It tells us that if the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is so easily held ransom by right-wing race-based groups, it is not fit to govern multiracial Malaysia. It also tells us something else about the BN government that further proves just how unqualified it is to run this country. If the BN is so easily swayed by the clamouring of “Malay rights”, often projected writ large as “ketuanan Melayu”, it is telling the rakyat this: that despite our independence from the British after more than 50 years, the current government still subscribes to and upholds the colonial construct of race and racial superiority.
Indeed, this fixation with race, especially the Malay race and its attending “rights”, as groups like Perkasa and parties like Umno would have it, is not just colonial. It’s also completely arbitrary and bewildering. Worse, it is this fixation that makes it so easy to deny equal opportunities for all citizens. And in worst-case scenarios, it makes it easy for racism to take root.
Now you’re Malay, now you’re not
Here is evidence of how arbitrary race is. Did you know that, depending on whether one is in Perlis or Pahang, one can either qualify or not for Malay reserve land because of the states’ different definitions of what constitutes a Malay?
Constitutional law expert Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi explains this in an e-mail interview. He says while all state constitutions have adopted the Federal Constitution’s definition of “Malay”, for purposes of Malay reserve land, all West Malaysian states have their own definitions as to the origins of a Malay.
So, apart from being a Muslim in all these states, in Kedah and Perlis, persons of “Malayan race or Arab descent may qualify as Malays”. In Johor, it is sufficient to be of a “Malaysian race” to be Malay. In the Federal Territories, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Kelantan and Terrengganu, a Malay must belong to a “Malayan race”.
There are also other differences according to state with regard to language, custom and birth, and descent. Shad, who is also Mara University of Technology legal adviser, observes: “As one moves through the states in West Malaysia, one is Malay, then not Malay, then Malay again under these state enactments.”
And what exactly is a Malaysian or Malayan race? Do they include all the races in Malaysia, and/or previously in Malaya?
Shad notes that only the state constitutions of Malacca and Penang define “Malay” in line with the Federal Constitution’s definition. In these states, there are no requirements related to “ethnic origin” before one can qualify for Malay reserve land.
Constructing a Malay
However, even the Federal Constitution’s definition of “Malay” is “quite eclectic in that it allows someone to move in and out of being ‘Malay’,” Shad says. How so?
According to Article 160(2) of the Federal Constitution, a person is “Malay” if she or he satisfies the following four requirements:
must be Muslim;
speaks the Malay language habitually;
follows Malay adat; and,
was born in Malaya or in Singapore before Merdeka Day, or is descended from at least one parent who was born in Malaya or in Singapore before Merdeka Day.
“In the Federal definition, there is no requirement that one must be of Malay stock. Non-Malays who satisfy the four requirements will be deemed to be Malays. A convert to Islam may qualify as a Malay.
“Conversely, ethnic Malays who fail any one of the four requirements, for example, Malays from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia – may not qualify as Malays under the Federal definition,” Shad explains.
By this definition, even a Malay Malaysian who leaves the faith, or who stops speaking Malay or no longer practises Malay adat, will cease to be “Malay”.
This then begs the question: Who exactly is “Malay” in the context of Malaysian political life? And if privileges and “special rights” are going to be assigned to the “Malay” and denied the other races, shouldn’t “Malay” or “non-Malay” be something that is less arbitrary?
“My son is now Chinese”
De Shield is married to a Chinese Malaysian, and when he tried to register their son’s birth in December 2010, the NRD officer wanted to categorise their son as “Dan Lain-Lain: Belizean”. De Shield then pointed out that “Belizean” was a nationality, not a race. He himself is of mixed ancestry, as are other Creoles from the Caribbean. Because the officer was stumped, De Shield then suggested that his son be categorised as “Chinese” since his wife was Chinese. “My son is now Chinese,” De Shield chuckles, adding that he can’t wait to tell his family and friends about this amusing turn of events.
There are other anecdotes. My family is Eurasian, and yet my sister’s MyKad erroneously states that she is Punjabi even though we are from Penang, not Punjab. Another Eurasian friend from Penang tells us through Facebook that her sister was mysteriously classified as Kadazan.
The truth is, race as we know it is arbitrary and constructed. Just look at this table which shows how the British kept changing the definition for Malays, Chinese and Indians:
A false science
It bears remembering that race was a white and western concept that emerged through the development of European imperialism and social Darwinism, and which was used to justify plantation slavery. Race was about how non-whites had different physical attributes from whites, which were then deemed to make them inferior to their colonisers.
It should come as no surprise then that this was exactly the kind of social-political structure that the British imposed on us. Indeed, it was the British who defined Malays as Muslims, and who made “Malay” an exclusive term with strictly defined boundaries.
So, if race is so arbitrary and was used to subjugate those who look different from whites, why are we still using race as a way to categorise Malaysian citizens? Why is the BN still using race-based policies to govern us? And why is it allowing “Malay rights” and “ketuanan Melayu” to prevent it from embarking on reforms and offering equal opportunities to all citizens?
Because race was the white coloniser’s subjective construct, one can perhaps understand why there is confusion even among NRD officers about the racial identity of Malaysians. And according to Shad, in Johor, Kwong Yik Bank, Maybank and Oriental Bank, as corporate bodies, qualify for Malay reserve land because they fall under the state’s definition of Malay. Go figure.
Any of the Found in Malaysia interviews with Malay Malaysian personalities demonstrate how there is no such thing as a pure or exclusive “Malay” race.
And so, when former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad declares that non-Malay Malaysians must accept that Malaysia belongs to the Malays, one wonders who is the “Malay” he is referring to. Or when Perkasa and Umno leaders holler about “ketuanan Melayu”, aren’t they really propping up a colonial construct that was used to ensure systemic discrimination?
De Shield says he’s not concerned that his son is now officially registered as Chinese. De Shield, after all, is married to a Chinese Malaysian who bore their child. “But if I were a Malaysian citizen, I’d be worried about how the state uses these racial categorisations,” he says. Indeed, as Malaysians, we should. One wonders, though, if the BN is.
What’s that about Malay rights?