DR Farish Noor is a prolific academic. The founder of The Other Malaysia project writes on the politics of Malaysia, Indonesia, Islamism, and old Malay hikayats with gusto and insight. He has been published everywhere. Well, nearly. It makes one wonder what he does to de-stress.
“I repair old batik, I knit and I stitch,” he tells The Nut Graph. What? No American Idol for our historian-activist?
“I haven’t watched television since I was 19, although lately I’m drawn to Indonesian pop culture,” he says.
But this exclusive interview with Farish in Kuala Lumpur on 9 May 2009 is not about Peterpan or Rossa, it’s about Farish’s experience of Malaysia, past and present. He talks about being an ethnic hybrid in a country obsessed with racial boundaries.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born in the maternity hospital in Georgetown, Penang, on 15 May 1967.
Where did you grow up?
Up till the age of 10, I grew up in West Malaysia, in Kuala Lumpur. Then I spent four years in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, after which I came back to Peninsular Malaysia and then went to England at the age of 19. And I ended up staying in Europe for 23 years.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents from? What generation Malaysian are you?
I’m second-generation Malaysian. My mother was born in Penang and I was born in Penang as well. From anecdotal accounts, I know that my family were Jawi Peranakan. They were probably Javanese Eurasians, perhaps with some Arab blood as well, who had migrated to British Malaya at the end of the 19th century. On my father’s side I also have Indian blood which I believe is Punjabi. So I can say with some degree of certainty that I am Javanese, European, Arab, Indian.
Wow. And yet in the Malaysian scheme of things, you are just a bumiputera.
Well, the state would put me down as bumiputera. But during my childhood, my mixed ancestry was constantly brought up by the boys at school because I studied at St John’s, both primary and secondary. And my brother and I were at times ridiculed for being celup. And for being mamak.
It was ironic that in West Malaysia, my brother and I were not accepted as Malays. We were constantly being reminded to balik India or balik Jawa.
And then for a period of four years, I was in East Malaysia where I also went to a Catholic missionary school, but which was predominantly Chinese [Malaysian]. And in this predominantly Chinese [Malaysian] school, my brother and I were regarded as being too Malay. And we were a minority. In fact, I was the only “Malay” boy in the class. So I experienced first-hand racial discrimination from the age of seven.
It was also during those years that I think I experienced some of the worst racist abuse I’ve experienced in my life.
Can you describe one such incident where you encountered racism in Malaysia?
It was actually a series of incidents in Sabah, in my Chinese [Malaysian]-majority school. As I said, I was the only “Malay” [Malaysian] boy in class. In this rather homogenous ethnic context, the prevailing assumption was that non-Chinese [Malaysian] students could not possibly be smarter than Chinese [Malaysian] students. [Yet] I actually managed to turn out first boy every time.
This irritated one of the Chinese [Malaysian] teachers so much that he resorted to marking me down. I would score in the 90s for an exam and he would mark me down to the 60s. Without fail. For four years in a row. But what struck me was that the harassment was not merely at that level, that it actually degenerated much, much further.
On one occasion I was made to clean up vomit from the floor, with my hands, by this teacher. And this teacher, whom I never liked, and who never liked me, then said: “This is how we should treat non-Chinese when we finally rule the country.” That’s the nasty part.
Now here comes the redeeming part. Immediately after this abuse, my Chinese [Malaysian] friends were the first to come to ask if I was alright.
And I think this raises the question of how do we deal with racism? Because if there’s one thing that irritates me about the discussion of racism in Malaysia it’s that one side is always seen as the aggressor, and one side is always cast as the victim. And if you are a hybrid like me, then you realise that all sides can be aggressors and all sides can be victims. So I was victimised by Malay [Malaysians] and I was victimised by Chinese [Malaysians]. But I had Malay [Malaysian] friends and Chinese [Malaysian] friends.
And the second question it raises is how do we deal with racism in the long run? In the case of this particular teacher who was racist and abusive, even at the age of 10, I realised I could not respond to his racism with my racism because I would merely be repeating the cycle of violence. And I still haven’t forgiven him, but I’m not about to allow this man to dominate my life. In fact, I don’t even remember his name.
But [...] it was at that same school that I met the two best teachers of my life. Both of whom were also Chinese [Malaysian]. Mr Chung who taught me Mathematics and Mr Sam who taught me English. And I so admired Mr Chung and Mr Sam that I decided that there was nothing I wanted to be more than a teacher. And if I’m an academic today, it’s thanks to Mr Chung and Mr Sam.
So, the question of racism is always a personal one. How do you deal with it? You can choose to dwell on the worst, or you can choose to focus on the positive. I was in a situation where I could choose to develop profoundly anti-Chinese sentiments for the rest of my life. But I didn’t want that.
And I think that’s how we Malaysians will need to move on. Every Malaysian will have a story like this to tell. Because in a sense, the state of racialised politics in Malaysia means we are all victims. So do we choose to live with a discourse of victimhood, or do we grow up, and grow out of this as a nation and embrace the positive that we can find in each other? I chose the latter. That is my personal choice, it is an ethical choice and it is a political choice.
What I find amazing is that as a mixed race “Malay” Malaysian as well, defined by the state as Malay Malaysian, I had very similar experiences when I was going to school.
I think the ones who fall through the cracks, the ones who don’t neatly fit into the boxes of “Malay”, “Chinese” or “Indian” suffer greatly in this state of racialised politics, too. And it’s not just with race, it’s with religion, too.
If you were to arrange all the members of my family in a row, you’d get the entire Benetton spectrum, from white to black. My mother and aunts were all born with dark blond hair. I’ve got aunties with blue eyes, green eyes. I had an uncle who was for all intents and purposes a white man, because the gene pool just moved in that direction. My father, however, was very dark, a beautiful, handsome man. So I grew up with this whole spectrum in front me.
But it was a family in denial. Probably because of their own mixed origins. It was a family that always wanted to claim that they were Malay, which for me was absolutely ridiculous. Because on one hand they are, but they’re not. I’ve not seen many blue-eyed, blond Malays in my life, but apparently there were a few in my family.
But I think this kind of nonsense is very much tied to the rise of ethno-nationalism in Malaysia. And the ways in which racial identities were conflated with political identities. And I think one of the worst things that could have happened to [Malaya] in the 1940s and 1950s was the rise of a nationalism couched in ethnic, racial terms. Which basically forced people to take sides. So people like us, people who are hybrid, could not be mixed anymore. We had to be this or that, we couldn’t be this and that. I think this was the thing that really impoverished Malaysian society.
So as a historian-activist, this was what The Other Malaysia was all about [for me]. It’s been 10 years, by the way — we started in 1999. The Other Malaysia has been a premier project trying to remind Malaysians of this complex, shared history of ours. And it’s our history, a history of all Malaysians. It’s not a history of one community above another, or one gender above another, or one class above another.
But is there a particular aspect of your identity that you struggle with to this day?
My sexuality. Let’s leave it at that.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself or for future generations.
The Malaysia I’d like to see is a Malaysia where we relate to each other as fellow citizens. It would be a Malaysia in which citizenship above all else is what counts the most. It would be a Malaysia where every Malaysian feels that they can call this place home, has the right to express themselves, and the right to dream aloud about what they want to do.
No single Malaysian should think, “I should not even aspire to become prime minister because I am not the right gender, or I’m not the right race, or I’m not the right religion.” Malaysia to me is open, with infinitely wide frontiers.
I want to see a Malaysia that is luas, that is limitless in its abundance, wealth and potential. Not a Malaysia where ethnic communities plant their flags, saying “This is my patch, that patch is yours.” It would be a Malaysia where one can walk freely and with confidence in the knowledge that this is our shared land and we are all the richer because we share it together.