Because we’re not racist enough
JULY 19 — The KLCC Park this past Saturday was buzzing. There was the usual crowd of shoppers, taking advantage of the sales at KLCC. Toddlers, shadowed by anxious parents, enjoyed the water park and playground. Tourists snapped photos and enjoyed a cool drink at nearby cafes.
Workers were preparing for the PM’s launch of the 1M4U programme for youth the next day. Teenagers hung around in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Justin Bieber who was holding a press conference in a hotel nearby. Everywhere, there were people, young and old, locals and foreigners.
What caught my eye, however, were the dozens of students, posing for photographs in their full graduation glory. Spotting mortarboards and songket-bordered black gowns, many held bouquets, gifts from friends to mark the occasion. They moved about in small clusters, taking photos of each other.
The mood was celebratory and passers-by moved out of their way congenially when someone was about to snap a photo. There were the lucky few whose parents were there too, looking proud and not a bit relieved that they no longer had to pay for college tuition.
When the heat got too much, some of the fresh graduates removed their gowns, the young women revealing outfits in beautiful batik or sophisticated suits.
The cotton batik in intricate graphic motifs were not of the Southeast Asian variety. It was African batik, of the kind that is making fashion headlines on runways in Europe this year. I’m not sure which countries they were from, but from some of their traditional outfits, I’d say there were Somalians and Nigerians, possibly Kenyans and Cameroonians. Of course to most people, over 50 nationalities from the second-largest continent in the world are usually reduced to just plain “Africans”.
Over the past decade or so, the number of students from various African countries at institutions of higher learning here has grown. There are a number of factors, but mostly it’s about economics and making money.
The Malaysian government, in its effort to develop the highly lucrative education sector and turn Malaysia into an educational hub, has enabled the creation of private colleges and universities around the country. These institutions have in turn marketed their programmes to students in the developing world, along the way building a profitable business that provides employment for thousands of Malaysians.
For a host of diplomatic and economic reasons, the Malaysian government also introduced scholarships to students of developing countries and Commonwealth countries to study here. Students from the African continent make up a percentage of this.
“Scholarships? How’s that going to help business? That’s like, charity!” I hear you say. Tell that to the multi-million dollar Australian education industry, which arguably, gained its stronghold in the Southeast Asia tertiary market through the prestige accrued via the Colombo Plan scholarships which began in the 1950s.
It’s also a great way to build influence amongst a country’s future elite, which in turn can lead to significant political and economic benefits in the future. During the 1990s, when the Australian economy was in the doldrums, Australian business and government agencies tripped over themselves trying to gain leverage with the Malaysian alumni of Australian universities, some of whom were by then ministers, chief ministers or tycoons in our tiger economy.
Many of the young graduates at KLCC that day will go back home and contribute towards the economic and social development of their societies. Some of them may even be future leaders. What will they take back of their Malaysian experience?
There have been some pretty disturbing articles, blog posts and comments about the growing African population in Malaysia. Most are filled with sweeping generalisations, half-truths, leaps of logic, and explicit racism, such as this gem from a blog post: “…these African have registered to become students at the local colleges, there has been unending complaints about them, never mind their boorish and loutish behaviour, which is an innate trait in them.”
“Sheiza, you and your kind deserve to be treated like criminals because you always commit crimes…Go back to your place and don’t make a mess here. Orang negro memang tak bertamadun dan selalu di pandang rendah.”
One needs to coin a new word to fully capture the toxic mix of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and sheer ignorance that runs through these articles. Alas, I’m not a neologist, clearly, and will have to settle for the common: “f@#&ing unoriginal.”
These writers should not bother straining their tiny little brains trying to churn out 100 words of moral outrage and hysteria about the “black menace” sweeping our cities.
Go through our newspaper archives from the 1990s, when it was fear of Indonesian robbers. Next came the Bangladeshi men who were enticing local women with their Bollywood looks. If you look further back to the 1930s, you’ll read about the Chinese tin miners who were spreading disease and the lawless kongsi which were assailing the good people of Malaya.
The newspaper archives of countries like Australia or England 40, 50 years ago published the same alarmist reports that inflated individual criminal acts into the condemnation of an entire ethnicity or nationality.
All one needs to do then is to figure out the “find and replace” function of the Microsoft Word program, find “Vietnamese” or “Pakistani” or “Chinese” and replace it with the target ethnicity group of the day.
Some of the accusations levelled at the African students in Malaysia are the same, at times word for word, with those hurled at our own students studying in England and Australia a couple of decades ago.
Which goes to show that recipient societies tend to treat foreigners, especially if they are from economically poorer countries and/or look different from them, with a degree of suspicion that borders on hysteria. It should be noted that England and Australia have, along with a host of other countries, at least enacted laws against such forms of racism now.
Certainly there are foreigners who have committed crimes. Let us be clear: if you break the law and you happen to be Austrian, Malaysian, Canadian or Latvian, then you’re an Austrian thief, a Malaysian murderer, a Canadian parking-ticket dodger, a Latvian pimp.
However, there are no crime statistics to show that every fellow citizen of said criminals are automatically predisposed to criminal activity.
The call to deny entry to all Africans or to monitor their activities is racial profiling. We’ve heard of that right? Is that what got Shah Rukh Khan detained at an American airport a while ago? It’s why you got that full body-cavity search at La Guardia Airport when the TSA saw your Malaysia passport.
It’s the 21st century. We need to get rid of our prejudices. I’m not asking everyone to read Frantz Fanon’s “The Fact of Blackness” or Edward Said’s “Orientalism”. Although we all should. But maybe get a copy of the 1987 film “Cry Freedom” and fast-forward to a young Denzel Washington playing Steve Biko at his trial. Biko delivers an impassioned speech about the construction of blackness through language and social history, into the negative of whiteness, by imperialists.
We’ve already inherited a suspicion of each other from the divide-and-rule policies of the British. Fifty years of the politics of race have made successive generations of Malaysians incrementally more racialised. Our politicians have turned the deployment of race into political gain a dangerous game of one upmanship.
And now, as if we’re not racist enough towards each other, there has surfaced a comic book entitled “M1 Malaysia — Majalah untuk Rakyat” which includes crude cartoons of dark-skinned foreigners called Awang Arang.
Media reports allege that the books were distributed to taxi drivers as part of the government’s efforts to educate taxi drivers on being good cultural ambassadors to tourists. Yes, “educate”, “cultural ambassadors” and “tourism.”
One of the caricatures wears the Rastafarian colours, one has Dr Dre printed on his T-shirt, and another bears Snoop Dog’s. At their feet are flyers with the words “Drug Mule”, “Black Money” and “AIDS.” The comic seems to indicate that it’s not just nationality that is being attacked, but a whole ethnic group, based exclusively on the colour of their skin. It does not matter if you’re Jamaican, from Chicago or Orlando. Black people are not welcome in Malaysia.
It is racism at its basest. The cartoons would not look out of place at an exhibition of drawings from the colonial era. This, from a country that was one of the most steadfast opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa.
The comic book has become the proverbial hot potato, with a number of government agencies claiming ignorance of its origins. Elsewhere, it would be enough to get a lot of high-ranking officials sacked. Here, it will probably not make it to the next news cycle and the copies will continue to circulate, even making their way to schools if some reports are to be believed.
Haven’t we got enough racism amongst ourselves without finding new targets for our narrow mindedness and bigotry?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.