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Ethnicity: A Malaysian political obsession

Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com

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We must be aware of racially loaded remarks impulsively and thoughtlessly made by us that can lessen the warmth and rapport we may have with friends of varied ethnicity, says Rakyat Jelata.

Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com
Photo courtesy of parenbonjour.com

A woman who visited her family doctor told me that the doctor’s assistant asked her whether she was Eurasian or Indian.

Incidentally, she is neither by descent, but due to an accident of circumstances she is culturally ‘Chindian’. Her husband is ‘Chinese’ officially on paper, but has a Eurasian mother and is culturally Eurasian, having lost his father at an early age and having been brought up by his Eurasian mother.

The doctor’s assistant’s enquiry regarding the patient’s ethnicity was completely irrelevant to anyone’s state of health and had no bearing on whatever treatment the doctor might have recommended or medicine she may have prescribed, except in particular cases.

Being forced to make a choice, the woman classified herself as Indian, following the lineage of her foster father.

A patient visiting a private clinic doesn’t expect to have to state their ethnicity for health care purposes, but this is a Health Ministry requirement in line with the current federal 1Malaysia policy.

Even if this information was for statistical research purposes, people should have the option not to state their ethnicity, if they preferred not to disclose it. Moreover, there is a narrow choice of four main ethnic groups, the subsets of those groups, and the so-called “Others/ Dan Lain-lain” category.

Authorities might argue that they have added other ‘bumiputera’ ethnic categories to more realistically reflect the make-up of Malaysia’s multi-ethnic population. Nonetheless, these ethnic categories are also debatable.

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Forcing people into ethnic ‘boxes’ increasingly leads into a mire of unnecessary confusion that results in flawed statistical information, misrepresenting the true ethnic composition of the country’s population who increasingly view themselves as Malaysians.

The obsession with ethnicity is not recent or new; it has dogged several generations of Malaysian youths emerging from the education system. It is compulsory to fill in the ‘race’ box when registering for government exams, when applying for university entrance, when furnishing personal details for a Mycard/Identity card, and when filling in certain job applications, birth certificates, and a myriad other local official applications.

The practice of having to disclose one’s ethnicity or racial origin seems to have become ingrained over the past fifty-plus years – so much so Malaysians of all complexions instinctively consent to filling in the ‘race’ box. This ‘habit’ is reinforced by making such disclosures compulsory for citizens and in some cases for those of foreign nationality.

As a result, years of compelled ethnic disclosure conditions our minds to raise the question of ethnicity in the commonest issues or topics of conversation. To illustrate this, a conversation about a road accident may go like this:

“Oh! What a serious lorry crash!”

“What (race) was the driver?” (an enquiry into the ethnicity of the driver), often followed by some stereotyping generalidation about persons of that ethnicity.

Is this necessary or relevant to the topic? The accident is tragic enough, but to unnecessarily raise the issue of ethnicity can imply underlying prejudice and encourage derogatory comments when it is least needed.

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Such dangerous stereotyping is also used on migrants and persons from foreign ethnic communities in the country who come here to work or to seek refuge.

Not so long ago, a prominent Opposition politician expressed indignation about an incident where two Malaysian policemen were allegedly shot by some foreign hoodlums. One of them died and the other was wounded.

While calling for the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), he referred to “the exploding population of illegal foreigners who seem to be operating ‘a country within the country and a law within the Malaysian law’ – creating a volcano awaiting eruption with grave and immense consequences to all Malaysians in the country”.

Tarring all undocumented foreign migrants with the same brush shows how ignorant and ethnically insensitive we are to others. Blaming them for the unsafe circumstances in which we live is unjustified. This is largely due to our own government’s lax and apathetic security enforcement besides rampant corruption infecting all levels of society.

Moreover, there is no separate set of ‘laws’ among migrant ethnic communities that are divided. Many are law-abiding in their own countries as well as ours. They live here as they do in their own countries of origin, according to their own customs, culture and religions, as we do.

No doubt, the sacrifices made by police personnel and other security enforcers in this country deserve recognition and appreciation; yet it is shocking that an Opposition leader who is well known to champion a “Malaysian Malaysia” advocating equal rights and ethnic harmony in this country should express such xenophobic sentiments.

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Further, this veteran politician says, “But the security situation is actually even worse – when the police themselves do not feel safe while carrying out their ordinary duties to keep country and the population free from the fear of crime and safe from crime.”

One would question what the role of the police in the community is. Is policing a safe job? Are they there to be safe? If our police fear for their safety, ordinary citizens are definitely unsafe. Do the police expect ordinary citizens to protect them instead? Why then are firearms and truncheons dispensed to the police?

We need to be aware of the racial trigger within ourselves that at times is activated subconsciously for no reason or for our own motives.

We must be aware of the sort of racially loaded remarks impulsively and thoughtlessly made by us that can lessen the warmth and rapport we may have with friends of varied ethnicity. Such insensitivity to our neighbours dissipates trust and goodwill in our multi-ethnic Malaysian family and with our international neighbours and friends.

Rakyat Jelata is the pseudonym of a regular contributor to our Thinking Allowed Online section.

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