FEBRUARY 20 — You may fail to leave a worthy name behind for people to reminisce and commemorate, but surely you can have the name you want while you’re alive!
To have a preferred name for yourself, even if the world thinks you suck.
Not so straightforward a proposition in Malaysia.
Because here, names can be a tricky business, or more specifically the endeavour to procure a new or different name.
This isn’t the season to seek inspiration from politicians, but perhaps their personal journeys can offer reflection.
Dorell Leiking is a minister in the Mahathir Cabinet.
While the deputy president of Sabah’s Warisan is not a household name yet, people would be still surprised his actual name is Dorell.
I was, when I chastised a designer for getting the candidate’s name wrong for the 2013 general election poster. Unfazed, with a few clicks he pointed to me the legal name of the PKR candidate for Penampang. Dorell, not Darell.
It’s Ignatius Dorell Leiking, and not Ignatius Darell Leiking. That’s how it appears on the Parliament website.
While I’ve never asked him in person, I assume a birth registration mishap. His daddy wanted Darell and his mother wanted Darell — and probably a whole lot of people thought it was Darell at the christening in Penampang, Sabah.
It must surprise first time voters when they see the name Dorell on the voting chit, especially since the two-term MP refers to himself as simply Darell. So do the posters, buntings and e-promotional material.
Alas, misspells at birth registrations — thanks to a police sergeant’s handwriting at balais many times — determine how people are legally recognised till death, whether they like it or not. Here in Malaysia.
Even ministers must endure clerical errors.
While courts can order corrections, Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara (National Registration Department or JPN for short) retains the previous name, or remarkably the erroneous version. Which explains the use of aliases in identity cards, as such.
[email protected] bin Awang
[email protected] AK Daveed
Or when people convert religions and then add belatedly a name, the previous name most often remains.
[email protected] AK Embing
Muhamad [email protected] Vellupillai bin Abdullah
The change does not absolve the past. Maybe in some cases, though — JPN is a perplexing institution.
So why this discussion now?
The door’s ajar with the Federal Court’s ruling last week on removing bin Abdullah for a Johor-born child. This was not a conversion case, but rather about evading future stigma for the applicant — effectively judged as an illegitimate child by society.
Some space for introspection comes from it.
Should Malaysians determine their own names — separate from how their parents deemed it at birth, or how socio-political narratives shape bureaucratic manoeuvres or religious demands?
To pick a name, not race or religion. Just the name. To have one you like.
How are things in other countries?
There’s the bizarre.
American Joseph Gold felt Tyrannosaurus Rex Joseph Gold was way cooler and successfully applied for the change in 2012.
Glastonbury’s George Garratt shone better, and earlier.
The British lad in 2008 stepped away from the simple and became Captain Fantastic Faster Than Superman Spiderman Batman Wolverine The Hulk And The Flash Combined.
In a single leap, he covered both the DC and Marvel universe in his enthralling hybrid name of superheroes.
Those are extreme examples, and in the vast majority name changes are usually for the benefit of the individual, not as much to draw attention to the said individual.
They are not divas, just people who can’t live with the name they have, or wish earnestly for another name.
Understandably, all the Hitlers in Bavaria would’ve been allowed to ditch the surname after Hitler died in a bunker.
Kamal Ataturk initiated surnames for Turks after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. So Turks used to patronymic names had to figure a fresh family name.
In the Sixties and Seventies, ethnic Chinese in South-east Asia, except for Malaysia and Singapore were strongly encouraged or incentivised to lose their Chinese names.
All those instances invite different discussions over identity and culture, and the point remains that name shifts have been in style in the last hundred years at least.
But by large, the permissibility and social acceptance of name changes have grown by the decades.
More importantly, by choice and not through coercion.
Think Freddie Mercury, Tom Cruise, Reginald Dwight, Bruno Mars, Ho Chi Minh, Bill Clinton, Robert Zimmerman and Muhammad Ali.
Liberal democracies defend personal choice as long as it has no discernible harm to society, and actual harm to the individual.
In societies, liberal or otherwise, it’s completely acceptable for individuals to determine how they want to be called, and therefore why not let them legalise it too?
A rose by any other name
Names are central to identity, and in identity politics central, Malaysia, names are sacred cows.
They tell you who you are and what you are, for simplifications of race, religious and political identity.
Entitlements and allegiances are carved from names rather than the personal particularities of the person.
But if the race and religious dimensions are not challenged, can the person have the zany name just because he wants it?
The proposition is further enticing with new dynamics at hands.
Technology and practicalities
Malaysians canter to their gates at both KLIA and KLIA2. Thanks to biometrics identification at immigration clearance. Press the finger on the pad, slip the passport detail page — chip attached — and keep face correctly in line with the camera, and voila, inspection complete in less than a minute.
There are ever-present at banks and government, quickening verifications and transactions.
Which also solves fears of identity confusion in case of name change or identity theft.
A new name can increasingly be associated with the individual’s biometric identifications.
Acceptance of formal constructs
The conservative would assert if people have informally referred to themselves differently from their formal names, chosen for them or forced upon them, then the conversation is moot.
All their friends call them as they like them, so do their colleagues, and their family, so does it actually matter, what’s on printed paper?
Yes, it does, very much to most people. As much as they ask the naysayer, if it is merely paper, and these days we don’t use much paper and it’s all electronic and data floating in cyberspace with infinite flexibilities, why not let people have the names they want?
It’s not that hard, anymore.
But that’s not the reality today. Now, it’s a slog to be who you want to be.
They say modern governments can’t guarantee higher education, jobs, retirement benefits or free comprehensive healthcare. Which many reluctantly accept.
But can they have the name they wish for themselves, in the time they have in the Federation of Malaysia?
After all, governments exist to facilitate our happiness, not to dictate our obedience to constructs determined independent of our individual will.
And our happiness begins with how we see ourselves, without hesitation. It’s the right direction if our government chooses to see us how we want to be seen.
Say my name, say my name.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.