MALAYSIAN identity is a central concept in Marion D’Cruz‘s life work. She’s a founding member of the Five Arts Centre, which has played a key role in developing boundary-pushing Malaysian local theatre. Her works of choreography often have political themes, such as 2003’s War on Iraq. And as a teacher at colleges and universities around Kuala Lumpur, she battles what she calls the “lobotomising” forces of the Malaysian school system by encouraging her students to think critically about race and politics.
D’Cruz adds another layer of complexity to identity politics within Malaysia. She’s always reminding people that these issues don’t exist in a national vacuum. They’re shaped by many things like globalisation, Western cultural imperialism, and the legacy of British colonialism.
In an interview with The Nut Graph on 28 June 2009, D’Cruz reveals a life story that helps to explain her enduring interest in the global forces shaping Malaysian identity. As a child who grew up eating nasi lemak for breakfast, traditional South Indian food for lunch, and turkey for Christmas dinner, D’Cruz herself is a product of globalisation.
TNG: Where are you from?
I was born in Johor Baru. My parents were born in India, in Kerala. My mother came over when she was quite young. My father came over in his early twenties to work. So I’m first-generation born here.
I did my schooling in Johor Baru up to the age of 18. Then I went to the US to do a student exchange, then back to Johor Baru, then university in Penang. And then I went to New York for a year to study and do professional work, and in between I travelled around Southeast Asia. But since about 1981, I’ve been working in Kuala Lumpur. So I’m from all over.
When were you first made aware of race?
Growing up, I was just told that I was Malayalee (South Indian), but growing up was very mixed because in some ways my family was very Malayalee, but in some ways very Western. I learnt ballet, played piano. But then food was very traditional. And then we were Catholic, but Catholicism as brought to us by Western missionaries, which meant roast turkey at Christmas and presents under the tree.
Because we grew up right next to a Malay [Malaysian] kampung, we had a lot of Malay [Malaysian] friends, and race was really not a potent factor … What was important was climbing trees, playing in the big monsoon drain, and rolling down hills in a cardboard box!
I learnt the consciousness of race in university. After 13 May 1969, I started thinking, oh my God, what does this mean? And then in university I learnt to debunk race as a concept.
You did a lot of travelling when you were very young. How did that shape your identity as a Malaysian?
I was 17 when I went on the student exchange. So when I did that, I did get culture shock, as clichéd as it is. I was forced to grow up very quickly. These questions of identity were already in the atmosphere and in the consciousness of the generation older than me because of what had happened in ’69. I was not quite old enough to fully appreciate the gravitas of 13 May 1969, but not young enough to just ignore it.
In California, when they said you have to wear your national costume, I would wear a Malay national costume rather than Indian. At that time, I did those things without consciously, seriously questioning what it meant. People were curious about where I was from, and I would say I’m Malaysian, I’m Indian from Malaysia.
At that time, especially with long hair and a braid, in school I was just like a Mexican kid. In New York, even in 1980, I was considered Puerto Rican. People used to come up to me and speak in Spanish.
How did you start challenging the concept of race in university?
At Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang, we were lucky because there were a lot of Malay forms of performing arts that up to that point had been mostly the domain of Malay [Malaysians], because of where it was located, because of accessibility, and because of the belief and perception that non-Malay [Malaysians] could not learn these forms.
We didn’t think it was [a] big deal or unusual, but actually it was unusual that non-Malay [Malaysians], females, were learning some of these forms. We were lucky to be able to access forms like wayang kulit and makyong. They were being taught and we could learn.
How did people react to that?
Within the university context, it was not an issue. But after I graduated and I was doing more work in Kuala Lumpur, the reaction was quite mixed. Most people just thought, here’s a good dancer dancing. But one famous comment came out in a magazine that said, “Budak India tidak boleh menari Melayu”, which basically means, “An Indian child cannot dance Malay.”
What do you hope Malaysia will be like in 50 years?
Fidelis D’CruzI think we have a lot of work to do. But the wish would be that we move out of this Malay-Chinese-Indian extreme consciousness and into a system that’s looking at justice and truth. It sounds very lofty, but that is the basic concept — for example, a system that looks at the possibility of having a non-Malay [Malaysian] as a prime minister, based on the premise that this person, he or she, is simply the best person for the job and so on and so forth.
But it’s a very, very tough, really a long road ahead.
How do we get there?
Just by chipping away. I lecture 60 students and I think, okay, if six students just start thinking for themselves, really thinking, for me that’s a big first step.
I cannot live here and be a hypocrite. I can’t just say I’ll live here and drink my wine and do my work and live a good, middle-class life. There’s no giving up because there is hope. It’s a huge block, but there are lots of us chipping away.