Do I look Malaysian?

THE year ended a little sadly as I read about Divyang Hong, a guy of Chinese and Indian parentage, who was rejected from renting a room because the landlord said, “we don’t rent out to mixed people”.

Maybe it’s because he’s pure Chindian, I joked with my friends. I am also of Chinese and Indian parentage and have one parent who is already mixed – and am therefore a little less “pure”.

What was appalling was the responses Divyang got on Twitter. Some Malaysians felt that the landlord shouldn’t be called a racist, his or her choice of tenant is his or her prerogative.

This part is true. But ethnicity shouldn’t be the criteria. Others said that people preferred Chinese because of hygiene, food and smell. I mean, seriously?

The problem is Malaysia, multicultural though we are, is segmented by race. It is only when Malaysians come across people like Divyang and I that they don’t really know what to do.

Both Divyang and I have some similarities. We both have names that don’t match the way we look, and I am sure he grew up, as I did, with people asking “What are you?”

I try my best to take this as a healthy interest in me, but what is incredibly annoying is people telling me, “No! You look Filipino! Are you sure you’re not Filipino? My colleagues from the Philippines all look like you and talk like you!”

Or sometimes I get, “But look at your name! You must be Thai! You definitely don’t look Malaysian!”

Do Malaysians have a look? Seriously? Well, take a look at our prime minister, Ambiga Sreenevasan and our young ice-skater, Julian Yee. Do they all look alike? Similar racial features? How come they look Malaysian but I look Thai, so I must be Thai?

Another problem with the question “What are you?” is that people ask this to put you into a nice little pigeon-hole.

If he is Chinese, then he must be able to speak a dialect, celebrate Chinese New Year, gambles a lot, is good in business and probably has a mistress. If he is Indian, he probably eats lots of spices and lacks hygiene. And that is the problem with the question.

And the problem with this is that it generalises a whole community based on the behaviour of a few. It’s like saying all the children of this couple are lousy based on the behaviour of the first child. Or saying that all women drive badly or all bald men are sexy. Just because Jason Statham is bald and sexy doesn’t mean every single bald man is sexy!

As our society moves forward, we are slowly (but not fast enough) chipping away at our prejudices based on gender.

Racism is sadly slower in this regard. I think racism is hardly recognised as such in Malaysia because it’s so entrenched in society and our system that we don’t even see it as racism.

Barely a year ago, we got rid of a coalition based on race. Barisan Nasional’s main parties were based on race, with each component party indignantly defending its own race. The irony of it being that if all of them defended their race based on policy, which of the others compromised?

For decades, few Malaysians ever thought that this was weird or offensive.

Imagine if classes in school were segregated in the same way. Imagine if floors in an apartment block were segregated like that. Wouldn’t that be weird?

Now, some Malaysians are saying that it is “okay” for landlords or employers to hire fellow Malaysians based on race, and not performance or values. Well, no, it is not okay. It is not even okay that people like me have to choose a single race to define us, let alone other people use that race to tell us how we behave and smell.

Daniel is passionate about physical fitness and travel. Comments: