ON a trip to Perth, Australia in 2002, I was astonished to see the amount of advertising that went into Visit Malaysia Year. One particular billboard that hogged downtown Perth caught my eye: a sun-drenched sandy beach replete with pillar-like coconut trees on the left, and on the right, four Malaysian beauties representing the Malay, Indian, Chinese and Kadazan-Dusun communities dressed in corresponding traditional wear.
(Source: Department of National Unity and Integration) My first thought was, why aren’t the other minorities represented? Where are the women from my family? Is my tanah-tumpahnya-darahku of the 21st century the same as the one where, as a primary school student, I was taunted and ridiculed for not being Malay, Indian or Chinese?
As a Malaysian who has been classified as “lain-lain” since birth, being on the outside can really be a pain in the neck. For those of you who can’t see what I mean, imagine that you’ve always been the popular kid in school who had the latest gadgets, fantastic social connections, membership of the snooty country club, and bodyguards who fended off the school bullies, all thanks to the family you were born into.
And then imagine one of the geeky kids who was made to feel less than a member of the school community because he wasn’t “born” into the “correct” family. That kid was me. Let me illustrate my angst with a few examples.
Firstly, as if primary school wasn’t horrifying enough, a teacher once said that as a lain-lain of darah bercampur, he didn’t think I’d rise up to be much as we are a hopeless bunch. (But now, after one BA, an MA and a PhD on the way, I can honestly say, “Eat that, Cikgu Lee!”)
Secondly, when I fill up a form at a government office or agency, there is that ubiquitous section on race. As sure as prices of nasi lemak will rise, I cannot check any of the boxes except “lain-lain” because provisions have not been made for a Malaysian who is not Malay, Indian or Chinese. I’ve often wondered how confused the government clerk would be if I made up my own box and checked that.
Thirdly, people take one look at my name and assume I’m of Eurasian (Serani) or Indian descent. And when I gently try to explain that I’m not part of their immediate race community, I am met with hostile glances and sometimes accused of being besterk (Cristao for “stupid”), or worse, trying to pass myself off as something I’m not. (Newsflash: my Western-sounding name was given to me at birth. I did not cook it up when I left Form Five.)
So with my memory of the Tourism Malaysia billboard, I am left to wonder:
(© John Tomaselli / sxc.hu) With all the present lip-service about “Malaysia for Malaysians” and equality for all, where does a person of mixed heritage such as myself stand in this nation?
When will my heritage stop being questioned, and my nationality become the only thing that should matter to anyone?
When will I no longer be considered a pendatang or penumpang, and be considered what I am: a Malaysian who was born on this blessed soil?
When will Malaysia Day be inclusive of all races, no matter how mixed or small a representation?
And most importantly, when will my fellow Malaysians be open enough to accept another fellow Malaysian regardless of what their ethnic background is?
As an educator who is concerned with passing on the value of judging a person by character and not on outward appearance, I have a couple of thoughts that may help frame the debate from a different perspective.
First, a lain-lain is not berlainan. We are Malaysians, just like you are a Malaysian. Let’s not allow such petty differences to divide us.
Second, drop all preconceptions of others based on race and instead focus our energy on creating a new race — the Malaysian race. Superiority or inferiority is all in our heads. Clear out the clutter upstairs and move forward to forge something bigger and greater.
Third, if we can accept that the days of pendatang and penumpang are over, we can then accept that the days of penduduk are here to stay. And then move on to becoming Bangsa Malaysia.
That being said, until we get our collective act together for a truly representative Hari Malaysia, let me just go home to my lain-lain house, have my lain-lain dinner, watch my lain-lain Astro channels and prepare for my lain-lain tomorrow.
Maybe, just maybe, that tomorrow will be the day when my fellow citizens and I can take another step towards building a truly inclusive Bangsa Malaysia.
Mark Stephan Felix is a thirtysomething Malaysian residing in Penang. In between juggling teaching and learning, he tries to maintain his lain-lain uniqueness while being Malaysian. He’d like a pet, but hasn’t found one that’s lain-lain enough for him.