Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

A Paradox of Race in Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 3:32:23 pm May 27, 2007.

One thing I've noticed about overseas Malaysians is that they are apt to comment on how open Malaysians are when it comes to talking about race. We don't shrink from making fun of traditional stereotypes, nor are we afraid to laugh at ourselves and with each other.

The same, I've found, cannot be said for many other societies. Even in the multiculturalist United States, people are afraid of cracking jokes related to ethnic stereotypes, lest someone be offended.

Here, on the other hand, we tease people for how they fit the traditional stereotypes about their culture, and tease them for how they don't fit in. Nobody minds, because we can tell when a joke is made in good faith and when it is not.

This easygoing attitude seems to rub off on others as well (though, as usual, readers are warned that anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all). An Indian girl in my class (as in from India), when told a classmate was skipping classes to self-study, was heard to remark something like "Yeah, Chinaman power!"

But strangely enough, overseas Malaysians also find that their new societies also seem to be more open than Malaysian society about race. Foreign societies are not afraid of discussing "sensitive" issues; one Malaysian in Britain has said he was impressed that they could rationally discuss the subject of wearing the hijab (Muslim headdress) in schools.

In Malaysia, despite our much-vaunted openness about race, we still seem very insular. We dare not talk about anything with even a whiff of sensitivity, even if we know what we have to say is rational and sensible.

Most, if not all of the problem obviously lies with the government. When they have laws telling teachers what they can and cannot say, when we live in a virtual police state, it's not surprising people fall silent when race and politics or race and religion enter the conversation together.

As a result, we are faced with an interesting paradox: Malaysians are so open and mature when it comes to casual dialogue about race, and yet are so closeminded and immature that they cannot sort out racial issues at the political level.

Or are they? I can't be the only one who sees the faulty logic that's keeping us from being one of the truly most mature and levelheaded nations in the world when it comes to race.

If we can handle jokes about stereotypes, why can't we handle serious talk about it? The only thing keeping us from taking our maturity to the next level is the government — which is a shame, since, as George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said, the truth is the funniest joke in the world.

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