Confronting Malay privilege

It is true that whenever I write about the state of feminism in Malaysia, I write from a point of view of a privileged Malay whose ethnicity is a dividing force in Malaysia. While I write about the challenges of Muslim women with a global view in mind, my own Malayness oppresses every one else in my backyard who does not fit the exacting and discriminating elements that make the Malay composite.

priv-i-lege, noun
A special right, advantage, immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.

Everyone has some form of privilege one way or the other; either it’s physical ability, economic background, heterosexuality and/or possessing the Y chromosome. However, the more vicious forms are those that are enshrined in the federal constitution to benefit only a select group of people. For decades, the Malay community has been socialised into thinking that they are made of something quite special, that the state of their specialness, or supremacy, is the norm. Supreme entitlement to such things as greater access to university education, public funding, jobs, and homes allows for the upward social mobility of those lucky enough to be born Malay and Muslim in Malaysia. This is how the Malay middle-class was born. But when their privileges are challenged, it is seen as an attack on their humanity and on their way of life.

It’s mind-boggling that the defenders of Malay ethnic-religio-supremacy do not see themselves as proud perpetrators of racism. While cavalierly calling out Malay poverty as reason to protect their rights, they conveniently forget the other impoverished ethnic communities with whom they live side by side. The declaration of Malaysia as an Islamic state further complicates our inter-ethnic relations and squanders the strength of diversity that can make our country so great. Such a declaration is simply a tool to protect the political interests of the tiny elite few while doing so controls the public and private lives of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Here is a country that puts the staunchly heteronormative, middle-class Malays in charge of a master-slave relationship.

As a Malay woman born into special privileges, I cannot talk at length about what it’s like to be lacking them. But I am willing to step outside my lived experiences to confront, question, and challenge them to be repealed. This include the absent privileges of individuals whose sexuality, gender, and lifestyle choices do not conform within the rigid boundaries of state approval. As a feminist, I would like to represent a de-colonising voice, a feminism that recognises and confronts oppression in all its forms – this is by no means a pompous ambition. However, feeling ashamed and guilty of these special rights do not help anyone or any situation. Guilt is neither constructive nor is it redemptive. Instead, making the most of our faculties through thinking a little bit more, reading, writing, listening and talking about social injustice are just little forms of activism that offer us a better chance of improving and restoring equality in our societies.

9 thoughts on “Confronting Malay privilege

  1. Interesting post, thanks for writing it.

    Relatedly, did you see Mahathir gave a speech at Cambridge? “This government is less racist but that has led to instability and lack of growth.”

  2. This is a very much-needed post. Thank you for writing it.

    One of my lecturers once told us that she wasn’t the recipient of any privilege because she didn’t obtain a scholarship when she was in her tertiary studies.

    I think it was very naive of her to assume that government scholarships was the sole marker of Malay privilege, though no doubt that that is one of the most – if not the most – controversial policies of the NEP.

    That said, I’m also guilty of Malay privilege! :S

    But like you said, guilt leads to nowhere. I try to be conscious about Malay privlege without getting into self-punishing mode.

  3. steph,

    Thanks. Very kind of you!

    No, I didn’t go. I have personally certified him as clinically senile; whatever he says nowadays does not make sense anymore and reeks of hypocrisy.

    I did however attend one of his talks sometime last year in London. It was a badly put together, mostly impromptu speech about the future of Malaysia. The speech then for some reasons diverted to the ISA, which, he said (in a nervous jokey way) “is not so bad”. In whatever context the ISA is in, it will always be bad, reprehensible.

    I left the auditorium after hearing that, feeling quite disgusted and physically sick.

    malaysianfeminism,

    Yeah, there are plenty of gripes about the whole who qualifies for a govt-funded scholarship in Malaysia. There are many well-deserving individuals who are missing out as a result of a non-meritocratic education system. But I’ve always been a little critical about affirmative action – even if it is intended to help the poor. When the poor make up the majority (i.e. Malays), the problem of irreconcilability and dissatisfaction among non-Malays will inevitably become bigger. The accomplishments of Malays will also become devalued this way as well (ala, you Melayu, senang dapat biasiswa/kerja. Lecturer/cikgu pun tolong kasi ‘pass’ kalau kantoi).

  4. Yeah, those too. It’s so hard to keep privileges straight!

    …. OK, no, it’s not actually that hard, or it shouldn’t be, and it’s a shame that people think it is.

  5. After so many years of truth and lies, the only thing government policies gave to other ethnic group is HATRED. The more advantage malay get, the harder other ethnic group will strive to win, even ALLAH will disagree the way islamic politicians in malaysia did.

    No matter how hard malay work or strive to get to the top… THEY WILL NEVER GET RESPECT FROM OTHER RACE & ETHNIC GROUP, PERIOD.

  6. Oh, ha! Preach it, sister!

    As a Malay man, I’ve seen my privilege work. It actually managed to deform a conversation I had with people online, like a massive object deforms space-time. It is a hideous, horrible thing, and it’s even worse when you know it’s a part of you.

    And we have it worse than Malay women, actually. You know how family law favours us like gila.

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