Thursday 15 February 2007

Must Read Article: Malaysia's Racial Politics Revisited - Govt's Racial Fear of 'Pan-Asian Faces' in the Media

by Farish A. Noor - Published in Khaleej Times Online (14 February 2007)

UPDATE (16th Feb.) : Read here Commentary by "KTEMOC Konsiders" on Farish Noor's article

Excerpts: Read Here for MORE

".... DESPITE the often-repeated cliche that Malaysian society is a multiracial melting pot, mixing between the races has always been minimal. 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 distinct.

The latest piece of evidence: 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.

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.

Mohamad Rahmat had attempted to ‘clean up' the Malaysian entertainment and media scene, with the spectacular gesture of actually cutting the hair of long-haired heavy metal rockers, caught on national television.

What is worrisome about this latest knee-jerk reaction 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. No, it CANNOT and should NOT be excused as a legitimate appeal for the defence of racial difference.

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.

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.

    .... 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 with 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.

    1 comment:

    Anonymous said...

    Sometimes it is just a case of sour grapes...for example, if you are ugly, with white hair..and you try to "hit" or local word "mengatal" with a Pan Asian beauties, and without succcess becos of your own ugly will do whatever in your power to make them (Pan Asians) pay.

    Just my thoughts.

    Sometimes ministers should do just to shut up