Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Ethnic Descent, Nationality and Race: What is a Malaysian?

Written by johnleemk on 11:44:39 am Jul 21, 2008.
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If there were a "Stuff Middle- and Upper-class Malaysians Like" listing to complement the several other blogs about such topics out there (Stuff White People Like being the most famous), one entry that would definitely have to be on the list is making an issue out of the need to declare our ethnic origin on government forms. Every once in a while, this issue flares up, and a lot of people take a good point too far, suggesting that we eradicate the notion of race altogether from the public sphere by filling "Malaysian" as our race in on all forms. This is a very misplaced idea, which does not do justice to the real, pragmatic world we live in.

I am probably among the most committed to race-blindness out there. I don't think we should judge race in itself as a positive or negative qualification; it may be correlated with intelligence or physical ability or what-have-you, but because we already have measures for intelligence and physical ability, there is no need to incorporate a test of racial origin. Heck, I am one of the very few people in Malaysia who would openly say that yes, there is a trade-off between being Malaysian and being Malay/Chinese/Indian/Kadazan/whatever — and that when in doubt, we should err on the side of being Malaysian.

Yet I think it is too easy to take a good thing too far: I don't see the need to pretend race doesn't exist. For one, ethnic descent has a huge correlation with culture and mindset: the way I think and the way a Malay thinks are very different. Although it is actually very difficult to generalise in this area — I differ a lot from the way many Chinese think — we do not have a better test for determining mindsets and beliefs just yet.

Moreover, even if we want to believe we can all be race-blind, it is not going to happen. Nobody has ever eradicated racism from their society. The easiest way to tell if racial discrimination is going on is to look at the way the typical person from one race treats the typical person from another race, and yet if we maintain the fiction that race does not exist, there is no way to tell that discrimination is going on. If we do not look at the demographics of individual ethnic communities, we can maintain the fiction that all is well, but if one community is clearly lagging behind the rest, it will be very obvious to the man on the street — and this does not bode well for maintaining race-blindness.

In essence, I am arguing for something between looking at race in everything, and looking at race in nothing. There are clearly times when it is important for an institution to know someone's ethnic background, and there are times when it is obviously irrelevant. To apply one blanket rule simply for the sake of applying a blanket rule is ridiculous.

Of course, in difficult and complicated issues like this, charting a course of compromise can be practically impossible. In an imperfect world, you cannot perfectly implement perfect ideals; there will be an unnecessary intrusion of race into some areas of policy, and in other areas, we will unnecessarily shrink from race out of the fear of being politically incorrect. But it is important, I think, to make it clear that although race should rarely be a relevant issue when it comes to making determinations about an individual person, there are times when it is necessary.

This goes beyond merely collecting demographic information, after all. Putting aside the impossible issue of how to define "black" or "white", in the US, blacks take different medication for heart disease than whites. There is evidence that Chinese and whites do not have the same ideal body mass indexes. And, as alluded to earlier, when one community lags dramatically behind another in some measurable manner, this information can be incredibly helpful in policy formulation and implementation.

Yet, there is something a little icky about declaring your "race" on a form. The stark nature of the term and the weight of its historical baggage make it seem almost wrong to declare that your "race" is "Malay" or "Iban" when you think what really ought to matter is that you are Malaysian. It's easy to see where the "My race is Malaysian" crowd is coming from.

But as many a pedant has troubled to observe, there is no such thing as a Malaysian race. Making a statement about your race is simply making a statement about your ancestors. When we ask for your race, we are not asking about your Malaysian ancestors; we are asking who your ancestors were before there was a Malaysia. To describe them as Malaysian is really a bit of falsehood.

Last week, going through some ancient memorabilia, I chanced upon my Scout membership card. I wondered how the Scouts, one of the least racialised organisations I've ever encountered in Malaysia, dealt with the issue of race when it came to record-keeping. But there was no field on the card for "race"; there was only a space for you to fill in "keturunan" — ethnic descent.

I think that much better captures what we are aiming for when we ask you to specify your race. We do not want to know which tribe, which ethnic group you identify with. We want to know what ethnic group you are descended from; that's all there is to know.

This may seem like quibbling over semantics, but language is particularly powerful when it comes to a loaded issue like ethnicity and nationality. We have to be really clear that we have gone beyond the petty racism of apartheid or the racial lynchings of the American Jim Crow era. The issue in modern society is not race or what it has to do with your nationality; it is simply, for the purposes of record-keeping, who you trace your descent back to.

My ethnic descent is not Malaysian; I am Chinese with some Filipino thrown in. But my nationality is Malaysian. My nationality entitles me to make my home in Malaysia, to have a say in how Malaysia is run. But my ethnic descent is where my roots lie, and is an important aspect of defining what Malaysia and being Malaysian means to me. It is the same for any other Malaysian; we bear the traces of our roots in how we think and act. There are differences between a Malaysian of Malay descent and a Malaysian of Indian descent, and to deny these differences is foolishness. But rather than dwelling on these differences, as the label of "race" might have us do, let's celebrate how regardless of who our ancestors were, we all have one homeland, one tanah tumpahnya darahku.


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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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