September 16, 2009

Happy Malaysia Day! (“Looking beyond race” in theSun)

Posted in Malaysia, The Cause, Tricia's Writings at 8:08 am by egalitaria

My comment for theSun in commemoration of Malaysia Day was published today, which can be found here.

In the article, I make a reference to 1Malaysia. It was meant to be sarcastic in nature, but unfortunately that little quip was edited out… so it looks and sounds as if I am praising it.

Some other subtle hints I make were also edited, so I think it’s best to publish the article in its original form here. Happy Malaysia Day, everyone!

* Malaysia Day is going to be busy. Just got back from this morning’s Fast4Peace event, a grassroots effort to fast for the nation on Malaysia Day. Was a little late as I only decided to go after I got up for the usual sahur for the month. In the morning our Selangor State Government will be celebrating Hari Malaysia with Menteri Besar and some guests from the East (Malaysia). In the evening, there is the launch of Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia, at BlogHouse. What are you doing today to remember you are Malaysian? 

Looking Beyond Race: Ethnic Minorities in Malaysia

Tricia Yeoh

Any right-thinking Malaysian should be increasingly disturbed by recent incidents that are rocking the multiethnic boat. These separate events coalesce in our minds into one thing: the nation is riddled with racialist individuals. Whilst Malaysia battles with numerous other problems, ethnic relations is considered the primary wild animal to tame, and rightly so, since without equality of opportunity what pride can one take in one’s birth country?

The feeling of helplessness and disquiet is of course not new. Yes, recently a cow head was stomped and spat on to protest the building of a temple in a Muslim-majority area (cows are sacred to the Hindus). Yes, certain newspapers allow opinion pieces that read, “nothing can stand in the way of ensuring only Malay and Muslim rights are defended”. While one does not want to dilute the severity and gravity of these, Malaysians should not be particularly shocked.

Official policy in Malaysia already sets the fertile ground upon which ethnocentrism can grow and flourish. This has been debated at length, and many view the country’s socio-economic policies as being unable to contribute constructively towards building a united nation. The unfettered overzealousness in ensuring the advancement of a particular ethnic group turned sour over the years, never mind that the Constitution actually emphasises the well-being of all ethnic groups equally. Our race-based political structure does not help either, and has in fact proven instrumental in promoting division.

The nation stands confused and bewildered in the wake of irrational attitudes towards race, a tragedy indeed as we celebrate 46 years of Malaysia’s formation on the 16th September 2009. Our frail attempts at national unity seem to have all but shattered. What has become of mutual respect, understanding and compassion towards the other, all of which form fundamental elements of every religion? What should we make of sloganeering 1Malaysia when with one hand we cradle the platitudes of various motherhood statements, and with the other we fan the flames of racist sentiment?

Without wanting to place labels once again on ethnic groups, since I would rather all consider ourselves Malaysian first, it seems necessary to highlight the ethos of ethnic minorities: How should we react amidst such crazed antics? There are multiple ways in which ethnic minorities in Malaysia could respond to the strange direction the country seems to be taking of late.

The first and most natural reaction against an onslaught – real or imagined – is to retreat into respective ethnic bases, stick our heads into our own little communities, never to return to interethnic life. Unfortunately, this happens more often than not. Ethnic minorities around the world have a general tendency to close in on themselves, creating sub-cultures that overemphasise their own value-systems – like the early Turkish settlers in Germany, for example. Similarly, the danger for the Chinese, Indians and other “immigrant races” in Malaysia is to huddle in their own little club-houses, speak their own languages, build their own schools and produce and read their own newspapers. It is difficult to lobby for equality when participation of these communities in public life lies only within its fringes at best. It is difficult to counter the exclusivist positions when we entrench ourselves in precisely those categories of “immigrant” in which others seek to confine us.

Again, one understands this instinctive reaction, especially given their justified grounds: they feel excluded from mainstream of socio-economic life and hence create smaller worlds they can fully belong to and claim as their own territory. However, harsh as it may sound, this sort of thinking impedes the development of a united Malaysia. It is perfectly acceptable for multiple language to flourish as mediums of education and commerce, and the diversity of literature, resources, and culture should be encouraged. But the promulgation of isolated societies, members of which never see the light of any other community’s day, is unhealthy at best.

The second possible option is to react violently, akin to the ancient law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. This is obviously immature and mutually destructive. A cow’s head may have been used to upset Hindus, but no one has the right to retaliate by desecrating a pig’s head to insult Muslims – far from it! Without necessarily resorting to physical acts of ridiculous rudeness, however, we have developed subtler ways to point fingers at the other. For example, should a Chinese-language publication spout biased remarks, its justification for doing so would be, “The other side did it first!” This may be so, but where does it end? No one should disgrace themselves by descending to whatever vile levels they think others have sunk. If, by contrast, we were to take the opposite tack of responding to provocation with calm and deliberate reason, would we not at least take a step closer – however small that step might be – towards admitting that we each have the right to be different?

The third and wisest option is the only one available in paving the way forward. The same trend has been developing in recent years in different shapes under different banners: “Anak Bangsa Malaysia”, “Malaysian Malaysia”, and yes even “1Malaysia” (hypocritical as the implementation is under the current government). As long as we continue to consider ourselves separate and divergent, leaders will continue to treat us as such. Whilst cultural diversity should be supported, one’s identity should be primarily identified based on one’s citizenship, that is, in being Malaysian. Ethnic minorities, while being critical of biased affirmative action policies should rise up against their natural tendencies and be counted for their ability to be colour-blind.

This means more than just fuzzy ‘we are all the same’ feel-good pats on the back. It also means the willingness to support institutions of government; for Chinese, Indians and others to work in the civil service; to reform educational institutions with the view of eventually sending all our children to national schools in which children interact with all races; for vernacular newspapers to shed their mindsets of defending only their own communities. Most importantly, we must all step out of our comfort zones and make genuine friends from other communities. We must honestly desire to help those communities that are poverty-stricken, whether they are Malay, Kadazandusun, Indian, Orang Asli, Penan, or Chinese. And we must be able to speak honestly and openly about each other’s religion and cultures.

The danger of bigotry is that it often prompts an equally ugly reaction from the other side. Malaysians of all communities should not stoop to such levels, but instead rise up above the ‘tit for tat’ attitude that, if nothing else, is reminiscent of the insane zero-sum logic that has brought more harm than good to the world.

Furthermore, race is not as defining a factor as socio-economic status, income levels, and other demographics. Let us not fall under the sway of the ‘illusion of singular identity’, espoused by Amartya Sen in one of his books. Malaysians must be responsible for thinking and behaving as Malaysians, for the sake of a truly flourishing united nation.


Tricia Yeoh serves as Research Officer at the Selangor State Government.