Friday, March 4, 2011

Race: Substance Over Form

For sometime now, there has been a move to erase 'race' from some official and public forms, both in public and private sector. Yesterday the Star reported the move had been given a new push by the 1Malaysia foundation. The pronouncements of various public figures seem to recognise that the endeavour is wrought with difficulties but justified the move as 'the beginning' and little steps in the realisation of a long-term idealism. In other words, going by their statements, they seem to claim a vision of Malaysia without 'race' as a sense of identification.At the same time I sense many contradictions in their trepidations and a certain awkwardness. They do not seem to be comfortable in their stand, and seemed lacking in confidence and conviction.There is apologetic tone to their admission that 'it won't be easy', ' would be difficult' and its just a beginning. There is also the device of ' erase only in some forms, while it may be necessary to retain in some forms'. The overall intonation conjures an image of people caught in the promises and pronouncements of their own campaign and the demand of consistency, rather than those speaking with the power of their conviction.

I have some comments to share in this connection. I think the question is far more complicated than realised by those in the headlong race to erase 'race' from the forms, even given their trepidations and admission of 'difficulties'.

Within the Malaysian context, the term 'race' and 'ethnicity' is by no means as clean as understood in the academic or scientific sense, where the biological, 'the blood' is distinguished from 'ethnic', the cultural identity. This is particularly so in the case of the Malays, where historically speaking 'race' , 'bangsa' has always been held to be 'cultural' and not ' blood', where self-identity is based on factors like language, religion and way of life. Hence it is valid to raise the question, is the 'race' in the forms asking of one's 'blood', 'biology' or one's cultural roots or socio-historical identity? If it is asking of one's cultural self-identity, which is the case in my assessment, it begs some questions in the light of the suggestion to erase race. What is wrong with it? Is it really possible for people of various denominations to overnight forget and shed their sense of cultural identity? Can the Malays simply trade in their religious identity and cultural history for a clean Malaysian tag? Likewise can the Chinese and Indians and others simply trade in their long cultural history and sense of identity for a Malaysian identity?

 Well those naive enough would object that we need to cultivate the national identity in substitute of other forms of cultural identity. But then we all know, human self -identity is always complex, plural, manifolds and multiple. It is not like a matter of changing one's shirt or the process of branding in the consumer market, where one has only one facet and monolithic at any one time. This is the reality of human sense of the self and there is nothing wrong in this.

Of course I am distinguishing here between 'race' or 'ethnic' as self-identification and 'racism' . They are by no means the same. To have a cultural sense of identity is not being a racist. Racism is more a question of fanaticism and bigotry over one's ' blood', 'biology', and attributing values to it. An extreme example familiar to all of us is nazism, where the self-identification is based on the purity of the Aryan stock, which is claimed to have the monopoly of all the positive human attributes , as against all other 'races', of non-Aryan stock. Now this is racism. To be proud of or to acknowledge one's cultural identity does not presupposes such bigotry. To treat them as the same is not only naive, but very dangerous and of great consequences. For one, such naivety may be camouflaging and championing actual racism of some against the valid sense of cultural-identity of others.

Such moves like removing 'race' from official forms ( even when it is supposed to include the private sector) in the Malaysian context has a hidden danger. It operates on the implicit assumption that 'racism' is the vice of officialdom of the establishment. This is why the moves usually invites the support of 'the public'. Now given the fact that officialdom, the bureaucracy, the civil service, the public sector, the establishment, the status-quo, the 'dominant' is often seen as 'Malay', invariably the 'erase race' movement becomes a one-sided, lopsided, and grossly distorted quest of eradicating 'Malay racism', as if all the other ethnic groups are free of the problem. Now we know the truth is that there is communalism and communalists in all camps and denomination, if we have the courage and honesty to admit it.

Our ethnic identities (often slurred or stigmatised as 'race') run very deep indeed, culturally and historically speaking) As such there is a great deal of naivety in the argument of the 'erase movement', in that 'we do not want the people focus too much on 'race'. Come on! Within the Malaysian context in general the names on the forms itself will announce one's 'race'. In most cases the names would indicate very clearly one's 'race', 'religion', and cultural background. Are they then to standardise the names of Malaysians too, befitting the intention of the 'erase race' move?

There are other realities of our Malaysian nation which represent the deeper roots of our ethnic identities. In the first place ours is a pluralistic society. All the major ethnic groups have their own cultural history, of deeper and older tradition than the Malaysian identity. And there is nothing wrong with this, as I had argued in the above. What is wrong is not ethnic self-identity but communalism, racism, or chauvinism.

 Secondly, our ethnic consciousness is deeply rooted and structural in origin and nature. The economic structure is still divided along 'racial' (ethnic) line. The following economic categories still conform closely to ethnic lines. Rural versus urban, agricultural versus commercial and industrial, professional versus working class etc. The religious denominations still conforms closely to ethnic lines in general. Linguistically, we are still divided. Just consider the attitudes and valuation towards the national language and English or other languages. The political structure is essentially rooted and determined by the various history of 'ethnic' groups. Hence the origin and basis of the national language, official religion, certain provisions of the constitution ( I do not mean only the Malay position, but of the others too). In other words the origin and nature of the nation itself had been the outcome or the synthesis of 'racial' , 'ethnic' proce of bargaining. Take for example the origin and nature of the Malaysian monarchy itself and the sultanates. Are these to be 'erased' too, along with the change of form in the form

Given these deeper roots and the above considerations, I think the move to 'erase' is assuming in saying ' we do not want the people to be conscious of 'race'. Given the deeper roots of ethnic identities, it may well work in the opposite direction. In denying the external expression of such identities, the inner, the emotional, the mental process of chauvinism may well be reinforced. When articulation of legitimate self-identification is denied and stigmatised in naive idealism, it may well lend support for the inner and usually covert, sinister chauvinism among us.

Time to declare my own position as to the 'erase race' move. I think it is quite non-consequential, to leave or erase it. The issue of this posting is not to lend support or objection to it. I just want to provide the bigger picture and the true value of it. Quite independent of the form, ethnic self-identification will continue, given its deeper roots. It is not about to be affected by the forms. Having said this, I do concede as an election move, 'erase race' may prove to be a popular move. It is gimmicky, sensational, of media value and it is quite simply to do because it is essentially a bureaucratic move. And above all, it is just a question of 'form', paper or otherwise, and yet of great political mileage. Is this a safe assumption?   


  1. Pak Pandair

    Any effort to reduce an important data attribute for Statistical Modelling or Sampling is BAD for policy making.

    Folks may say that by one may build a "smart system" that can sift through millions of data to identify and assign a "race" to a data subject...

    For example..

    Even if it is erased, the government can technically reconstruct the race again via the historical genealogical data + the marriage database + the religious conversion database + citizenship Data etc

    To me buang masa..all for some "political mileage"...

  2. Dear SatD,

    I fully agree.It is alienated from reality and in this respect, buang masa, big time!