A race with no winners

by Zairil Khir Johari

I recently read about a family who had returned to Malaysia after many years abroad. Their six-year-old was enrolled into a local kindergarten. One day, during his first week in school, he came back excited about some race everyone was talking about.

Thinking there was a competition, his parents asked the teachers at school the next day. As it turned out, the other students had been pestering their son about his ethnicity, seeing as he had no discernibly stereotypical features, being a child of mixed parentage. The couple did not quite know what to make of it, as up till then, their son had no understanding of an identity other than his nationality — Malaysian.

Reading this story triggered a distant memory. I was around the same age during a brief sojourn in the United States, when one day a boy in the neighbourhood called out to me.

“Hey, Asian boy!”

I did not quite know what to make of it. Like the boy in kindergarten, I too had no grasp of the concept of ethnicity, and so failed to pick up on the racial epithet. I rationalised that he must have been referring to a country. However, having memorised the names of most of the countries in the world, I was quite certain that there was no country called “Asia” (clearly, I was also unaware of the concept of continents).

And so I replied: “I’m not Asian. I’m MALAYSIAN. I’m from MALAYSIA. Asia isn’t even a country!”

Though slightly older, he was probably confused by my retort. He continued with a tinge of doubt in his voice.

“He’s Asian,” he said to the posse around him, some of whom nodded their agreement. He grinned, slightly reassured. “You’re an Asian boy.”

I realised much later that he had been referring to my race. Of course, with time and age, I soon familiarised myself with the racial construct, with particular reference to our unique Malaysian manifestation. There is no doubt that race is an important identity, as is religion.

After all, it is our culture, traditions and mores that render colour into an otherwise sepia existence. However, nothing is without its traps. The ubiquity and convenience of race also opens itself to exploitation as a means of division and control.

When our country was founded, there was neither a common language nor identity. We had inherited a colonial legacy that had stratified our society along racial lines. However, efforts were set in motion to integrate the country — a national language (Bahasa Malaysia), a shared identity (Malaysian), an economic policy designed to socially re-engineer racial inequities (NEP), and of course the 1 Malaysia concept, an amalgamation of the “Bangsa Malaysia” notion.

After half a century, we now have three generations of post-Merdeka Malaysians. Technically, we should have moved on by now. So why then, in this day and age, is our national discourse still dominated by race?

Stripped of its racial façade, the questions of poverty, equality, freedom and justice are merely that. Quantifying problems through racial statistics does not actually assist in solving anything. If being poorer is harder because you are of a particular race, then it is the system that is broken. Let’s fix that.

Thoroughly eradicating poverty would mean that no one of any race would suffer hardship. If deaths in custody and police violence seem to affect one community more than others, I say it shouldn’t even happen in the first place, to any Malaysian. We should thus focus on restoring the independence and credibility of our enforcement agencies.

Wouldn’t it be better for Malaysia, and by extension, all Malaysians, if we focused on solving issues, rather than preoccupying ourselves with its racial contextualisation?

While I am not suggesting that we disregard our racial identities, I am proposing that our national discourse would benefit greatly from a wider and less parochial paradigm. There is a coloured tint in our looking glass, and it is obscuring our vision.

Racialising issues will only lead to greater division and irrational quarrels. In the long run, it will be counter-productive to nation-building. If we continue along the current path of excessive racialism, in which every social, educational and political issue is portrayed as a case of one race against another, the Rubicon will soon be crossed.

This is not a competition that we should partake in, for in a race of races, there will only be losers.

  1. #1 by Taikohtai on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 1:10 pm

    While Malaysia is hell bent on categorizing the rakyat according to race, the children of migrants in Australia are taught no such racial vilification in schools and in society at large. This is such a healthy trend amongst the newer generation and why Australia is such a tolerant country despite having migrants from every corner of the world. One thing for sure, Malaysia is a long, long way from catching up under BN rule.

  2. #2 by k1980 on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 2:05 pm

    //Wouldn’t it be better for Malaysia, and by extension, all Malaysians, if we focused on solving issues, rather than preoccupying ourselves with its racial contextualisation?//

    then how are the “tuans” going to claim that they are “the master race”? (the same race as the aryans which was walloped into submission by the Allies in1945)

  3. #3 by k1980 on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 2:27 pm

    Sorry to be off topic.

    According to the doctors, “Saiful beritahu kami dia dipaksa lakukan seks oral. ”

    Why didn’t he just bite off that old 61-year old rambutan tree? After all the teeth of this 20 year old are so strong

  4. #4 by PoliticoKat on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 2:27 pm

    This just goes to show how long that family has been outside Malaysia (>30 years).

    The first thing anyone learns when entering primary school, the first day of Standard one, is “What race are you?” and “What religion are you?”.

    All this is very important, because the Malay’s have different classes from non-Malays. You don’t want to go to the wrong class.

    At the end of the year, you are resorted to your new class in Standard two. Where you end up is dependent on your overall grade and racial quota for the composition of each class.

    Race and Religion is part of being Malaysian. It is a foundation stone, disputed only by the hazy recollections of a few old men.

    I can not imagine a Malaysia where Race and Religion do not play a significant role. In school, it draws a deep line in the sand, US verses Them.

    It determine who you can be friends with. It determines which clubs in School you can join or what games you can play. It most certainly determines who you can date and later marry. It determines what opportunities you have. It even impact the social-economic situation that determines who many children you have.

    The pretense that Malaysia would ever be about a united people, ended the moment Malaysia kicked out Singapore.

    Kicking out Singapore is perhaps the only good decision Malaysian has ever made. With Singapore we have a mirror, an image of what could have been, if only.

  5. #5 by dagen on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 2:42 pm

    Tuan Rempit McBully. That’s umnoputras.

    Hamba de Bully. That’s the rest of us.

    That is how umno wants to divide and run the country.

    But for the sake of securing their power base a large number of de Bullys were hoodwinked into believing that they are McBullys. Of course they are not. And never will be. In the eyes of umno, once a de Bully, always a de Bully.

    So you understand, khir johari junior.

  6. #6 by cintanegara on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 3:10 pm

    //Wouldn’t it be better for Malaysia, and by extension, all Malaysians, if we focused on solving issues, rather than preoccupying ourselves with its racial contextualisation?//

    We have been living peacefully together for more than 50 years. Why is it that now we have to start questioning about other people’s rights and what has been agreed upon by our forefathers, by the past generations, which have enabled us to reach where we are today…… If we want to come together as a family we need to be sincere to each other. ….Accept each other as members of one family. We cannot say things to hurt each other or do things that hurt each other. We must be there for each other ……the rich must help the poor, the advanced must help the backward

  7. #7 by yangturk on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 3:27 pm

    Are there any noble people left in Malaysia to solve the problems before the thieves steal more ? Idealism without pragmatism is just a dream. We are on the verge of systemic breakdown. Race and Religion are political tools of diversion and coercion. We need “A Few Good Men”, the bigger the problem the bigger team needed to solve the issues. Egoistical self-serving leaders trying to stir controversy to raise personal popularity does not work anymore. We need leaders who can build a credible TEAM to solve the problems that are common to all.

  8. #8 by undertaker888 on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 4:59 pm

    //the rich must help the poor, the advanced must help the backward///

    want to share your lambutan tree, cintanegala? we sepet and botoi are not all rich you know. this is mamak’s propaganda and lies. the rich sepet and botoi are all his cronies.

  9. #9 by Taxidriver on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 5:11 pm


    Nobody is questioning your rights to your rambutan tree. It is when you start claiming to be yours all trees that bear fruits that is making the rightful owners protest. As for your comment that we should not say things to hurt the feelings of others, I would suggest you tell it to Perkasa, the school principals, UNMOB members and not forgetting too your ayahanda-the father of all racists!

    The hearts of non-Malays are ‘suci’ ( pure ). Although we do not pray five times daily like some UNMOB hypocrites ( even their leader wants to soak his keris in Chinese blood! ) we SINCERELY believe that the needy, irrespective of their race or religion, should be given assistance. But what we strongly oppose is that the super rich hypocrites in UNMOB are helping themselves to the national wealth instead of helping the poor. So now we see a big nunber of BACKWARD Malays who have been fooled for the past five decades and made used of by minority UNMOB Malays to ADVANCE themselves.

    cintanegara, you get the real picture now, don’t you. Or you rather choose to be blind to the situation for reason/reasons best known to yourself.

    Bertaubatlah and pray harder to Allah for his forgiveness before calamities befall you.

  10. #10 by sheriff singh on Wednesday, 16 February 2011 - 5:18 pm

    Go tell it to Ibrahim Ali and his geng and see how they respond.

  11. #11 by sotong on Thursday, 17 February 2011 - 7:39 am

    Our so called ” leaders ” in the past three decades had failed the country….in particular the longest serving one.

    You got to do the right thing all the time……not screw up 3 decades and expect things to go back to normal and catch up with other countries in the region in a generation or two.

    It’s too late.

  12. #12 by dagen on Thursday, 17 February 2011 - 9:27 am

    Why question something already agreed upon by our forefathers, cintanegara asked from under his rambutan tree.

    I pray that a large bunch of rambutans fall from the top of the tree and strike him on the crown.

    Wake up boy! Why not? I say.

    As a matter of fact I never recognise any special rights claimed by umnoputras. Actually, I see umnoputras as pure rotten brats and their claims as childish acts, merely. The right to leak and waste away billions of our country’s wealth every year is just simply not sustainable or justifiable by logic or reason.

    If there was any agreement at all, that agreement I am sure do not reach so far as to allow mindless wasting and excesses by umno or to allow corruption by umnoputras (or anyone in government for that matter).

    If that was indeed the agreement then our forefathers were surely one rotten and irresponsible lot. But of course they were not. Far from it because they were from the old old school, not the present day umno school.

    Ah Beng may gamble away his wealth in sentosa island. That is his own money and his own funeral. But it is another matter altogether if he gambles away somebody else’s money as well. Would cintanegara be so kind as to let Ah Beng gamble away his rambutan trees? What would cintanegara say if the previous owner of the trees actually had an agreement with Ah Beng’s great grandfather to that effect?

    Yuck! I hate rambutans. And that is the truth.

  13. #13 by monsterball on Friday, 18 February 2011 - 2:43 pm

    I think cintanegara is a young fut who was educated with half truths and mind poisoned to the limit…that makes him live in the unrealistic world…thinking how peaceful life was under UMNO and UMNO B for 55 years.
    He is questioning Malaysians …why we are so unhappy and not satisfied with his Master and Lord.
    The problem with him he spent too much time guarding is rambutan tree…ignoring all the unfair and unjust news and events.. applied by UMNO B for years…caring only his rambutan trees bearing fruits..offering praises and loyalties to Satan for his small gift..so much so…his real personality have changed to be a dumb arrrsee….gone case and heading towards the world of idiots and crackos.
    You just need to read his comment..and be inspired to fire him at will.

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