Written by Dr Helmy Haja Mydin. First published in The New Straits Times on 24 July 2015.
Many things revolve around race in Malaysia. It can be a particularly trying experience for a child of mixed heritage. When I was around 10, an Indian uncle commented “what for you want to study so hard? You’re Malay what — you will get everything”. When I was in university, a Malay “friend” earnestly asked me “Kau tak malu ke, kau ada darah Keling?”. Only a few weeks ago, a Chinese gentleman pointed out: “Oh you have a Malay name. I thought Malay doctors cannot talk properly.”
Ironically in my years abroad, I have only ever been exposed to overt racism once. It happened one winter, when it was so cold that icicles practically formed along my eyebrows. I was focused entirely on the icy pavement (falling down on your bum may appear comical, but can be rather painful) when a snowball became closely acquainted with my cheek, followed immediately by cries of “Go back to China!”. I glanced up to see a couple of boys with whiskers heralding the onset of puberty, arming themselves with more snowballs. I quickly pulled up my collar and hurried off, a little worried that the tears of amusement in my eyes would provoke them into more violent behaviour.
Being the product of a mixed marriage is both a blessing and a curse. There is the sense of never quite belonging, of words said without thought can be hurtful. It is an unfortunate fact that racism exists, but it is a fact that needs to be acknowledged. The story of the young lads with the snowball serves to illustrate a very important point — ignorance plays a large role in the manner in which we deal with these racist thoughts. After all, when you start with a base of presuppositions and presumptions, it is easy to justify actions that would not be condoned by any law of the land or major religions of the world.
It starts with education, and more subtly, the education system. Decades of communal segregation breeds contempt and disregard for those of a different colour.
We have Malays who do not mix socially with non-Malays, we have students of vernacular schools who are unable to converse in Bahasa Malaysia after more than a decade in school.
Few things emulate the bonds of friendship that coalesce in primary and secondary schools. Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying: “No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion”. However if you spend the formative years of your life exposed only to others of a similar colour and background, your worldview will soon become fixed and unsurprisingly, racist thoughts become inbuilt.
Communal tensions are nothing new. However, the advent of social media has allowed it to burst forth like an angry boil. Information and disinformation spreads in real time, often without any accompanying critical analysis.
Experts and even sworn testimonies spring up like mushrooms after a heavy rainfall. The masses are more inclined to click on controversial stories or statements, which can start a vicious cycle of reinforcing false beliefs.
Thankfully, we are beginning to witness a willingness by civil society to counter the more extreme voices and populate the information flow with a call for rational thought and behaviour. As Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, CEO of the Global Movement of Moderates, once advised: “The best way to counter the extremist voices is to call their bluff by countering with the voices of moderation.”
Last but not least, we have that age-old culprit — the economy. When the going is good, as they did in the 1980s and early 1990s, most were happy to keep uncouth opinions to themselves to ensure that they did not miss out on the proverbial piece of pie. But economic perceptions have changed, and many feel insecure in this rapidly changing landscape. Young graduates with poor career prospects feel despondent, groups with similar or vested interests begin to hunker down, leading to further alienation and isolation.
Rather than empathising with others who are likely in the same position, history warns us that society tends to target minority groups or those who yield less political influence such as foreigners. When tensions are high and the pressures immense, it takes a nudge here and a poke there for emotions to spill over — emotions that are a manifestation of the aforementioned ignorance, emotions that tend to escalate if not contained early on.
There is no easy fix for racism, and we will need to deal with it in a systematic and systemic fashion in order to ensure that our children live in a bigotry-free environment. The first step is to acknowledge its presence and not hide it under the carpet. As a song from the musical Avenue Q states, “Everyone’s a little bit racist, It’s true. But everyone is just about, as racist as you!”. Openly acknowledging a problem is the first step towards addressing it.
Like many in Malaysia, I will always be affected by the issue of race. However I have learnt to deflect hurtful words and embrace the negativity. I derive strength from the courage shown by my parents in the face of adversity. Most of all, I am thankful that I grew up with an understanding that race does not matter as much as the individual beneath the skin, a lesson that I am hoping will be embraced by many.
Dr Helmy Haja Mydin is an Associate of IDEAS.