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.
D Lim says
Your childhood story of racism is indeed interesting. And that nasty Chinese teacher deserved to be shot not only for being a racist but for picking on a child of 10 yo. That’s absolute abuse of authority. He deserved to be bitten by a million ticks.
Yes, it would be great if Malaysia becomes a center for intellectual and cultural openness but with years of racial and divisive politics, I really wonder how we can reverse the mentality of them and us. How do we build into the future generations the notion of tolerance, respect, civility and open reasoned debates on matters of importance to the country? How can we find leaders who share the visions? The world is getting madder by the day and fear can bring forth undue blind nationalism and hatred. I am skeptical. Maybe I am getting too old.
BTW, you are a rare breed, having not watched TV since 19! Even an old froggie like me cannot keep away from the idiot box!
Mark Teh says
Here’s another interview with Farish – this one on the recently concluded PAS muktamar – http://popteevee.popfolio.net/default.aspx?e=88.
Love the Found in Malaysia series!
Hafidz Baharom says
… the second last question piqued my interest to know more …
Fouzia Hassan Abdullah says
You have a dream, a dream, a dream. So do we all.
We have a dream, a dream, a dream.
Being a ‘hybrid’ myself, I am caught ‘in-between’, as Homi Bhabha phrased it.
I am part of a big and complex family of the ‘human race’.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Farish.
God Bless You.
Thanks for the article. Something I can relate to very well myself as a mixed hybrid of Malay, Chinese, Indian, and somewhat distant Achehnese and Arab origin. Looks like our families suffer the very same Dilemma in wanting to be Malay when they’re simply not.
Farish, I love your site “The Other Malaysia”. Love the articles that you’ve written.
Doesn’t matter if you are struggling with your sexuality or not. You are still HOT! Hehe.
An interesting interview. Racism is everywhere. It is up to us whether to retaliate or “focus on the positive.”
Hiu Woong-Sin says
Here here … a towering Malaysian indeed.
Hang Tuah 1 says
Once I attended a Malay wedding and my family were the only Chinese. I noted that in that wedding there was no joget time. I asked my Malay friend why is this so. Ahhh, he told me that joget in Malay wedding is a Malay tradition – very much part of Umno’s tradition. He said they just want to be Muslims.
Another thing, I noticed pictures of your mother. She is very beautiful. Malay but no tudung. PAS will be very upset. Today a Malay girl without the head covering would be criticised.
One thing is for sure, the Malays are getting less Malay and more Islamic like those in the Middle East – more towards Talibans types.
Thank you for sharing so openly.
Well, he is always wearing pink or white, I did wonder.
I always (and will continue to believe even though it’s heading the wrong direction) believe that Malaysia is one of the best places to live if managed properly with least corruption.
What’s sad is that his story is not unique at all. I mean, the racism that he was exposed to as a child. So many others face the same thing and it often does not stop at childhood for some.
I have always loved and enjoyed reading your articles. Reading the above article gives Malaysians like me, who are always being labeled as pendatangs by politicians, (despite being born and bread here) some sense of belonging. Your ideologies are different perhaps of your mixed family background.
How I wish and pray someone who becomes the next PM speaks and thinks like you. But sad to say that, other than our beloved Great Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Hussein Onn, the rest of the PMs are just politicians caring only for their own and party interests.
I like the last para of your article, “This is our shared land and we are all the richer because we share it together”. Hopefully, your visions can be translated into reality in not too far a distance.
Racism and prejudice by individuals cannot be compared with institutionalized racism/prejudice.
The individual may be a racist because he/she was a victim previously or it’s simply a prejudice. Whereas institutionalized racism breed even more individuals to become racist.
In the past, racism was probably an individual’s prejudice and most people got along well among the races in Malaysia. However, the current situation is very much different. Racism is now full blown across a wide spectrum of the population due to institutionalized racism!
Yes, I remember your beautiful mother on RTM then.
This great nation, its leaders and its rakyat now have God almightyâ€™s one last chance to â€œRepent and Correct” it from their greedy worldly industrialised materialistic pursuits.
– To go back to God almightyâ€™s basic wisdom and gift.
– This, God almighty’s universe of plenty, has enough for everyone’s needs but not everyone’s greed.
– We are all concerned anak bangsa Malaysia seeking the truth to restore justice, equality, human rights and freedom.
– “Malaysia for Malaysians” where every citizen can share and dream about, and be given the opportunity to work hard towards that dream,
– For our young, our children and grandchildren – to achieve that Malaysian dream,
– Through our own blood, sweat, tears, intelligence and wisdom
– To be a self made/achieved anak bangsa Malaysia!
Maybe it takes someone without any name, without any position, without any past attachment, no political baggage,
Someone only with the sincerest interest to right a wrong, being guided by the almighty,
Having the unseen praying for him as they too are concerned of this state of affairs of this blessed nation,
Maybe the time has not come yet,
For such an event to happen.
Yes, many chosen situational leaders will evolve in the process from amongst the rakyat.
Followed by God almightyâ€™s anointed phoenix.
A true and wise, humble but firm leader for Malaysia will arise like a phoenix from amongst the downtrodden rakyat, insya Allah!
All our prayers to God almighty seeking sanity, truth, justice, equality and freedom will be answered.
syed husin says
I did experience the same in the 60s, though I have many closed friends who are Chinese.
I reckon that rotten Chinese teacher had abused not only bumi students but Chinese students too. Chinese students would perceived the abuse as harshness/nastiness/abuse whilst bumi students perceived it as racism.
malaysia boleh says
Dear Hang Tuah1
If you’ve read Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa or Hikayat Hang Tuah … there are scores of stories on how the Malay Sultans would have parties, makan2, joget2 and mabuk2 in various ceremonies. Not too long ago, the previous few sultans also were very famous for their birthday parties, where the rakyat would congregate for makan2, joget2, main judi, etc.
Now, Muslims must 1st be Muslim, despite the race or creed. Since when tudung, no joget, no booze equals being Talibanized?
Farish A Noor says
Viv, you are right to say that the school teacher who was nasty to me was also nasty to everyone else. But in my case his blatant racism was the factor that made it worse. And for your information in another school I attended in Sabah a Malay (Malaysian) teacher made the only Chinese (Malaysian) boy stand up at the back of the class all day long. Which underscores my point that bigots like these are found everywhere, unfortunately.
Thanks for your sharing, Farish. Agreed, racist experiences like the ones [in which] you were victimised exist. I don’t now if you are from my “era”. I am a 4th or 5th generation Chinese Malaysian. Due to poverty, our family moved to a Chinese new village in a KL suburb in 1971. I was in Standard 6 then. Despite being a Chinese [Malaysian] kampung with a sprinkling of Indian [Malaysians] and no Malay [Malaysian] residents, we had in the village co-ed school a good mix of all races, including Punjabis. The Malay [Malaysians] came from a neighbouring kampung or (then) modern housing estate.
Farish, those were the best of my childhood days, full of fun and sharing. We were uncaring and innocent of each others roots. My best friends were Indian and Malay [Malaysians]. Of course, I had great Chinese [Malaysian] friends, too. To this day, we all still try to meet up, if possible annually. We still look at each other as the kids, devoid of colour, that we were 40 years ago. My only problem in school then was that I was the only Christian in my class, and one among a handful in the whole village.
It was my standing for my God with little knowledge and much less understanding, against the occasional taunts from my closest Chinese [Malaysian] buddies, that, if at all, came close to social divisiveness. Jesus must have been really proud of my blind, gusty, daring defense of him. Only the Chinese [Malaysians], who neither knew nor understood why they were of “Chinese religion” (supposedly Buddhists or Taoists), ran the religious lines. But God, any God, is always great – most of those who teased me back then are today holier Christians than me, despite my having had a stint in religious life. I am deeply embarassed.
My most serious brush with racism, I guess, would have been in 1991. I was working in a bank with over 5,000 staff. When it came to promotion time, 180 out of 200 promotions went to Malay [Malaysians] while non-Malay [Malaysians] got a miserly 20 [promotions]. The Chinese [Malaysians] cursed and condemned the ratio as racism, and complained incessantly day and night that the Malay [Malaysians] were useless and unworthy of their career and fortune (ugghhhs, while they, the supposedly worthy Chinese [Malaysian], neglected their duty). I looked at reality, and I tried desperately to promote reality. And the reality was that even with 90% of the promotions, it was much more unfortunate to be have been a Malay [Malaysian] than otherwise, reason being the success rate for a Malay [Malaysian]’s promotion was 180 out of 4,500, but it was 20 out of 600 for non-Malay [Malaysians]. That leaves 4,300-plus unhappy Malay [Malaysians] and a long, long wait for them, but there were only 580 non-Malay [Malaysians] who missed the boat. I’d much rather be 1 out of 580 than 1 out of 4,300.
See the twists in my experience of racism? The Chinese [Malaysians] were the ones making themselves acutely consciouss of the other colour, in the process dividing their own kind. The Malay [Malaysians], my best friends, never made me feel or believe that I or we were different, except that we had our own ways of praying (which were never grounds for comparison or tolerance but were merely incidentals which we appreciated with nonchalance).
Farish, you have been fortunately(?) unlucky. I am glad for my experiences for they have opened my eyes to see the toxicity of and venom in our political milieu. Read the intent of this post – read this last para.
Thank you for your sharing. I like your article very much.
I attended your talk about batik at Pasar Seni, and your talk impressed me. Wish you all the best! Don’t struggle with your sexuality, you are the BEST!
Paul Warren says
Reading this it makes me more convinced that the “Malay” that Umno refers to today is more an idea than it is a reference to a genetic stock. If “Malay” were to be a race then it would be the only one in the world that would have in its fold genetic origins from just about all over the world.
As an idea, it is just like the idea of what a Nazi was supposed to be. The assumption was that the Nazi was German. But they also had Austrians, Poles, French and some English too. In the Malaysian socio-political sphere, communists were Chinese and I remember a time when we teased our Chinese [Malaysian] friends [as being] communists.
Another is Zionists. The assumption is that all Jews are Zionists. But that is not true. And there are many Christians who support and hold Zionist tendencies and aims and might be more Zionists than many Jews. Just like not all American Whites were Ku Klux Klan although all KKK were whites.
But for Umno leaders I suppose the perpetuation of that leadership requires a convenient, simple, straightforward classification that works. Try explaining the concept of Nazism or Zionism and expect understanding of that concept in its entirety before enlisting new members….and you will find most not qualifying. Similarly whatever it is that is the political objectives of Umno and all the other race-based parties in Malaysia, you will find that that objective is sustained only because there is this untested and mischievous “belief” that competitive forces hostile to them have to be contained. It is the containment of these hostile forces or the gaining from hostile forces that Umno, MCA, MIC and any other race-based parties subsist.
As the Malaysian constitution defines “Malay”, what needs to be examined and explored is if what was envisaged as needing definition, protection and privilege is what today benefits from the intent then.
Andrew I says
Agree with you, Paul. 2 plus 2 equals 4, but 4 doesn’t equal 2 plus 2.
Unfortunately for us, we’re contantly being told otherwise.
I do yearn for the day when a citizen of Malaysia is Malaysian, first and last, no more and definitely no less.
Like Farish, I too have a diverse family history, as I am sure, many other Malaysians do. And yet, we are forced to fit into neatly labeled, and artificially designated, compartments. Kinda like trying to force a dodecahedral peg into a square hole.
And so, after 52 years of nationhood, what we have, I think, is a heightened sensitivity of ethnicity (artificially constructed, no less), as a key criterion of belonging. All because of this fear planted into our collective psyche that a leveling of status, by means of citizenship, will bring on destruction and chaos.
If we aspire to traverse our future as one nation, why do we continue to nurture an environment of separatism?
As I understand it, 1Malaysia should mean just that: ONE Malaysia. Not one Malaysia for Malay-Malaysians, one Malaysia for Chinese-Malaysians, one Malaysia for Tamil-Malaysians, one Malaysia for the Iban-Malaysians, one Malaysia for …
Sorry for the off-topic. Paul, would you know any Polish Nazi? Sounds like a contradiction to me.
halimah mohd said says
None of us can claim to be racially pure and Farish Noor’s experience of feeling racially segregated is not unusual. We all had our share of name-calling – of being called Malai koi or calling others China koi! If your features stood out (“hidung penyek”, “slitty eyes”) you became the natural target for racial slurs. Skin colour is the cause of much discrimination even within the family.
I think it’s the most natural thing to feel comfortable with people from the same racio-ethnic group. We do after all speak the same language, share the same customs and traditions and eat the same food.
Food, I think can either unite or segregate in a big way as it does for Muslims and non-Muslims, halal and non-halal. Racial food slurs are common among the less educated as in “Cina makan babi” or “Hindu makan biawak” or “Melayu makan belacan”.
It’s when these sensitivities are tinged with deep prejudice, hate, vengeance and vindictiveness that they are in danger of spilling over into racist sentiments.
We should exploit the “identity oscillation” hypothesis discussed in Images of the Jawi Peranakan of Penang (2004) i.e. Malaysians select their identity according to the context/situation they are in. For instance, a Malay [Malaysian] can be a Penang mamak (as in Farish’s case) in relation to someone who is a Negeri Sembilan Minangkabau but both are Malay [Malaysian] in relation to a Chinese or Indian [Malaysian].
What we must do is to create more situations or national causes where we will identify ourselves as Malaysians first and in our racio-ethnic groups last.
Izinkan saya menulis dalam Bahasa Melayu. Saya amat bersetuju dengan pendapat Dr. Saya dilahirkan dalam keluarga India Muslim yang miskin yang bertutur dalam Bahasa India dan Bahasa Melayu. Kami sekeluarga sudah beratus kali tidur malam tanpa makan. Pada masa itu tiada orang Islam yang membantu kami untuk mengatasi kemiskinan itu. Ayah tidak kerja kerana tidak sihat (rabun dan kurang pendengaran).
Saya masih ingat mak saya terpaksa bekerja siang dan malam di kilang proses getah tapi gajinya tidak cukup untuk memberi kami adik-beradik makanan yang cukup tetapi mak terus menghantar kami ke sekolah Tamil yang berhampiran kerana itu sahaja yang mampu. Boleh dikatakan kami adik-beradik adalah pelajar cemerlang sekolah berkenaan dan mendapat bantuan penuh PIBG sekolah.
Pada masa itu hanya orang keturunan India sahaja yang banyak membantu keluarga kami walaupun kami orang Islam. Budak-budak Melayu selalu buli kami adik-beradik semasa ke kampung Melayu berhampiran untuk mengaji. Mereka akan mengata pelbagai perkara yang tidak enak dan saya sendiri selalu mengadu kepada guru sekolah saya dan mereka akan menasihatkan kami supaya belajar bersungguh-sungguh untuk menjadi orang yang berguna.
Kesemua mereka, masih saya ingat dan ada yang masih saya berhubung hingga ke hari ini. Saya tidak rasa malu untuk bertutur Tamil dengan rakan-rakan India saya walaupun pun dalam masa yang sama saya ada ramai kawan Melayu dimana saya boleh bertutur bahasa Nogori dengan fasih.
Tetapi ada juga yang pandang serong dengan keadaan ini dimana bagi mereka saya sepatutnya lebih India atau lebih Melayu dan tidak boleh di tengah-tengah seperti sekarang. Kekadang saya rasa manusia ini amat kompleks untuk difahami kerana pada masa sama mereka baik dengan kita dan pada masa yang sama mereka boleh jadi tidak baik dengan orang lain yang baik dengan kita, dan apa yang saya kesalkan ialah mereka semua adalah orang Islam.
Grace Chow says
One of the reasons I left Malaysia was because I dislike the blatant racism of the Malaysian government. I was proud to be a Malaysian until I started to face all the discriminations because I’m not a bumiputra. Well, there is racism all over the world. I consider myself international now.
Thank you for sharing your origins. Yes, we need to stop doing racial politics in Malaysia. With couragious activism and writings of people like you, we hopefully will one day see a Malaysia that will put equal value on everyone regardless of their origins and religions. The bumiputera preference and “a certain religion preference” in many aspects of Malaysian life is ridiculous and extremely dangerous in the way that the Malaysian government has institutionalised it.
It makes no sense that my “Malay” friends should be given more public benefits than the so-called non-bumiputeras. One of my “Malay” friends is a third generation mixed Bugis and Javanese; another is a mixed Bangladeshi-Chinese; another is Bangladeshi-Thai; another is Arab-Chinese. They are Malays, fine, but please let all receive the same benefits. By the way, I am Sarawakian belonging to one of the smaller “bumiputera” ethnic groups, and Christian.