The disappearing Malaysian identity

JANUARY 12 ― Festival season makes me treasure the country more.

This is probably driven by the feeling that we are losing the plot as a nation, and together with it our country and the Malaysian way of life.

The worry is that we will one day lose all the things we take for granted today... what more celebrate and appreciate our differences.

Absurd and unthought of before, but going by the events of late, not so anymore.

I was brought up in a multiracial family and spent a lot of my childhood days with my maternal grandparents.

They (who are known as “pendatang” to some) were the ones who taught me Malay ― yes, that’s right ― while my Dad who goes by the name of Amzan made English, Hokkien ― and for a while Mandarin ― the official language at home.

I was mostly, if not completely, oblivious to the different races in the country.

My debut into the 1Malaysia world began in Standard 1 when the class teacher asked me to write about my race, favourite food, and colours in a profile book. The things that you would ask a seven-year-old to do.

So I looked around for answers. The boy on my left wrote “Malay”, and the girl on my right wrote “Indian”. I looked at her and said, “Is that your favourite food? I think you need to write what sports you like. Like in a race?”

She looked at me as if I was an extra-terrestrial being. So I raised my hand and asked the teacher, “What 'race' do I put here? I like swimming, badminton. Does that count?”

It was then the teacher’s turn to give me the “look.” But the frown on her face, and the bewildered look she had made me feel like I was the most stupid person in class if not the country.

After what felt like an eternity, she finally blinked and asked me in Malay (which was my first encounter with sarcasm), “What language do you use at home, KAMAL?! That is your race. Write that down!”

So, I wrote “English/Chinese” in the race column and my favourite food, “Wantan Mee.”

There was another time, during Agama when the Ustazah asked, “Can Muslims eat non-halal food?” In a classroom of around 30 Muslim students, I was the loudest one who asked, “What is ‘halal’?”

My parents were called to school numerous times to explain my “rebellious” behaviour. They would sit down and talk to me after every visit about the people who are so-called Malaysians.

I pitied my parents as a kid. And as a boy who knows very little about “races” and “what to eat”, I’m sure I was pitied by many of my teachers back then. But now, at the age of 34, I pity those who live in the country but do not experience Malaysia.

And as I grew older, travelled more, I realised that there is no better place to learn about cultures, religions, languages, food than a country of 30 million that is so ethnically, religiously, culturally different, and ever so sensitive of things that would make them be perceived as less Malay, Chinese, Indian etc.

The same diversity that I realised would either make or break us.

For instance imagine if Malaysians are made to speak just three languages out of the 140 found in the country (which is not something impossible), how attractive would our graduates and workforce be to the world?

Imagine the number of companies that will vie for them. And imagine the number of FDIs we can attract to our shores if we equip them with the necessary knowledge, skills and keep them at home. You wont even need Talent Corp and worry about significant brain drain.

That is just one example and a peek at how our differences can be our strength.

But what do we do?

We worry about losing our “identity.” We worry about not being able to speak and sound “right.” So worried that many resist efforts to be associated with other races forgetting that ― commercial value aside ― the ability to integrate and respect one another is the thread that holds this multiracial nation ― read everyone ― together.

So worried that we refuse to let our children mix in schools. The education system is flawed, but why do we consciously partake in the systemic segregation of the next generation through schools, justifying our actions by the fact that one is better than the other instead of finding ways to make the one nation, one school system work?

Everything is racially and religiously driven to the extent that it applies even to where we shop for our IT gadgets in KL.

It would have been funny, if not for the fact that our world is getting smaller, borderless, when the country is flooded with the influx of princes and princesses from Africa, religious bigots and extremists, and the millions of foreigners who come in to fill up jobs in our estates and construction sites.

I now have Chinese patients who never had Malay or Indian food, whose command of the Malay language is worse than a four-year-old Malay boy's. I also have acquaintances who still feel that the non-Malays are here to rob the country and then leave, putting aside the logic behind the non-Malays investing years of hardship into building this country and their Malaysian families.

How sad.

We have the potential to be a nation that truly respects, tolerate and embrace racial and cultural differences, whose citizens celebrate each other’s differences and not antagonise, suspect and oppress one another.

The only question is, how bad do we want it?

I was driven to write this while listening to Chinese New Year songs in malls and thinking what festival comes next.

May the celebration bring forth the kaleidoscope that allows us to view the colourful tapestry that makes this country unique, special and truly remarkable in the eyes of the world.

I know it’s early. But since the lanterns and songs are up and abound, allow me to wish all Malaysians a Happy Chinese New Year.

Gong Xi Fa Cai.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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