This is the printable version of an article from Infernal Ramblings (infernalramblings.com). The original web-optimised article is also available.

Why Can't We Think of Ourselves as Malaysian First?

Why do we so eagerly demonise our partners in nationhood, when we so eagerly embrace them in our daily lives?

Written by johnleemk on 10:02:33 pm Dec 26, 2008.

I receive a lot of comments and emails about the things I write. Some are just complimentary, some point out things I've overlooked, and some completely disagree with what I have to say. But alas, most, if not all, approach the situation by laying the fault and blame at the feet of "them" — the Malays, the Chinese, the Indians, whoever. It is always the fault of some other stupid community. We would never think of blaming individual Malaysians — the mak cik who sells you pisang goreng on the sidewalk or the cashier who rings up your groceries at the register in the supermarket. But every time we denounce the the Malays or the Chinese or whoever and tell them to just shut up, these individuals are precisely the people we blame. We are so busy looking to scapegoat one race or another that we forget Malaysia is not a country of three races and one "lain-lain"; it is a country of 28 million individuals, each of whom deserves our respect as fellow partners in this great nation.

I've taken my fair share of brickbats for openly musing on the need to radically rethink our segregated public school system, but I've also been asked repeatedly by many Malays why I expect fair treatment from my government when most non-Malays still insist on sending their children to national-type schools. At the same time, those same people criticising my critique of de facto school segregation argue that non-Malays should not bother with compromise when Malay society and the government refuse to acknowledge us as full equal partners in the Malaysian enterprise. It is far too convenient to blame the others, and to tar the other side — it is as easy as blaming the "Malays" or the "Chinese," the "Muslims" or the "infidels".

But to me, as a human being, as a citizen of Malaysia, as someone who loves his country, neither of these arguments have any resonance. It's not because I think non-Malays should voluntarily put our necks on the line and give up vernacular education for the sake of vague promises of equality. It's not because I think Malays should voluntarily give up the privileges they need to gain an equal footing in the world of commerce just for the sake of making their fellow Malaysians feel happy. It's because I see Malaysia as primarily comprising not Malays and non-Malays, Muslims and non-Muslims, but Malaysians — all 28 million of us.

I think it is a complete abdication of your personal responsibility when you wash your hands clean of the taint of racism by saying "they do it too". Who is "they"? A bunch of people you have never met, who you don't know, who you couldn't care less about? "They" are an easy way to demonise a whole group of people who have no meaning to you, and ignore the real problems poorly-thought out government policies impose on the people you actually know and care about.

When I look at things, I don't worry about whether "us" or "them" benefits, because the only thing that counts is the fate of individual people — people who are more than "Malay" or "Indian"; people who are husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, students, shopkeepers, drycleaners, lorry drivers — the people who we see and talk with in our everyday lives. When what you see first is the individual, and not the race, it should not matter whether a policy is pro-Malay or pro-Chinese. The only relevant question should be: is it pro-Malaysian? Does this policy help more Malaysians than it hurts?

Many non-Malays far too easily dismiss Malay concerns about socioeconomic equality. Sure, it's easy to blame the Malays for being worried about their place in the country when all you have in mind is how you and your community have been marginalised by the government they dominate. But try talking to the Malay schoolkids who work overtime at a fast food restaurant during Aidilfitri to support their families. Try talking to the Malays who can't work in the private sector because the Chinese-dominated business culture refuses to accommodate them, and yet can't work in the public sector because being too competent ensures their bosses will never promote them lest they be eclipsed by their juniors. When you and your forebears have gotten the raw end of any economic deal with the British and Chinese for the last century, you'll understandably be wary of a government which refuses to explicitly address a historical wrong.

And at the same time, many Malays too nonchalantly brush aside the valid point non-Malays make about equal partnership in the Malaysian nation. There is simply no way you can defend the notion that some people are more Malaysian than others because of their race. It is completely indefensible, and yet in spite of this, politicians who brazenly label a third of their constituents "pendatang asing" as if they are common immigrants get away with this insult as easily as they get away with robbing the country blind through their corrupt dealings and money politics. Being a Malaysian means you have a stake in the future of Malaysia — not that you can be threatened with your life for daring to speak up about your political opinions. Every time you hear a politician threaten to make the streets run with blood, or use the keris, I suggest you imagine the cold-blooded murder of the Chinese and Indians you work with everyday, or your old schoolfriends, or your next-door neighbours. We might obscure the real-world ramifications of our words and decisions by blaming the "kaum pendatang", but the people who ultimately end up affected are the people we have to face everyday. If you don't like this, then the next time you bump into a Chinese Malaysian, then please tell them to balik tongsan, and see how they —and you — like it.

This crazy belief that we should punish individuals for the actions of others has to stop. The future of my country matters as much to me as it does to any other Malaysian, and to say I should have less or no say in it because other Malaysians like vernacular schools or want to promote their own insular beliefs is to deny me a say in my future. Why am I to blame for a belief other people hold? Aren't we all entitled to believe what we like? Why am I somehow less Malaysian because a few Chinese couldn't care less about the future of Malaysia, or because some stupid politician makes the wearing of the songkok into a pointless controversy? Their beliefs are not mine — why am I penalised for them? And why do some non-Malays seem so eager to tear into Malays and Islam just because the presently Malay-dominated government happens to be full of racist politicians? Would you say these kinds of nasty things to the faces of the Malays and Muslims you know? One of my favourite Malay proverbs — and one I really wish we all gave a little more thought — is this simple adage: "Jangan kerana nila setitik, rosak susu sebelanga" — "Don't let the whole jug of milk be ruined just because of a drop of dye."

Yes, there are Malaysians we can't agree with; we all have different ideas of where Malaysia should go, and that is completely fine. But far too often, we allow ourselves to be carried away with this notion that some "other" group of people is out to get us. We forget that Malaysia is not made up of Malays, Chinese, Indians and lain-lain, but the people we interact with everyday. We use bad logic to punish these ordinary Malaysians we see everyday. When some stupid politician makes a racist statement, immediately the Malay community or Chinese community or whatever community is somehow to blame. Instead of seeing the beauty of the individuals whom we know and love, we see the ugliness and hatred of the people we have never met, people who, if we met them on the street tomorrow, we could not give a damn about. Malaysia is a country of beautiful people, people who deserve better than to be demonised in one fell swoop with overbearing generalisations about the "greedy Chinese" or "lazy Malays" or "stupid Indians". We have a rich and proud heritage, building our culture and society on a foundation laid by some of the greatest and oldest civilisations in the world. We have a long tradition of working together to develop the country we all live in and take pride in today. And perhaps most importantly, in our everyday lives — for all our flaws, mistakes and miscommunications — we have proven that we can work together, study together, live together, and love together. As individuals, we are Malaysians. Why can't we always be this way?

First published in The Malaysian Insider.