I did not go to the BERSIH rally here in Melbourne. I have not, in any way, ever lent support to any political organisation in Malaysia, be it those currently in office or their opposition. Admittedly, I do not know if my name and identity card number has been used to vote without my knowledge – which is always a possibility in my country. Personally, I have never seen the inside of a voting booth. I have avoided matters of a political nature regarding my country my entire life.
‘Why?’ you ask. Because, truth be told, I have never believed that my country could change and that it was worth sticking out my neck for. Mr Anwar Ibrahim is only the most famous of many who have been through the ISA. I have kept silent. And so have many of you. So why should I be so emotionally charged after watching a demonstration video?
Malaysians, let me tell you my story. Your story might not be the same as mine – I do hope it is kinder – but this is what I learned about Malaysia as I grew up:
When I was about 11-years-old, I came back to Penang after my family had lived in Glasgow, Scotland, for four years. I came back with a strong Scottish accent, a smattering of our national language, Bahasa Melayu, and I was completely unable to speak Chinese, my own mother tongue.
Linguistically, life was a challenge. In Scotland, I had faced some racism in the form of a scuffle or two with children in the playground, since I was the only yellow dot in a sea of white. But otherwise, I had been left reasonably unscathed. The form of racism I met with in Malaysia was more insidious – and possibly more harmful.
As I attended primary school, my relatives were quick to warn me about the two other major races, the Indians and the Malays. Indians were labelled as “sneaky” and “untrustworthy”. Today, I still meet the odd Chinese uncle who will quote at me possibly the most racist quote I have ever come across: “If you meet an Indian and a snake on the road, you hit the Indian first.”’
Malays, on the other hand, were labelled as the lazy bunch. Stupid and lazy. My elders told me if ever a Malay achieved anything academically, he must have either Indian or Chinese blood mixed in him somewhere. How seriously was I to take these statements? I am still unsure. As a child from a Confucian culture, you were meant to nod and accept everything your seniors told you.
I wonder how the other two races view us Chinese. I had an Indian friend confess to me once that he and his mates would share stories with each other, howling in laughter, about the Chinese they had just cheated in some recent transaction. Was it some form of vengeance?
I also once read a poem, from one of our school textbooks no less, about a Malay grandfather telling his grandchildren about Hari Raya, the Muslim new year. In the poem, the grandfather makes mention of how they would go to town and buy fireworks from Chinese traders for exorbitant prices. But, he said, it was alright to be cheated by the Chinese just that one time a year, for the sake of Hari Raya.
How strange it was to continue the next few years making friends with these two other races. In fact, because I could not speak Chinese or any of its dialects, my best friends were often either Malay or Indian, with whom I could communicate in English without shame.
Why didn’t my elders ever tell me that Indians were one of the most fun races ever to be around? That if you wanted to throw a good party, invite some Indians to run it and they will show you the real meaning of a good time? Why did they never tell me that Malays have one of the most welcoming, caring and comfortable cultures I would ever come across? That if a Malay becomes your friend, you are his brother? Why did they never tell me of the wisdom you could gain by fasting with a Muslim through the month of Ramadan?
At age twelve, real tragedy struck. I became subject to the racial preferential treatment that my government had been practicing for thirty years. I scored decently for my UPSR (the end of primary school exams) with 3As and a B but was denied entry into the most prestigious secondary school in my state, Penang Free School.
Meanwhile, some of my Malay classmates were entering this school with strings of Cs and Ds on their result cards. Looking back, I realise that at 12, I did not comprehend the gravity of the situation. Nor did I fully understand the frustration of my parents.
Perhaps the silent racism of the generations before me was not entirely unvalidated. Perhaps the racial preference reinforced by the government had deeper ramifications than we think. How are we to measure these things?
My story ends well though, as years later I would have the grace of academia to win an ASEAN scholarship to Singapore and be blessed to have parents who could provide me with the finances to study in Melbourne, Australia. I feel pained for those forsaken by our country’s system – those who could have received the necessary tertiary education to bolster their careers and put them in a strong position to contribute to society.
I have stayed here in Australia almost ten years now and currently work in a suburb called St. Albans. St. Albans is an interesting suburb because of its muliculturalism. There are Sudanese, Vietnamese, Albanians, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Indians, Slovakians, Romanians, Ukrainians and many others besides.
While it might be pushing it to say they live in completely harmony, there is at least an honesty in their dealings with each other. They like and dislike openly. Could we at home in Malaysia co-exist were we to be honest with each other? Or is silence the only way we are to survive, pleasantly singing Negaraku while black marking each other behind backs?
I learned many things growing up that I was taught never to say aloud. As mentioned, I knew that to trust or befriend any Indian or Malay too closely was seen as a foolish act. It always made me laugh, though, that the Chinese trust each other only as far as they can throw a rock.
As a student, I knew that my government would give someone else better opportunities than I on the grounds of his skin colour. Out of hours, school teachers would whisper to me that they knew for a fact exam results were doctored according to race. After all, how did a weak, recalcitrant student who had been barely scraping passes through school suddenly produce an A in an official exam?
As a student, I was told that the education system was shoddy, which is why we practiced mathematics from Singaporean work books. Many people viewed teachers as stupid and incompetent. Being a teacher was the worst career you could choose according to anyone who was not a teacher, and only those who were incapable of anything else became teachers. This was strange to toggle in my head, having an auntie who is a teacher and pretty good at what she does.
As a teenager, the horizon darkened, as I was told that there were those who had scored straight A’s in their exams but denied entry into university because of racial quotas.
I learned that if you wanted to escape a traffic fine, you kept RM50 ready to pay the Policeman a bribe. I learned that if you wanted to make sure you kept your shop lot safe from vandalism, it was a good idea that when your local police station called you up to contribute several thousand dollars for their annual dinner, you did not deny them. I learned that if you delivered the baby of a police officer, you did not charge them the surgery cost.
I learned that if you wanted to open a business you needed a Malay partner. I learned that the government was full of Malays and it was hinted that all they did all day sometimes was photocopy a few papers, and if they had to do any real work like serve you at a post office counter they would pull a long face. I learned at the post office a sign instructed you to wish the counter person good morning. But once I did wish them good morning, I was lucky to receive a grunt in response, reinforcing my low opinion of them.
I was taught that our highways were dangerous, heavily taxed and that all the bus and truck drivers were on drugs while driving. Most bus and truck drivers were Malay or Indian. I learned that you could get stolen goods that “fell” off the back of these trucks if you knew the right person. That person could be a doctor of a well established private hospital. That doctor was Chinese.
I learned that the states in the north were governed by Muslim fanatics and were being trained to get involved with the troubles of the Middle East. I knew that corruption happened and that we lost millions if not billions of dollars a year to it. I knew my country was held together by a strained tolerance and that our unity was a farce to cover up a precariously balanced economical functionality. I knew of friends and family who had suffered because of these things, unable to earn a living or cheated of money and recognition.
I was told the elections were a farce and I had many strange letters to unknown people coming into my mailbox during elections. These people were known as “phantom voters” and I suspect were already deceased. I knew that in my household, we did not bother to turn on my television to know the election results. I had learned that not only would my country not care for me, worse, it would put me down for the sake of some unknown person hoarding power and wealth somewhere up the political chain.READMOREhttp://malaysia786.wordpress.com/2012/06/17/what-went-wrong-in-malaysia/