In Malaysia, Your Race is Who You Are!


Recently I attended a roundtable discussion organised by the Global Movement of Moderates. The discussion aimed at generating ideas and views on new research agenda on Malaysia for moving ‘beyond race’.

Although I found the discussion a bit too intellectual for a simple mind like myself, it did connect a few wires in my brain.

But before I share my personal take on racism as per the discussion and how it impacts the future of Malaysia (in my future writings), I would like to share a story.

Back in 2013, I staged a play titled ‘In A Nutty Shell’. Using “3Malaysia – In Malaysia, Your Race Is Who You Are” as the tagline, the satire openly criticized the ordinary folks of Malaysia and how we function as a nation.

Being an Indian who is not a Hindu and a Muslim who is not a Malay, I have met many stereotypical members of our society. As such, I aimed to push the boundaries and present Malaysia as it is on the stage. I thought it was time Malaysians sat down and watch themselves perform on stage.

To maintain the authenticity of the script, I had to conduct a lot of interviews with people from all walks of life – different race, religion and status. As expected, those whom I met were quite closed up and reluctant to talk about racial stereotyping which is quite common in our country yet still considered taboo to talk about.

In the beginning most of them claimed to care and respect the other members of the society regardless of their race and religion. They kept using 1Malaysia to justify unity as our core strength.

But knowing the right buttons to press, it did not take me long to have them blurt out their true perception of the Malays, Chinese, Indians as well as of the political scenario in the country.

I had the Malays telling me stories of having their opportunities being swept away by the Chinese. Some spoke of the double standard practiced by Chinese employers who pay Malay staffs way lesser than others of the equal level. Most Malays told me how selfish, arrogant and greedy they thought Chinese are.

I had the Chinese telling me how lazy and incapable they thought Malays are. They felt the Malay supremacy should be blamed for this. A few of them thought Malays were kind, god fearing people who are manipulated by the government. Some Chinese however blamed religious fanatics for creating gaps in the society especially between the Chinese and Malays.

I had some Indians telling me how upset they were being bullied by Malays, Chinese and the government. They told me stories of having their temples demolished while permits to build new ones denied.

Having combined all these ingredients into a full length play, I soon became nervous as I realised I had a time bomb in hand. I knew I was about to poke the bee hive with these super sensitive script.

What I witnessed throughout the five day show (hiding among the audience) was mind blowing.

You see, one of the essential requirements of a free, open, and democratic society is the ability to laugh at oneself. However during the show, it was so crystal clear that despite living together for the past five decades as one family, we all still belonged to our own classes of race.

During scenes where the Malays were criticized and poked, the entire studio laughed – well, except the Malays. When the Chinese were criticized, it was their turn to frown and keep mum. Lastly when the Indians were made fun of, the entire studio laughed, including the Indians themselves.

It’s funny ain’t it? While the Malays and Chinese had trouble watching their version of reality portrayed on stage, the Indians were able to laugh at the stereotypical jokes.

The Indians had every right to be offended just like the Malays and Chinese but they collectively chose to laugh it off.

This pattern of behaviour among the audience is exactly how our society functions.

Now I am not going to talk about stereotyping, prejudices and racism in our society. I am more fascinated on why Indians and not Malays and Chinese, are capable of handling such sensitive situations much better compared to our other members of the society.

“Indians are loud and noisy. They don’t do dialogues, only monologues. They have bad sense of fashion. Some of them smell bad. They are mostly rude and behave like ‘samseng’.”

Those were some of the lines delivered on stage. Why weren’t the Indians offended when they had all the rights to be offended? What made them choose to brush it off with laughter?

My observation was tremendously fascinating that I had to find the reason. I began by talking to my audience, collecting feedbacks. I pursued my little research even after we bumped-out of Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre where the play was staged.

What I discovered made me proud as an Indian.

According to them, in Malaysia, the Malays are the first class citizens; the Chinese are special class citizens; and Indians are no class citizens.

Having always been looked down by the other races in our society, they feel isolated. Even the government tend to ignore their plight.

As one of the strangers I spoke to during the scriptwriting process puts it, “Malays have Umno. Chinese have MCA. Both parties always take care of their own people. But what does MIC do? The only time they crawl out from their coconut shell is when the temples are demolished.”

As such, they have somewhat detached themselves from the need to compete with the Malays and the Chinese. The gap, economically and socially, is too big to even put an effort to reduce it.

Hence the Indians have learned to focus on developing themselves.

While the Chinese and Malays measure their success rate by comparing against one another (and bickering along the way), the Indians only compare themselves with their previous generation.

“My grandfather sold kacang putih outside the Rex cinema back in the old days. My dad was a lorry driver. And I am a teacher. I think I am successful. Hopefully my son will do better – maybe become a doctor!” said one of my audience who brought his students to watch the play.

Having focused on their own development without the need to feel inferior when the others achieve better success than them, is one key factor why Indians are able to gel in well in our multiracial society.

Now if only the Malays and Chinese stop comparing with each other and wipe out that ‘what I lose is what you gain’ mentality, maybe we could build a healthier society – a society who are always competing to better themselves without the need to challenge each other’s superiority.

But is that possible?

You tell me.


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