NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
I recently read about a family who had returned to Malaysia after many years abroad. Their six-year-old was enrolled into a local kindergarten. One day, during his first week in school, he came back excited about some race everyone was talking about.
Thinking there was a competition, his parents asked the teachers at school the next day. As it turned out, the other students had been pestering their son about his ethnicity, seeing as he had no discernibly stereotypical features, being a child of mixed parentage. The couple did not quite know what to make of it, as up till then, their son had no understanding of an identity other than his nationality — Malaysian.
Reading this story triggered a distant memory. I was around the same age during a brief sojourn in the United States, when one day a boy in the neighbourhood called out to me.
“Hey, Asian boy!”
I did not quite know what to make of it. Like the boy in kindergarten, I too had no grasp of the concept of ethnicity, and so failed to pick up on the racial epithet. I rationalised that he must have been referring to a country. However, having memorised the names of most of the countries in the world, I was quite certain that there was no country called “Asia” (clearly, I was also unaware of the concept of continents).
And so I replied: “I’m not Asian. I’m MALAYSIAN. I’m from MALAYSIA. Asia isn’t even a country!”
Though slightly older, he was probably confused by my retort. He continued with a tinge of doubt in his voice.
“He’s Asian,” he said to the posse around him, some of whom nodded their agreement. He grinned, slightly reassured. “You’re an Asian boy.”
I realised much later that he had been referring to my race. Of course, with time and age, I soon familiarised myself with the racial construct, with particular reference to our unique Malaysian manifestation. There is no doubt that race is an important identity, as is religion.
After all, it is our culture, traditions and mores that render colour into an otherwise sepia existence. However, nothing is without its traps. The ubiquity and convenience of race also opens itself to exploitation as a means of division and control.
When our country was founded, there was neither a common language nor identity. We had inherited a colonial legacy that had stratified our society along racial lines. However, efforts were set in motion to integrate the country — a national language (Bahasa Malaysia), a shared identity (Malaysian), an economic policy designed to socially re-engineer racial inequities (NEP), and of course the 1 Malaysia concept, an amalgamation of the “Bangsa Malaysia” notion.
After half a century, we now have three generations of post-Merdeka Malaysians. Technically, we should have moved on by now. So why then, in this day and age, is our national discourse still dominated by race?
Stripped of its racial façade, the questions of poverty, equality, freedom and justice are merely that. Quantifying problems through racial statistics does not actually assist in solving anything. If being poorer is harder because you are of a particular race, then it is the system that is broken. Let’s fix that.
Thoroughly eradicating poverty would mean that no one of any race would suffer hardship. If deaths in custody and police violence seem to affect one community more than others, I say it shouldn’t even happen in the first place, to any Malaysian. We should thus focus on restoring the independence and credibility of our enforcement agencies.
Wouldn’t it be better for Malaysia, and by extension, all Malaysians, if we focused on solving issues, rather than preoccupying ourselves with its racial contextualisation?
While I am not suggesting that we disregard our racial identities, I am proposing that our national discourse would benefit greatly from a wider and less parochial paradigm. There is a coloured tint in our looking glass, and it is obscuring our vision.
Racialising issues will only lead to greater division and irrational quarrels. In the long run, it will be counter-productive to nation-building. If we continue along the current path of excessive racialism, in which every social, educational and political issue is portrayed as a case of one race against another, the Rubicon will soon be crossed.
This is not a competition that we should partake in, for in a race of races, there will only be losers.