Archive for December 11th, 2009


In this I’m certain, there is no gain without sacrifice
For in this pair of hands are my dreams
In every bead of my sweat are triumphs counted

Writing on the effects of Malaysian apartheid on demographic change among the Chinese, Helen Ang attempts to answer the unstated – and unique – question: What will be Malaysian Chinese like 30, 50 years on? (By Chinese, it is fair to assume she means the laobaixing, typically those in the old towns and new suburbs of Johore Baru, Cheras and Bukit Mertajam, people eking out a living from a noodle stand, the fruit vendor, the mechanic and bricklayer rather than the Ridhuan Tees and Khoo Kay Kims, people already well looked after by the Malay government.)

Helen begins with statistics: the absolute Chinese head count had risen but it had fallen sharply in its share of the national population. This fall, from more than a third 50 years ago to 21 pct at present (18 pct in one’s remaining lifetime is projected), is the direct result of three things: emigration, low birth rates, and a deliberate government policy to top up the Malay stock with Filipino Muslims (Sabah, Sarawak) and Indonesian Muslims (Peninsula).

After all that, she attempts to answer another unstated question: What does Malaysian apartheid do to the Chinese? This is where her argument shifts, falters, and falters badly, from politics and demographics to psychology and culture. In her prediction of things to come, she speaks of two psychological forces at work on the Chinese. These may be summarized as follows:

  • Collective angst. By this, the Chinese, having lost the ability to determine their own future, will continue to find their lives railroaded instead by a deeply hostile Malay government and population. In this environment they turn selfish. “Self-interest,” Helen wrote, “overrides almost everything else that concerns the welfare of the community.”
  • Isolated rootlessness. There is a borrowed word by Helen called “placelessness”. It’s code word for the supposed inability to relate to another community (she single out only the Malays). To be placeless is to be adrift. The reason for this, and it’s the only one she has cited, is that there exists a threshold population for any community to relate to another. Below this threshold, the culture seems to totter then dissipates. Any connection with another community is finally broken, people withdraw into their homes and behind their gates never mind if the thief is coming through the window next door.

Naturally, the two phenomena don’t follow one after the other. Rather, and in a sense, the second appears like an overlapping extension of the first. Helen then uses these characteristics to paint the heart of the Chinese identity so that in her argument comparison is made between what is it to be Chinese, say, in Ulu Kelantan and in Shah Alam. Also, what is it to be Chinese 30 years ago and the Chinese today?

Rolling out such names as Philip Poi and Lee Boon Thong, Helen cites “research” theories: one, to back up her argument on the psychological affliction of Malaysian apartheid on the Chinese; and, two, to give academic credentials to her treatise on the present conditions of the community. Her treatise, therefore, reads as if borrowed from Mahathir Mohamad’s The Malay Dilemma, the two separated only by a span of 30-odd years.

The Dilemma is full of pseudo science, blinkered conjectures, phony analogies, spurious deductions and deceitful opinionated garbage, all passed off as clever, intellectual assessment, and everybody, the glorious Malaysian Press in particular, bought into it without question. Everything, to repeat, everything, has been down hill since.

Helen, for example, makes the case for why the Chinese are “more self-centred, more covetous, less considerate and kiasu to boot.” In the Dilemma Mahathir has said what amounts to the same thing: the Chinese are “self-centred” and “covetous”. Therefore they make shrewd businesses as if this is an ethnic condition. Only the Chinese have it; or, in other words, it is an exclusive Chinese quality.

Then, Helen’s employment of the Fujian transliteration word “kiasu”, used commonly as a point of mockery directed against Singaporean Chinese, reinforces the idea of “placelessness”. Kiasu is a figure of speech with the intrinsic and underlying meaning that what motivates the Chinese forward is the cultural attribute of never accepting second place in life. Once extrapolated from an individual attitude to the community, kiasu means never to lose out to the Malays but Helen forgets, or ignores, that in Singapore the Malays are a minority. In power are the Chinese. Flip now to Malaysia where kiasu, literally the fear of losing (along with other ailments), exacerbates the Chinese condition. Thus, they look inward and are unwilling to relate to the larger, neighbouring Malays. Once again, the burden of dialogue and of developing a harmonious relationship in the country is with the Chinese. That, too, parallels Mahathir’s inflammatory contention: driven by a kiasu psychology, the Chinese contribution to Malaysia is to sit on the heads of the Malays.

Helen’s otherwise perceptive treatise is also negated by dubious conjectures, extrapolating individual lives to the Chinese as a whole – in other words, to take isolated cases, then turning them into intrinsic characteristics, peculiar and distinctive to the Chinese. This is Mahathirism pseudo science. For example, the two contradictory passages follow after each other:

“The Chinese community places great emphasis on education but the escalation in the cost of acquiring an education might have compelled young couples to limit their family size.

Because educated Chinese women are in the workforce as well as limiting themselves to only one or two children, Chinese couples have more money to spend on each child’s education.”

On the one hand, Helen says, priority on education “might” be the cause of a limited family size. On the other, and inverting the chicken-egg causal relationship, she says a small family size permits for higher education.

This is not a trivial incongruity in Helen’s assertion because underlying size is family income, which has been one of Mahathir’s most sinister and deceitful justifications in Malaysia’s institutional construction of apartheid, the NEP being at the forefront. In it, for example, income  measures not wealth ownership (land, farms, buildings) are used for its justification. After this, the NEP erroneously adopts rural and urban prices and income, lumping them together to assert the point that the Chinese are therefore richer although plainly, ten ringgit buys a far less amount of goods in Kuala Lumpur than in Ulu Kelantan. That is, the NEP compared not just ethnic but also demographic classes. It is an error, but probably a deception, that has repeated ever since Mahathir adopted the bogus analogy that because Chinese live in towns they are therefore wealthier (where else are they to live if not towns because Malay reserves are out of bounds and hardly tradeable in the open market and so with little or no collateral value?) This kind of dodgy economics is reinforced by consigning income to per capita household. With a Malay family of five, six children, and the Chinese two or three, the head count conversion will invariably deliver an income rate in which the first will be lower than the second.

In reality, there are many reasons for the Chinese to limit family size. Many of these motivations have nothing to do with education. Against the background of an apartheid environment, against the institutional forces at work, in the privacy of his home, and alone laying bricks under the sun, the Chinese bricklayer also has much time to think. He remembers the pain of growing up, getting up before dawn, hurrying to school, whipped by the teacher, taunted as a greedy Chinaman and clearing tables after school at the mother’s noodle stand. Therein, an entire childhood lost. But he has since stopped worrying about food on the table and must ask the penultimate question: Is this the place I want to raise kids? No, Helen, he will say: Tonight, I’ll have a good fuck but I must be careful. Kafka is right: Coitus is punishment for the happiness of being together.

Numerous high-income societies, Singapore, Japan being pertinent examples, deliver low birth rates. In this pattern, there is a correlation between income and children. But correlation is not causality.

To say the Chinese in Malaysia – out of sense of lost identity, and of pressures to migrate and to live a self-centred life – now constitute a “new society” is to take apart Chinese culture from Malaysian society. This view, very Western, very materialistic (because it says material existence, food, etc, is the final arbiter of culture), buys into Umno’s politics that the root and the rock of Malaysian society is an all-Malay culture. Everything else is in the periphery, mere furniture and decoration for a Visit Malaysia Year 2007. There is no Malaysian culture without Chinese culture; this much is never even acknowledged.

True, the Chinese will lose, politically and economically, as they have been losing. But, how are you kiasu then if you have already lost? Migration out of Malaysia is the only option because the bricklayer, alluded to earlier, is up against not just against the likes of the Shah Alam cow gang, the Malay polity, but against the Federal Constitution that pins him down because of skin colour. If the bricklayer can’t make it, he wants to be sure his only son has a fair shot at it.

Since there is a constitution, the Chinese had lost (so too the Indians), if only materially and politically. If, because of these losses, the soul is gravely hurt – this view is at the heart of Helen’s contention – then the underlying assumption says Chinese social values are written only on the savings passbook. Fence up the Chinese, print “non-bumi” on the page cover, he becomes selfish and covetous. The root into this kind of thinking harks back to the biblical Western conception that the body and “soul” are two inter-related parts of a human: tinker with one affects the other. Helen, more than she realises it, is an Anglophile.

Be that as it may …

If, to go along with Helen’s body-soul argument, the Chinese lost, then the biggest losers are the Malays. They would have lost the two critical parts of their constitutional definition, namely Malay custom and language, to the third part, an invidious Arabic Islamist culture. That culture, in which the religion of the Arabs is the only arbiter, does not tolerate the pre-Islamic soul or body. Rather it consumes the Malay past, rendering it irrelevant, supplanting it then chewing it into dust. This process has now come a full circle in, for example, Mohd Ali Rastam’s invitation to the Arabs to build an Arab City in Malacca. This is what Hesham El Din Fathi Mohamed of Golden Corporate Heritage answered in response to the red-carpet treatment he received earlier this year from Ali: “We consider Malaysia as our country.” (That , Malaysia our country, was no typo.) How so? Because the Malays are Muslims, which is to infer that what is yours is “ours” – get it?

For a foreigner coming 500, 600 years later than the Chinese, and then to claim Malaysia as “our country” is to make a political statement of sovereignty, an arrogant claim. This is how Arabic Islamism is so invasive. Few Chinese, even among those arriving in Malacca before the Sumatrans and the Portuguese, would assert such a claim not because it is not within their rights but because it is uncouched. At most, he will say, Malaysia belongs to everybody. Among other Chinese (Namewee for example), they will assert that Malaysia is “home” because Chinese Confucian culture puts politics and economics subservient and secondary to the purpose of identity and of belonging, or “placeness”, the word Helen used. (She has to read Mengzi to know what Confucian culture is.)

Hence, in emigrating, the Chinese leaves home, not merely a country, because in the relationship of ruler-to-ruled (one of five cardinal principles), there is family injustice and there is manifested failure of the patriarch ruler disowning his kin. This view is more than seeing the green pasture in Australia or the UK. Few Malays understand such a Confucian notion, much less realize that it is the Chinese who, unwittingly and with little influences here and there, have for centuries help keep the original Malay identity intact by standing up to Wahhabism. (Note, for example, the baju kurung worn among Chinese. In contradiction, the Arab religious ideology is so total it insists the Malays give up their padi-land clothes to wrap them up in sheets of bedlinen, white for men, black for women.) Against the advances of Arabic hegemony, those constitutional aspect of the originating Malay identity – thought processes, language and social values – have lost much ground. It is to be expected. Against a formally structured and invasive Arabic religious culture, the original culture of the Malay archipelago is survived only in museums and in a couple of Javanese and Sumatran pieces reserved for tourists. Having sponged on and taken over  by this set of values, is it any wonder, the Malay polity, as is often spoken through Utusan, should deploy the same power against those who are not yet a Ridhuan Tee?

That, in essence, undergird the question Helen is searching for in her treatise: What will be the Chinese like in the future? So far they have survived. A reported conversation between Nik Aziz of PAS and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew is illustrative. Nik Aziz, ignorant and naïve to the fact he is now subservient to a foreign culture, had expressed his hope that more Chinese will look towards Islam as a source of values. Kuan Yew’s reported answer: The Chinese have resisted conversion since Genghis Khan, 1,700 years ago. Why should they do it now?

What then is it that keeps the Chinese intact against the array of hostilities, long ago Mongolians who themselves have capitulated to Turkmen, today PAS, the cow-head gang, Ibrahim Ali, et al?

That answer is the primer to answering the question raised at the outset: What will be the Chinese be like in 30, 50 years on? To see the reason for Chinese cultural resilience is to first understand what is Chinese culture. As evidence into this resilience – testament to the oldest continuous civilization on earth – revert to Razaleigh Hamzah, a Kelantanese who is Malay more than he is PAS, an exemplary Malay. In an August 2009 lecture at Melbourne University he told of this little story:

In my own parliamentary constituency, jungle covered, far inland and one of the most remote in the peninsula (it used to be known as Ulu Kelantan and covered half the state, and when I started there I had to travel to it by boat), is a six hundred year old Chinese community, perhaps the oldest in the peninsula, living in peace with their Malay and Orang Asli neighbours.

Six hundred years ago and still Chinese, whereas 600 years later many Malays today are more Arabic than Malay. Chinese history is replete with examples of common people resisting tyrants of all sorts, Mongols and bad emperors before, today Umno’s political gangs for hire. Central to its cultural ability to hold the seams is Confucianism, which even communism in China failed to dislodge. The essence of Chinese culture, or Chineseness (chauvinism in the words of the Bangsa Malaysia types), was never, and still is not, dependent on counting noses. This is where Helen erred.

As for those urbanized Chinese, the self-centered, the covetous that she alludes to, they are the Ridhuan Tees, the Khoo Kay Kims, the Siew Engs, and the Thomas Lees – in whom Chinese culture is conflated with Anglo-Saxon values. Life is either centred on the self, which is evil, or on god which is good: another false dichotomy. And this, Helen may not know, is why they – the Tees and Lees – are hardly Chinese in the true sense of the adjectival word. They are Chinese only in their Anglicized names, mangled out of three Chinese characters that leave them completely befuddled. This runs parallel to the same mistaken notion that the Malays today are the Malays of the P. Ramlee days or, to stretch the argument, of the pre-independence sultanates. No longer. For proof in the difference 100 years later (which means the constitutional Malay definition is now outdated), visit Malacca when Javanese girls will have to speak Arabic and wait at an Arab City table. The Malay ruling elite is so badly mistaken they won’t know what’s going to hit them when the day comes. And “our” country with it.


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