Anthropologists have a problem. When an anthropologist studies something within a culture as an outside observer, he or she runs the risk of misunderstanding things and placing undue emphasis on things that aren’t really that important. He or she can never know if she is committing such an error, because he or she is by definition an observer, not an active participant. We watched a documentary once about a people who lived on an island off the coast of Sumatra who eat large worms (raw, still alive) that they find in the trunks of sago palms. A good 15 minutes of the 60 minute film focused on the eating of worms. Why? Eating worms is completely normal to them; but more importantly, it is a very small part of the daily life of this people. How about 15 minutes on their cosmology, their political system, their economy?
Such is the problem with our understanding of race and politics in Malaysia. We can’t tell if we are missing the point when we study communalism in Malaysia. What we can tell you is this: From our perspective as observers of Malaysia, communalism is the stuff of politics here. More than that, communalism pervades almost every aspect of life here. We are hardly alone in this view, of course. Most Malaysians would probably say the same thing. Yet there is a problem here–would race and communalism be such a big deal if people didn’t keep bringing it up all the time? Maybe not, but who knows?
We discussed how confusing ethnicity is here once before. That politics is so dominated by communal considerations makes for interesting stuff. You can sum up the gist of communal politics with a simple term: special rights. Bumiputras in Malaysia get special privileges through a system euphemistically known as “positive discrimination.” If you want to get into a university, it’s easier if you are a bumiputra. If you want a mortage, you get better rates if you’re a bumiputra. All publicly listed companies must issue stocks at below market prices that only bumiputras get to buy. All students must speak Malay. If you want to convert to Islam (the official religion), that is great, but converting away from Islam is illegal. It is illegal to even question publicly these Malay special rights. As you might imagine, this state of affairs leads to an identification of communal issues with economic issues, so much so that you can’t understand the latter without the former.
It’s not just that the laws favor Malays here. Non-bumiputras use communalism of their own to protect their own interests. Every political party of real significance is communally-based. The three big members of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition are exclusively ethnic: the United Malays National Organisation, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress. Most other parties–like the United Sabah National Organisation–are also ethnic (in the USNO case, for Kadazandusun). Even the ostensibly non-communal parties have heavy communal connotations. “Everybody knows” that the Democratic Action Party and the Gerakan Party are actually “Chinese” parties.
Taxi drivers are the regular folks whom we interact with the most. Taxi drivers come in all ethnicities, and are normally quite happy to tell us what they think about the other groups. It is sad, but just like the stereotypes that we hope are wrong, the cabbies seem to confirm the prejudices. In just the past week, we have had the following conversations.
- A Malay driver told us not to take cabs driven by Indians because they always try to cheat Westerners. He also said that Chinese always take taxi jobs from Malays.
- An Indian cab driver told us that the Malays are lazy because they eat too much nasi lemak (rice with coconut milk) for breakfast. Also, Malay grandparents always commit incest with their granddaughters.
- A Chinese cab driver told us that the Malays don’t appreciate the Chinese. If it weren’t for the Chinese, Malaysia would still be poor.
We have unfortunately seen that here, communalism is not fading away, and the government is still a long way off from creating a unified Malaysian nation. This communalism serves the government well. It disburses favoritism to its constituents, and in return they support it. It plays the race card by warning of the not unreasonable threat of ethnic conflict. It is the very fact that this threat is so credible that helps the regime to secure its power. Maybe I am wrong to focus on communalism so heavily in understanding politics here. But I don’t think so.