How Do You Spell Race?

Posted on May 31, 2009

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In the run-up to the European Parliament elections on June 4, there has been concern over the potential rise of far-right parties which have been gaining foothold in European countries. In cash-strapped UK, the whites-only, anti-immigration British National Party has been channelling public anger over Labour’s mismanagement of the country’s economy towards its hope of securing seats to the European Parliament. This is a party whose constitution declares to “stand for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people and is wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples. It is therefore committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent, the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948″. In plain terms, if it was given the power, it would drive out all those people unfortunate enough to be born with colour from Britain. “Legal changes, negotiation and consent” really mean, by hook or by crook.

Even in Switzerland, a country typically associated with measured, rational thought, the ultranationalist Swiss People’s Party has emerged to become the country’s most popular party, keen to rid the nation of its pesky immigrants, imaginatively portrayed in a campaign poster as a black sheep being kicked off the Swiss flag by a white sheep. There seems to be an overwhelming desire to recreate the comforting, picturesque vision of rose-cheeked Swiss farmers milking cows on lush alpine mountains like the covers of Swiss chocolate wrappers. The message to foreigners seems to be, by all means, munch on our delightful milk chocolate, but stay away from our land.

But Belgium takes the cake for the abject pettiness of its squabbling citizens who intend to split the country into two after failing to resolve linguistic differences between Dutch and French speaking Belgians. Decades of feuding between the two tribes over the cultural and linguistic superiority of each other has reached melting point, with Dutch-speaking mayors boycotting the European elections and the Francophones mocking their neighbours with shouts of “Comprends Pas!” (Don’t Understand!)

We Malaysians, with our almost infinite array of racial profiles after generations of inter-marriages, may be less paranoid than the Europeans but we are not immune to the kind of prejudice and hatred that accompany racial bigotry. We have seen over the past couple of years, a breakdown in race relations, particularly between Malays and the Chinese and Indian communities over the long-standing preferential socioeconomic policy which most Malays still see as being vital to their progress but which non Malays perceive as being discriminatory.

The government didn’t help matters by refusing to address the concerns of the people, Malay, Chinese or Indian, choosing instead to stoke anger and anxiety among Malay constituents and giving mixed signals to non-Malays, in a political manoeuvre that is reminiscent of the ‘divide and conquer’ strategy employed by British colonialists.

Thankfully our mighty oil corporation Petronas is here to save the day. In the absence of any significant cultural entity to serve as a mirror to our society, Petronas has assumed the mantle of Unofficial Cultural Agency, besides being the country’s chief money-making machine. During special holidays – Aidilfitri, Chinese New Year, Merdeka – Petronas would commission TV ads that are less public service announcements than award winning short films. This Merdeka Day ad features two primary school friends being interviewed, presumably to assess their potential as spelling bee participants. Against a backdrop of a typical school canteen, the ad brings back memories of growing up in a country blessed with people of so many different shades, colour and character. What makes Malaysia so special is the wealth of cultural heritage which we have accrued over the centuries, making us accustomed to people of different backgrounds while some Europeans are still coming to terms with the idea that a brown person can marry a white person and live happily ever after. Racial diversity is the basis of our national character and collective identity. Take that away and we end up being a poorer version of one of those racially paranoid European countries.

Posted in: Petronas