Nusantara ruins or Malay ruined?
Of Immigrants and Identity, of Malays and Chinese
It’s the Malays who are struggling to know themselves. They are struggling to realise that the world is not what they are being told. They are being taught that there is always instant success and reward in this life, that the world revolves around this fixed formula…. — Zaid Ibrahim.
There is no God here
Nights are long in the Petaling Jaya police station lockup. In one late humid night, they had brought in three Indonesian men and two Bangladeshis picked up from a police swoop of neighborhood areas for, ostensibly, illegal immigrants. One behind the other, they tiptoed around other men asleep on a forecourt that separates the steel gate entrance and three inner cells, one each for the Chinese, Indians and Malays. After they had emptied their pockets and left the policemen to pilfer their wallets, the Indonesians were led to the Malay cell where Rafick had been awake and waiting since he learned they were bringing in new prisoners. Like everybody else, they had been made to strip, their clothes and and other belongings to be left in wall lockers outside the cells. But, here, there are far more prisoners than lockers. Clothes and shoes piled up on the floor.
To the right, adjacent the Malay cell, two Indians — for reasons comprehensible to nobody — were taking turns with fists and feet to beat up two Bangladeshis. One man was squatting on his knees when, on the first strike, a knee struck a body then, in succession, a blow to the head and a foot to the ribs. Throughout, he uttered not a whimper. His countryman kept this head bowed and low.
Left of the Malay cell is the Chinese where five men were lying on a raised concrete platform which is used as bare bed. They might be asleep except for a young boy, surely no more than twenty, who was taken in because his motorcycle license had expired for several months since a cop stopped him the night before. The next morning he had wanted to call his parents. A policeman told him he could make one call for 50 ringgit. Now, seated beside a Chinese man as huge as a whale, he was giving Sumo a back massage. Sumo is by default head of all prisoners because of his size. A week has passed since he was brought in from the Kajang prison waiting for a court hearing on a drug charge.
There are more than a dozen Malays in the Malay cell so there was little space for the three Indonesians on the concrete floor facing Rafick, who was himself seated on a platform flanked by his men. Almost no words are exchanged between the Malays and Indonesians; it was as if they had known each other long before but this would be improbable. They seemed to have seen it coming. It was the man at Rafick’s feet who receives the first blow. Delivered to the side, his body shudders. The next fist-blow on the back came to the man behind him and he nearly tipped over on his knees. Another blow sounded like a thunderclap. Then it came again and again, followed by the same cries: Adoi, adoi. He looked at Rafick and said: “Abang, kita sama-sama orang Moslem.” — Brother, we are Moslems.
Rafick rose to his feet and kneed him in the face. He let out a shriek, grasped his face and tumbled backwards. Rafick bend over and stuck a finger at his face: “Disini ta’ada tuhan.” — Here, there’s no God.
Malay Pendatang from Wales
The Federal Constitution was both presumptuous and patronizing to assume that Malays of the future should even believe in God, a foreign god at that and, therefore, by popular and Umno definition, a Pendatang. God’s immanence is also his limitation. In a Petaling Jaya jailhouse, God might as well not exist or, if he does, he might as well be dead. If, as a result, the Malay today – Raja Petra Kamarudin (RPK), for example – is not the kind of Malay, say, a hundred years ago, then there is no reason to believe RPK’s grandchildren would be by like him, himself half white. A more obvious case in point is Ridhuan Tee, Chinese by birth and ethnicity, Malay by constitutional definition.
This convoluted identity of the Malay is, of course, not his fault. Yet his existential angst could not have come about by accident nor simply by his alienation from the world, as Zaid Ibrahim has suggested (‘the world is not what they are being told‘). Claimed by PAS, by Umno, by Arabs most pertinently, by half-Indians most aggressively (Mahathir Mohamad), by Pakistanis, by half-whites, even the Turkish, the Malay has far too many claimants to his soul. The world has descended on the Malay to the extent he is no longer recognizable even as the broad, open-ended ethnic group RPK’s pseudo-scholarship has tried to define and, thereby, to give the Malays some sense of ethnic legitimacy. In RPK’s loose and deluded pedagogic treatise, ethnicity is reduced to a matter of geography:
…(I)n Bahasa Indonesia, Nusantara is synonymous with the Indonesian Archipelago or the national territory of Indonesia. In this sense the term Nusantara excludes Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and the Philippines. In Bahasa Malaysia, this term is synonymous and often interchangeable with Malay Archipelago or Malay realm (in Malay: Alam Melayu), which includes those countries and the Philippines.
Then this contradiction (Nusantara = Indonesia = Malaysia = Philippines, depending on who uses the Nusantara term) is retrogressed into historical terms:
The Malay Archipelago has been defined as an island group of Southeast Asia between Australia and the Asian mainland and separating the Indian and Pacific oceans. It includes what we now call Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Southern Thailand (up to the Isthmus of Kra), Singapore, East Timor and Brunei. … All those Malays who moved from one island to another but within the Malay Archipelago are not pendatang. … Today, any Bugis from Indonesia who comes to Selangor can be called a pendatang. But in the 18th Century we were not pendatang. That is a historical fact.
Which is to say the Buddhist Indonesian or a Catholic Filipino is a Malay in the 18th Century but a Bugis and a Christian otherwise in the twenty-first. Then there is Petra’s penultimate tautology:
All those Malays who moved from one island to another but within the Malay Archipelago are not pendatang. It is just like Malays from Penang moving to Selangor.
If a person from the Malay Archipelago is a Malay, what is an archipelago that is supposedly Malay? What does that make of Petra Kamarudin, a Malay descended of a woman from more than 10,000 km away in Wales? If ethnicity is reducible to regional geography what does that make of the PAS Malay who claims his soul is derived from Arabia? What is a Malay if, in Malaysia, he is not a Muslim? When is a Muslim not a Malay? Is there a thing such as a constitutional Malay who is not an ethnic Malay? What is an ethnic Malay when not descended from the Malay archipelago?
Petra is not alone to try to fit square pegs into round holes; others before him were Kadir Jasin, Ibrahim Ali and Mahathir Mohamad. In never ending cycles they define then redefine the Malay, as if to anchor his identity to some place and some thing, such as religion. By conflating the common sense notion of immigrant (pendatang) with ethnicity, by equalling lineage to residency, the Malay self is not made clearer. Rather they heighten the Malay sense of who and what he is; they exacerbate the Malay identity crisis.
In a police, Malay cell, Nusantara has no meaning; Malay brotherhood is reduced to a set power relations; even God is redundant.
Threats to the Malay
Contrast the Chinese sense of self to the Malay.
A Chinese is a Chinese anywhere, anytime, anyhow, especially for Ridhuan Tee. Even by accepted constitutional standards of ethnic categories he is never a Malay. Hannah Yeoh’s puerile and infantile attempt to erase Shay Adora Ram’s Chinese parentage on the mother’s side does not succeed; Hannah can only do so by administrative fiat which changes nothing. The Taiwan attempt ten years ago to categorize its residents as Taiwanese (but not Chinese) in order to distinguish the island from the mainland is today an international joke. Everybody could it see as pure political semantics.
Likewise in Malaysia, where the Malay has existed until not so long ago primarily as a political identity and where he is the only demographic group permitted to exploit his identity as a force of power, as a game-changer in politics. And it could have been left at that, and nobody’d care, the Chinese least of all. It could have been used as a method of co-existence. But, to subsequently press the religious, Islamic element then other, ethnic elements, such as lineage and birthplace, into the Malay being, how could he not be confused?
His reason for being, that is, the purpose of his existence, he was told at one time, was the preservation of his cultural identity, his institutions and his language. After that, in Mahathir’s era, he was told to get rich, as rich as the Chinese or richer. Then he was told to live the Islamic life to the full and thrive it in the purest environment that the ulama, the politicians, the laws and the government are to construct; everything else is turned subservient to the purpose. Now, he is told his life is being imperiled, his identity a sissy, his ability emasculated, his pristine desert Arab world poisoned by a man dead 2000 years ago, by dogs, by beer, liberalism, lotteries, clothes, haircuts, Chinese, Hindu shrines, German festivals; even the island freedoms of his past and his ancient history are corrupting. It is as if life has been set up against life, and life is itself, so the Malay is told, a perversion, modernity is profane; life is debauchery; life is deadly to life, specifically the Malay life.
Malaysians, Malays pertinently, had been raised to see that man’s fault is in the stars, in the world, never in themselves. In this ongoing state of affairs, the Malay is invited to compare with the Chinese (and vice versa) so that if there exists a ‘Malay-Chinese divide‘ the division seems wider today because there are greater numbers of grievance manufacturers, all just as patronizing. Before it was Mahathir, Ibrahim Ali, Zainudin Maidin, now lawyers, Petra, Ridhuan, Hannah Yeoh, Lim Guan Eng.
Malaysia becomes a danger to the Malay being.