Tuesday, August 4

Race to the top

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TAN Sri Joseph Kurup’s proposal to delete race from official forms is not new. It was discussed in the government in 2009 and I commented on it then, explaining how I became increasingly conscious of other’s reaction to my race as I grew up (I was like one of the boys portrayed in Yasmin Ahmad’s Petronas Merdeka 2007 advert) and why I was uncomfortable when asked to fill in my ethnicity ostensibly for the purposes of ‘monitoring discrimination’ in the UK.

Generally I have observed three broad attitudes towards race by Malaysians (of all ethnicities).

First are those who are indifferent or even disdainful about ethnicity. They try to go through life without expressing their own ethnicity, and never judge others on account of their skin colour. In current parlance they might say that they are Malaysian first and their ethnicity last. Indeed they may resist — perhaps react with hostility to — questions about what race they are, and might be despised by others of the same ethnic background as ‘traitors to their race’.

Second are those for whom ethnicity is an important personal source of identity. I believe everyone’s family histories can provide many useful lessons. For example, I am inspired by my Minangkabau forebears who pioneered federalism and democracy, and by my Arab ancestor who sailed from the Hadhramaut to Negeri Sembilan in the 19th century, and by my Terengganu great-grandfather’s staunch defence of his land.

These aren’t just stories of individuals: they represent wider political, economic and cultural movements which were interwoven with ethnic identities. Other people’s stories are just as compelling, and collectively, they enrich our society today because we can all share in them.

I have no problem being ‘Malaysian first’, but there are many sources of identity and there should be no shame in wanting to express those as well.

Third are those for whom the concept of race exists to determine one’s place in society.

They believe that everyone must have an identifiable race because it is the only way to determine one’s appropriate relationship with others — and in particular, one’s relationship with the state. And history is used (or abused) to provide justifications for the creation and maintenance of policies that treat people according to pre-set racial categories: for in this conception ethnic identity is no longer something that you realise for yourself, but something that the government declares you to be.

Thus, it is futile for a Malaysian to tick lain-lain and write Minang or Bugis, though Indonesians would understand the distinction very clearly.

In the current debate following Tan Sri Joseph Kurup’s suggestion, it’s clear that it is those in the third category who vehemently oppose the removal of race from official forms, because such an act would attack the very core of their world view.

At this juncture it is worth remembering that long before the suggestion of removing race from official forms was considered dangerous, one courageous man proposed something similarly profound.

In May 1949, Datuk Onn Ja’afar proposed that his fast-growing political party, the United Malays National Organisation, should admit non-Malays.

This innovation was not enthusiastically received and he ultimately resigned as party president two years later, paving the way for Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra to lead the party and country.

When the Tunku proposed to form the Alliance with the Malayan Chinese Association ahead of the Kuala Lumpur municipal elections of 1952, even this was met with disdain by some of his own party colleagues, but Bapa Kemerdekaan persisted, and the Alliance won nine out of 12 seats.

Three years later, with the addition of the Malayan Indian Congress, the Alliance won 51 out of 52 seats in the Federation of Malaya’s first general election.

Datuk Onn, meanwhile, continued his single multi-ethnic party approach through the Independence of Malaya Party and Parti Negara, which electorally performed dismally. Perhaps this was partly because society was not ready for it.

Yet, if we were to repeat Datuk Onn’s proposal today, I suspect some would react even more violently than in 1949. Formulations like Bangsa Malaysia and 1Malaysia, even if officially sanctioned, will not succeed when they co-exist with government policies that incentivise the adoption of other state-defined racial categories.

As ever, going further back in history provides useful context. The classical Malay kingdoms did not require people to state their ethnicity.

What was more important is which ruler you declared loyalty to, and thus you find stunning examples (by today’s standards) of non-Malays being appointed to very senior positions in royal courts, and diverse communities enthusiastically participating in palace ceremonies.

Perhaps the National Unity Consultative Council would be wise to draw attention to some of these accounts.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.