What every Malaysian needs to know about ‘race’ (Part 4): Race and history

By Clive Kessler | February 27, 2012
The Malaysian Insider

FEB 27 — It is now nearly over.

We are nearing the end of our long and winding journey across the “landscape” (as people these days like to say, as if they were all architectural gardeners and designers of country-house grounds!) of “bangsa”, “race” and all the various contending, and often mutually incompatible, ideas that are thrown indiscriminately together within the bangsa “suitcase”.

There remain just a few more things to sort out: first about “race” and prejudice; then about “race” and “racism” in the context of worldwide European imperial domination; and finally to address in Part 5 a familiar old question:

“What is to be done?”

My discussion ends with some suggestions about how to proceed towards the kind of “linguistic engineering” and conceptual clarification of which Malaysia, and users of the Malaysian national language, are now greatly in need.

“Colour” and Prejudice

Now that the necessary “ground-clearing” has been completed, we can proceed onwards with the last parts of the discussion of “race” and its conventional “mis-understanding” and confusion — via the all-purpose term “bangsa” — within Malaysia’s Malay “linguistic universe” or “language world”.


Race is not simply a matter of what used to be called “colour prejudice”.

What that kind of “colour” or “race prejudice” involved was the scorning of people of any “different”, usually “darker”, pigmentation than one’s own; and then subjecting them, on account of those unequally valued features of perceived physiognomy (physical appearance), to differential treatment.

Often that has proved a matter even of subjecting those broad categories of people who are classed, on the basis of typified colour and appearance, as “inferior” to abusive, discriminatory and ultimately oppressive treatment.

Such attitudes, habits and practices seem to be almost as old as humankind.

Certainly they are just about as old as the meeting and social mixing of people from different historical “branches” of humankind or identifiable human “stocks” or localised populations.

Consider here some revealing words from what is perhaps the world’s oldest and greatest love poem, the Biblical “Song of Songs” (or “Song of Solomon”).

For some this text is simply a love song to a beautiful dark-skinned lady from the South, perhaps from Africa, who found herself in Jerusalem in the time of King Solomon, some hundreds, perhaps almost a thousand, years before the time of Jesus.

A long time ago

For some, the person on whom this poem focuses is the Queen of Sheba, or Puteri Balqis, who came as King Solomon’s guest to Jerusalem.

For others the poem is allegorical, a lyrical song about the God’s love for humankind. That’s the only reason why so erotic and explicit a love song could become part of the holy canon of the Bible. It is not really what it seems to be prosaically about, the pious solemnly declare; it is to be understood metaphorically and figuratively.

That background aside, now to the diagnostically significant words.

The author, the man who is enamoured of this beautiful woman, insists (Chap. 4) that in all manner of wonderful ways this woman is “fair”. Indeed, she is (6:1) the fairest among women, he assures her. Why?

What does the woman herself say at the outset, not to that man but to the other women of the city, perhaps her rivals for royal affection?

Her words (1:5-6) are an appeal and a challenge. I am black and beautiful, she says to them. (“Black is beautiful,” as the Black Pride movement of the 1960s insisted.) So do not look down upon me, you daughters of Jerusalem, simply because my skin is black, because the sun has darkened me, she demands.

So there we have it.

As long ago as then there was a clear tendency, which the beautiful dark-skinned lady was contesting, to look down upon people of her kind and to treat them with less than full and ordinary respect.

Note that my use here of the Biblical text is not doctrinal or theological, not in any way a matter of religious apologetics.

The Biblical text is cited here as historical or contemporary ethnographic evidence of the existence, perhaps pervasiveness, of what we would now call “colour prejudice” at the time of King Solomon.

That kind of prejudice is not, as some like to think, a recent, modern invention of the Age of Imperialism and European domination.

It is not, but something else is.

That something else is not simply this kind of “colour prejudice” but racism itself, in the modern political and historical sense.

Race and Racism: “Colour”, Culture and Power

When the sailors and adventurers of an expanding Europe in the great Age of Discovery reached Africa, Asia and the Americas, they suddenly, often to their great surprise, encountered people of radically different kinds than their own.

These peoples were, so it seemed, different in all manner of things: especially in appearance, speech, and ways of life or “culture”.

Encountering such people posed to those Europeans, or at least to the more sensitive of them (and also, one must suppose, to those whom they encountered) a huge question.

Who are these other people? — since people, fellow human beings, they certainly were.

And, if people, then what were the implications of their evident and undeniable humanity — and of the European recognition of their full but differently “conditioned” and “constructed” humanity — for the European recognition and understanding of their own?

There were two great historical kinds of response to this question, to this intellectual and moral challenge: the positive, or humanistic, and the negative, or violent.

The positive fully recognised “the humanity of the Other” and all its implications.

From this response grew some of the best things in modern Enlightenment culture: moral universalism; a broadened view of humanity, of “human nature” and its possibilities; a recognition of the inherent dignity of all people including all non-Europeans, sometimes embodied in the at times naïve idea of the “noble savage”; an embracing of the notion that all these different human ways of life, “designs for living” or “patterns of culture” were both mutually incommensurable and equally authentic, equally entitled in principle to respect.

In other words, there was no privileged standpoint “outside” of culture where one might stand to evaluate, judge and rank them.

Ideas such as these found impressive expression in such endeavours as the anti-slavery emancipation movement of the nineteenth century.

Perhaps its finest expression was, at its best, the modern — and now regrettably much eviscerated — discipline of anthropology, which took head-on the impact of those encounters and made the intellectual tension that they generated its scholarly foundation.

What — anthropology always asked itself — were the implications of any one of these many exotic “ways of life” for our general understanding of human nature and the human condition? And, at the same time, what insight might be drawn from our general understanding (such as it was and is!) of human nature and the human condition for the understanding of any such specific, unusual and foreign way of life?

At its best — which, alas it no longer is — anthropology was very good.

That, anyway, was the positive response.

And the negative?

It marshalled and “tweaked” these same experiences, facts ideas in a different way.

For those of this other inclination, certain things were clear, and became matters of doctrine and dogma.

Three in particular:

● First, those foreign exotic peoples looked different: they were of different colour, physiognomy and appearance — or what later came to be known as “race”;

● Second, even if they were human, they lived out their humanity in a different way from Europeans, in different human “life-worlds” based upon different cultures, languages and in different types of (supposedly “simpler” or more “primitive”) forms of social organisation; and

● Third, as became increasingly true as time went on — and became a literally “overpowering” difference by the nineteenth century — there were great differences in power between these foreign societies and their own European societies: notably in the different capacities of some of those societies, namely their own, to impose their will upon and have their way with others.

Those of this negative, inhumane and violent inclination “packaged” those ideas in a certain way.

They in effect said:

Those other people (since they look and seem so) really are biologically different from us; their cultures and societies are different, often seemingly simpler, than ours; and we are far more powerful than they.

This tripartite package they employed, in mutual confirmation and apparent “proof” of its three parts, and in both directions.

They moved up and down this three-tiered “rack” of propositions like musicians, moving up and down playing a scale.

In a self-deluding exercise in circular, self-justifying logic they argued:

First: They are biologically inferior; that is why their ways of life and levels of cultural and civilisational achievement are less advanced and hence “lower” than ours; and that, too, in turn is why we enjoy, and are entitled to exercise, political power over them in any way that pleases us.

And conversely, second: we have enormously more power than they do; this means that the kinds of society in which our great power is based are far better than their weaker kinds of society, which we are able to dominate; and the fact that our societies are stronger than theirs, and we more powerful than they, is both an expression and a proof of the fact that they are inherently, meaning biologically, inferior to us, and we superior, in both might and right, to them.

In other words, our political domination proves their biological inferiority; and their evident biological inferiority vindicates the power that we wield over them.

Racism and “bangsa”

That malign, violent package of self-justifying domination is what we know as “racism”.

It was the “operative ideology” of the “high” imperial age.

The history of worldwide struggle against racism and of the overthrow of imperial domination is nothing other than the story of the political pulling apart, and the moral discrediting, of that tight, three-part doctrinal scandal, disgrace and horror.

That’s why all this still matters now.

Alive and well and living in Malaysia?

That is why it still matters even, and especially, in Malaysia.


Because the entire modern political idea of “bangsa” as it now exists in Malaysia and dominates Malaysian public life is a product of that age of race-based and “racist” European imperialism.

That idea is tinged by the circumstances and time of its modern elaboration in the colonial context of “British Malaya”. It still bears the stamp, and carries the moral burden, of its origins. It is inherently tainted by the circumstances of its elaboration under the sway of the dominant ideas and ideologies of that race-obsessed imperial age.

From its origins in that context, the entire idea of bangsa (as it now exists, and is understood and used) is permeated and pervaded by the stain of those central racist notions and ideologies of the European age, and notably its self-satisfied British variant.

Ideas of “race” are deeply and ineradicably embedded in the word bangsa: in its meaning — both its direct denotation and its further emotive connotations — and in its everyday use.

So those race-obsessed ideas lurk within the language, the basic verbal “coinage”, of all who now speak the Malaysian form of the Malay language.

Not everybody whom I know and talk to in Malaysia is personally a racist. Far from it.

But so many people in Malaysia — the vast majority, some of them unwittingly and others knowingly yet reluctantly — become involuntarily complicit in a kind of “racism” through their use of language:

They have become complicit through their largely inescapable and necessary recourse to habitual forms of language — including, notably, such terms as “bangsa” and its associated ideas, that have “made their peace”, so to speak, with some of the worst features of a now otherwise long-rejected racist ideology, attitude and era.

That era, be it remembered, was one not of great Malay glory and sovereignty but of Malay humiliation and shame at the hands of an arrogant colonial power with its poisonous dreams of imperial grandeur and domination.

That is why all Malaysians, including and especially Malay Malaysians, need to be wary of, to criticise and “deconstruct”, and to reject the insidious term bangsa and all the dubious ideas, residues and implications that covertly “travel” with it.

Wittgenstein’s “Fly-bottle” and Malaysia

Back to “race” and the beguiling of our thinking by that changeable, pesky, mercurial word “bangsa”.

The great Vienna and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) once famously remarked that the role of philosophy is to disentangle the many confusions entailed by the use of language: by the conventional but often imprecise and confusing customary uses, the unruly meanings, of everyday words.

Philosophy’s task, he maintained, was to serve as the means of overcoming the bewitching (or, as we might now colloquially say, the “bamboozling”) of intelligence — the confusion and frustration of precise and systematic thinking — by language, with all its everyday idiosyncrasies, peculiarities and habitual lack of precision.

Or, as he put it, the role of philosophy was to serve as the means for the fly to escape the fly-bottle.

(In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein posed to himself the question “What is your aim in Philosophy?” To which he answered: “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”.)

A fly-bottle is a kind of trap and “specimen jar” that is used by entomologists, the experts in studying the various species of insects, to trap and collect (and then disable and paralyse!) the individual examples that they study.

So philosophy, for Wittgenstein, is a kind of therapeutic treatment, even a kind of liberation technique and strategy. It is the indispensable tool that may enable thinking to escape confusion, or being “bamboozled”, by freeing itself from its disabling entanglement, even imprisonment, in conventional language.

Thinking is like that fly which is trapped, dulled and disabled in a fly-bottle. The fly-bottle here is the confinement of thinking within the limits and distorting constraints of everyday language.

The challenge is to find a way out for that fly, to liberate thinking from dulling and disabling “mystification”.

That, and nothing less, is the task of philosophy.

In the Malaysian case, in this specific Malaysian instance that is discussed here, that confining, constraining fly-bottle — that bewitching, confusing and distorting piece of everyday language — is the term bangsa.

It is a term — so this extended commentary has argued from the outset — that is sorely in need of clarification, “disaggregation” and so-called deconstruction.

* Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney.

Part 1 – Words and the world, or ‘bangsa’ in question
Part 2 – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2b – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 2c – Exploring and disaggregating ‘bangsa’
Part 3 – Distorted reasoning — or thinking ‘bamboozled’ by language

Part 5 – ‘Race’ and the reform of public language in Malaysia

  1. #1 by Winston on Monday, 27 February 2012 - 11:57 am

    Dear author, you have written a long, long story about race.
    Let’s say that race is something that should not even be noticed,
    let alone discussed!
    In the early days of our independence, nobody, but nobody
    noticed anything about race!!
    This awareness became very acute later on due to the play on
    race to enable certain politicians to gain power and wealth.
    Same with religion; this too was not something that anyone wore
    on their sleeves.

  2. #2 by upsidedown on Monday, 27 February 2012 - 5:49 pm

    Dear Sir,

    I noticed that you have not mentioned Darwinism or Charles Darwin theory of evolution. This to me (and to many other scientists and people of conscience) is the basis of modern racism and gave it its very ominous and deadly slant. It not only gave a scientific (and to me a very false and intellectually indefensible basis) basis for one race being considered superior to another but also provide justification for the stronger races to colonise, dominate, enslave or eliminate the ‘weaker’ races in the name of human evolution. This madness culminated in Hitler’s Nazism and his elimination of the Jews and other races including Russians. It also underlie the racism of Imperial Japan. Communist dialectics also found justification in Darwinism. It is perpetuated today in the form of the brutal dog-eat-dog sort of capitalism being practiced by some. UMNO racism is a study in contradiction, although in essence it is the direct spiritual descendant of Darwinism. UMNO racism is premised on Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy/superiority) and sold politically to the Malay masses on the basis of their economic weakness in relation to the Chinese.

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