a dozen tuk-tuks scattered all over the North-South Highway, stretching from Butterworth to Perlis. It would have been a logistical nightmare for the police. Instead, they had quickly realised that their optimum strategy was to group us all into a convoy, insist that we all fill up with petrol to ensure no one ran out, and escort us to as close to the border as possible, stopping regularly to ensure that no one was left behind. A small amount of effort would thus save them a potentially huge amount of hassle.

But of course, all this was interpreted by many of the teams as contrary to their spirit of adventure, and a lot of unnecessary nannying. There was much grumbling and complaining as we were forced to stop again and again, or forced to fill up on petrol regularly. This was blamed on oddities in the local culture, rather than simple expedience.

More broadly, this entire trip has been poorly conceptualised. It seems clear to us that the organisers took a model which works for the Mongol Rally and the Indian Rickshaw Runs, and tried to apply it to Southeast Asia without taking into account local conditions. It is one things to drive a rickety vehicle through villages and mountain passes, counting on the availability of local assistance and frequent opportunities to stop; it is another thing to drive down a major highway where amenities are spaced out and designed to accommodate much larger, faster vehicles with greater range. It is one thing to allow people to choose their own route over land, avoiding major cities and sticking to smaller roads and villages; it is another when the route has to cross international waters, which necessitates passing through major ports and cities.

I do feel this event has lacked a lot of understanding of local conditions. Too often, the organisers seem to have assumed things would work just as they did back in the UK. Then, when it did not, they dismissed it as some form of local culture that they could not comprehend, rather than stop to question their assumptions or work through their organisational model.

Of course, our team are still having a marvellous time, and we are really happy to have this opportunity to travel through our home region in this way. Still, we cannot help but feel it could have been so much more.

Tomorrow: Thailand.

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