The TehTarik sessions are the brainchild of a group of young Malaysians at Cambridge University who desired a non-partisan platform to foster open discussion on burning issues. Sessions are open to all as long as they have a shared passion for Malaysia. The following is based on the discussion that took place over a hot cup of self-made teh tarik.
The all-too-familiar tourism advertising gimmicks portray Malaysia as a multi-cultural and pluralistic society, an emerging democracy where people of all cultures, races, and religions live and prosper together; a society where cultural differences are honoured and enduring ideals of humanity can thrive. However, how far do these perceptions differ from the reality of the Malaysian social fabric?
In Malaysia, the third question succeeding name and gender is almost always regarding race. We are identified by our race and the fact is, for better or for worse, the concept has been institutionalised. Though possibly relevant historically, the current generation must ask whether these institutionalised concepts are still appropriate.
At the time of independence when races served different economic functions, leaders would have envisioned the country moving away from such divisive concepts. But looking back 51 years on, it seems that divisions have persisted and we have still not moved forward.
Notwithstanding the methodological limitations of opinion polls, the results of the Merdeka Centre poll on race relations reveal a lack of understanding, poor interaction and strong stereotypes across races.
A mere 36% of Chinese respondents as compared to 89% of Malay respondents said they understand Malay culture. Interestingly, 84% of Chinese respondents thought that Hari Raya Puasa is a Malay New Year celebration.
With regards to stereotypes, 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that Malays are lazy. 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that Indians cannot be trusted as compared to 20% of Indian respondents. A majority of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that the Chinese are greedy.
The conceptions of racial groupings have often been controversial for scientific as well as social and political reasons. While the general consensus favours a biological basis for such divisions, it is possible for a Chinese to be genetically further apart from a fellow Chinese than a Malay.
Furthermore, the definitions of race have been fluid. For example, whilst Arabs may be considered Malays in Malaysia, they would be Arabic in origin.
Take the path of most resistance
Race concepts have been reinforced throughout the colonial era and used as powerful organising tools for western governments. In Rwanda, divisions between the Tutsis and Hutus were non-existent until the arrival of the Belgians, who started classifying them according to the size of their anatomies.
Unlike ethnically Malay countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia where races are not rigidly defined within the confines of religion, the definition of Malay is uniquely enshrined in the Malaysian constitution as a Muslim who speaks Malay and practices Malay customs.
Nevertheless, the term bumiputera has never been formally defined in any official documents. The late Tunku Abdul Rahman in his answer to the parliamentary debate of November 1965 stated that the term had no legal meaning except to denote the natives of Malaya and the Borneo states, Chinese and Indians who have been born locally for several generations, and natives less able to compete with others.
He was eventually pressured to accept the definition which excluded all Chinese and Indians, a concept used politically. Subsequently, the Malays and bumiputeras possess special rights under the constitution. However, the constitution is equivocal as to whether the rights are permanent or remedial and transitional. It is also silent on the time frame. These are contentious issues at the core of race relations in Malaysia.
Studies suggest a cultural basis for race where segregation stems from perception and evolves through differences that are humanly defined.
When the Americans first arrived in Japan, they perceived the Japanese as lazy. Probably there was no economic reason to be hard working in a then slow-paced and isolated Japan. Today, the stereotypes pertaining to Japan are anything but lazy. Similarly, any form of racial stereotypes should not be accepted by Malaysians as a given but as a man-made construct or misconstruct.
Perhaps the way forward for racial integration is the path of most resistance. Perhaps everyone should be compelled to learn the all the languages of other races in schools to facilitate greater understanding amongst races. This is not impossible if we look at countries such as Switzerland where citizens are fluent in three official languages.
Also, education curricula should be revised to provide an impartial perspective of subjects such as history. The original objectives of the New Economic Policy (NEP) to help the needy regardless of race should be strongly advocated and not manipulated to the whims and fancies of certain parties.
We’re suspicious of one another
The problem of racial strife is that of perception. Remedies suggested have always involved major political changes which are beyond the reach of any one individual. However, we need not be too ambitious and underestimate our roles in the civil society. The fact is not so much that there exists interracial animosity but that we are suspicious of one another.
This is partly because we did not have the opportunities to develop friendships with people of other races at the personal level. Many are brought up from a mono-racial background and attend vernacular schools. Instead of defining ourselves against other races, we should endeavour to place ourselves through the lenses of the other races and empathise with their situation. The quid pro quo approach would be the first step to racial integration.
For the non-Malay, would you be willing to sacrifice your special rights if you were Malay? For the Malay, would you give up vernacular schools if you were non-Malay?
It is argued that one cannot discuss racial issues without touching on the ill-fated May 13 incident. Although politicians have taken the stance of ignoring the big elephant in the room, perhaps the only way we can solve the problem of interracial distrust and suspicion is by digging out and examining old skeletons. The question is, are we willing to be objective or do we continue to have a chip on our shoulder?
JOSHUA CHU and MOHAMMAD A HAMID anchored this session. Chu is an alumnus of St John’s College. Mohammad is an engineer by training, currently taking one year off from work to pursue masters degree after 10 years in the industry. Interests include voluntary work with young people and writing.
WILLIAM TAN edited this article. He is currently reading chemical engineering. An arts and music enthusiast who plays the piano during his leisure, Tan also takes interest in and discusses passionately about economical, political and social issues pertaining to Malaysia.