Who Looks Malaysian To You?  Malaysia’s Racial Politics Revisited

Who Looks Malaysian To You?  Malaysia’s Racial Politics Revisited

By Farish A. Noor

Despite the often-repeated cliche that Malaysian society is a multiracial
melting pot, those who know the country know that mixing between the races
has always been minimal. What is more, it would appear that the Malaysian
authorities would like to keep it that way. No matter how high the political
temperature rises in the country, the racial groups in Malaysia remain

The latest piece of evidence to back this claim came when the Information
Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Zainuddin Maidin, called for a set of guidelines
to ensure that the media and advertising agencies in Malaysia would lower
the number of ‘Pan-Asian faces’ seen on TV and in the ads of the country.
Datuk Zam’s call to have such race-based guidelines sums up the moral and
ideological morass that Malaysia is in at the moment. Fearful that the
Malaysian media and entertainment scene would be dominated by hybrid
mongrels, Zam’s belated call for the defence of racial and ethnic
essentialism is symptomatic of the political uncertainty of the times.

Of course the small urban based Pan-Asian and Eurasian community in Malaysia
have already reacted to Zam’s call for the ethnic and racial purification of
the media with gusto, even venom. But there is nothing new about Zam’s
statement. Since the 1980s and 1990s there have been similar calls, uttered
by successive Information Ministers, to the same effect: Mohamad Rahmat, who
served under the Mahathir administration, had uttered a similar complaint
when he too noted that there were too many ‘hybrid, pan-Asian’ faces on TV.
It was also Mohamad Rahmat who had attempted to ‘clean up’ the Malaysian
entertainment and media scene, with – some might recall – the somewhat
spectacular gesture of actually cutting the hair of long-haired heavy metal
rockers, caught on national television.

But what is worrisome about this latest knee-jerk reaction to racial and
ethnic pluralism is that it comes at a time when Malaysian society seems on
the brink of slipping into yet another political crisis, with racial and
ethnic overtones.

Last year witnessed the shameful spectacle of the ruling UMNO party’s
leaders taking to the podium, brandishing their kerises (Malay daggers) and
talking (or rather shouting) at length about the notion of blood and
belonging. Last year we had UMNO leaders rubbishing the notion of a
‘Malaysian Malaysia’, dismissing the concept of a plural society as one that
was confused, hybrid and mixed-up. Last year we read of right-wing
ethno-nationalists taunting and challenging their leaders to use those very
same Malay daggers that they had unsheathed in public. All talk has been on
blood and belonging; an ideological discourse replete with shallow and
narrow essentialist understandings of what constitutes the Malaysian nation
and who deserves to be seen as essentially Malaysian.

It is against this context of rising right-wing mobilisation that Zam’s
latest utterance was made; and no, it cannot and should not be excused as a
legitimate appeal for the defence of racial difference. In the context of a
pluralized Malaysia today, Malaysians are more hybrid, more inter-dependent
and inter-linked than ever before. Racial, ethnic, linguistic and even
religious horizons have come to overlap in this contested nation, and such
inter-penetration is likely to be a permanent feature of a Malaysian society
that is bound to change and evolve.

The other aspect of Zam’s statement is that it shows the extent of
ideological-discursive displacement of the current establishment installed
in Putrajaya: At a time when practically all of Asia is on the move and
Asian nation-states are caught in the mad rush to celebrate multiculturalism
as their main selling point, our own leaders are bent on doing the opposite.
Malaysia’s selling point is precisely the fact that it is a multi-racial
melting pot where millions of Asians have come together, inter-married and
produced a nation that defies ethnic and racial compartmentalisation. If
Malaysia wanted to advertise itself to the world as a model of
multiculturalism in action, it is precisely those ‘hybrid, mongrel’ faces
the country should be showing to the world. And one can even go back in
recent history and foreground the myriad of mixed hybrid faces that have
graced the corridors of power in the country: From Onn Jaafar to Hussein Onn
to Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s leaders have exhibited an uncanny proclivity
to be multiracial themselves.

Logic and common sense, however, are feeble foils to the barbed rhetoric of
ethno-nationalists whose own essentialist understanding works best as a
blunt instrument. In time the Information Minister’s statement will be
forgotten and life will carry on at its usual inebriated pace in Malaysia .
Some have already begun to dismiss this latest call for ethnic and racial
Puritanism as a crank call from a politician will little else to do. But set
against the overall picture of a Malaysia that is slipping towards a more
communitarian and sectarian register, Zam’s statement can and should be read
as a warning sign of things to come.


Dr. Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights
activist, and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research