SOME years ago, while studying in the United Kingdom, one of The Nut Graph‘s team members had a discussion with a classmate from India about a fellow Indian Malaysian student.
TNG journalist: Ya, she celebrates Diwali, too. She’s a Hindu Indian.
Indian classmate: Huh? She’s not Indian, she’s Malaysian!
Journalist: Yes, she’s Malaysian, but she’s also Indian.
Classmate: Oh, she has two passports —
one from Malaysia and one from India?
Journalist: No, no, nothing like that. She’s ethnically
Indian but her nationality is Malaysian.
Classmate: But that doesn’t make any sense. “Indian” is a
nationality. Like me — I’m Indian. How can she be
Indian when she’s Malaysian?
For in India, there is no Indian ethnicity, only Indian nationality. There are ethnic groups such as Tamil, Telugu, Malayalee, Sindhi and so on, each with its own distinct language, culture and history. Indian Malaysians still identify with their respective ethnic groupings till today. So, there are Tamils, Telugus, Malayalees and Sindhis, but no such thing as Indians, except if one is referring to an Indian national. Some Ceylonese Tamils don’t consider themselves Indians, and prefer to be known as “lain-lain”.
Similarly, in China, there are ethnic Han Chinese, consisting of dialect groups such as the Hokkien, Hainanese, Cantonese and Foo Chows. But the Han are only one of over 50 ethnic groups in China. So most Chinese Malaysians should strictly speaking be called ethnic Han, not Chinese, unless one was referring to citizens of China.
As for Malay Malaysians, one need only study the following table to note the British’s haphazard and completely arbitrary attempts at classifying diverse groups under the heading “Malay”:
Straits Settlements (SS)
Federated Malay States (FMS)
Europeans and Americans (plus 18 sub-
Europeans and Americans (plus 19 sub-
Europeans (plus 31 sub-
Europeans (plus 17 sub-
Europeans (plus 24 sub-
Malay and other allied races:
Also natives from Dutch East Indies
Bengalees and other Indian races not specified
Tamils and other Indian races:
Source: Charles Hirshman, The Meaning and Measurement of Ethnicity in Malaysia, Journal of Asian Studies, 1987,
as referred to in The Lost Tribes of Malaysia: The construction of race politics from the colonial era to the present,
by Dr Farish Noor
Multiracial coalition Putera-AMCJA proposed in 1947 that we all be called Melayu, regardless of ethnicity or religion. As documented in Fahmi Reza’s 10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka, eventual MCA founder Tun Tan Cheng Lock also agreed to this after much deliberation with his Malay coalition partners.
Their proposals were rejected by the British, who preferred to negotiate with Umno. Britain was intent on establishing the Federation of Malaya, which would maintain British power. By the time Malaya was given independence in 1957, the ethnic constructs of Malay, Chinese and Indian were cemented in place.
Fifty-two years later, we’re still stuck with these definitions and still arguing about whether we’re Malaysian first, Malay first, or some other racial categorisation. And for those who don’t fit into “Melayu, Cina atau India”, we call them “dan lain-lain” or the nifty acronym “DLL”. And since these DLL don’t fit neatly into any one category, some of us go so far as to ask, “Actually, what are you, ah?”
This constant need to define “what are you” in relation to “what I am” has polarised our nation and created an “us” versus “them” mentality among Malaysians. By seeing our fellow Malaysians only as “Malay” or “Chinese” or “Indian”, we propagate the old colonial constructs that make it easier to provoke discontent towards the “other”, who are not like “us”.
But are “we” really so alike, and are “they” really so different? Is it always easier to identify with those from our own race? Especially when our so-called races were artificially created in the first place?
As economist and philosopher Amartya Sen points out in his book Identity and Violence, classifying people with a single identity ignores the other identities they may have and value. These include, for example, “class, gender, profession, language, science, morals and politics”.
Is it time we stopped harping on our respective races and developed a broader view of our fellow Malaysians? Is that possible if the Barisan Nasional government continues to practise race-based politics and play up racial rhetoric? How do you see yourselves as Malaysians? Tell us in six words only. Here are some of the newsroom’s thoughts:
What’s wrong with being Malaysian first?
Don’t want to be Chinese first.
Don’t call me banana, I’m Malaysian.
“Us” and “them” isn’t so straightforward.
Koh Lay Chin:
Only “Malaysians” when we are overseas?
At home I am a category.
Race = My sprint to KFC
Jacqueline Ann Surin:
Who defines what a “Malaysian” is?
“Dan lain-lain” = “Others”. “Malaysian” better.
Melayu, Cina, India. Dicipta oleh British.
Melayu, Cina, India. Disokong oleh BN.
Race is a colonial construct, duh!
Imagine, even after independence, still colonised.
Why does BN racialise citizens’ identity?
Prioritising multiple identities: stupid. I’m everything.
In old hikayat, Malays more accommodating.
Confusing citizenship with race. False dilemma?
Curious first. Critical second. Malay? Maybe.
This land was cosmopolitan. What happened?
Malaysian despite Muhyiddin and Kit Siang.
The Nut Graph believes in diversity.
Inspired by Ernest Hemingway‘s genius, the Six Words On… section challenges readers to give us their comments about a current issue, contemporary personality or significant event in just six words. The idea is to get readers engaged in an issue, while having fun and being creatively disciplined.
Read previous Six Words On…
The Nut Graph needs your support
Stupid forms! I’ll leave “Race” blank!
“If I’m racist, blame the whites!”
I’m of the human race. Period.
DLLs not as confused as others.
“Others” = Human Beings = WIN!
Yes, am categorised as DLL. So?
DLL means I am chameleon, heh.
Farish A Noor says
Only race I like: horse race
Race you to a non-racist future!
Racy pants – good. Racist politics – bad.
I prefer Malaysian first, race second!
Can I be a Penangite first?
Policies like these, better be Sabahan.
I didn’t sign up for this.
siew eng says
Did you hear about the Machas?
Nadia Minah says
Human rights and global citizenship first.
Excellent piece with excellent research homework.
Ancestry no excuse for separate privileges.
You don’t respect indigenous rights anyway.
‘Suku’ for heritage, not creating entitlements.
Ooooo, want to resurrect race: ‘Borneo’.
All thanks to The Nut Graph.
Biologists say inbreeding is not healthy.
Is race important? Don’t talk sh*t!
Rojak is good for building nations.
“Race”: a cultural and political construct
Chuah Guat Eng says
Old wine spoiling in new bottles.
Old people corrupting the new people.
Old mindset out, fresh thinkers in.
Complete revamp: the only way out.
The future rests with our young.
History: the obstacle to our future.
Ida Bakar says
On Mykad I am Malay, but…
Ratnawati second name, must be Indian.
Being Penangite I must be mamak.
Having ‘posh’ accent, must be Eurasian.
The truth is I am Malaysian.
Anak Angkat Tok Janggut says
“Malay first” implies “first class” Malaysian.
On borang: Race,”human”; sex, “please!”
Put whatever, our home is Malaysia.
Multiracial or multi-racist? Qualification or kulitfication?
Chindians how? Chinese or Indian first?
Still colonised mindset after supposed Merdeka.
I prefer a raise to race!
All those born here are Malaysian.
Donâ€™t allow religion to manipulate politics.
Ban racist political parties. Absolutely Malaysian.
Still race after all these years.
No, with Muhyiddin, Malays not first!
Hulu Selangor candidate experts in race.
tebing tinggi says
1 sekolah 1 bahasa 1 Malaysia
Sivin Kit says
I am a Multi-mosaic Malaysian Human