Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Must We Deny Our Ancestry?

Written by johnleemk on 3:31:23 pm Aug 1, 2007.
Categories: ,

If there's one thing that irks me, it's the denial of equality of opportunity. The arbitrary division of human beings into segregated groups along the lines of birth, rather than ability, has always been used to perpetuate this inequality.

Whether it is the feudal system, or ethnic apartheid, every such division, ostensibly in the name of "separate but equal", has led to greater inequality of opportunity, and thus greater inequality and inefficiency on the whole.

That is why I have always steered clear of abusing race as an issue, or of slandering any ethnic group, whether it is apparently justified or not. As far as I am concerned, it is never justifiable to tar individuals with the same brush simply because they belong to a particular group.

I am a human being. That is all I am. I avoid making assumptions about other human beings based on irrelevant variables usually out of their control, such as race, nationality, religion, or physical appearance. I may be more inclined to investigate something (if I'm a doctor, I cannot help that patients born with pale skin are more likely to suffer from skin cancer than those with darker skin).

Secondarily, I am a Malaysian. I do not discriminate amongst my fellow Malaysians — I do not care what their race, their religion, anything that is usually predetermined by birth, may be.

But here's the rub: that doesn't mean I don't take notice of what their race or religion is. Denying the existence and importance of these issues does not make them go away.

I salute those Malaysians who choose to be race-blind — to look at their fellow Malaysians as Malaysians, and not Chinese or Malay or Indian or whatever they may be. I exhort all my fellow Malaysians to do the same.

I am particularly glad that this is a theme the Democratic Action Party seems to be sincerely picking up — in particular, Jeff Ooi stated that he was so opposed to racialism that he would put an end to requiring Malaysians to state their race on forms when they register for things like their identity card. Haris Ibrahim, who has been hinting he will join the DAP, has also said the same.

As happy as I am about the spirit of their statements, I cannot help but reject the letter. It would be a horribly misguided decision to ban the government from requiring ethnic information.

This first reason is that this is primarily a symptom, not a cause, of racial divisions. Virtually every country around the world asks its citizens for racial information, including vaunted liberal democracies, without worrying that they may be causing people to view each other through the tinted lens of race instead of nationality, or better still, humanity.

If we do away with the real causes of racial division in our society, like Malay supremacy and hypocrisy on equality, we won't need to worry about a petty form.

The second reason is that if we want to stop societal discrimination by banning the government from collecting information about potential causes of discrimination, there is no reason at all to stop at race.

The first stop, of course, is religion. The next stop might be income — I can't control how much (or little) I inherited from my parents, can I, so why treat me different for it? There's too much title obsession, so let's not ask people if they hold a Datukship or doctorate. Heck, some might start looking up to those with bachelor's degrees or even a school education — better not ask people about that either. And what about literacy? Let's just dump these forms altogether and not collect any information, so we won't discriminate against those who can't write.

The fact is, governments ask for this information so they can collect demographic information about individuals. Believe it or not, there are times when it is helpful to know what percentage of your nation is descended from what ethnic group, just as it is helpful to know who is rich and who is poor, who believes in Jesus and who does not, and so forth.

The important things are to fix structural causes of discrimination, societal and governmental, and to make it clear that yes, we may be descended from an ethnic group, but that means nothing more than things like whether you have acne, how tall you are, or what your favourite food is. All this information is important, but in the end, it's all related to you being a member of the human race, and the Malaysian nation — not as a member of the Malay, Chinese, Indian, or God forbid, lain-lain race.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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