Last year, I traveled to Australia. Upon arrival, I was pulled aside by immigration for “further examination”. I acquiesced and answered their probing questions patiently. This was, after all, quite normal to a dark-skinned person like me. And it was not the first time I’d been “randomly examined” at an airport.
Maybe that’s why I could easily empathise with the family of George Floyd who died after being pinned down by the knee of a US policeman, just as millions who have been subjected to blatant acts of racism were able to all around the world.
Growing up in Malaysia, I was never allowed to forget my race and colour. I was called blackie, keling, and many more racially-charged epithets.
One girl in kindergarten refused to play with me as she was afraid my colour would stick to her. Another girl referred to me as “the black boy”. Among many in my social circle, being fair was idolised. I grew up watching incessant beauty advertisements that consistently showed dark-skinned people looking unattractive and unhappy until they found the “magical” skin-lightening product.
Today, I see many Malaysians signaling their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They say what’s happening in the US is despicable and are resolutely against institutional and grassroots racism. I am glad many are aware and up in arms about the racial inequalities plaguing the US and many other nations.
But it would be hypocritical to do it without first examining all the ways in which we are racist to our brothers and sisters of other races right here in Malaysia.
Malays are lazy. The Chinese will do anything for money. Indians are gangsters. We are no strangers to such venomous stereotypical, race-baiting rhetoric. Quite a number of Malaysians often use toxic terms to paint certain groups or people as the “other” and propagate pungent, pernicious racial profiling and animosity.
But such racism doesn’t stop at words. I’ve had friends who were refused house rentals and jobs due to the colour of their skin.
How many of us harbour racist thoughts? Do we ever question ourselves? Is there racial profiling in law enforcement in Malaysia? Is race a factor in employment in Malaysia, including in the private sector?
The fact is, it is easier to see racist behavior elsewhere and in others, rather than in our own nation and in ourselves.
And what are we, as individuals, or as communities, doing to discard racist thinking? Let’s all look in the mirror and honestly answer the question.
Recently, a survey on global racial discrimination put Malaysia at the number two spot, sparking national headlines and heated debate on social media sites. I can’t speak for the legitimacy of the survey but it’s a sentiment I’ve heard countless people express.
There are those who blame the New Economic Policy (NEP) for racist thinking taking root. This affirmative-action policy was adopted in 1971 and has continued in various forms since.
It’s a peculiarity as out of a quarter or so countries in the world that have affirmative-action policies, Malaysia is one of exceedingly few that use it to uplift the majority race.
The NEP is well-intentioned, there is no doubt about that. Yet it is a controversial policy that many prominent voices say has outlived its purpose, and that has been expropriated by some.
Former finance minister Daim Zainuddin is on record as saying: “We can no longer allow Bumiputera interventions to continue to enrich those amongst us who have benefited from these policies, yet continue to take advantage of loopholes in the policies to enrich themselves at the expense of those who need help.
“We must also acknowledge that although Bumiputeras are indeed disproportionately represented amongst the poor, other races too are deeply affected by poverty and low standards of living.”
Daim said any new NEP-like policy should “approach the Bumiputera dilemma with a fresh perspective to ensure that all Malaysians can have their fair share of our national prosperity. Any policy must result in justice for all”.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a towering figure in Malaysian politics and a former finance minister, had this to say: “The NEP was a 20-year programme. It has become, in the imaginations of some, the centre of a permanently racialised socio-economic framework.
“Tun Ismail (Abdul Rahman, former deputy prime minister) and Tun Razak (Hussein, former prime minister who introduced the NEP), in the age of the fixed telephone (you even needed to go through an operator), thought 20 years would be enough. Its champions in the age of instant messaging talk about 100 or 450 years of Malay dependency.”
He added: “The NEP was to diversify the Malay economy beyond certain stereotyped occupations. It is now about feeding a class of party-linked people whose main economic function is to obtain and re-sell government contracts and concessions”.
These Malaysian luminaries point out a reality that many choose not to contend with, fearing it might disturb “the peace” between the races. But as the civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice”.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.