Orang Afrika di Malaysia: Antara stereotaip dengan kenyataan

First published on Merdeka Review, 13th May 2012. plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Terdapat pelbagai teori media yang mengatakan bahawa saluran media mempunyai kuasa untuk mempengaruhi pendapat awam, terutamanya kuasa untuk mengeruhkan lagi sentimen perkauman terhadap pekerja dan penuntut asing yang sudah lama berakar umbi di minda dan jiwa rakyat kebanyakan. Sentimen perkauman terhadap lelaki Afrika di Malaysia didapati lebih parah daripada wanita. Tanggapan buruk ini banyak disumbang melalui stereotaip lelaki Afrika sebagai kaki lawan dan penjenayah yang memporak-perandakan keamanan dan budaya kita. Stereotaip ini muncul di kaca televisyen, di internet, dan di muka akhbar. Seringkali orang berkulit hitam disamakan dengan orang Afrika seolah-seolah Afrika itu satu negara yang monolitik, tanpa kepelbagaian budaya, bahasa, dan rupa. Realitinya, ramai yang meneruskan pelajaran atau datang mencari rezeki di Malaysia datang daripada latar belakang sosial, kelas, agama, bahasa, dan keadaan geopolitik yang berbeza.

Kini, kita sering mendengar di wahana media tentang “kebanjiran” pekerja dan penuntut Afrika pada tahap yang membimbangkan di seluruh pelusuk Malaysia, dari Kota Kinabalu hingga ke Alor Setar. Kita menggarapi migrasi sebagai satu masalah “baru” yang melanda negara, yang menyerupai gejala jenayah, hakisan budaya tempatan, dan meningkatkan satu iklim yang menakutkan dan penuh bahaya. Kehadiran populasi Afrika dianggap sebagai sesuatu yang baru, seolah-olah tidak wujudnya sejarah migrasi dan penempatan orang-orang dari benua Afrika.

“Gelombang” pertama pergerakan orang Afrika (atau “Negrito”) ke Asia bermula lebih kurang 100,000 tahun dahulu, dan kemudiannya berkembang di Pakistan selatan, dan kepulauan Polynesian dan Melanisia. Golongan ini berpecah kepada etnik Khyeng di Pakistan, Jawawa di Teluk Benggala, dan Agta di Filipina. Sejak 1970-an, kedatangan warga asing ke tanahair dimangkinkan oleh situasi ekonomi dan globalisasi. Tahap penghijrahan yang meninggi jelas menunjukkan kemakmuran ekonomi Malaysia dan gawatnya ekonomi negara-negara penghantar para penghijrah. Malangnya, tahap kesedaran sosial tidak setimpal dan jauh kebelakang; lain kata, kemakmuran dan pembangunan tidak pernah menjamin perikemanusiaan dan keadilan.

Pada 31 Mac, seorang pelajar IPTS berusia 35 tahun yang bernama Onochie Martins Nwankwo telah dipukul sehingga mati di Hulu Langat di tangan lima anggota RELA. Onochie dipercayai mencabul seorang pencuci wanita di tempat tinggalnya. Wanita tersebut melapor bahawa beliau melarikan diri daripada Onochie dan meminta tolong kepada kumpulan suspek-suspek yang kemudiannya bertindak dengan membelasah Onochie. Di sebuah negara yang mempunyai sistem perundangan yang dicipta untuk menjamin keamanan dan menghukum pesalah dengan saksama, anggota RELA tidak berhak untuk menjatuhkan “hukuman” mereka ke atas mendiang Onochie. Motif di sebalik pembunuhan beliau berbaur perkauman terhadap orang-orang berkulit hitam.

Disebabkan layanan kelas kedua yang terpaksa dipikul oleh warga Afrika amnya, kesahihan kes cabul yang dibayar oleh Onochie dengan nyawanya mungkin tidak dipersoalkan lagi, seperti kesahihan kes-kes jenayah lain yang melibatkan warga Afrika yang lain. Tragedi seperti beberapa penuntut IPTS dari negara Botswana pernah dilaporkan membunuh diri disebabkan tekanan yang dicetus oleh perkauman dan layanan buruk warga Malaysia. Ekoran kejadian tersebut, kematian seorang warganegara Nigeria bulan lalu di tangan pengganas RELA, yang kemudiannya mencetus pertunjukan perasaan oleh kumpulan sewarganegara di Ulu Langat kini menunjukkan betapa parahnya keadaan perkauman yang mengganas dan berdarah di Malaysia dewasa ini.

Terdapat beberapa faktor yang menjadikan Malaysia sebagai destinasi tarikan ramai penuntut Afrika. Pertama sekali, kerana kos pembiayaan untuk pendidikan tertiari adalah lebih rendah daripada di Eropah, Amerika Syarikat, atau di Australia. Kemudahan dan kualiti pendidikan juga dianggap setanding dengan IPT di negara-negara tersebut. Sesetengah IPT memperuntukkan RM25,000 bagi penuntut pasca-siswazah antarabangsa. Kedua, ramai penuntut yang beragama Islam dari benua Afrika yakin bahawa gaya hidup di negara yang majoriti Islam seperti Malaysia membantu memelihara akidah mereka. Ketiga, visa untuk belajar di Malaysia lebih muda diperolehi berbanding negara-negara barat yang kini mengetatkan polisi imigresen negeri masing-masing. Dan keempat, ramai akan mengambil peluang untuk meninggalkan negara masing-masing untuk kehidupan di luar negara kerana nilai prestij mereka akan meraih daripada pengalaman merantau dan gaji yang dijangka lebih lumayan di sini. Faktor-faktor diatas begitu logikal, tetapi mampukah kesemuanya menangkis prejudis terhadap warga asing Afrika yang menular?

Terdapat lebih kurang 22,000 penuntut di IPT dari benua Afrika; yang terjebak dalam gejala jenayah dan sosial adalah sangat minima mengikut Menteri Pengajian Tinggi Mohamed Khaled Nordin – terdapat hanya 66 kes dilaporkan membabitkan orang Afrika lewat tahun lepas. Menurut Abiodun Musa Aibinu, wakil Diaspora Nigeria dan Profesor Madya kejuruteraan mekatronik di Universiti Islam Malaysia (UIA) pula, hanya 5% daripada 5,000 warga Nigeria yang berada di Malaysia terlibat dalam pengedaran dadah dan penipuan (“black money”). Hakikatnya wujud hierarki manusia di mana layanan yang diberikan kepada mereka di lapisan bawah pekerja, penuntut IPT asing, dan golongan pelarian secara automatis jauh lebih teruk. Tetapi kesemua warganegara Afrika yang berkulit hitam digolongkan sebagai “pariah” di mata rakyat Malaysia: walaupun sebagai seorang pensyarah, Abiodoun juga sering menjadi mangsa penghinaan orang-orang tempatan.

Sebagai rakyat Malaysia, kita merayakan imej negara kita yang berbilang kaum – itulah satu-satunya “keistimewaan” yang diwarisi daripada sejarah kolonial kita. Tetapi sayangnya, kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya yang dibanggakan hanya dikhaskan untuk mereka yang berwarganegara Malaysia, walaupun mereka yang bukan banyak menyumbang kepada pembangunan dan melancarkan kehidupan seharian kita. Kepelbagaian bangsa dan budaya Malaysia senantiasa berubah dan kita seharusnya menerima bahawa migrasi adalah hakikat masakini di era globalisasi dan geopolitik dan ekonomi dunia ketiga yang tidak pernah lelah goyah.

Reggae Mansion: Blatant discrimination and exclusivity in the worst possible taste

I wrote and published this piece for Loyar Burok on 1st November, generating in what was a considerably powerful response from the Malaysian public online that resulted in the public dressing-down of Reggae Mansion via The Star newspaper. Suffice to say, this is testament to the fact that a successful link between online blogging and citizen action can sometimes happen in Malaysia.

I was struck by the blatant ableism, racism, ageism, and xenophobia displayed by the proprietors who run Reggae Mansion, Malaysia’s “newest and funkiest” chain of hostels and guesthouses. No doubt bigotry occurs at a systemic level in Malaysia, the kind of bigotry against Malaysians on Malaysian soil recalls the days of European invasion and systematic racism of untold horror where local people were excluded from entering certain public establishments. With branches in Kuala Lumpur and Penang, the company proudly demonstrates its credentials as an exclusive and highly sophisticated place for tourists to stay and call one’s home away from home. Reggae Mansion Hostel also stresses that it caters to an “international” clientele of backpackers, a subtle code suggested by its promotional photos to mean white backpackers.

Taken from Reggae Mansion Hostel's website on 31st October. However, this image has been taken down by the management following complaints..

Unfortunately, exclusivity also means the gates are tightly shut to “riffraff” otherwise known as Malaysians, Indian and Middle Eastern nationals. The proprietors will declare bookings from people of these national backgrounds “null and void.” Reggae Mansion Hostel is also not wheelchair accessible which means wheelchair users due to disabilities, age, and / or injury cannot easily enter the premises of the “funky” hostel. Just to further demonstrate how unwelcoming they are, Reggae Mansion is closed to prospective guests over the age of 60.

How did a public establishment arrive to such an extreme policy of exclusion? It has been a long and unproblematic issue in Malaysia that many public spaces are just not wheelchair-friendly. The fault lies in our generally ableist society where social welfare is hard to come by and people ignore the under-privileged for the sake of “minding one’s own business.” For a “mansion” hostel that has a cinema room equipped with a THX sound system and intercom on every floor, it is surprising why its management team did not bother to invest in a wheelchair-accessible environment. Rejecting guests over the age of 60 meanwhile suggests that older people will be a nuisance to younger guests and unappreciative of the young backpacker lifestyle, if there was such a lifestyle to begin with. Hence, it will be far easier to ban an undesirable group of guests than to go into the trouble of making a space inclusive and welcoming for everybody.

The far more disturbing form of exclusion demonstrated by Reggae Mansion is its policy against Malaysian, Indian, and Middle Eastern guests. Whether it is an indication of the proprietor’s racism against Indian and Middle Eastern people, and the classism against groups of Malaysian tourists who can only afford to stay in backpacker hostels is anyone’s guess. It could also be a policy that accommodates xenophobia and Eurocentrism. In other words, it may be based on the assumption that white backpackers would not like to share rooms with brown-skinned people because of their stereotypically uncouth and criminal behaviour.

The anti-local policy is reminiscent of the many plush hotels and resorts that dot the beautiful beaches of Thailand, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Maldives where locals are barred from walking on its sands and swimming in its waters. Instead of ethnicity, locals are excluded as guests based on class; locals are certainly more than welcome as service providers so long as they remain in the background of a tourist’s paradise. Reggae Mansion is not much different in perpetuating this unequal racial and class dynamic, by simply barring the custom of Malaysians, Indian and Middle Eastern altogether while rolling out the red carpet for white tourists.

The unfounded “logic” it seems is that white tourists who travel on a shoe-string budget, who may even come from working-class backgrounds are good for business, but Malaysians, Indians, and Middle Eastern people of similar background are for some reason bad for business. Many legitimate guests will leave the country with the disconcerting message that “Malaysian businesses are not only allowed to be shamelessly xenophobic, ageist, and deliberately ableist, but appear to be hostile to their own citizens”. How tragic.

In capitalist Malaysia, profit-driven policies trump social equality and efforts to end discrimination. In the weeks approaching the Bersih 2.0 rally on 9th July this year, marchers were warned not to take to the streets lest they will disrupt businesses. It is only in a culture where we put profit ahead of people where such a protest against demanding greater democracy is common sense. Reggae Mansion Hostel and Guest Houses in Kuala Lumpur and Penang have no reason to turn away great swaths of people from its door unless its owner(s) truly believe that racism, ableism, xenophobia, and ageism are good for business. Reggae Mansion Hostel also makes the offensive assumption that its target clientele are also racist and xenophobic, incapable of sharing their space with so-called “uncivilised” brown people.

Short of boycotting Reggae Mansion, which may not make much of a direct impact on its business since Malaysian guests need not apply, we must condemn its heavily exclusionist policies. There is still hope in the many hostels in Malaysia that are welcoming spaces which do not question your ethnic, national, and class background, sexuality, age, and religious beliefs. Some hostels make it a point to build ramps, automated doors, and lifts so that wheelchair users can move independently and inhabit public spaces as freely as able-bodied people. Businesses which are premised on bigotry have no place in the tourism industry and certainly not in Malaysia.

Of sartorial choices and oppression

First published over at the F-Word blog.

The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down.

It appears that a woman’s sartorial choices have confirmed the highest place in the pyramid of oppression in the eyes of the Belgian and French powers that be; high above xenophobia, Islamophobia, classism, and sexism. Removing the offending piece of cloth worn by over 200 women is tantamount to restoring not only female dignity but the fragile values of an entire nation.

The discomfort about the burqa in particular can be felt on both sides of the ban. Those who are quick to say that, “I do not support the ban but…” have the made the same over-emphasis on a piece of cloth but little attention to the continuum of oppression that the majority of Muslim women face in Europe. If anything, the superficial concerns levelled against the way Muslim women wear have almost always been made by those who are neither Muslim nor wear the hijab, much less the burqa.

The unanimous decision to ban the full-face veil in Belgium speaks volumes of the symbolic unity against visible Islam in a country where Muslims make up only 3 percent of the population. It is also a patronising push towards a kind of women’s liberation that is measured against what European women wear. But before we even consider that the burqa is self-effacing in its most literal form, should we think about how punitive such a ban will be on a woman who might wear it under duress or otherwise? Before we make judgements and decisions about the sartorial choices that certain groups of women make, have we spared the time to ask these women themselves if they are complicit in their own oppression?

The heavy-handed penalty against the niqab and burqa is just another way to punish women without having to address the systemic racism and Islamophobia plaguing right-leaning countries like Belgium and France. This ban is not an emancipatory cause to celebrate or one that is steeped in so-called European values. It is not about emancipation if the law can decide that you are free. It is not about European values if Muslims make a sizeable number of Europeans in the continent. One should remember that many do not claim that the wearing of the hijab to such extremes is a religious obligation but rather an anachronistic cultural practice or simply a protective cloak from the male gaze. However, the hubris of the Belgian and French brand of secularism is such that in the case of Muslim women, those distinctions do not matter.

Comments on comments

In the last year, I’ve been getting plenty of Islamophobic comments on my blog. Some of which are unpublished here for my own peace of mind, and some I went on to tackle personally with the commenters who wrote them. Granted, I do not have a policy on comments and perhaps that is a mistake on my part for flashing a green light to those who feel the need to vent their Islamophobic frustrations online, or anti-feminist or racist frustrations for that matter. But on the other hand, explicit guidelines on how to comment on pro-Islam, feminist, and anti-racist blogs are often ignored anyhow. I cannot put a stop to this but the most I can do is to remind readers who feel that they do not respect my faith and other faiths and my politics is to go elsewhere and reflect on humanity a little more. Readers who do not respect Islam or feminism or anti-racist politics on the discursive level but claim to hold nothing against some of its adherents also will not have anything useful to say here. Yeah, I’m tough on “enlightened” haters.

To make this clearer: in the future, what I don’t need is any of the following..

The allure of the foreign or “exotic” as outline in the chromosomes and you want to call it Racism?

when a man (or a women) is attracted to something different, seeks it out, this is looking for something to be created between two consenting adults. Consenting meaning it would be mutual.

So repelled by something different, it is racism.
Attracted to, it is racism.

yes its the same simple biology at work isn’t it? And your  solution is…?

In addiction medicine, addiction is defined by consequences. I’d like to know the harsh consequences of this racism….because i’m sure every lynched slave from American history is “rolling in their grave” at your posted disgust.

Sloppy pseudo-scientific analogies for examples of racism do not work. Difference is not just the issue here, but something that is more diffuse, invisible – power relations – is at work in various types of inter (and indeed intra) ethnic relationships. For better or for worse, we represent to the world more than our individualities or autonomous identities. There are cultural tags and history connected to our gender and race/ethnicity (other visible analytical categories add here) that we cannot wish away and work against us in different circumstances, and with that there is an imbalance of power differentials manifested in the way groups of people are treated or talked about. As for the anxiety of racism from being repelled or attracted to somebody different, cultural tags and history of an ethnic group (White people is an ethnic group too) need to be weighed up to understand why certain qualities of an ethnic group are considered desirable / repulsive, and most importantly why there are those set of qualities there in the first place. Biology has no part in this.

I also don’t want misogynist bile like this:

As long as you continue to regard the myth of Patriarchy as having substance then, “the source of female oppression” (which is females themselves), will never be addressed but  continue to act as an excuse for self oppression and the avoidance of real issues.

Like the unicorn and the gnome, a myth involves things that no one has seen in real life but is perpetuated in common everyday discourse. Patriarchy cannot be seen, too, but it endures in our collective systems of thought and discourse. It is also not just one thing, which is why many men handwave this as pure mythology. I don’t want to go further into the dry definition of patriarchy, but rather would like to say this: defeating the patriarchy is not about beating down individual men and expect men to hate themselves for simply being men. No. But let’s put it this way: people who think that few women get the best-paid jobs or elected to highest ranks in government is because they do not try hard enough or just don’t go for them, or believe that women are better at looking after babies are complicit in perpetuating the pervasive cultural norm called patriarchy. Men do it, and so do women. It exists. Deal with it.

And finally, none of this please:

Shariah law in Malaysia:
RM5000 fine and imprisonment of up to 3 years and 6 lashes for consuming alcohol
And RM4000 fine and imprisonment of up to 2 years and 6 lashes for forcing one’s wife to be a prostitute!
Is there any wonder why Islam is viewed with ridicule and contempt?

My view of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism is valid and not inane. I remain an unashamed islamophobe but I have nothing against you personally. I feel sorry for all victims of religious endoctrination and persecution, and I wish you well.

Incidentally, I have read the quran and the bible old and new testaments. If you are not afraid to challenge your faith, then I recommend that you read “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkin wrote the sociobiological nonsense called The Selfish Gene. No further comments.

The boy who cried "Witch!": Saudis investigate domestic workers for witchcraft

First published at Muslimah Media Watch

Something decidedly medieval is in the air in Saudi Arabia. Fears of black magic and curses cast by Indonesian domestic helpers have spread across the country, and  Saudi employers increasingly feel the need to hire private investigators to check their domestic workers for suspicious behavior and evidence for witchcraft.

Investigators, mostly foreign women from neighboring countries, are paid to search for photographs, hair, or clothes belonging to the employers before the domestic helpers are repatriated, reports Arab News. The employers do not do this themselves because they feel it is immoral and something Islam prevents them to do.

This is a strange story, worthy of trashy tabloids and supernatural fiction. But clearly, superstition is a habit that dies hard, often with dire consequences. There is no mention in the report about the rampant abuse of migrant domestic workers by Saudi employers, but I assume that that is the long running back story that needs no introduction. Abuse of domestic workers ranges from emotional and physical abuse to rape, slavery, and even murder. There is very little sense or a trace of rationality to fear domestic workers for practicing black magic unless one’s judgment is clouded by xenophobia and the normalization of the dehumanization of working-class foreigners. Even the Saudi religious police, the mutawa, have become self-styled witch-hunters, lacking only a burning stake in the middle of a city square to complete the image in a country where witchcraft is illegal and punishable by death.

But stories of black magic do not just arise out of thin air. They are a byproduct of a larger economic and political structure that renders migrant workers vulnerable to xenophobic and racist attacks. The U.N. research institute for social development has identified three aspects attributable to the heightened xenophobia in the Middle East. First, a preference for a temporary contract labor. Second, discriminatory employment practices and the special “allocation” for menial jobs for migrant workers; and finally, a culture of disdain towards those who are visibly different.

Abuse of every despicable kind is by no means limited to Saudi households, but is also widespread in where I come from, Malaysia. High-profile cases involving horrific abuse of domestic helpers grabbing international attention in the last ten years have hardly left a dent on the conscience of many Malaysians. Having been brought up for a number of years with a domestic helper at home while both my parents went to work, it is an accepted way of life for a significant proportion of Malaysians. Domestic helpers provide huge relief for double income families, and many became part of the family, joining in on holidays and included in family portraits. Muslim Indonesian maids are preferred in most Muslim households for a variety of reasons, food preparation and religious sensitivity among them, but they are also some of the most badly treated.

Filipino workers, who majority are Christians on the other hand, suffer lower rates of abuse because arguably, they are better protected: thanks to government lobbying, Filipino migrant workers are paid better than their Indonesian counterparts, and in places like Jordan, bans have been imposed on potential employers to receive Filipino domestic helpers due to reports of abuse. They are also a smaller group compared to Indonesian female migrant workers. Most Filipino maids are older than Indonesian workers, better educated and skilled. But this is not about numbers–cases of abuse no matter how high or isolated deserves the attention and effective action.

It’s difficult to piece together the macro structures such as the economy, world poverty, and immigration policies with attitudes of ordinary families toward domestic helpers to fully understand what brings people to commit inhuman acts on other human beings. I often wonder if whether having a person contracted to live under one’s roof has anything to do with it. Bringing in someone to cook, clean your clothes, look after the children and/or elderly relatives must involve a tricky negotiation over privacy and other practical matters included in having another person under the same roof.

Perhaps there’s very little in terms of a middle way between welcoming a domestic helper as a new member of the family or simply as a stranger in the home. If the case is the latter, then life at home must be uncomfortable not just for the employers and their family, but particularly for the domestic workers who’ve travelled far from home to find a better life. Is this an effect of our changing values vis-a-vis a rapidly changing urban landscape where increased contact with “the outside world” through immigration and migration has become inevitable and unsettling for many?

Book review: Women of colour and feminism

First published at Feminist Review. (Thanks Mandy!)


If many postmodern feminists would have it, colour or“race” wouldn’t be of primary concern in theorising oppression; a woman would be seen as much more than her race, class, and sexuality. In other words, every woman’s experience of oppression is nuanced, different. And if the postmodern approach is hugely popular and trounces other feminist methods of studying oppression, Women of Color and Feminism by Maythee Rojas would be rendered obsolete.

But it hasn’t, and that’s because we cannot get past race and the “assumptions based on our physical features [that] invariably work against our attempts at self-actualisation.” Thus the only way to gain some control over our lives as non-White women is by claiming politically-charged identities. In this, Rojas means ‘Women of Colour’.

Rojas expresses surprise that her students, who are mostly people of colour, do not identify with the term, but she doesn’t have to investigate too deeply to discover why: women of colour, as a group and in its use as terminology, have long been marginalised within academia. Learning about “Others” is reduced to courses on multiculturalism, and everywhere else, people are expected to be perceived as simply people. Rojas does not suggest, however, that the term is a loaded one, or one that has the political potency that feminist also has. Typically associated with the Black civil rights movement, “colored” can sound outdated and exclusive, and it’s unsurprising that not many, especially outside the cabal of feminist academia, take it up.

Women of Color and Feminism is interspersed with profiles of women and historical vignettes that readers are made to understand as inspirations for feminist consciousness in different ethnic communities in the United States. One cannot help but note a sense of tragedy that overhangs each profile. Anna Mae Pictau-Acquash, Saartjie Baartman, Korean camptown women, and Josefa Loaiza are all women whose lives have been marked by and remembered for the brutality inflicted on them because of the way they looked and where they came from.

Disco diva Donna Summers makes an unexpected appearance as the subject of Rojas’ analysis on the sexuality of women of colour. Known for her risque lyrics and sexy media persona, Summers’ 1970s career is projected as a kind of yardstick for how much women of colour, particularly Black women, have gained following the sexual revolution in the 1960s. It’s far from a ‘happily ever after’ of sexual autonomy and empowerment, Rojas notes, as everything the disco singer represented—in her music and image—was hugely complicit in reinforcing heterosexist ‘love’ and resurrecting the ghost of the Black Jezebel.

Rojas also covers a range of issues pertaining to the struggles of women of colour that are not usually associated with mainstream feminism. This includes reproductive rights as the right to remain fertile, as women of colour have been known to be sterilised against their will for numerous racist reasons, and the rights of incarcerated women to better health care in prison, protection from abuse behind bars, and better rehabilitation programmes.

The limitations I find in Rojas’ already expansive account is the omission of feminist work by women of colour whose goals are integrated within mainstream feminism’s agenda. This is important, especially in her final chapter on transnational feminism in which she stresses the key to feminism’s dynamism is the need for common links with other feminists to be established on a continual basis—not just with other women of colour, but with white women too. Women of Color and Feminism makes it clear that under the pressure of silence and marginalisation, more and more women of colour feel compelled to create narratives that represent their unique experiences through whatever means possible. Visual art, stand-up comedy, and blogs are the new, life-affirming sources of inspirations for feminists of colour, and not Rojas’ flawed selection of women of colour’s tragic lives.

When did talking about race become taboo?

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"

Whenever I’m back home in Malaysia, I’m frequently faced with the annoying question of what race I am. It’s annoying because it jumps right at me from nowhere, from people I hardly know, from strangers. Yes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some Malaysians are just rude but one thing is for sure, talking about one’s racial/ethnic background is actually no big matter, I’m just annoyed at having to explain why I look different all the time. Sometimes racial background is something to be proud of, something to remind oneself that our identities go far beyond “I”. But a strange thing happens when we talk about race in abstract terms, perhaps about other people – race, as a subject, suddenly becomes taboo.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 ran a series of documentaries under the title Race: Science’s Last Taboo. For starters, there is no substantial scientific basis for determining race – there is very little genetic variance between people of different colour. Socio-politically, the defining line of race becomes wobbly when mixed parentage individuals are involved. But we cannot dispose of the term race so easily as what we have at stake is the collective oppression of people who are not White.

In the film Race and Intelligence, journalist Rageh Omar picks apart the history of the “science” of race, and the racist assumptions that have been left unchallenged about Black people and low IQ. Words like “shocking”, “controversial”, “politically incorrect”, and last but not least “taboo” are built around the programme to sensationalise the fact that a few seemingly intelligent people in the scientific world were/are racists. The world was aghast when molecular biologist and discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson made claims that Black people are less clever than other people, simply because he is a world famous scientist, and scientists who have made monumental discoveries are expected to be morally accountable for their pronouncements. Or are they really?

Long before Watson’s faux pas, scientists have been known to have an uneasy relationship with race. The repugnant history of the abuse of scientific authority led to colonial domination, slavery, human zoos, and the Jewish holocaust. Beginning with the development of social/cultural evolution as a scientific theory for human diversity in the 19th century, scientists and anthropologists clamoured for recognition by building upon a discourse that placed people on a kind of evolutionary ladder – Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. A hundred years later, eugenics became a valid science that pursued the ethnic “purity” of White people. In the United States where eugenics was rigorously studied, scientists operated largely from the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York – of which interestingly, James D. Watson was director and president for 35 years. The world of scientistic racism is small indeed.

And so apparently, race became taboo in the scientific community after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, I’m not sure says who but it’s been mentioned a few times throughout the series. By extension, the subject of race is also taboo outside scientific discussion. Before we go on discussing further, a definition of taboo:

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

For White people, talking about race is indeed very difficult. The social custom of silence around race stems from the fear of sounding racist and reluctance to accuse others of racism, while at the same affirms a delusion that racism is not a big problem anymore. It’s disheartening to watch White people become defensive when they are asked about racism, especially when they perceive it as a test to see how racist they are.

The blogosphere is abuzz with people talking about race from many angles, some are people of colour, some White. Perhaps hidden behind names and avatars, the fear of sounding racist is mitigated, and perhaps those of us with access to the wealth of the internet are more attuned to the diversity of opinions on race (when we look for it). On the street or at a fancy dinner party where ‘polite’ conversation is expected, is race an appropriate subject? When we step away from the computer, are people out there going to respond favourably to a chit chat on race? As a person of colour, I am torn by how an integral component of my identity has become an issue on which people consciously tread carefully or avoid talking about altogether or dismissed as something not worthy of discussion in this so-called post-racial world. How can honesty, engagement, and resistance come from taboo?

From the crypt: A most "nebulous" concept that national unity

This was my very blog post, written on The Star Online’s citizen’s blog nearly three years ago.  It’s a response to Johor’s Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) Abdul Ghani Othman’s comments on the “abuse” of the term ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and pointing out how UMNO politicians continue to reproduce colonial strategies to maintain racialised power. NB: The post you are about to read is (embarrassingly) polemical and has been edited to death by The Star editorial team.

Johor MB Abdul Ghani Othman tested the waters of public tolerance by announcing the evils of unifying the nation under the umbrella policy “Bangsa Malaysia” (Malaysian Race). The Johor Umno chief scoffed at the concept:

“After 49 years of independence, we should be more mature and not try to produce nebulous concepts whose origins are not clear … The concept,  if subjected to abuse, can threaten national stability.”

After nearly 50 years racial bigotry still occupies the country’s seats of power.

We have adopted our former colonists’ legacy of “Divide and Conquer” and further perpetuate a separatist culture that benefits one of group of people over others by reinforcing the social constructs “Malay” and “The Others”. For 49 years these social constructs iterated in the Constitution maintained the power dynamics that favoured the Malay race.  Amending the Constitution would invite “disorder”, stated the Deputy Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak.

Hishamuddin Rais, a keen and articulate observer of Malaysian politics, illustrates beautifully Umno’s obsession with the preservation of racial divides in his blog, Dari Jelebu.

Lest we forget, a unifying social construct made up of all existing ethinicities once freed Malaysian from colonisation.  So the Malays’ suspicions of  “The Others” is not unfounded – unified social constructs within “The Others” have the potential to replay history.

Historically, as pointed out by Hishamuddin Rais, the creation of such social constructs by the British were deeply rooted in economic greed. Today the Malay agenda is largely about figuring out ways to gain a larger share of the nation’s wealth beneath the surface of Malay pride.

It’s anyone’s guess that such a concept will threaten the Malays’ position as “The Princes of the Soil”. By implementing Bangsa Malaysia, all ethnicities will share the right to equal opportunities and create a national identity which sees that everyone stands equal before the Constitution. The Bangsa Malaysia concept is “unfair” because it will out the Malays as the economically and educationally disadvantaged race.

In fact, it is Umno’s greatest fear that Malaysia will evolve into becoming Singapore where the Malays are pushed into the margins of society.  In essence Malaysia is the Malays’ final refuge and by protecting this refuge the identity of the Malays as the pivotal race is crucial.

The empowerment of this identity is evident in the superior position given to the Malay language and Islam.  Take away all the symbols of Malay supremacy and they are left with nothing.

While abroad, I am ambivalent about professing myself as Malay. More often I am indeed proud of my culture and language but at the same time I find it hard to relate to other Malays who share my pride.

I hate to make distinctions based on race, and I hope that Malaysians will eventually mature and adopt a race-less outlook as well.

It is disheartening that those at the pinnacles of power are the ones fighting over the redefinitions of race while people like myself would rather see Malaysians as Malaysians.

Jamie Oliver, food, and Eurocentrism

Because this is how Americans tend to look

Jamie Oliver: Because this is how Americans tend to look

If you follow Jamie Oliver’s cooking programmes, alternatively known as The Naked Chef, you’ll notice that his cool and effortless boyish attitude to cooking strikes a chord with the young, mostly male, upwardly-mobile, and aspiring members of the British middle class; it’s about an obsession with fresh, locally-sourced or grow-your-own ingredients, and recipes firmly grounded in French/Italian cooking traditions. He’s deeply committed to getting Britain cooking at home again, and so none of those ready meals and takeaways plaguing busy families. But he has done so by entering the homes of lower income families in some of the roughest neighbourhoods in the country, who, by Jamie’s middle class standards, have Britain’s most deplorable eating habits. He is persuasive to some, patronising to others.

Ever so commercial-savvy, Jamie is also the face of the local supermarket chain, Sainsbury’s, and his mantra is clear: cooking can be easy, quick and should be inexpensive. You can also adopt the Jamie Oliver lifestyle by buying his stylish dining and kitchen products whilst reading his eponymous magazine. But it doesn’t end there, he’s all about kids eating nutritious meals in school and teaching them to start cooking from a young age too, because it’s never too early to be have bourgeois aspirations. So far so caring and generous, but very commercial.

His newest television project, called Jamie’s American Road Trip, aims to spread his love of funky fusion cooking in the United States, which comes with a US-inspired cookbook too (launched on the day of his first episode no less). Eschewing the usual tropes of American food and travel itinerary, Jamie rubs shoulders with ex-gang members in Los Angeles, immigrant communities and the homeless in New York City, and other marginalised and disenfranchised groups. Told through the medium of local food and recipes, Jamie brings to the table some pretty interesting stories of life in America today despite his naive geniality and earnestness which I found awkward at times, but it is his ignorance and Eurocentric views about food that I found just difficult to swallow.

In an episode filmed in New York City, Jamie meets Egyptian-born chef Ali, who runs a restaurant popular with the large Egyptian community in Astoria. The chef was kind enough to prepare on camera his specialty, a tomato-based meaty broth which Jamie made references to minestrone. What sounded like someone making sense of familiar flavours ended up becoming a comment that suggested that “ethnic” cuisines simply orbited around Western European cooking. To make sense of non-European flavours and textures, “unusual” food must be viewed through European lenses. And so dim sum is like Chinese tapas, chapatis look like Indian pancakes, kuih-muih can only be translated as Malaysian cakes. “You are degrading my cooking and culinary culture”, says Chef Ali to the Naked Chef. Clearly flabbergasted and apologetic, Jamie goes on to make another racist mistake in New Orleans.

On last night’s programme, Jamie recounts the devastation caused by hurricane Gustav, marvels at the resilience of the human spirit and the taste of gumbo. There he meets Leah Chase and she shows him how to make a quick and proper gumbo. While adding into the cooking pot some okra, Chase talks about the history behind the gumbo and how people brought into the South for slave labour hid okra seeds in their ears. She also asks Jamie whether Britons eat okra to which he replied yes, because the South Asian communities eat a lot of them and they’re easily available in “ethnic” areas in many cities around the country.

Again, Jamie annoys a guest on the programme by lumping together diverse ethnic communities and culinary traditions into a pot labeled non-White European and Other, and therefore more-or-less the same. He apologises for his general buffoonery and says that he didn’t mean to sound racist; he’s just unaware that his comments were hurtful.

And there’s another example that encapsulates Jamie’s Eurocentric worldview: inspired by the vibrant immigrant community in New York City, he sets out to select guests who represent it for his very own underground restaurant/dinner party, but they all turn out to be mostly White. They are also young, middle-class, and bourgeois just like him. To summarise my thoughts on his show, I find it successful at presenting the diverse and complex relationships Americans have with food, from anti-restaurant movements to free food programmes for the poor. But unfortunately, his show is limited to just that: it only presents but fails to be sensitive and insightful about what it is showing. It appears that Jamie Oliver’s world isn’t really as colourful and diverse in the truest sense as his approach to cooking, which is a pity for someone whom many believe has his heart in the right place.

Guest post: Asian fetishism is sexist and racist

The following is a guest post by regular commenter, Gareth:


I am a white Englishman with an Asian girlfriend. I believe the so-called ‘Asian fetish’ is both racist and sexist, and here is why.

Being a white, straight man gives me a ton load of privilege, and that privilege is systemic and global. I am aware of my various privileges and can learn to ‘check them in at the door’, but I can never get rid of them. My privileges are not just to do with me, but they emanate from a system of privilege and prejudice with global reach. Everyone who is white or a man has these privileges, and they are not mitigated by being poor, working class, disabled, gay or being part of any other oppressed minority: you just get the mix of certain privileges with certain prejudices against you (this is intersectionality; more on that later).

My privileges put me at the top of a significant power differential when it comes to interactions with others who do not have my privileges. This means that I should be keenly aware that my privilege begets power, and power can be abused. Using this power is racist and sexist.

Sufferers of Asian fetishism often describe their malady as an ‘appreciation’. Try looking that word up in a dictionary; its original meaning is ‘to set a monetary worth on something, to appraise’. Now, we are so used to this word being used to describe non-monetary praise, we are not aware that is still an objectification and commodification of that we appreciate. The male gaze is sexist when all it sees is a smile, breasts, legs, bottom and so forth. The sufferer of Asian fetishism takes this sexist objectification of women and adds skin tone, cheekbones, small build and slit-eyes into the mix. The sufferer of Asian fetishism does not care what your name is as long as it does not sound too white; he can not tell the difference whether you are Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian or Chinese. Prejudice is based on preconceived opinions. There is no doubting that Asian fetishism is prejudiced, and, when this prejudice is coupled with power differential of privilege, it is definitively sexist and racist.

Asian fetishism has previous, and its history is intimately connected with abuse of power. The image of the odalisque reclining on silk cushions in an Ottoman harem, attended by a black eunuch was the Asian fetishism of the 17th and 18th centuries. This image of Asian sexuality appeared at a time when France and Britain were beginning to compete for supremacy over the Ottoman Empire. There is so much sexism and racism that could be unpacked from the odalisque image, but we shall move on. The women of the Indian subcontinent were the next focus of fetishism during the expansion of the British Empire. The power differential there is obvious. The Pacific campaign of the United States during the Second World War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War (read that as: war, war, war) were the backdrop to the specific fetishisation of South-East Asian women during the 20th century. Sufferers of Asian fetishism probably do not realise how much their diseased desire is influenced by popular Western culture and its spinning and retelling of war stories. After all, the classic lines of modern Asian fetishism, ‘Me so horny’ and ‘Me love you long time’, come from the 1987 Vietnam war film Full Metal Jacket.

(The ‘Me Love You Long Time’ scene from Full Metal Jacket)

Intersectionality is the combination of two or more dichotomies of privilege-prejudice, like sex and race. Whereas it is clear that the intersectionality of prejudices should lead to the observation of a more intense prejudice, what is often observed is the obfuscation of prejudice. By that, I mean that the sexism is covered up by appealing to cultural appreciation — these women are so cultural/ethnic/interesting — and the racism is covered up by appealing to sexual appreciation, in turn disguised as ‘love’ — Asians are so beautiful.