Notes from the Field

The Unwritten Script: Race and Identity Politics in Malaysia

April 21, 2010

There is no end to the supply of topics to engage your average Malaysian kopitiam (coffee shop) conversation these days: the mortality rate of our parliamentarians; palace intrigue from any one of our 11 royal households; and even the juicy court proceedings ranging from test cases on civil liberties to plain old criminal proceedings.

But that old mainstay, the state of race relations in Malaysia, gained a new lease on life on March 31, when Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin – in response to a challenge by advisor to the Democratic Action Party Lim Kit Siang – said he considers himself Malay first, before Malaysian. This latest episode in Malaysia’s ongoing serial drama played out as predictably as one would expect from a sequel in an established franchise.

Commentators, professional and amateur alike, pounced on Muhyiddin’s statement as evidence of the hypocrisy of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ideal of “One Malaysia.” Cue outrage: What does he mean? Who does he think he is? Who cares what race you are; we’re Malaysians! And,this time around, there’s a technological facet to this that reflects the times – new Facebook groups have popped up in protest, including the group “Not Malay, Not Chinese, Not Indian, Not Others; I AM MALAYSIAN” (currently standing at 3,150 members).

At the same time, there’s a fresh subplot brewing. A growing chorus of young voices are questioning “What’s wrong with being Malay? Or Chinese? Or Indian?” “What’s wrong with multiple identities?” Questions asking them to rank their identities, namely their ethnicity, nationality, and faith (such as those contained in Merdeka Center’s most recent youth survey, conducted with The Asia Foundation’s support) are greeted with impolite language. They have no patience with that sort of quantification. Lest one think this is coming from the usual kind of racial chauvinists, these new voices have some intriguing – and unflattering – things to say about the chauvinists as well. On some instinctual level, young people seem to grasp that the essential problem of being asked to rank one’s identity is that the primacy of any identity – ethnicity, nationality, political ideology, religious affiliation, gender – is situational. For example, people can value one’s political ideology ahead of their ethnic identity when casting a ballot, even if that is unrecognized in the current political milieu of race-based parties.

Grappling with racial identities vis-à-vis one’s nationality is not unique to Malaysia. What’s interesting in the Malaysian context; however, is that your racial identification translates into different kinds of privileges depending on the circumstances, which means no racial group has an institutional advantage at all times. In many cases, the majority group – often privileged by their identity institutionally – insists on not acknowledging race. On the other hand, minority groups sometimes insist on describing themselves with hyphenates (e.g., British-Indian, Chinese-American), realizing that the luxury of being “colorblind” works only when the cards aren’t stacked against you.

Outrage against selective erasure of part of one’s identity is at the heart of this new subplot, even though this is largely an unintended consequence of anger over Muhyiddin’s remarks. This is an important new thread in a tired conversation. A country full of people, all with differing, complex heritage and rife with hyphenates (e.g., an Indian-Muslim social conservative), would do well to consider Muhyiddin’s viewpoint, and realize the futility of attempting to objectively rank one’s various identities. Great economic disparities persist between and within the many ethnic groups. The need for better economic redistribution is real; it is not productive to continue discussing this issue in reductive racial terms. But this is a playbook that Malaysians know well, regardless of where they stand on the political divide, and it may prove to be our undoing. Insisting that the only response to legitimate issues involving race is, “it shouldn’t matter, we’re all Malaysians!” is just as short-sighted.

Opposing Muhyiddin’s remarks doesn’t mean that we Malaysians should deny our respective communal identities. The real issue at stake is the use of racial identity as convenient labels to gain institutional support and to justify systemic discrimination. Enmeshed in this is the often-ignored component of economic class and access to justice. The power dynamic in this country is not a simple majority-minority paradigm. A person who shifts from the civil service to private enterprise may find him or herself discriminated against, depending on his or her identity. For example, a darker-skinned Muslim who is not noticeably “Malay-looking” may escape the eye of the religious police, but may suffer subtle discrimination at work, such as off-hand remarks or even social discomfort when interacting with colleagues.

Another dangerous development is Malaysia’s increasing blindness to the existence of residents from other cultural heritages, who are lumped together under the term lain-lain (“Others”). Failure to recognize the nuances of ethnicities and cultures of Malaysians not considered Malay, Chinese, or Indian inhibits progress and suppresses their ability to contribute. This discrimination is not limited to recent immigrant communities whose ethnic makeup is not considered part of the established narrative. For example, the East Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak, are rife with stories of government officials who are unable to reconcile the notion that native Malaysians with Arabic names may not be Muslims (much like the “confusion” when current Minister and Senator Idris Jala, a Sarawakian and Christian, first came on the public scene when he was appointed CEO of Malaysia Airlines). Not even the predominant Malay, Chinese, or Indian–identified citizens have escaped the ill-effects of this kind of thinking – the categorical monoliths do a disservice to the peoples contained within them, steamrolling the inherent diversity contained in each respective group. Malaysia cannot on the one hand extol the virtues of its multi-racial makeup, while on the other, not recognize the multiplicity of identities that exist internally.

Nurshafenath Shaharuddin is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer in Malaysia. She can be reached at nina@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Nurshafenath Shaharuddin

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