Saturday, May 29, 2010

Day 10: The Hornet's Nest

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One of today's questions was how I'd envision Malaysia in five years: my hope for the near future is that all of us Malaysians will be able to have civil and responsible discussions about sensitive topics like today's, and that we also recognise that this doesn't mean the suppression of personal opinion.

It seems to me that it is often hard to find public spaces where one can talk about these issues safely without a riot of indignant people chasing after you, yet still be held accountable for all that one spews.

Yes, it's okay to get upset and emotional about something you feel passionate about - if you didn't, something would be wrong - but it should not be okay to name-call and make overly crude statements with no real contributing value except to defame another person.

It must be okay to question things and receive responses to those questions.

It must be okay to question long-held stereotypes and ask if we really need them any more; it should not be okay to sweep things under the carpet or refrain from thinking about them just because it's been tradition to do so.

It must be okay not to adopt certain beliefs just because everyone else of a similar background or race to you seems to be adopting them. It is perfectly fine to think for yourself.

With that in mind, I offer opinions and questions related to today's discussion - things I've been thinking about, things I don't have the answers to and don't expect to, things that I often wonder what other people would think about.


When thinking about the perception of race, I'd rather start with how it affects me personally. For one, it annoys me that I'm asked to disclose my race before taking an exam in Malaysia. It leads me to wonder: what has that to do with my performance on the test, anyway? Why should my ancestry affect how my individual performance is seen and evaluated? And if really it's not supposed to be used to judge me, why not make it optional to report my race for the test?

There's that. There's also the question of meritocracy versus race in school team selections. I'm grateful that for most of my secondary school years the school principal was a forward-looking man, who did not encourage dubious practices like assembling teams for competitions with certain distributions of students from different races and genders. Rather unfortunately, he retired; his successor did not have quite the same ideals as him. I remember my teacher telling me, in lower tones than normal, that we had to make sure we had someone from each race on the team for a particular project; I said I didn't mind, as long as they were capable. This happened more than once, with less than desirable outcomes.

Although, I will note here, I must also ask myself if the way I related to them affected the situation - and it is a personal question to struggle over, as is that of affirmative action in education.


So perhaps it's time to think about race beyond the personal level. But I'm wary of doing so.

For the moment other people are brought into the picture, I can no longer purport to speak for all of them, to know all of their thoughts, which is why I'm uneasy whenever someone treats me as a mini version of every single Malaysian Chinese girl who isn't proficient in any Chinese dialect (in other words, a banana). It's too much for me to speak for thousands of other individuals. I have no way of divining how I should act to reflect the interests of so many - especially when I might have my own opinions.

This is not a matter of being ashamed of my background or shrugging responsibility. It is a problem of stereotyping - of lumping everyone into one amalgamated identity and subsequently treating everyone the same way. Convenient, but appalling.

Stereotypes may make things easy, but they also prevent us from ever appreciating the individual and approaching them on a closer level, and this is one step down the slippery slope of segregating and dehumanizing individuals from the society, which leads to desensitization to conflict and violence, among others.

I know I want to be seen as an individual, not a representative of an entire group of people. How about you?


Having been overseas for nearly ten months now, I think I can say that none of the people I've met have suggested to me through one way or the other that they have a stereotypical idea of what a Malaysian individual should be.

Nobody has ever said anything about tree-dwelling, bark cloth-wearing natives, which I presume is a good thing. Most of the Malaysian students here aren't the stereotypical study-all-day, grade-grubbing type, which helps a lot. And thanks to enterprises in Boston and New York, many of them know the wonders of Malaysian food, and understand my rants about how Americans treat 'spicy' as 'sweet' and how I can never get spicy food.

But they're also well-read, and since things that are going on in the country are reported in international news media, they know a thing or two about the unrest in the country for the past two years. This is when the conversation gets awkward. Those who hail from countries in the region are especially able to pinpoint specific events and ask questions about them.

And despite how much I want to present a favourable image of the country, there are things I will never be able to bring myself to condone, because things aren't perfect, and they shouldn't have to be. Which turns out well in the end, because everyone has their own bone to pick with their home countries, and it makes for particularly interesting conversation when we don't hide such a fact.

One of my friends said a marvelous thing on Facebook the other day, and I quote her:

"Malaysia, to me, is like a crazy mother who embarrasses me in public way too often. She gives me way too many "Mum! What the hell??" moments and on most days, I really don't want to recognise her. But you know at the end of the day I'm never going to leave her anyway."

And I truly, truly believe those words.

Charis Loke is a rising sophomore at Brown, concentrating in Biochemistry. Her interests include art and illustration, Tolkien, and procrastination.

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