FEBRUARY 10 — Electoral analysis in Malaysia has heavy race slants. These are common in descriptions:

Candidate X has strong Chinese support. Y is the darling of the Malay right. Z has been away but she is from one of the constituency’s seven Bidayuh villages.

Inevitably, in the need to aggregate a slew of communities together, a colonial construct is summoned.

Non-Malay, which is a simplified form to address the collective of Malaysians who are, well, not Malay. Fulfils the role except it is problematic.

How so?

It defines a group of people by describing what they are not. Negative with the inclination to disempower. To be something by virtue of not being something else is the opposite of flattery. It generates doubt on the relevance of the phrase, Non-Malay.

Imagine the following. A room filled with Malaysians, their ethnicities Indian, Kadazan, Orang Asal and Siamese. Normally, to simplify as a reference here in our country, the occupants are referred to as Non-Malays. Except there is no Malay in the room. There is no Malay in the building but for the sake of plain comprehension accessible to locals, they are called Non-Malays.

While par for course as a description, as a common noun, but when elevated into a proper noun (capitalised) and labelled as such on tables and charts, it jars.

Akin to parents with identical twins; to tell them apart put bracelets on them, one reads John and the other, Non-John. It does the job, but names are not in place only to differentiate entities. Names intend to engender respect for the entities and from there foster goodwill between the entities. Not in John’s sibling’s situation.

And it jars furthers online, where younger people are wont to shorten words, like to a syllable. Without malice, the term Non-Malay turns into the single Non.

You know her, Rebecca, the Non from Sabah.

Those doing it, do it for ease and fail to comprehend the symbolism of the simplification. It is reductionist and tends to isolate the subject from her own identity, as an equal in the Federation of Malaysia.

A Malaysian flag is pictured at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur September 15, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
A Malaysian flag is pictured at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur September 15, 2021. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Detractors likely suggest this is so much swoosh over nothing.

They are right. Nothing is true in this case, as the term Non-Malay describes nothing of the people it refers to. Or that they are nothing without Malays in this phraseological universe.

If Thanos had the rings and snapped again, and all Malays vanished until the next Avengers instalment, would the term Non-Malays make sense anymore? If it does not, then effectively Non-Malay is the shadow of Malay.

This is not a trifle. Language shapes our thinking. The term used therefore then shapes those who fall in it and not value the phrase and also how they appraise themselves and their fellow countrymen. 

The natural otherness formed when the two terms Malay and Non-Malay are set side by side suggests an inherent ascendancy of one over the other in that the latter is determined by being an exclusion to the former.

Consider how more toxic the Trump 2020 presidential campaign would have been if Donald kept referring to Non-White voters as being biased to the Democratic Party and being intolerant of White rural voters. A sustained White versus Non-White rhetoric would have torn the fabric of modern American society, which is why it is taboo today to be insensitive in the terms used to describe Americans.

With the inherent contradictions and its pursuant impact on Malaysian society emphasised, a fairer proper noun to refer to the various communities in the collective is necessary.

However, the practical considerations remain. To eschew the simplicity of Non-Malay may result in cumbersome language. Like here:

While Malays are mixed about PAS; Chinese, Indians, Ibans, Bajaus… (fill in the other 28 official Malaysian races)…are sceptical about the Islamists.

How to bag all the litany of communities into inclusive proper names or single one?

Fortunately, this is not only a Malaysian problem and therefore lessons can be drawn from abroad.

In the post-colonial era, corrections are rife. What was less complex but insensitive, had to be altered, and turned more complex in order to be more diverse.

In a hundred years, black people went through various evolutions of names to refer to themselves; coloured, Negro, African American, people of colour and other terminologies. 

It’s further complicated to collect many people under one banner. For example, the use of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) or API (Asians and Pacific Islanders) and MENA (Middle Eastern and North African). 

The academic style guides insist on the use of specific groups when possible and in the case of groups of ethnicities into a proper noun to use one the target audience feels most comfortable with.

There are risks. The chance it overextends to absurdity to appease proceeding generations. Yet, by the same token, those who demand diversity also demand shortened words. By using abbreviations and acronyms. It probably would work out over time, the challenge is to act on the impulse.

The Malaysian abbreviation to cover Non-Malays

With both global precedents and trends to inclusivity, what could the new abbreviation for Non-Malay be?

It cannot be a letter for each of the 32 communities, but it must appear to include all. Look at API (Asian and Pacific Islanders), detailed earlier speaking about the United States. The four words hardly seem fair to encapsulate the diversity of the three billion people in that region or the 30 over nationalities in it, who now reside in the US.

Yet it is not as lazy as calling all from Asia Pacific, just Asians.

The whole process of seeking inclusive terms for collective groups and then utilising them despite unfamiliarity is a sign of a mature society. A message that this society is inclusive.

It could be as plain as BACI (Borneo, Asal, Chinese and Indian) or CABI or something else.

In a world where FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netfliz and Google) switched to MAANA (Meta, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Alphabet) after rebrands, a palatable phrase to cover what was Non-Malay is only a national word competition away from being realised. 

The Ismail Sabri Yaakob administration can adopt it as a part of their #KeluargaMalaysia campaign. To sustain the Malay identity but also to increase pride within the other communities under an inclusive system.

To bring the whole matter full circle, if BACI is what we settle for, would it be fair to interchange Malay with Non-BACI on occasions? Just a boot on the other foot illustration, but it does strike an unfamiliar chord.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.