Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Unity That Matters: Reclaiming Our Non-Racial Past

Written by johnleemk on 1:39:34 pm Jul 24, 2008.
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Language and race have a funny entanglement in Malaysia; in a country brimming with diversity, efforts to harness this diversity have repeatedly been brought down by phrases that do not translate, and concepts that cannot be articulated succinctly. This irony is all the worse for the fact that our national language, Malay, does not even have a real word for race. If we base our thinking on the fundamentals of our national language, racism and racialism become insignificant issues; if we understand the various words for nation and ethnicity in Malay and use them properly, our thinking and society will be all the richer for it.

At first glance it seems odd to say that Malay lacks a word for the concept of "race". How can this be when we have words like kaum, bangsa, and whatnot? The fact is, however, that these words have been adopted to serve as substitutes; their true meaning is something quite different.

Bangsa, though commonly translated as race, originally meant "nation". In Malay, the United Nations is known as Pertubuhan Bangsa Bersatu; when politicians speak of agama, bangsa, negara, they are really speaking of religion, nation and country — not religion, race and country. A "nation" is often congruent with an ethnic group, but this is not necessarily always so.

After all, nations are much more fluidly defined than races. Our conception of a nation may change over time; it is difficult to call Ashkenazi Jews who are fully assimilated into American society members of the "Jewish nation", even if they are technically Jews. The definition of race is much more fixed; if your parents were Chinese or Igbo, you are of Chinese or Igbo descent.

Keturunan, or "descent", may thus seem better-suited, but it is flawed too. In English, "ethnic descent" and "race" carry very different connotations; so too in Malay. When you describe yourself as being of keturunan India, you downplay your ethnic roots; when you describe yourself as being of the Indian race or Indian nation, there is a very different connotation, with a far stronger emphasis on seeing yourself as belonging to one particular racial grouping.

Kaum is probably the most plausible candidate for "race", but its original meaning is quite different: it literally means tribe, or clan. Perkauman (not perbangsaan) is the standard Malay translation for "racism", but it really literally means clannism or tribalism; I think parochialism might be a good translation too. Regardless, "race" is quite different from "clan", and although we have pressed kaum into service as a substitute word, it is clear that in the original Malay, there was not much of a sense of race.

Turning to actual historical events, historians suggest that race was hardly a significant factor in pre-colonial society. Chinese served in Malay governments and courts, and accounts of society before the British colonial era make no mention of racial tensions or any notion that people of different races bear different and marked traits. The first mention of common racial stereotypes still with us today dates back to the British, who started referring to the Malays as lazy, Chinese as selfish and Indians as violent not long after they took over most of the peninsula. It hardly seems surprising then, that while we can express a multitude of concepts related to racial differences in the English language, doing the same in Malay without repurposing words like bangsa and kaum is all but impossible.

Even well into the 20th century, the distinction between race and nation was such that many prominent activists, both Malay and non-Malay, proposed that all citizens of Malaya be known as Malays, or Melayu. The concept of "Malay" as an exclusive ethnic group, as opposed to an inclusive nation, had yet to take root. The main opposition to this concept came not from the Malays, but from conservative non-Malays who feared this could lead to a shattering of their own identities.

Language does matter, of course; it is a factor historians such as Wang Gungwu cite in the failure of Lee Kuan Yew's "Malaysian Malaysia" ideal to capture the imagination of the masses. Why? Because there is no simple or succinct way to express the concept of a "Malaysian Malaysia" in Malay, or most other Malaysian languages for that matter. Malaysia is just Malaysia; there is no way to really state a non-racial conception of Malaysia when the Malay language itself lacks the words to express the very existence of different races in the first place.

Ironically, because we have adapted the Malay language to a racial mindset, when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced the concept of a "Bangsa Malaysia" almost fifteen years ago, people were wondering "What the heck is a Malaysian race?" There is certainly no such thing as a "Malaysian" ethnic group. There certainly ought to be a Malaysian nation, however.

It's very unfortunate that for the sake of accomodating our racial paradigms, we have abused and misused the national language. I remember some years back, I would occasionally stumble across the word "ras" in a Malay text, a clear import from English, and wonder why it was there; it seems to me now that this usage appropriately reflects the non-racial heritage of the Malay language.

The issues that matter today are not issues for the Malay race, Chinese race, Indian race, or any racial or religious group at all. They are issues for the nation — for our bangsa. They can no more be resolved by "Malay unity" or "Chinese unity" than a ship be crewed by two completely united but distinct groups of sailors. Quoth Benjamin Franklin, we must all hang together, or else we shall all most assuredly hang separately.

By obsessing with the issues of one race or that race, by muddying the waters with the issues of bangsa Melayu or bangsa India at the expense of the nation, bangsa Malaysia, how can we ever hope to move forward as a nation? It makes no sense to reject the unifying ideal of a Malaysian nation on the basis that there can never be a Malaysian race. It makes just as little sense to reject this faith in the ability of Malaysians to work together by citing the need for different races to "unite" within their own communities.

Let's put a stop to racism, perkauman; let's work together for our nation, our bangsa. Let's reclaim our historical heritage as a country where people of diverse backgrounds can work together, with a common goal, with a common purpose, so we can all live together at peace. Regardless of what your agama or ras is, you and I have only one bangsa and only one negara; the unity of our bangsa and our negara is really the only thing that ought to matter.


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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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