September 17, 2012
As Malaysians, defining ourselves by race only further divides us
IN 1995, I was asked to contribute an article to a local daily that was running a series entitled “I am Malaysian”.
What prompted me to agree was a queer question posed to me a few weeks earlier by a gentleman from Terengganu: “You ni kacukan ke?” Loosely translated: “Are you of mixed parentage?”
I should have been offended. But he appeared sincere, no malice intended. Just honest curiosity.
Growing up in Malacca in the Portugese Settlement, it never occurred to me that we were somehow different; set apart because of our race.
As the nation celebrated Malaysia Day yesterday, I recalled the question of the Terengganu gentleman while observing the developments around me.
Which brings me to where we are today.Malaysia Day is as good as any day to ponder the meaning of what it means to be Malaysian.
Fifty-five years after independence and 49 years into being Malaysia, we should be reveling in the fact that we are a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-religious country.
Yet, we are continually reminded that we are nation defined, and perhaps, divided by race.Conversations tend to focus more on the divisive rather than celebrating the collective. Does it matter how we define ourselves?
My friend, Dr Nungsari Radhi, recently wrote that “by defining ourselves by race, we are appealing to our primordial and unenlightened selves.We are choosing a very low common denominator that is neither inspirational nor inspiring. It rears its ugly side whenever the country faces hard decisions. It is choking the country.” I couldn’t agree with him more.
In my family, each of us would struggle to define ourselves by race. We are thoroughly of mixed racial origin.It is even more complicated for our children.
I am married to a Malaysian of Indian origin. My sister Rachel is married to Patrick, of Malacca Straits-born Chinese descent. His mother-tongue is the Malay dialect that the Malacca Nyonya and Baba speak. My brother, Moses, is married to Stephanie, who is a Hokkien from Malacca; Assunta is married to Merlyn who is of Chinese-Indian heritage. Clifford is married to a Filipino; and Sara is married to Sikim, a Kadazan.
So, how would one classify our children? And I know we are not alone. There are many like us. Of course, for want of a specific definition, folks like us are officially classified as lain-lain or “others”. Neither accurate, nor complimentary, surely.
It is for this reason that I was pleased when the Government proposed to remove race from official forms.I would like to see this proposal gain traction. I would go so far as to say that any attempt to define us by race is only a bureaucratic convenience. And there is a real downside to such conveniences. It is self-serving.
We continue to perpetuate stereotypes and prevent the organic evolution of a Malaysian race.
I look forward to the day when we identify ourselves as Malaysian first. I don’t think this would in any way diminish the uniqueness of each ethnic group. Neither would this cause the demise of any particular culture. Instead, it lays the foundation for us to move forward more cohesively and inclusively as a nation. And what a powerful statement on national unity!
Happy Malaysia Day!
Editor’s note: *Dato’ Dr. Rebecca Fatima Sta Maria is the Secretary-General of the International Trade and Industry Ministry but expressing this as her personal opinion.