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Sept 9, 2000 Malaysiakini

Middle-age crisis

M Nadarajah

I have stopped feeling at home in Malaysia. There is a great deal of uneasiness. Someone out there may want to shout at me: "Go back to India, if you want!" Really, that is not the issue. I am not making a choice between India and Malaysia.

Though my reasons may be private my uneasiness is not, and it is certainly very real for many of us here. It is for me complicated and mixed up with the history of this country, its emerging character and its future.

I am a Malaysian. But my ancestors belong to a culturally rich ancient civilisation, which is today a major contributor of human resources to the global cyber-industry. Inevitably, my cultural roots are in India. They are not here. Like many in the Indian diaspora, 'India' is a presence that shapes the diaspora Indian's everyday cultural life around the globe.

But the Indian civilisation, as the Chinese one, has long ago interacted with the culture of the people of the Malay Peninsula and has produced distinctive and creative hybrids. I sincerely like to locate my ancestors and my culture in that process of hybridisation. But no. This nation has not made me feel comfortable or proud of that.

The attempt here has been to carefully remove any hybrid elements, in what I think, are vain attempts to create a 'pure culture', whatever that means. In its everyday life statement, cultures have always carried out dialogue with each other.

Except in the clever ads put up in the national television networks at around the time of the national day in August - when an attempt is made to show the sharing of cultures - the rest of the year we live in a highly ethnically compartmentalised and charged reality.

The ads seem to assume that sharing and hybridisation is something new, which has to be promoted, little realising we always have a tradition of hybridisation and active syncretism.

There are fine examples of sharing and cultural hybrids in Malaysia, all of which are facing danger of marginalisation, "cultural extermination and death". A couple of decades from now, through conscious design or careless neglect, cultures around "wayang kulit" or "Dato Kong" would have been consigned to the dustbin of history, forgotten for good. We completely avoid that history. In fact, steps are taken to destroy that history. Why?

A little reflection would reveal that we are becoming a nation that is slowly but certainly having little or no respect for history - past, present or future - justice or compassion and how they once enriched our individual and national life. For some of us, this is the root of our uneasiness. And homelessness.

There have been a number of stages through which Indians have interacted with the Malay community. But under British colonialism, south Indians - mostly Tamils - were brought here through the indentured labour system and, later through the kangani system, to work in the plantations to help make money for British entrepreneurs and the British government. And, of course, later for the Malayan government.

Imagine this scenario for a moment. Imagine that you can go down to the material foundations of this nation and can see the contribution to that foundation in terms of layers of labour and income in dollars and cents.

You will certainly see what critical contributions Indian labour has made to creating a modern Malaya/Malaysia. But that is history now and it is best forgotten. In fact, the situation here is even more saddening. Instead of recognising the contribution of the Indian community and being sort of "grateful" for that, we have some Malaysians shouting coldly and loudly that the Indian Malaysian community is an ungrateful community!

History, and by extention heritage, is this country is faced with the problem of political myopia. We have fed and fattened our greed for profits any way in the name of "development". In the face of this, history and heritage in this country have been given up for commercial and short-term growth benefits and ethnic demands.

We are willing to tear down the "significant old" and give the developers all rights to develop. Under the rent control repeal, Georgetown in Penang is, for instance, under attack. This is culturally a very rich area, both in terms of cultural practices and architectural diversity.

In this place, you have within walking distances, in one street a Protestant church, the "Goddess of Mercy" (Chinese) temple, the Mariamman Hindu temple and the Kapitan Kling Mosque. And, more importantly, a community that supports it. Isn't this what we must preserve and promote as an instance of the "true Malaysia"?

But short term, and therefore historically blind, planning and greed will perhaps one day destroy this cultural diversity and richness. Recently, the multiethnic and historical cemetery at the Sungai Besi area - a preservation and the memory of our past community - was faced with the danger of being gobbled up by greed.

"True Malaysia" must have physical icons around which we can all come together in the true spirit of being Malaysian. But our historical insensitivity is bent on destroying all these. Sadly "Malaysia" as a "cultural hybrid" is soon going to be only reflected in advertising and public relations budgets and programmes. It will in time be merely a media event. Perhaps that is all we really want.

This historical blindness, greed for profit, lack of concern for justice or the feeling of compassion affect all of us and certainly the Indian Malaysian community a great deal. When the world of the Indians - the plantation society - the world they worked in very hard, the world in which many of them died working to produce wealth for this nation, started to crumble, there was no urgency in this country to do something about it.

It was a process that was certainly going to produce a massive problem within the community. But that foresight was neither with the government nor the MIC. In fact, it was not at all seen as a problem for the nation. It was the problem of the Indian community, not Malaysians.

Such a mode of thinking is the root of our mainstream political existence: Turn the problems faced by Malaysians into the problems of the community and let the community deal with it. So when we have problems with pigs, it is seen as the problem of the Chinese community.

The problem of the Ecstasy is the problem of the Chinese youth. Not Malaysians. The problem of drug abuse is the problem of the Malay youth. Of course, the problem of the Malays directly becomes the problem of the Government.

In one way or another, all these affect many Malaysians. Sometime ago an elderly Chinese taxi driver told me "I want to be a Malaysian and I want to love this country but I am not allowed to. I am always made to feel like less than one".

This year he has decided not to put up the Malaysian flag on his taxi. The quality of justice and compassion in this country is abysmal. And there are many who do not feel at home.

Coming back, the Indian Malaysians unable to deal with their crumbling world moved from rural poverty to urban poverty. And even 40 odd years of independence, with the Indian rubber tapper labouring community - mostly Tamils - even now not guaranteed a minimum wage, a minister with the Malaysian government had the cheek to say that he did not know what the rubber tappers really did behind the rubber tree!

That is symtomatic of our insensitivity to history or justice. Or our gratefulness to our own people. The Indian Malaysian community is a poor minority exhibiting all the problems of a poor minority in a multi-ethnic environment. Left to fend for itself - unlike the protected Malay community - within an ethnically charged environment, it constantly faced a great deal of obstacles.

These problems started early. In the sixties, my brother was working as a door-to-door salesman selling books. As he knocked the door of a non-Indian Malaysian home, he heard one say, "Find out what that black bastard outside wants."

In a chat with a young frustrated Indian Malaysian student of mine, I was informed that she was told by a non-Indian employer "If not for your colour, we would have employed you."

After completing his hotel management course, the son of a friend of mine - quite a dark-skinned person - wanted to join the "front office" of a hotel, which a "visible position". To his disappointment, he found that it was quite difficult for a dark skinned person to occupy such a position. He was given a position in the "house keeping" department, a "behind-the-scene" department.

If you are a fair skinned Indian, close to appearing like Sharukh Khan, perhaps you will have an opportunity in this country. I have watched the plight of a pregnant Indian Malaysian woman, with a big bag of goods she had shopped in a nearby supermarket, trying to get the attention of a taxi driver. The person who finally stopped to pick her up was an Indian taxi driver.

I can go on with these examples. The fact that I remember these examples is certainly uncomfortable to me. But "objectively" they reflect a reality that most of us, and certainly the government, like to hide. I am not saying that Indians do not exhibit racist tendencies.

The thing is that we have put our blinkers on and like to believe that there is no racism - retail or institutional - in this country. And therefore no need for us to talk about it, articulate our problems in public, rationally engage in a discussion, and even work towards legislating against certain forms.

Sept 11, 2000

Middle-age crisis 2 M Nadarajah

We are told that we are not ready for discussions of racism or that we can't even rationally discuss certain unhappiness about "race relations" in this country. The David Chua episode is a case in point.

If after 43 years of independence and many more decades before that of living together, of working together, of seeing our loved ones - even across ethnic groups - being buried in this land, we cannot come to a table to rationally discuss a common problem that affects us all, what have we really accomplished as a nation or as a community?

And what is historically blind about all these is that we are pushing our problems to the next generation and teaching them to push the same problems to the next, hoping eventually everything will come to pass and that we will all form one big, happy family. Even myths need to be constructed with some realism! We have come to a bridge and we are refusing to cross it!

The marginalisation of the Indian Malaysian community has many secondary but critical effects. After the Sauk incident - an incident that clearly revealed how low people rated the mainstream media and its independence and how cynical they have become - there was one question that many threw at me in our casual conversations. Members of the Malay community also raised this.

"If", they said, almost in a chorus, "the group that carried out the arms heist was a non-Malay group, do you think they would have hesitated shooting them on sight?"

And in many discussions, there was always a reference to shooting of a "pregnant Indian woman". An unarmed Indian Malaysian pregnant women was shot on sight for being in the company of Indian Malaysian men who were suspected to be kidnappers.

This terrible thing has been burnt into the Indian Malaysian psyche and it will appear again and again as a query: "What is our status in this country?" There were many others who were likewise shot in situations that raises many questions, all of which affects the feeling of "belongingness" to this nation.

Political powerlessness

TV3, for instance, is famous for putting Indians (read: Tamils) in their place. TV3's treatment of Indians is a good measure and is reflective of Indian economic and political powerlessness. Had this group been financially strong and politically powerful, the scenario would have been significantly different.

The Indian Malaysian community will have their movies not at a god-forsaken time but at prime time. Elsewhere, the community has been told to stand on their own two feet. But the same logic has not been directed at the Malay community.

In this country, the majority community behaves like a besieged minority, putting the poor minority community of Indian Malaysians, and other such communities, out of the scope of Islamic justice and compassion. When are we going to learn that ethnicity alone is really an inadequate criterion to deal with poverty?

In an unequal level playing field, I think we need to look at poor Malaysians. They are Malaysian. They are our people. They need help. Why is this so difficult to see? We look but do not see. We hear but do not listen. Our drive for political survival is so narrow and blind that it suffocates and kills our sense of justice and compassion.

My unease with Malaysia is not only the result of the marginalisation of the Indian Malaysian community. There are certainly many things that are going on in this country that will make a citizen uneasy, that will further question our notions of justice and compassion. We are, for instance, a labour shortage economy and we need alien labour. We bring this people in from the neighbouring countries but treat them rather badly.

Hard-earned income

One of my close relative runs a gold jewellery shop. A number of his customers are Bangladeshis. I have personally observed how they take their money out from some of the oddest of places, sometimes from inside their under garments.

When asked why they do that, they say that there are "Malaysians" who like to extort them of their hard-earned income. So when they travel, they put their money in the oddest of places, hoping that it is not found. We point our finger at them without realising how mean we have been.

During the height of the economic crisis, a conversation with a taxi driver revealed yet another aspect of our brutality. The driver of the taxi I was travelling in told me that his business is down. He continued to say many Indonesians have returned since the crisis, finding it difficult to sustain themselves here. As a result of which, the taxi driver observed, his income was down significantly.

I was curious about immigrant labour using taxis to travel rather than bus service or LRT. He told me that they use taxi to avoid being spotted while walking or waiting for a bus or train. They just do not want to be visible because for them, that attracts a section of Malaysians out to prey on them. To avoid being preyed on, the immigrant labour take taxis. This is really sad.

Security on the roads or other public spaces in Malaysia really has a character with a cold attitude: Malaysians vs non-Malaysians; professional aliens vs aliens doing manual labour; rich Malaysians vs poor Malaysians; politically conforming Malaysians vs politically non-conforming ones. In all of the above, the former always has a better deal than the latter.

Economic units

On another question of immigrant labour, I was once talking to a health activist working on AIDS. In the course of our discussion, I saw another instance of the shallowness of our compassion. We import labour into our labour shortage economy as economic units, expecting them to come here, work, earn an income and get back when their time is up.

But to do so is demeaning. Human beings are not economic robots. They have all kind of needs, not only economic or survival needs, but also sexual needs. We have not made provision for this. Over a time that need begins to raise its head, and in an arrangement where these needs are not taken into consideration, a number of health problems will certainly ensue, including the problem of AIDS. Is that the problem of immigrant labour or the system we have?

I like to believe that we have a system that is hardly considerate or compassionate. These are not political problems as much as they are problems of governance. But do we as a people and as a nation care? A similar problem relates to the blind, our own people. If you walk around in Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur you will find a lot of blind people moving around ... quite dangerously. A vehicle could anytime knock them down.

These people have been around here for a long time and yet we have not spent time to develop a blind-friendly environment in Brickfields. In Tokyo, as in many other places in Japan, for instance, walk on the pavement and you will see how the needs of the "visually challenged" have been taken care off.

Compassion is intricately knitted into the design of the pavement and that makes the environment for the blind there certainly friendlier than ours. Compassion is not just about a value or a feeling but also about concretely designing a really caring and sustainable society.

Due process

The most serious recent happening that brings to sharp focus our sense of history, justice and compassion relates to the events surrounding our treatment of ex-deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. I am not debating here his innocence because I really do not know that.

But we need due process in place to seek the truth out ceaselessly before we convict any citizen of this country. Have we really done that in the case of Anwar Ibrahim that we can answer this affirmatively, without an iota of doubt?

This is a classic case, which reveals how insensitive we have become to history, justice and compassion. For now, they have become the silent casualties. As many people felt and still feel, if this could happen to the DPM, where do we ordinary citizens stand against the power of the state, even to raise an innocuous question about its public behaviour?

History has however never been known to be silent about truth for a long time. That will eventually comes out into the open. The Anwar episode will be written and re-written. It will be discussed and researched.

Articles and dissertations will be produced on it. And perhaps one day, when justice assertively holds politics accountable, Malaysia may hear of alternative narratives. Malaysia will wake up to the terrible wrongs that it has committed to a number of its citizens.

And we may just find Guan Eng and Anwar Ibrahim on that list. So will the unarmed pregnant Indian Malaysian woman who was shot. How can we believe that history will not review our actions, our decisions 25 or 50 or 100 years from now? That is the depth of our historical blindness.

The court decision in a case that an international community - of not just governments, that may have other agenda for criticising us, but also of professional bodies, NGOs, and concerned individuals - says is ridden with all kinds of legal anomalies and the sentence of six years and nine years to be served consecutively, raise nagging questions and leave a deep seated uneasy feelings: What is my country really? Where is our compassion? And where is our notion of fairness and justice?

How can I feel being at home in this country? As I walk down the main corridor of Mega Mall on the Aug 30, I see people's economic and instrumental arrangement with this nation. Not their emotional attachment. I like to believe that I am wrong. Somewhere in the distance, I hear an announcement: "The business hour is extended to 12 o'clock to welcome."

Without a sense of history - the past, the present and the future - without a capacity for justice and without a feeling for compassion, what are we really going to welcome? I really wonder.

DR M NADARAJAH teaches sociology and organisation theory at Stamford College and is involved in activities related to sustainable development and urbanisation.

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