Archive for 16 October 2017

The Malaysian fixation with difference

16 October 2017

(Reprinted from The Edge – Options pullout, 16 October 2017 issue)

Dear Kam,
I have some visitors from overseas and they just will not understand the racial mix of Malaysia. They keep insisting that everyone is Malay because the country is called Malaysia. I’m getting very frustrated. What do I do?

I always face several problems every time I have visitors from overseas. It takes some time to explain that the plural of ringgit is not ringgits, as it is with dollars and pounds, and we don’t eat nasi lemak with chopsticks.

But there is one problem in particular. It always takes at least two days to explain the racial mixture of Malaysia. For the first day, my visitors will insist that everybody in Malaysia is called Malay. I say, no, everybody is Malaysian but only some are Malay. There are also Chinese, Indians and a lot of others. I don’t even mention Sabah and Sarawak for the first few days because that would make things too overwhelmingly confusing.

But calling Malaysians Chinese or Indians is confusing for my overseas visitors. Surely, they insist, that denotes that these people are Chinese or Indian nationals, that they are citizens of China and India. No, I explain, they are all Malaysians. So why, my visitors will ask, is it so important for me to point out that there are Chinese and Indian Malaysians? Why is the difference so important?

Whenever I have overseas visitors, the first thing I want to do is explain our racial mix because it is the thing I am most proud of and excited by about my own country. I love the fact that I may eat Malay food for breakfast, Indian for lunch and Chinese for dinner. But sometimes my guests will find my fascination for our mixture to be not only confusing but also deeply unsettling.

Why am I fixating on our differences and not highlighting our connections? Well, I point out, our connections are everywhere. We trade, talk, marry, work and eat with each other all the time. That’s nice, they say, but they are still suspicious that I find it to be so very important to point out our differences.

I’ve guided a few Indians from India around KL and Indians (from India) are unsettled by our talk of difference. For Indians, being Indian is the supreme and overriding issue. There are hundreds of languages in India and several of them (including English) can be used for debate in their Parliament. In India, there would never be talk of being, say, Gujarati first and Indian second. They are all Indian, and proud of it. “Indian” describes nationality and not race. I was describing the Malaysian racial mix to an Indian and she assumed that the Indians I was talking about must be temporary IT workers. When she understood that they had all been here for many generations, she said, “Then they’re not Indians. They’re Malaysians.”

I’ve had friends from England who have been extremely uncomfortable talking about difference. My friends are Guardian-reading liberals who want to forge a multicultural identity for their country. They want to be “colour blind” and are very unhappy about the bigotry of Brexit.

I remember when one young newly arrived Englishman was telling a group of us Malaysians a story about something he had seen on the streets of KL and he simply could not bring himself to say if any of the characters in his story were Malay, Chinese or Indian. According to his world view, they were all Malaysians and, therefore, the story was extremely frustrating for the rest of us because we could not see the point of it. He didn’t understand that a story about a traffic accident has to start with something like, “There was this young Malay fellow in a new Mercedes and an old Chinese fellow in a really old Nissan Sunny … ” That way we might know where the story could possibly be heading.

Despite the best efforts of Guardian-reading liberals, Brexit has shown the British are in fact extremely aware of racial difference and want it ejected from their shores. The British have always been as aware, suspicious and forgetful of racial difference as anybody else. Boris Johnson led the charge for Brexit and “securing our borders” despite his own Turkish heritage.

I like to think that our fixation with difference is based on love and enjoyment, although some of us do hate it and want it to be ejected from our shores. But sometimes when I describe our, for me, enjoyable differences to guests from overseas I see that it is perhaps an unhealthy fixation. I may wish to revel in, enjoy and celebrate our unique and so far remarkably successful coming together of difference but perhaps there is a downside to it always being at the forefront of my mind.

If every political issue and news story is about preserving or attacking our difference, then we instinctively accept that there is indeed a kind of ongoing war where there must be a winner and a loser. And we accept the legitimacy of the outcome of each battle.

Malaysia should not be a battleground over difference. If there is difference, then our history shows us that the experiment has been exceptionally successful. A fight must always be waged against social and economic injustice but not for the imagined elevation of one race over another. These are vague words, but I hope you know what I mean. And perhaps I should make a personal effort to stop fixating on difference even if I really want to know what eventually happened to that Malay fellow in the Mercedes and the Chinese fellow in the Nissan Sunny.

Reprinted with the kind permission of