Losing the race
OCT 19 — The topic of race is often referred to as “sensitive” in Malaysia. In other words, don’t talk about it in public — and incessantly in private.
Yes, I have written about this topic before. However, even after four years in the country, it still blows my mind. Practically everything here is racialised, from religion to politics, education to food, marriage to sex, crime to opening a bank account. With great assurance, the average Malaysian can talk at length about what Malays, Chinese and Indians do and how they think.
Recently, I accompanied my Social Science class to a National Anti-Discrimination Conference organised by The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) and the Human Right’s NGO Pusat Komas in KL. This two-day conference made it clear that the issue of race is deeply embedded in the psyche of the nation and this reality is not going to change any time soon. The conference was attended by a wide variety of peoples from different areas of Malaysian Society — NGOs, Political Parties, Activists, etc. Some notable individuals in attendance were Ms. Irene Fernandez of Tenaganita, Activist Fahmi Reza, and Poet Samad Said. Unfortunately, some attendees were only there to say they were there, which is a polite way of saying they were snoozing most of the time.
Overall, the conference was a positive. However, some of the panels — especially the politicians -- were frustrating to observe. On the bright side, I was so proud of my students. They were asking great questions and demonstrating critical thinking, proving, even at age eighteen, they would make better leaders than many members of the current administration.
First, where does one begin to talk about race in a land where the talk about race never stops? Perhaps it is best to address the misconception of what “race” is all about. “Races,” as they are discussed and understood in Malaysia, are incorrect. I hope we can all agree that we are all homo sapiens, members of one race or species. If we can all agree on that, then politicians can stop abusing the social construct of ‘different races’. Granted, there are ethnic differences amongst us, but these are fluid and complex. They are not direct determinants of culture, religion, food choices, sport choice, sexuality, criminality, etc. A basic science education proves all this. Humans today have evolved from early hominids that left Africa and we all share common genes. Go back far enough, and we’re all family.
But not everyone wants to be ‘educated’. Many continue to reap the benefits of this memetic virus of ignorance and perpetuate it. Malaysia has not always been racialised. The concept of race, according to historian Dr. Farish A. Noor, was introduced relatively recently with colonialism. Despite the fact Malaysia achieved independence over half a century ago, many citizens are still treated as colonial subjects by the powers that be. This is ridiculous. Malaysia, for all of its accomplishments, still has political parties based on racial lines. The United Malay National Organisation, The Malaysian Chinese Association, The Malaysian Indian Congress. This is laughable.
During my early days in Malaysia, I watched the unveiling of the Prime Minister’s 1 Malaysia Campaign: an expensive public relations initiative which has confused a lot of people, and indoctrinated others to think that ‘the campaign’ is changing how the average Malaysian views race. It seems the campaign is nothing more than pictures of children from different ethnic groups holding hands and smiling. A member of the Government’s 1Malaysia team spoke at the conference. When pressed to explain what 1 Malaysia actually does, he struggled to say anything substantial.
If those in authority want to take this issue seriously, I have a few suggestions. I am not a political expert, but I am aware there have been approximately 600 amendments to Malaysia’s constitution, so why not try a few more:
1. Get rid of race-based politics. It is makes a great country appear backwards. Malaysia is no longer a colonial subject!
2a. Abandon The New Economic Policy. No other country, apart from South Africa, has a race-based policy stipulating benefits for the Majority. Furthermore, ‘Malays’ do not have a situation comparable to the Black population of post-apartheid South Africa. The current NEP creates unnecessary resentment between different ethnic groups and ending it will promote social cohesion.
2b. Install a Merit Based Policy to take the place of the NEP. Provide assistance in education, employment and housing to any Malaysian who truly needs it. By using Need instead of Race, this new policy will help to de-racialize Malaysia.
3. Abandon 1 Malaysia. Take that money and inject it into programmes like Chow Kit Kita, Food Not Bombs, Stop Motion Project and other grassroots action projects. These art, living, women-empowerment, sexuality, and sports programs are what make Malaysia great and will continue to bring people from different ethnic backgrounds together.
4. Race should not and cannot determine who we are and what we think. People of the race ‘Malay’ in the context of Malaysia are legally born ‘Muslim’ and cannot leave Islam. Malays and non-Malays in Malaysia grow-up indoctrinated with the idea that to be Malay is to be Muslim. This unnaturally creates the idea that race DOES determine other factors like religion, culture, food preferences, language etc. Giving all peoples in the country freedom of religion would help de-racialise Malaysia.
5. Remove “Race” from all forms! Unless ethnicity is relevant to the form being filled out, do away with it. Aku Bangsa Malaysian!
Malaysians need to say “Enough!” to the way things are done. Those in charge won’t do anything until voters make it clear that things must change. For the last fifty years, Malaysians have been buying Race Based Politics. It is time for Malaysian consumers to demand a better and more logical product. The current product is not meeting the peoples’ needs. We rush out and buy the latest gadget because it can do one task slightly better than the old one, yet we keep buying obsolete politics.
It is important to emphasise that I don’t think this race obsession has anything to do with the average citizen. The average citizen just wants to earn an honest living, take care of friends and family, and feel free from outside threats. Solving the threat of ethnic tension would be a welcomed change. The problem surrounding race in Malaysia is a top-down phenomenon. I believe the situation can be greatly improved if those in power take this issue seriously.
Now I await the comments of readers. Many will say I’m preaching to the choir, but perhaps will offer additional solutions. Others will just look at my profile picture and tell me I have no business, as an outsider, talking about Malaysian issues. Such comments only prove my point, so I welcome such feedback. I can imagine a better future for all of Malaysia’s peoples.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.