The Malaysian Stereotypes

Posted on January 29, 2007

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Stereotypes abound in virtually every country in the world, but perhaps no other society has such a wealth of stereotyping opportunities and potential as the one we call home. This country, alive and kicking with so many complex characters, moulded by their respective culture, religion and distinctive and quirky parental upbringing, provides a melting pot of stereotypes in which to make fun of.

In this chaotic age of evangelical American imperialism, misguided Islamic jihad and the spread of Wahhabi literalism, many Malays have turned conservative in their religious outlook. There is this lingering perception that the Malays, as typified by their male youths, have swapped the ‘ekor rambut kerinting’ of the 80s for the more urbane, boy-band image of the 90s, only to ditch that for the ‘sekerat janggut, penyanyi nasyid’ look of the new millennium. Have Malays placed such a strong emphasis on religious obligations that we have turned our backs against worldly aspirations?

At first glance this assessment seems to fit the stereotypical picture that we paint on the community. Inevitably, we might reach the conclusion that Malays place greater value on the more ‘human’ aspects of life, that Malays are much less materialistic than other Malaysians, particularly the Chinese. However, we don’t need to inspect so deeply to realise this is totally untrue. No other people can claim superiority over the Malays when it comes to placing such grand emphasis on conspicuously materialistic things like ‘anak datuk, anak Tan Sri, keluarga diraja and mas kahwin berpuluh-puluh ribu’.

The middle-class Chinese may be obsessed with driving Mercedes-Benzes, sometimes forgoing their sense of fashion and walking around in faded shorts and baggy, worn-out T-shirts so they can afford a Benz, but even they fail to get so excited at the prospect of attaching those Datukship coat-of-arms to their number plates as can the Malays.

Now what about the Indians? And have we forgotten the ‘lain-lains’, the Others? Why do we exclude them in applying stereotypes, which we otherwise do quite generously with the Malays and Chinese? What is so great about the Malays and Chinese that we feel we can poke fun at these two communities at the expense of ignoring the Others? The stereotypes applied to Indians mostly revolve around their accent. This is not exclusive to Malaysia; it is done all over the world. Somehow, there is something so intriguing about the Indian accent that non-Indians simply cannot get enough of. Or perhaps because it is so easily duplicated that everyone can sound Indian with the littlest amount of effort.

The old, colonial stereotypes of the todi drinker and rat poison-guzzling-wife has been progressively discarded by contemporary Malaysian society, out of respect for the Indian community and due to the tragic circumstances of those stereotypes and its obvious morbid outcome. The Sikh community is perhaps the most affable and well-cared for minority in Malaysia, and there is possibly nothing negative we can extract from the stereotypical image of a Sikh, be it the jolly Bhangra dancer, the burly but friendly police inspector or the lanky and charming National hockey player. The Sikh is always present in the iconic Lat cartoons, and just like the elusive Wally in Where’s Wally?, we need only to look around before we spot the Singh in his comics.

Not much is known about the communities of Sabah and Sarawak, apart from the Dancing Iban performing the Ngajat and the elongated ears of natives prevalent in Tourism Malaysia promos. This is indeed a shame because they are as much a part of Malaysia as all the other races that form the Malaysian stereotypes. The kampunghouse team unanimously agree that Sabahans and Sarawakians are much nicer than their Semenanjung countryfolk, and it is time they are accorded the proper treatment as equal citizens. But perhaps, due to their genuine sense of humility and courtesy, applying stereotypes, as we do with other Malaysians, may not be the most appropriate way to get them on board the Great Malaysian Bandwagon.

Posted in: Society