Hornbill Unleashed

December 25, 2016

Redefining the Malay race

Filed under: Politics — Hornbill Unleashed @ 8:02 AM

Everyone has something to say about what it means to be Malay and what it should mean. In my course of political activism, I am yet to formulate a theory. Which might just be a good thing considering we have far too many. I have however not missed the signs of trouble. I do not have a prescription, but I feel obliged to make my observations known.

The predominant notion of the Malay race from the lens of others is that we thrive on government handouts. What is even more troubling is our willingness to ignore such concerns and carry on. I am not denying the past success of policies to elevate underprivileged communities in Malaysia.

According to official data, the percentage of households living below the poverty line across all ethnic groups has been reduced from 49.3 percent in 1970 to 17.1 percent in 1990, and in 2009 overall poverty had been reduced to 3.8 percent. This improvement was largely attributed to the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Post-NEP, the wealth ownership of the bumiputera had increased from 2.4 percent to 23 percent. Malaysia now boasts a massive middle class, our equality figures through the Gini index have significantly improved. A lot of the measures were aimed not just at Malays either. However, this should be viewed from a public policy perspective and not from a privileged racial lens. At the end of it all, as a race it is imperative that we become self-reliant.

The NEP was not meant as a permanent measure. In certain communities, the extreme reliance on policies from the bygone century serves as a stark reminder of the difficulty involved in moving on. But it is a goal we must materialise.

A second discomforting trend is this feeling that the Malay race owes something to the government. During every Umno general assembly, this rhetoric will echo the halls of the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC). Statements of these sorts have been made by the president of the party to the small divisional heads who visit the ‘warungs’ and ‘mamaks’.

This is problematic for many reasons. One is that it creates an unnatural sense of obligation. Which is what race-peddling political blocks most often exploit. Tell the people they are meant to be slaves and at one point the sense of enslavement is so deeply entrenched, it becomes a part of one’s fundamental identity.

The worst part about internalised submission is that it weakens our ability to challenge corrupt power structures. Notice how Umno members have justified the alleged robbery of Malaysians through the 1MDB scandal via racial arguments? “Its’ better that a Malay gets it, if not it will be the Chinese” or the seasoned excuse of, “It’s okay. He has done a lot for our Malay community”.

This has to stop in order for the Malay community to exit the psychological prison which binds us down.

A collusion that excludes other races brings us a sense of entitlement. In a multi-racial country, it’s the starting point of a deep divide. The divide becomes worse with every issue facing the public consciousness. The detriments are accentuated when issues like 1MDB are uncovered. A legacy of dependence and submission among the race solidifies into political obedience. The resulting trend is deeply disturbing.

As a Malay, I look at our rich history. A history where we not only co-existed but thrived along with other ethnicities. A close reading of history also indicated that the racial labels we unwittingly accept as our own are often inaccurate.

What does it mean to be a Malay? Must religion be a tie-breaker to the Malay identity? If we are going to go by history, why do we ignore the history that predates arrival of Islam in these islands? When did we start becoming Malay and when does one stop.

Going beyond Articles 153 and 160

In the end I believe that my identity goes beyond the boundaries of Articles 153 and 160. A second facet of my Malay identity is scepticism and willingness to question things. This is pertinent in a political culture where we have been told that for reasons absolute by nature, Malays must stand down and never hold ground. Because it is not befitting of a Malay to “argue” or “debate”.

As a Muslim I find that disturbing. I recall Ibn Taimiyah choosing prison over silence. A third facet of my Malay identity is knowing that events of distant past much like some from recent past can be troubling. This means taking action for me.

I do not mean to prescribe a set of actions that will be the Holy Grail to overcome the moral quandary of being a Malay. For the new generation though, we must recognise all is far from well, questioning because that is how we keep our leaders accountable and appreciating that malays have the capacity to tear down walls of repressive divisionism is central.

We must redefine the Malay identity. We must overcome the taboos. We must show to the world that we are not weaklings as we are so often labelled, but we are global shapers who can take on the world.





  1. Classifying humans into races the biggest mistake in history of science
    The Conversation By Darren Curnoe
    Posted Fri at 7:02am

    The human faces of Asia
    PHOTO: The human faces of Asia. First published in the first edition (1876–1899) of Nordisk familjebok. (Supplied: Wikimedia Commons)
    RELATED STORY: Racism row sparked over new human species
    MAP: Australia
    Science is one of the most remarkable inventions of humankind. It has been a source of inspiration and understanding, lifted the veil of ignorance and superstition, been a catalyst for social change and economic growth, and saved countless lives.

    Yet, history also shows us that its been a mixed blessing. Some discoveries have done far more harm than good. And there’s one mistake you will never read about in those internet lists of the all-time biggest blunders of science.

    The worst error in the history of science was undoubtedly classifying humans into the different races.

    Race theory stands alone as biggest mistake

    Now, there are some big contenders for this dubious honour. Massive blunders like the invention of nuclear weapons, fossil fuels, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), leaded petrol and DDT. And tenuous theories and dubious discoveries like luminiferous aether, the expanding earth, vitalism, blank slate theory, phrenology, and Piltown Man, to name just a few.

    But race theory stands out among all of them because it has wreaked untold misery and been used to justify barbaric acts of colonialism, slavery and even genocide. Even today it’s still used to explain social inequality, and continues to inspire the rise of the far right across the globe.

    Take for example the controversy that surrounded Nicholas Wade’s 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance, if you doubt for a moment the resonance race still has for some people.

    The human races were invented by anthropologists like Johann Friedrich Blumenbach back in the 18th century in an attempt to categorise new groups of people being encountered and exploited as part of an ever expanding European colonialism.

    From the very beginning, the arbitrary and subjective nature of race categories was widely acknowledged. Most of the time races were justified on the grounds of cultural or language differences between groups of people rather than biological ones.

    Their existence was taken as a given right up until the 20th century when anthropologists were busy writing about races as a biological explanation for differences in psychology, including intelligence, and educational and socioeconomic outcomes between groups of people.

    Are races still valid?

    Yet, there always was a great deal of unease about race and a widely held belief that racial categories were in practice extraordinarily difficult to apply.

    One famous critic of racial theory was the American anthropologist Ashley Montagu who wrote in 1941:

    “The omelette called ‘race’ has no existence outside the statistical frying pan in which it has been reduced by the heat of the anthropological imagination.”
    If race still resonates today publicly and politically, what do scientists think about it? Do anthropologists in particular believe that races are still valid?

    A new survey of more than 3,000 anthropologists by Jennifer Wagner of the Geisinger Health System and her team has recently been published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology and it offers some valuable insights into their views and beliefs.

    The people surveyed were members of the American Anthropological Association, the largest professional body of anthropologists in the world.

    They were asked to respond to 53 statements about race covering topics like whether races are real, if they are determined by biology, whether races should play a role in medicine, the role of race and ancestry in commercial genetic testing, and if the term race should continue to be used at all.

    Most revealing was the response to the statement, “The human population may be subdivided into biological races”, with 86 per cent of respondents strongly disagreeing or disagreeing.

    To the statement, “Racial categories are determined by biology”, 88 per cent strongly disagreed or disagreed. And, “Most anthropologists believe that humans may be subdivided into biological races”, 85 per cent of respondents strongly disagreed or disagreed.

    We can take from this that there is a clear consensus among anthropologists that races aren’t real, that they don’t reflect biological reality, and that most anthropologists don’t believe there is a place for race categories in science.

    But buried within the survey results were some troubling findings like that anthropologists from privileged groups — in the US context ‘white’ males and females — were more likely to accept race as valid than non-privileged groups.

    These privileged scientists represent 75 per cent of the anthropologists surveyed. Their power and influence reaches right across the field. They are the main people determining what research is done, who gets funding, they are training the next generation of anthropologists, and are the public face of the field as well as the experts whose opinion is sought on issues like race.

    Long-held views need to be challenged

    The take home message is clear. Like everyone else, anthropologists are far from immune to unconscious bias, especially the effects of social status and culture in shaping our beliefs on issues like race.

    Ironically perhaps, we anthropologists need, as a discipline, to work a lot harder at challenging our own deeply held and culturally embedded views, as well as on giving a greater voice to those scientists from historically non-privileged groups.

    Still, the survey makes a very powerful statement. It is a resounding rejection of race by those scientists whose discipline invented the system of racial classification itself.

    It also marks the near universal acceptance by anthropologist of decades of genetic evidence showing that human variation can’t be pigeonholed into categories called races.

    Stepping out of my ivory tower, I can’t see the political class or broader community adopting such a strong view against race any time soon.

    Darren Curnoe is chief investigator and co-leader of Education and Engagement Program at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, and director of the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre at the UNSW Australia.

    Originally published in The Conversation.

    Comment by Taib Mahmud — December 25, 2016 @ 8:26 AM | Reply

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