Thursday, April 22, 2010

It's time to move away from ethnic labelling

UNITED States President Barack Obama made a political statement recently about his ethnic identity. In the US census currently under way, he had the option of classifying himself as either "Black" or of "Mixed Race". He chose "Black".
Why would that be a political statement? Because "Mixed Race" would have more accurately captured the fact that he was the product of a union between an African man and an American White woman. So it did not escape notice that what he did was more politically rather than factually correct.

Obama was -- rightly, I feel -- roasted by some US commentators for his choice of identity, fully crediting (as one of them wryly noted) the heritage of his largely absent father and ignoring that he was brought up by his mother and his White maternal grandparents.

In a nation like ours that has made a political virtue of the demographic reality of divergent ethnic identities, what is going on in the US is only too familiar. The surprise for some may be that we have even infected US politics with the brand we practise here, except that we have not: race has always loomed large in the American political consciousness as well.

In fact, a noisy minority seemed to have captured some imaginations by wildly and vocally denying that Obama was born in the US and is, therefore, not even an American citizen, let alone one to have been elected president!

But race has not been the all-consuming political passion in the US as it seems to be here for one simple reason: the US does not have the exceptionally hard demographics that we do. Its majority is still quite solidly White, and although also a "rainbow" nation of multiple ethnicities, none so far poses any real political "challenge" to the established majority.

That may soon change in states such as California, for example, as a sizable Hispanic minority combined with others threatens to reduce the state's Whites into a minority, if it has not already done so. How that plays out politically in the years to come will be most interesting to watch.

Now back here in Malaysia, and especially in Sarawak and Sabah, the increasing frequency of mixed marriages makes sticking to exclusive ethnic labelling increasingly nonsensical. The recent case of a girl of mixed parentage who was denied Bumiputera status on dubious constitutional grounds highlights this.

It has become quite noticeable that many native Bumiputeras marry non-Bumiputeras, and that has been happening over more than one generation. If a father is Bumiputera, chances are the offspring of such mixed marriages will be classified Bumiputera as well, even if such offspring may be as modern and cosmopolitan as they come and have only a rudimentary familiarity with the father's native culture or language.

On the other hand, there are many, especially in rural villages and longhouses, who are to all intents and purposes natives in language, customs and culture but are not classified as Bumiputera for the simple fact that they have non-native fathers.

The most unfortunate of these are not fully accepted by either side of their parents' ethnic divides. They often end up the most vulnerable group, getting the short end of the stick both formally and informally for defying easy ethnic categorisation.

It is well past time we undo the straitjackets of strict ethnic categorisation. If we are true to the ideal of evolving a distinctive Malaysian identity, I think we need to create a new, super, all-encompassing category of Malaysians of mixed heritage.

We may call it the "1Malaysian" identity to which all Malaysians of mixed ethnic, linguistic, religious or cultural backgrounds belong. They will enjoy recognition over and above even Bumiputeras because they transcend the usual categorisation.

In reality, this new "1Malaysia" group may become the new majority in Malaysia overnight, because many of us actually belong in this group! I know perhaps even I should qualify, if for no other reason than that one of my direct ancestors four generations ago was a Sarawak native woman.

What better way is there to celebrate what truly binds most Malaysians, rather than what divides us? No more pitting of one Malaysian against another. No problem implementing full meritocracy either.

In fact, I dare say the truly disadvantaged in such a new Malaysia would be the minorities still stuck with mono identities as Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban or Kadazan. Extend them all the help they need to bring them on par with "1Malaysians"! By John Teo, New Straits Times Kuala Lumpur

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