We may laugh and scoff at the statements public figures or politicians make, but we will not be laughing when racism reaches our doorstep, says Cheah Wui Jia.
As we all know, an Umno division leader recently made a ‘revelatory’ statement that it is totally acceptable to refer to the Chinese as babi or pigs because, after all, they do eat pork!
One assumption in particular is of peculiar interest to me: it would seem that all Chinese eat pork. Afflicted by a severe existential crisis, I am now forced to examine the following questions: If pork is noticeably absent in my dietary preference, does that mean I am not Chinese? If I eat more rice than pork, would I be likened to an uncountable noun – a bowl of rice?
My Indian friend once jokingly described me as being more Indian than her because I tolerate spicy food while she, on the other hand, tears up and sniffles her way through tom yam.
This leads to my next conundrum: If a fair-skinned, blonde American tourist who rolls his “r” uses chopsticks better than I do, is he or she more Chinese than I am? If a Malay person with olive skin and round, brown eyes, speaks Hokkien fluently, sings Cantonese songs with flair and writes more Mandarin characters than I can possibly muster, does that make him or her less Malay?
Then there is the golden question that I cannot resist asking: If I am pork, would I be flavoured with onions or garlic, seasoned with sweet and sour sauce or soaked in spice and herbal soup?
What is race, anyway? Are we defined by our biological lineage or by our religion, language, dietary preferences and geographical origins?
The formation of the Malays as a composite, ethno-religious category has been attributed to the spread of the Malay language and Islam in Nusantara between the 17th and 18th Centuries and the British decision to conduct indirect rule via the Malay kingdoms. Embracing Islam and speaking Malay would deem you as Malay, regardless of whether you were Minangkabau, Bugis, Acehnese, Mendaling, Banjarese or Javanese.
Becoming Malay then was as easy as Cinderella’s pumpkin becoming a coach with the waving of a wand, and it still is.
Today, in Malaysia, if you are non-Malay and wish to embrace Islam, you are expected to take up an Arabic or Malay name upon conversion. Replacing your surname with Abdullah or Siti coincides with the change of faith, even though the fact remains that at one point of time in your life, your favourite dish was bak kut teh and you greatly relished your grandmother’s char siew fan.
By the definition of Article 160 of the Federal Constitution, you are Malay if you are Muslim, conform to Malay customs and speak the Malay language, whether you like it or not. Even peer pressure would have you accept the label of Malay should you convert to Islam. A Muslim Indian father recounted how, when he insisted that his daughter be known as Indian, his Malay friends protested, “How can you be Islam but not Melayu?”
Becoming Malay is not so much a natural product of your skin colour, hair texture or bone structure as much as social perception. Indeed, recent genetic research shows that human beings are really 99.9 per cent genetically identical, the majority of physical variation occurring within socially constructed ‘racial groups’.
But the concept of race has been abused so pervasively in history, from the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany to the slavery of Africans in Europe and North America.
In America, whites who are in interracial black-white marriages may no longer feel white as they experience discrimination due to their intimate links with a non-white.
On the anniversary of ‘September 11’, a Muslim friend of mine posted on Facebook about the difficulties of travelling in a post-9/11 world and being constantly subject to stringent passenger screening as a result of racial profiling.
While race is artificial, its effects are real and affect the lives of many. We may laugh and scoff at the statements public figures or politicians make. But I think we will not be laughing when racism reaches our doorstep, affects our children and rears its ugly head at scholarship applications for public tertiary education. We will not laugh when racism requires non-Malay parents to tirelessly labour in the workforce to pay private or foreign university fees for their children.
An 18-year-old Chinese girl, in her college essay entitled “My Family and I”, writes about how her father, an insurance salesman, and her mother, a beautician, are already 52 years old but still working: “They work so hard just because they want me to have a better future.”
“I want to earn as much money as I can to repay them so that they can live in ease and comfort when they are old, even though I know I will never be able to completely repay them.”
It is ordinary people like her who are impacted by institutionalised racism, not the immortals bequeathed with the titles of Tun, Datuk Seri or Tan Sri.
It is a fact we all know too well. Even if we avoid personal admission, we ourselves are racist. I once witnessed a college student’s kneejerk reaction to his Indian classmate’s decision to sit next to him. Without batting an eyelid, he swiftly moved to another seat.
When I approached the Indian student to find out more about the puzzling situation, he expressed his sadness over this classmate who once blurted out that he “doesn’t like Indians”. This is the real world that we live in.
According to a survey conducted by Swedish economists in 2013, Malaysians were found to be among the least racially tolerant people in the world, with 30 per cent of us indicating that we would prefer not to live next to a person of a different race.
We live in a multi-racial society, but the truth is, we hardly mingle with people of other races, owing to our education system, which has effectively divided us through Malay schools, Chinese schools, Tamil schools, and private and international schools.
“We never accepted each other. We just tolerated each other […] So why should I feel sad over a reality that I have long known? The Malaysia that is supposed to be a heaven of diversity and solidarity never did exist in the past. We were a post colonial state created to suit the need of the Cold War and communalism calculations.”
The above poignant remark was made by Wong Chin Huat. The Chinese in Malaysia were historically associated by the British with the communist threat that peaked during the Cold War period.
One of the conditions of successful decolonisation was the safeguarding of the rights of all ethnicised groups in Malaysia, which the British felt was paramount to the creation of a united Malaya that would neutralise the perceived communist risk within the context of the Cold War environment.
This condition was fulfilled by a “social contract” that the newly minted Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance forged with the British for the securing of an independent Malaya. The granting of official citizenship to all residents in Malaysia in exchange for a recognition of the special position of the Malays was one of the major compromises made.
Perhaps this is why, today, some parties urge the Chinese and the Indians to return to their ‘original’ countries when minorities voice their discontentment of national policies.
The road to a country that is genuinely united is long and difficult, but not impossible. The first step, however, would be to acknowledge that as humans, we have our subliminal discomfort with the unfamiliar.
We can all make a difference by changing ourselves first before changing the world around us. We can guard our talk and encourage acceptance. We can stop perpetuating the racial stereotypes that go along the lines of the lazy Malay, the greedy Chinaman, the drunkard Indian, and the ‘ulu’ Orang Asli.
Meanwhile, I guess I will have some pork chop for lunch.