Friday May 25, 2012
Let’s talk about race
By JOSHUA W.K. CHONG
Ideas voiced on race are often emotionally charged, over-simplistic and almost always unevenly dominated by certain groups. Many ordinary Malaysians have worsened the situation by taking sides, perhaps from a false sense of loyalty.
THIS article was supposed to have been published shortly after the forum “Race Relation Laws – Backward or Forward?” that was held at the Malaysian Bar Auditorium on March 31. The weekend I was to write the article, my maternal grandmother passed away, and the Putik Lada roster had to be reshuffled.
The event, organised by the National Young Lawyers Committee (NYLC), was part of its Siri Pemikiran Kritis fora on current issues and in response to an announcement by de facto Law Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz that the Government would introduce a Race Relations Act, a plan which he later said would be scrapped.
The NYLC went on with the forum. After all, in Malaysia, legislation is rather like runway fashion – one moment it’s in, the next it’s out, and a few years later it’s in again.
The idea of race relations legislation could crop up again, and in any instance such an act within the context of the Malaysian legal framework was a worthwhile topic of discourse.
The forum brought in four interesting personas. Bersih co-chairperson Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, herself no stranger to virulent racist threats and slurs, moderated the panel of young lawyer Muhammad Faisal Moideen, the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee chairman Syahredzan Johan, and Associate Professor at Universiti Malaya Dr Azmi Sharom.
Since my grandmother died when I was thinking about the forum, I thought about her and my late grandfather, too. A survivor of the war and Japanese Occupation, my grandmother was small but very resolute.
A Teochew who grew up in Kedah and later settled in Pangkor Island during its early days as a small fishing village, her Malay was far more fluent than her English.
In fact, when my sister was younger, she conversed with my grandmother in Malay because my sister couldn’t speak any Chinese dialect. A few of my grandmother’s signature dishes, which she would slave away whenever we came to visit her, were Malay dishes – gulai ayam and ikan sumbat sambal. My grandfather grew up in a rubber estate with a large Indian community and could speak Tamil quite well, using the language whenever he conversed with Indians in Pangkor.
My grandparents mixed with other races in their youth and never saw language, food or culture under an “ours/theirs” dichotomy.
Perhaps if more Malaysians embraced the tolerance of their generation, we would not need to contemplate race relations legislation today – my grandparents would have found the very idea bewildering.
We’ve often heard the older generation say “things were never this bad in the past” and there seemed to be a consensus at the forum that race relations in Malaysia have indeed deteriorated over the years, which leads to the question: “Is it so bad in this country that we need specific statutory laws to regulate race relations?”
Regardless of where you draw the line, few people would claim there’s nothing to worry about. Just recently, I overhead a recruiter boasting to a candidate that his company had customers from various races (which was of course a good thing) but a few sentences later, he informed the candidate that the ability to speak English was necessary because it was bahasa pendatang.
Even if you don’t come across such insults, reading the daily headlines can send shivers down any right-thinking person’s spine.
If the headlines aren’t shocking, then the writing can often be as worrying. Race has become such a permeating, all-encompassing and dividing force that it now defines and prescribes how we work, play, speak and interact with other Malaysians.
Perhaps one reason why race relations have deteriorated so much is because discourse on the issue has been calculated to polarise, rather than to unite.
As such, ideas voiced on race are often emotionally charged and over-simplistic and almost always unevenly dominated by certain groups. Rather than opposing that trend by calling for more rational, calm and broad-viewed discussion, many ordinary Malaysians have worsened the situation by taking sides, perhaps from a false sense of loyalty to their ethnicity.
It was a recurring point amongst the panellists that we have left the problem-solving on this issue (and indeed many other issues) too squarely on the shoulders of our leaders and politicians without reflecting on their own prejudices.
At the forum, Syahredzan admitted that he still could not muster the will to speak up against his relatives who viewed current issues under racial lenses, and that struck a chord with me.
If we don’t speak up against racism around us, how can we expect any better of our leaders? Should we not take some responsibility and initiative, rather than merely blaming and expecting others to solve problems?
What was most impressive about the forum (even if the finer legal arguments have faded from memory) was that the panellists and contributing floor could talk about this sensitive and divisive issue in an engaged but calm and reasonable fashion.
No one resorted to the stereotypes, threats, hyperbole and posturing that have unfortunately become the norm whenever race is discussed.
I am looking forward to the next topic in the series, and hope to see you there.
> The writer is a young lawyer. Putik Lada, or pepper buds in Malay, captures the spirit and intention of this column – a platform for young lawyers to articulate their views and aspirations about the law, justice and a civil society. For more information about the young lawyers, visit www.malaysianbar.org.my.