‘You Malay or Indian?’
‘Mmm… .’ I hesitated. ‘Malay. Yeah, I’m a Malay.’
‘Oh! You know what… We actually offer financial aid for needy students to go for this overseas internship programme and …’
The rest of what was supposed to be the essential information that I needed dissolved into slurred words and irrelevancy. I smiled sheepishly at the international coordinator and walked away as if the aid was the only thing I cared about, simultaneously giving him the satisfaction of realising his own benevolence.
Perhaps to him, I was just another Malay student who had decided to give up on an opportunity simply because I could not afford it. So typical.
Not to say that I did not need that financial aid. After all, a nine thousand USD fee is an exorbitant amount for a three-month internship in the Big Apple. But why should the subject of financial aid be associated with me so purposefully, and almost explicitly? That was a rhetorical question.
I am a Malay. That is why.*
I was born into an average middle-class Singaporean Malay family, which means to say we have enough on the table to fill everyone in the household but flinch at the thought of going on a vacation to Europe.
We are Malay because the government says so. Who cares if my mum is a Malayali, or if my dad is half-Chinese? My paternal grandfather is a true-blue, pure-blooded son of the Nusantara. Hence by the power vested in the government, his descendants and all who marry into the family shall be identified as a Malay for the sake of the country’s administration. My grandfather is, therefore my father is. My father is, therefore I am. This patriarchal system and the hangover of colonial policies have dictated my racial identification, and the rich ethnic heritage that runs through my veins, virtually erased. The only way for my siblings and I to know about who we truly are has been through our mother’s soliloquies and occasional tirades.
As if losing three quarters of my identity was not enough, I have to identify myself as a Malay. Where do I begin with the Malays? God forbid that if they are not locked up for a litany of crimes, they will be lepak-ing at the void decks at night with their second-hand guitars and driving dwellers in the neighbourhood up the walls – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Indolent and imprudent.
Gullible and envious.
Non-tenacious and submissive.
Runts of the state.
The blacks of Singapore.
The Malays are quick to cry foul at the brutal stereotypes and labels imposed onto them but there is no smoke without fire, no? Ironically, I came to learn about my own cultural deficiencies through my own family, my Malay family.*
‘Dik, dengar kata Mak. Pergi sekolah jangan campur dengan budak Melayu sangat, faham? Nanti jadi pemalas dan bodoh’, my mum would occasionally remind me before I headed to school. Of course, I did not want to end up as a lazy and stupid student in such a meritorious society. I was a very ambitious child and I held on to my mother’s words of pseudo-wisdom like a shining beacon.
So when I entered primary school, I did my best to avoid the Malay kids. My parents were right. All they ever cared about were fun and games. They did not excel in their studies, and neither were they the slightest bit penitent about their Cs and Ds grades. Bless their hearts, their parents only expected them to pass their exams. While they floundered academically, my mingling with the Chinese and Indian kids bore fruit as I rose above the noxious fumes of Malay incompetency and seamlessly made my way into the Express stream of a reputable secondary school, and later to a good junior college.
But at what cost?
My refusal to associate myself with the Malay race had turned myself into a snob and a faux-elite. Despite being fluent in the Malay language, I pretended to be atrocious at it by faking a ghastly foreign accent when speaking in my mother tongue. I called myself half-Indian all the time and begrudgingly revealed my Malay side only after being questioned about this other half.
‘Oh… Melayu la…’, they would chime afterwards while I heaved a concurring sigh.
After years of playing charades, I was finally confronted by my own hypocrisy when I entered junior college (the Singaporean equivalent of a high school). I had thought all along that I was one of the very few outstanding and worthy Malays. But as an apparent blow to my hubris, there were in fact many more like me. They were ambitious, driven, and intelligent. In fact, they were also good in mathematics, contrary to the popular belief that Malays are beyond hope when it comes to the art of numbers — something that I regrettably reinforce. Their merit was hard for me to fathom, let alone to accept. Never mind their academic excellence, they also possessed something I had never had: the potent ethnic essence and identity.
The evading games that I played with my racial identity throughout my formative years had stripped me of the very essence of my cultural background. The absence of Malay friends in my life left me without any knowledge of the glitter and gold of Malay culture, history, and traditions. I knew nothing about adat or tata tertib. I did not know about the glorious kampung spirit, keikhlasan, and kehormatan, the noble and rich attributes that the Malays take very seriously. I used to scoff at the Malay kids in school for wasting their time — as if they cared — dancing for the Malay traditional dance club and joining the Dikir Barat, without realising the splendour behind such exquisite Asian art forms. Yet the Malays I met at junior college displayed and carried these very attributes with such gusto and pride, despite their apparent modern outlook and zest. I was baffled by this, but it was not so much about how they managed to live with the best of both worlds – rather, it was about my inadequacies. Surrounding myself with the Chinese and Indians taught me a thing or two about their respective cultures, but it was never exhaustive enough to turn me into either one of them. Engulfing myself with Western literature and pop culture did not do me any good either. I can never be like the Chinese or the Indians or the Caucasians. I cannot be them. I am not them.
Now, whether I can even be considered a Malay is also debatable.
‘Are you Malay? Why do you speak like that?’, my Malay language classmate asked.
‘Kind of… I am half-Indian. I’m just not very good with the language.’ I lied, again.
‘Oh. So you are one of those Westernised lupa daratan la. What? Is it really that lowly to be a Malay?’. The annoyance in her voice grew.
Lupa daratan is a Malay expression for someone who has lost his or her roots. I was an epitome of that.
She was an intelligent one, and very ethnic at that. How was that even possible? Had my entire life hitherto been a lie? Why weren’t the Malay kids here the same as those shoddy ones who I had met during my primary school days?
I started hanging out with them. It wasn’t long before I realised that the Malay kids were not any different from the Chinese and Indian kids who I had hanged out with during my childhood and early teenage days. Lo and behold, the only difference among them was the race categorisation stamped in black and white on their identity cards. My hanging out with the Malay kids in junior college did not transform me into a ‘folk devil’. My school work did not deteriorate and my academic results did not falter. Nothing was compromised or lost. Instead, I regained what I had taken for granted and intentionally disassociated myself from all this while — my Malay essence.
It was also through my social interactions with my fellow Malays that I came to realise the caustic effects of oblivion, nonchalance, and blind acceptance. Stereotypes are essentially categorisations born out of ignorance. There is no truth in stereotypes and there is no truth in the cultural deficiency theory. Cultural deficiency is not relative but it is absolute. The Malay race may or may not be culturally deficient, depending on what the Malay community makes out of its own existence. I used to be culturally deficient not because of the fact that I am a Malay, but because I refused to identify myself as a Malay. As a consequence, I had ended up in a no man’s land. I am half-Indian but I am not Indian enough. I have Chinese blood in me but I am not Chinese enough. I am a Malay but I shunned it to avoid being inferior.
Jack of all identities, master of none. Who am I?
Today, my racial identity is no longer an issue to me in spite of my physical ambiguity. I draw strength from my perceived weakness as a Malay to debunk the many myths about my race. Being Malay empowers me to prove to society that a Malay son is more than capable to achieve or even surpass the deeds of the sons of the other races, and that no stereotype or label has a hold on me or on my race. What was a source of shame for me has become my pride and a perennial, underlying strength. Realising and accepting myself as an Anak Melayu has simply made me a sturdier and resilient person in undergoing life’s endless road-bumps, providing me with the valour to take up terrifying challenges. It has also become my driving force in propelling myself with conviction to strive and thrive in a meritorious and racially-attentive society. It is also with that realisation that I will always place my racial identity on the highest of pedestals and that it will always be my fortitude. My racial identity is my pride, and I hope that one day I can in return be its pride.*
‘So, it says here you are biracial? What makes up ‘Zaidani’ then?’, the interviewer looked at me inquisitively.
‘Essentially, a Malay.’ I answered.
Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia. Never will the Malays vanish from earth.
Zai Dani is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore and he is currently doing his honours year. His tagline has always been, ‘Spread legs, not war’ but people always ask for more. He wonders why.