Most of us have grown up having experienced some form of racism in our beloved country Malaysia. I should know; I’m ‘Indian’. It doesn’t help that I have a ‘hangus‘ skin from spending way too much time under the sun with my camera. Here, I would like say my piece with a focus on the Chinese community.

Only the government had my best interest by reminding me of my roots when I filled out forms. Let’s see, I’m definitely not Melayu even though I grew up listening to quotes of the Qu’ran from my father and celebrate Hari Raya each year with my uncle. I read and loved all the Malay pantuns and folk stories. I’m not even Cina even if I understood Cantonese better than Tamil, grew up watching Chinese films and TVB dramas and looked forward to Chinese New Year. That leaves me with ‘India’ or ‘Lain-lain’.

In primary school I was taught to be ashamed and offended with the word ‘keling‘. I’m not sure how it started really but children only imitate and they must have learned the usage of the word from their elders or friends.

With the Chinese it was always about a superior race and with the Malays it was religion. I remember being pulled to a corner during recess by a group of Malay boys. They grouped around me and started convincing me that if I don’t accept Islam then I will go to hell. Not being able to enjoy sweet sour pork would’ve been hell enough for me so I had to pass.

In secondary school things were a bit different. Growing up, my best friends were Chinese and I never found an incentive to identify myself as an Indian.

I don’t speak Tamil at home and my extended family is peppered with mixed marriages. I grew up living a very colourful life, never needing to remind myself that one culture or the other didn’t belong to me.

I missed out on all the glorious Tamil action films and million-episode dramas on TV and instead religiously followed National Geographic and X-Files. The truth is out there I believed.

Reading Tamil took me an hour to get through a single paragraph and even then, I had no idea what the paragraph actually said. I grew up reading English classics, fairy tales, Malay folk stories from the shelves of books at home. I’m blind without my glasses as a result, but I believe vision is more powerful than sight.

What shall we do with the keling?

I was the only male Indian student in my class.
Whenever there was a group assignment where we had to split into groups, there was always an awkward moment of “Where to put the Indian?”.

Racism isn’t an external force bearing down on us. We are the racists we deserve.

To the young Malaysians, especially the Chinese, YOU need to make a stand against racism. You are still young and YOU are the voice that we all need.

Fighting racism doesn’t start with others, it starts with you. When was the last time you stood up against racism by your fellow Malaysians? I mentioned above about myself experiencing racism first hand and do you know which ‘race’ treats me the worst? No, it’s not the handful of politicians or wannabes screaming in the media. It’s not Ibrahim Ali with his racist statements. It’s not the government and it’s racist policies It’s the Chinese I interact with around me. The Chinese community have institutionalized racism and they don’t even realize it!

“lu India ka? Tak mau la” or it’s simply written “Chinese only”.

Walk around shopping malls and see how many job vacancies are posted up with the requirement “Chinese preferred”. The service and price you get in Lowyat depends on the tone of your skin.

A perfect example of how internalized racism has become in the country

“Wah…lu manyak bagus ah, pandai cakap Cina”.

An Indian speaking Chinese is a miracle. Or so they reminded me. Also, I am supposed to be privileged that most of my friends are Chinese as if I’m part of a secret club.

Try being in a relationship with a Chinese family and see how much misconception and racism you have to fight against just to be treated like a normal human being.

“Aiyer, later your child come out black.”

“Aiyer, why you so black already. Like Indian.”

I forget that the future of my child in this country is relative to the colour of his/her skin. No wonder products like Fair & Lovely, SK II and a gazillion other skin-whitening products are a huge business in Asia.

I understand Cantonese and Mandarin better than I do with Tamil. I grew up thinking that anything remotely Indian was bad. I refused to speak Tamil because it sounded funny and I wanted so much to be part of the gang. Every time someone started a joke, the punchline surely had something to do with a guy having dark skin or someone speaking Tamil in a funny accent. Everything Indian was a joke and I had to laugh with them. And every joke always started or ended with

“Eh joking only ah, don’t get offended.”

Everything Indian was funny. It was all a big joke.

I have every right to be offended but I just looked around and smiled.

You’re no longer a Chinese national. You’re a Malaysian. When you travel to China, you’re a foreigner, bukannya balik kampung. Learn and master the Chinese language by all means, but also master the national language and English.

Adakah ia sesuatu yang aib bagi seorang Cina untuk bertutur atau menulis dalam Bahasa Melayu? Late last year I was involved with an accident on the Federal Highway. A Chinese girl driving back to KL from Penang knocked into me from the back and we both slammed into the divider. She never saw the need to apologize and couldn’t converse in simple Malay with the police officer. I’ve met many other Chinese who literally can’t speak a word of Malay. How do you live in Malaysia and not be able to understand Malay?

On the topic of language, it’s also funny that those who are so proud of their ‘mothertongue’, in this case Mandarin, are the same ones butchering it. Most of you speak so bad Mandarin that even I would cringe.

You talk about your culture but how much of your culture do you actually retain? How many Chinese do you see today wearing the Cheongsam? How many Chinese couples get married in a white wedding gown the Christian way and forego all the rituals and formalities that entail a Chinese wedding.

Why talk so much about the Chinese identity if you don’t really know what it is nor do you practise much of it in daily life? Is not clear that you live your life as a Malaysian, with a fusion of cultures, rather than a Chinese?

Between India and Lain-lain, I always went for the latter. I would pencil in ‘Malaysian‘.

When we gained independence from the British, all citizens of Malaya were granted Malaysian citizenship. We were not granted Melayu, Cina or India identity cards.

In fact, the idea of forming little enclaves along the racial line is outdated. Just because something has always been that way, it doesn’t make it right. We’re now in the 21st century and not the 19th century when your forefathers arrived on this foreign land.

Let us all make a promise to ourselves and stop being so bloody racist in this imaginary fight against racism.

Important: I believe in the Malaysian identity and the sentences above regarding the Chinese is only meant as an example to illustrate my point. It is not and should not never be taken as a racist rant against the Malaysian Chinese with whom I’ve spent my entire life with and my entire research on. Disclaimer la tu. Don’t come after me with pitchforks. It’s extremely important that we, as Malaysians, are comfortable expressing our ideas and be open to having discussions on the issues that affect us.

Mahen Bala is a documentary filmmaker and photographer who has worked on telling Malaysian stories for the past 8 years and counting. He is currently working on reseaching and documenting the cult of Datuk Gong, a form of worship practised mainly by the Chinese community in Malaysia and other smaller subjects.