Ways of seeing Malaysia – deconstructing demographic violence

Malaysians united

How we depict or represent something influences how we think about or ‘know’ it, and the reverse is true as well. In the context of visual art, John Berger showed us this almost half a century ago now. Berger also helped us to realise that ‘ways of seeing and knowing’ are seldom as innocuous as they may first appear; they may hide violence beneath their gleaming, airbrushed surfaces or be tools of libido dominandi disguised as benevolence.

For instance, the pin-ups that one might find in a colleague’s office or in the department machine shop are not ‘just’ pictures of almost-naked women in provocative poses in semi-public places, but a particular way of representing and seeing women that ultimately leads to and comes from the objectification of women and their bodies, particular assumptions about women’s role in society, and a certain violence in social relations between the sexes.

Most of those who know of Malaysia are familiar with the ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ tourism ads; indeed, for many, these represent the only way they have ever seen Malaysia. It is therefore not surprising that much that has been written on Malaysia’s recent general elections has failed to transcend the carefully-constructed framing narrative which these ads embody and in which they are embedded. As such, the world’s chattering classes were, perhaps unwittingly but nevertheless inexcusably, complicit in reinforcing a ‘way of seeing’ which – in order to serve certain interests – is intentionally blind to Malaysia’s most vulnerable groups, most notably her indigenous peoples ( ~ 12% of her 28 million citizens), but also migrant workers (~2-4 million people) as well as refugees and asylum seekers.

One of the main planks of this narrative (hereafter called ‘MICO’ for ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Others’) is the statement – and oft-quoted ‘factoid’ – that ‘Just over half of Malaysians are ethnic Malays, 7% are of Indian descent, almost a quarter are of Chinese descent and the rest come from Other Races.’ These ‘other races’, whom one might expect to be Europeans or other non-Asians, are in fact mostly Malaysia’s indigenous peoples, reduced by this statement to being negligible ‘others’ in their own land.

In the East Malaysian (Malaysian Borneo) states of Sabah and Sarawak, contrary to West Malaysia, indigenous peoples still form the majority of the population. These oil- and timber-rich states contribute ~60% of Malaysia’s geographical area, a fifth of its population and an outsize fraction of federal government revenue. They are also an embarrassment to the present ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN), as they do not (yet) fit into the racial framework they impose on the country and present to the world as ‘the only truthful way of seeing Malaysia’. Indeed, when people speak generally about Malaysia – especially in social or cultural terms – most of the time they really mean West Malaysia.

West Malaysian indigenous groups (known collectively as the Orang Asli/Asal, or ‘original people’) have been a minority for several centuries, and now form less than 1% of the population. As such, the MICO classification – along with the predecessor of today’s Orang Asli Affairs Department (JHEOA) – was created by the British to divide and rule West Malaysia (then called Malaya). For all that, it has never truly described Malaya’s population. In part, this is because each category lumped together and conflated a myriad of culturally distinguishable groups. (An indicator: collectively, Malaysians speak more than a hundred living languages.) In addition, MICO’s categories themselves were already blurring during colonial times through intermarriages and adoptions, and have only become more blurred with Independence and the gradual coming into being of a Malaysian identity.

Nevertheless, the BN, a coalition of race-based parties in power since West Malaysian Independence in 1957, has tried to maintain and reinforce MICO categories. For example, a West Malaysian with Irish, French, Javanese, Filipino, Arab, Hakka and Ceylonese ancestry could be ‘officially’ M, I, C or O depending on their paternal ancestry or their religion, or else by ‘accident’ or for other less-than-transparent reasons. (Both one’s race and religion are recorded on Malaysian national identity cards, as well as many other administrative documents.) To borrow an expression from the British, Malaysians are a mongrel race. Malaysian ethnicity is a fluid concept, forced into hard categories.

These hard categories – the MICO construct – ultimately sustain and nourish a corrupt system of patronage benefitting a small multi-racial ‘elite’ class of rent-seekers. The most obvious of its effects and enabling factors is Malaysia’s all-pervasive institutionalised racism and race-baiting politics, which has led millions of Malaysia’s most highly-qualified citizens to leave the country. Much ink has already been spilled on these topics. We shall therefore focus instead on bringing to light a less-known side of the story – the ongoing narrative and effective ethnocide of Malaysia’s indigenous peoples.

One of the main actors in the entrenchment and perpetuation of the MICO depiction of Malaysia as well as its corollary doctrine of the ‘supremacy of the Malay race’ was, ironically, a man who was himself a square peg in MICO’s round holes. This man was Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Of Indian ancestry (some say he is the son of a migrant from Kerala), and from a recent-migrant neighbourhood, Dr. Mahathir reinvented himself as a ‘Malay’, not only that, as a ‘champion of the Malay race’. He rose through the ranks to become the leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO, the dominant party in the BN).

As Malaysia’s longest-serving Prime Minister (1981-2003), Dr. Mahathir presided over two decades of impressive economic growth and modernisation. His legacy, as well as both UMNO and Malaysia, would be very different today had Dr. Mahathir not attempted to compensate for his origins by becoming ‘more Malay than the Malays’, or had the ideas of UMNO’s more inclusive founding fathers prevailed: One of them, Onn Jaafar mooted in the 1950s the opening of UMNO membership to all Malayans (West Malaysians). As it was, history took a different course.

To cement MICO, widen their ‘Malay’ voter base and to make ‘Malay Supremacy’ a demographic reality, Dr. Mahathir and UMNO played on the fact that, in the Malaysian Federal Constitution, Article 160 defines a Malay as a ‘Malaysian citizen born to a Malaysian citizen who professes to be a Muslim, habitually speaks the Malay language, adheres to Malay customs, and is domiciled in Malaysia or Singapore’. In addition, Article 153 guarantees Malays a ‘special position’ in the country.

This identification between Malays and Islam serves UMNO’s political purposes through two principal mechanisms.

If Malay, therefore Muslim: Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for a person born Malay – and therefore by ‘legal definition’ Muslim – to convert out of Islam or to practice a non-Sunni form of Islam. Today, as the Lina Joy case has shown, this is for all practical intents and purposes impossible. Some who try are sent to re-education centres. Those classified as Muslims are subject to both civil and syariah law, as well as rulings of state religious departments.

Whereas in principle only civil law applies to non-Muslims, Malaysia’s dual legal system has created numerous legal, administrative and human problems in overlapping areas, notably family law. In the context of demographic manipulation, it is worth noting that non-Muslims who marry Muslims must convert to Islam; as with the impossibility of conversion out of Islam, this has not always been the case in Malaysia.

If Muslim, therefore Malay: Muslim migrants to Malaysia, whatever their origin, are rapidly assimilated into the ‘Malay’ category by the political will of UMNO. Thus, one finds individuals ‘issus de l’immigration récente’, such as Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, having a ‘special position’ vis-a-vis others who have been around for longer, but who simply happen not to be Muslim.

Given UMNO’s social engineering goals, Malaysia’s indigenous peoples clearly represent both a threat and an opportunity. The threat lies in their very existence, which negates the claim that Malays are indigenous ‘sons of the soil’ (bumiputera);  in particular, it greatly weakens the position of ‘assimilated’ or ‘constitutional’ Malays such as Dr. Mahathir Mohamad and others like him, of whom there are a considerable number among UMNO’s leaders. The opportunity lies in their status as undefined ‘others’ in MICO.

It does not take a Stanford Business grad at McKinsey to figure out what ‘the solution’ is: the embarrassing existence of the indigenous peoples must be ‘erased’ by making them into ‘Malays’. There have therefore been widespread official and semi-official efforts in this direction.

The most obvious of these was the introduction of large numbers of Muslim migrants  (some say up to 700,000) through a covert ‘citizenship for votesoperation known as ‘Project IC’, which over the past few decades has significantly changed the demographics of Sabah, formerly a Christian majority state. Analysts believe that this may have led to a general destabilisation of the region and in particular indirectly enabled an armed incursion into the Malaysian state of Sabah by militants from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, who claim the territory of Sabah .

Other ‘Malay-isation’ efforts are less well-documented and more subtle; they include soft – and sometimes not so soft – efforts to Islamise the indigenous peoples of both East and West Malaysia. (At the moment, two thirds of Malaysian Christians are indigenous East Malaysians and, conversely, just under half of indigenous East Malaysians are Christians. These facts seem to have escaped even the Missions Etrangères de Paris, but may no longer be true in the future if MICO persists and succeeds.) A 2008 report by the Asian Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Network called the Malaysian Department of Orang Asli Affairs (JHEOA) – whose ostensible mission is to ‘develop the socio-economic well-being of the Orang Asli’ – ‘a mechanism to control the Orang Asli’, one of whose ultimate aims since the late 1970s has been to integrate the Orang Asli into ‘mainstream Malay society’ through Islamisation.

Socio-economically, Malaysia’s indigenous people are among her poorest and most marginalised groups; they have benefitted far less than the ‘Malays’ from ‘bumiputera’ affirmative action policies, programmes and aid. Worse, land they live on has been ‘grabbed’ e.g. for the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and for its timber. A 2003 publication by the Centre for Orang Asli Concerns, an NGO, described the Orang Asli as ‘First in the Land, Last in the Plan’. Similarly, a recent report by the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (SUHAKAM) observed that the ‘economic self-reliance of [East Malaysian natives] has been progressively reduced…forcing them to become coolies in their own land’.

With Malaysia’s tightly-controlled media – many newspapers are owned outright by BN parties, RSF ranked Malaysia 145th out of 179 countries for press freedom – MICO partially succeeded in labelling and sowing distrust among Malaysians for a long time, but the game changed when internet access became widely available. Internet penetration is now at about 60%.

The mushrooming of independent news portals and other online forums starting a little over ten years ago enabled many Malaysians to broach the once-taboo ‘race issue’, first by venting frustrations pent-up for decades, then to engage in more sophisticated analysis, and finally to expose the MICO framework and its inherent violence for what they were and to reject them. This dynamic and rapidly-maturing national conversation has been, quite simply, amazing to watch, even for those who always had faith in the inherent goodness and basic common sense of the Malaysian people. It has resulted in initiatives such as ‘Saya Anak Bangsa Malaysia’ (My Race is Malaysian), Projek Dialog, Malaysian Artistes for Unity, ‘Kita Kawan Mah (We are all friends) and the Malaysia Forum, as well as growing support for non-race-based political parties, especially in areas with reliable internet access.

The results of GE13 – where the BN lost the popular vote but retained power amidst allegations of massive and widespread fraud – thus represent more than anything a resounding rejection of the BN and its MICO framework as well as corruption and abuse of public office by young, urban, connected voters. An online poll of 30,000 Malaysians under the age of 21, the age of voting majority, showed 90% support for the opposition Pakatan Rakyat and only 10% for the race-based political parties of the BN.

Unsurprisingly, in the immediate aftermath of GE13, the ruling BN – who do not seem willing or able to change with the times – immediately sought to reinforce their ‘tried and tested’ MICO methods of manipulating and controlling the population by speaking of a ‘Chinese tsunami’ and by inciting hatred between ‘races’ (as defined by them) in the front-page headlines of offline media. Dr. Mahathir Mohamad attributed the BN’s loss to ‘greedy Malays’ and ‘ungrateful Chinese’. Utusan Malaysia, owned by UMNO, screamed ‘Apa lagi Cina Mahu?’ (What more do the Chinese want?) and the Star, owned by MCA, the BN’s ‘Chinese’ party, dutifully played the echo chamber with ‘Chinese will be SIDELINED’.

To the international community, the BN attempted as usual to portray Malaysians as a divided, vengeful and violent people, whom only they are capable of keeping from springing at each other’s throats. And thus, no doubt, protect investments. It is in this light that Najib Razak, the leader of the BN’s disingenuous remarks on ‘national reconciliation’ must be read and understood. It is also in this light that calls for a BN merger with the opposition Democratic Action Party (social democrats) must be read and understood; in effect, the BN has a history of ‘neutralising’ ascendant opposition parties by absorbing and ‘racially pigeon-holing’ them – previous victims include Gerakan, the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and Parti Bersatu Sabah (PBS).

The foreign press largely fell for, or chose to fall for, the BN’s ploy and continued to report on Malaysia within the MICO framework, ignoring the fact that this was precisely what Malaysians had rejected in the elections. Not only did many take the ‘Chinese Tsunami’ at face value and repeat it thought-for-thought as ‘analysis’; some major news outlets, including the Economist, le Monde and the Financial Times, went one step further and finished the BN’s work for them by ‘absorbing’ Malaysia’s indigenous peoples into the ‘Malay’ category in their ‘ethnic statistics’ of the Malaysian population, thus erasing those ‘first in the land’ in Malaysia with a single stroke of the pen. These were appalling and irresponsible acts of journalistic laziness, hermeneutic arrogance and ultimately demographic violence and narrative ethnocide.

Many Malaysians reading BN’s racist rhetoric, which reached new heights (or depths) immediately before and after the elections and in addition was amplified by the international press, felt like female engineers who popped over to the machine shop to mill a simple piece only to find themselves confronted with a life-size pin-up on the wall.

They were disgusted and outraged, and rightly so.

To tell their side of the story, ordinary Malaysians have come forward in increasing numbers recently to undermine the MICO framework and expose its distortions, in particular by pointing out that it does not accurately represent their ancestry or Malaysia’s complex cultural heritage. Sairana Mohamad Saad’s article in the Malaysian Insider is typical. It begins:

According to my birth certificate, I am a Malay. Based on my…features, I should be from [the state of] Penang. The truth is, both [sic] my grandparents sailed to Malaysia, therefore I was born [in the state of] Selangor…and am married to a foreigner. Most Malaysians would call me “rojak” [mixed]. To me, I am a Malaysian, with rights to speak up. Period.

Erna Mahyuni, an indigenous Sabahan, had this to say about an attempt to label her an ‘ungrateful Malay’ for having said that most Malaysians are ‘pendatang’ or immigrants:

I’m not Malay nor do I have ‘Malay’ blood anywhere in my ancestry. My birth certificate shows my father is Dusun; my mother is Bajau. Incidentally, one of my great-grandmothers is Chinese, as are quite a number of my relatives, and the other great-grandmother is Pakistani Indian. Which still makes me 100 per cent Malaysian.

And Karina Bahrin directly attacked the ‘tsunami’ statement in a remark addressed to the ‘Prime Minister and all in UMNO’:

I am, by your definition, Malay. Except…my paternal grandmother was probably biologically Chinese. And…my mother is a former Catholic from the Philippines…[A]s far as you are concerned, I am Malay. Only, I did not vote for you. And neither did a whole lot of other Malays…Do the math.

As a matter of fact, analysts – including independent pollster Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Centre; Dr. Ong Kian Ming, an academic-turned-politician and director of the Malaysian Electoral Roll Analysis Project; and contributors to the Australian National University’s ‘New Mandala’ – have done the math. And they have found that the data do not support the ‘Chinese Tsunami’ hermeneutic but instead point to a swing across the board towards the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, whose component parties are not race-based. If one must ‘enliven’ a headline with the word ‘schism’ (Associated Press, New York Times etc.), it would be more truthful to note that in GE13 the schism, if there was one, was along urban-rural, age, gender and class lines rather than ethnic ones.

Malaysians have undertaken a much-needed and democratically-driven paradigm shift. To a certain extent, it could even be said that the Malaysian people are finally constructing their own paradigm and finding their own voices. Commentators would do well to take note of and record if not applaud this historic event instead of acting as deadweights stuck in the old, racist paradigm; otherwise, they risk finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

Charis Quay Huei Li is a Malaysian academic working abroad. An outline of the main points in this article appeared in the form of comments on the Economist’s website.  These were removed by the moderator; no reason was given.