Fixated about ethnic purity?

NEARLY 60 years after the 11 states in Peninsular Malaysia gained their independence, why are some political leaders still fixated on ethnicity? While paeans of praise are often lavished on the amity among ethnic groups living in this country, is multiracial harmony in Malaysia superficial rather than deeply ingrained?

These questions were prompted by the revelation of one fact – a political leader's grandfather belonged to a different ethnic group from his grandmother. Does this mean Malaysians should judge political leaders on the purity of their ethnic origins rather than their record of achievement?

There are several reasons why this issue is troubling and ludicrous.

First, a person's ethnic origins are determined by his parents. Because an individual has zero choice in determining whether he or she is one-eighth Malay, for example, it is unfair to blame him or her for his or her lack of ethnic purity.

Second, the definition of a Malay in the Federal Constitution excludes ethnicity. Instead, cultural markers are used to determine who is a Malay.

Article 160 defines a Malay as "a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language and conforms to Malay custom". This suggests the framers of the Federal Constitution wanted to avoid the minefield of ethnicity and opted for simpler and clearer criteria.

Third, as the name suggests, the lynchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), is a political party for the Malays.

If a person was a member of Umno and became the party's president for more than two decades, doesn't this mean he was accepted by party members as Malay?

Fourth, many past top Malaysian politicians and prime ministers were racially mixed. Rogayah Hanim – the mother of Umno founder Dato Onn Jaafar and grandmother of the country's third prime minister Tun Hussein Onn – was from Turkey.

Similarly, Che Menjelara, the mother of Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was Thai while Hassan Salleh, the maternal grandfather of fifth prime minister Tun Abdullah Badawi was a Muslim of Chinese descent.

Should the eminent achievements of these political leaders be denigrated simply because they weren't pure Malays?

Is it significant or irrelevant that four out of six Umno presidents were ethnically mixed? Does the fact their mixed ethnicity was never a concern either for party members or for voters in past elections mean this is a recent preoccupation? Or is mixed racial origins an issue targeted at a particular former party leader?

Fifth, a segment of Malaysian Chinese are also obsessed about individual leaders' Chinese-ness. For Malaysian Chinese, the benchmark isn't ethnic origin but the ability to speak a Chinese dialect and to champion the cause of Mandarin.

Because the forebears of many Malacca Peranakans arrived in the 17th and 18th century and married women already residing in this country, they spoke only Baba Malay.

Their inability to speak any Chinese dialect or Mandarin prompted many Malacca Peranakans to be labelled OCBC – Orang Cina Bukan Cina (Chinese but not Chinese).

To be sure, language as a marker of ethnicity is (less) objectionable than racial purity – it is possible to learn a language but impossible to change an individual's ethnic origins.

Nevertheless, using a single criterion to determine racial identity is arguably simplistic. Despite diligent observance of religious and cultural norms, does failure to speak any Chinese dialect disqualify a leader from being deemed a Chinese?

Coincidentally, the issue of racial purity is also debated in Singapore – prompted by a presidential election solely reserved for Malay candidates likely to be held next month. Interestingly, a candidate is entitled to contest even if he or she isn't Malay.

To be accepted as a Malay presidential candidate, Article 19B of Singapore's Constitution spells out two criteria.

A Singaporean is eligible "whether of the Malay race or otherwise, who considers himself to be a member of the Malay community and who is generally accepted as a member of the Malay community by that community".

Prospective candidates must obtain a certificate of eligibility from the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) and a declaration from the Community Committee that the individual is part of the Malay community.

Additionally, private-sector candidates must head a company with at least S$500 million in shareholder equity – a requirement the PEC can waive.

Among potential candidates, the frontrunner is former speaker and a group representative constituency MP, Halimah Yaacob, who has Indian/Malay parents.

Private sector hopeful, Farid Khan, faces two potential problems – his identity card labels him a Pakistani and the shareholder equity of the company that he chairs, Bourbon Offshore Asia, totals only US$300 million.

Similarly, another possible private candidate, Salleh Marican, is regarded as Indian rather than Malay, Singapore newspapers report.

While the definition of a Malay is being broadened in Singapore, will the same happen across the Causeway?

Opinions expressed are the personal views of the writer and should not be attributed to any organisation she is connected with. Feedback: