We are all Lain-lain (Part 1)

Nathaniel Tan

Nathaniel Tan believes this world is full of people, he was born to love them all. He blogs at www.jelas.info and tweets @NatAsasi

JUNE 9 — How many Malaysians you know are ethnically “pure”? At this stage of the article — inspired in no small part by the saga faced by Shay Adora Ram’s parents — let’s just take that to mean 100 per cent Malay, Chinese, Indian or Lain-lain.

I’m willing to bet it’s easily less than 50 per cent, and that the people you know and surround you have a little bit of Thai, Indonesian, Filipino, Eurasian, Arab, Iranian, Chinese, Indian, Malay, and goodness knows what other types of blood somewhere in their ancestry.

I’m about one-eighth Indian by blood (I have chosen as my Indian name Perlapan, get it?); although, my maternal grandmother was a Chinese woman who was brought up by an Indian family (common enough in Malacca), so I don’t know how that all adds up. She sometimes spoke Tamil to my grandfather, but all their children spoke Malay growing up (my mother oddly enough can read Tamil, but cannot understand what she is reading — much like me and Russian), and all seemed to have married Chinese (a trend which with one white Canadian exception seems to have continued unbroken in my generation so far).

One of my cousins was named Saraswathi, and when her teacher called her name in SRK Infant Jesus Convent in Malacca, prompting her very Chinese-looking self to stand up, the teacher said “No, no, not you girl, you sit down”.

All of us have or have heard hundreds of such fun stories.

The brains behind the wonderful Your Grandfather’s Road project, a very good friend of mine, used to show a slide when he gave presentations about the project. On this slide, there were three beautiful women, dressed in traditional Malay, Chinese & Indian garb respectively.

The point he made was this: that this 1 Malaysia Ali, Ah Chong and Muthu depiction of our society was simply not an accurate reflection of reality — we no longer live in such a crudely delineated social landscape.

Race, ethnicity, nationality, kaum, bangsa

Late last night, there was an argument unfolding on Twitter. Against my better judgment, I felt I might as well jump in. The advantage of having some time on one’s hands is the ability to occasionally out-troll the trolls — a sport that, after all, really pivots on one’s endurance and staying power (being right occasionally helps as well).

So, among the things I was trying to give some people a hard time about was this: can one — in an academically and conceptually sound and consistent manner — properly define and differentiate the following terms: ethnicity, race, and nationality. While we’re at it, can we do the same for kaum and bangsa?

Now, I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, but my parents spent a whole lot of money on my education, so let’s see if we can explore whether or not consistent definitions for such things exist.

The Wikipedia article on race offers quite an insightful exploration of the concept, which I believe essentially concludes that most serious scholars think there’s no such thing. Let’s explore some simple ways we might be able to differentiate people by “race.”

How about how they look? Well, my cousins all look Chinese, but many of them list “Indian” in their registration forms, like their fathers before them.

How about defining by parentage? What about children who don’t know or are uncertain of the race of their parents? (like my paternal grandfather, for instance, who was also adopted)

Perhaps we can define according to language and culture? My cousins and I again mostly don’t speak any Chinese, and they most certainly do not speak Tamil — does that mean we are neither Chinese nor Indian?

What about the difference between race and ethnicity? Are Bugis and Javanese the same ethnic group? If they are not, how can “Malay” be an ethnic group? Are Tamils and Punjabis the same race? If they are not, how can “Indian” be a race? If we were to exchange the places of “race” and “ethnic group” in the questions above, would there be a difference?

A Malual in Southern Sudan is a Malual to the Dinka, a Dinka to Southern Sudanese, a Nilote in East and Northeast Africa, a Sudanese in Africa, and just another black guy in America. Which one is his ethnic group, race or nationality?

A nation is by far the most constructed of these constructs. An often quoted author and anthropologist Benedict Anderson uses the term “imagined communities” to differentiate between real communities based on real interactions versus communities that some people want us to imagine exists.

We use kaum and bangsa quite often, but do we know exactly what they define or categorise?

My conclusion is this — all these words have no scientific or useful semantic meaning that can withstand scrutiny. They are empty constructs that were put in place to help divide a people into “others”, when what we should be striving instead for is a way to unite people into an “us”.

If we cannot even really define them properly, then why on earth are we insisting that we put it down on forms, and worse yet, why do we spend all our time fighting about it?

* Tomorrow: We are all Lain-lain (Part 2)

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.