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What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’, Part 1: Words and the world, or ‘bangsa’ in question — Clive Kessler

FEB 14 — Do people still remember — many older folk do — that best-seller of the early 1970s (later a Woody Allen movie), David J. Reuben’s “Everything you always wanted to know about sex ... but were afraid to ask?”

The following discussion might be entitled (and, alas, there is no hope here of any Woody Allen movie “tie-in”) “What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’ ... and probably needs, like it or not, to be told.”

So this now tells you.

This comment is offered as a straightforward and, it is hoped, clear and accessible discussion of what every Malaysian needs to know about “race”, and all else that swirls around it in everyday Malaysian linguistic usage and popular understanding.

What is involved here is no trivial or arcane “academic” question. It is a nationally important, even fateful, matter.

But, luckily, these matters are not all that difficult to understand. All that is required is, first, the right tools and, second, the principled will to use them carefully.

Let us begin to prepare and assemble those tools.

In Malay, “bangsa”; in English, what?

Some readers may have been a little puzzled by my recent remarks on “Race and Malaysian ‘exceptionalism’” and my related comments about “blood and soil nationalism” in my “Malaysia: Why do I care?”

The present overview may help to clarify those matters.

It seeks to explain the generally received understanding of the key terms that must be used — in Malaysia as elsewhere — in any coherent discussion of matters of “race.”

It is offered, both as an overview of what every Malaysian really needs to know about race and as a guide to something else.

It identifies the rather overdue help that the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, working together with the scholarly community of Malaysian social scientists, must provide if the majority of Malaysian citizens are to be enabled and “empowered” to begin to grasp these hugely important matters.

Of this latter aspect — that of the urgency of some apposite “linguistic engineering” to embody and promote the necessary conceptual clarification urged here — more will be said later, in Part 5.

If, working together, these experts do not manage to provide these necessary tools, this essential equipment, for clear thinking on this hugely fateful matter — if the generality of Malaysia’s citizens are not provided and do not acquire the necessary means and conceptual equipment to understand these fraught issues — then the whole “Malaysian national project” is likely to founder amidst bitter and unending contention.

So the exploration to be conducted here is an important one for its contemporary Malaysian readership.

That exploration is one that must begin by probing the English word “race” from a Malaysian point of departure.

What needs to be sorted out, or as some people these days like to say “deconstructed”, is the Malay word “bangsa”.

What, in particular, must be unravelled is its wide range of referents (or the things that it refers to, or “denotes”) and its routine uses.

That is the central task and challenge.

Bangsa: a multifunctional, “all-purpose” term

To understand, rather than be “bamboozled” by, all the complications of so-called “race” and “ethnicity” — and the entire field in which the phenomena denoted by these and similar terms occur and are used — one must begin in the Malaysian context by giving some precise attention to the Malay word “bangsa” and how it is variously used.

“Bangsa” is a most versatile and “mercurial” — meaning changeable — idea, one that keeps “morphing” from one thing to another. It is as changeable in its forms and uses as “quicksilver”, since it is an all-purpose or multifunctional and widely variable term. Like spilt mercury, it continually changes its configuration as you try to grasp it, and as it rolls about in front of you from place to place.

Much of the public, including political as well as scholarly, discussion of matters of “race” in Malaysia is vitiated, or thrown in to murky confusion, by this “in-built” variability and versatility of its various meanings.

Or, rather, by the way in which virtually all participants in those fateful discussions forever slip and slide between different meanings or senses of that key term “bangsa”.

Of which, more in the four parts that will follow this introductory one.

So far, so simple

This, so far, has been a gentle introduction to the term “bangsa” and to the confusions and distortions in our thinking to which it repeatedly, and dangerously, gives rise.

This, so far, is not the analysis, merely the preamble.

The next part of this discussion will be a little more difficult.

It is perhaps the most difficult of all the four parts of this commentary.

But it is important. It is in many ways “the heart of the matter”.

Following it may prove a little demanding.

But is should be interesting.

And I shall be trying to keep things simple!

As simple as I can — for an incorrigible, old academic writer.

Until next time...

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication. The Malaysian Insider does not endorse the view unless specified.

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