Thursday, August 31, 2006

breaking stereotypes

the 1960s were probably the worst times to be malaysian. my parents were in their 20s by then and were experiencing the height of the racial disquiet that had gradually escalated enough to cloud their lives and trap them in their home.

despite growing up in mostly-chinese environments (my mother's a pure kl girl while my father lived in benta and batu pahat), my parents had plenty of non-chinese friends because they served the government for a good number of years. in fact, when they got married, they moved to a government-provided housing area, where my younger aunts and uncles grew up pretending to speak tamil to their neighbours.

anyway, my parents told me enough stories about their friends of various races for me to not have any qualms about making having friends of different races myself, a quality that i have come to appreciate while growing up. they have also made a point to never express their dissatisfaction with "the system" without backing it up with solid points about how the economy works and also the challenges that face a multi-racial country, challenges that can only truly be handled the way they currently already are.

but i digress.

one of the stories my mother likes to tell me is about an incident that happened during the racial crisis of the late '60s. my father's colleague, a malay man, was in trouble for voicing his sympathy for the chinese and also for having ties with the communists. he needed a place to hide out and my parents offered him their home and hospitality.

i can't remember the man's name, but according to my mother, he was fair and clean-shaven in addition to his "liberal" views, making it very easy to mistake him as any race other than malay.

one day, during the time when my father's friend was at their house, my aunt and her best friend walked in after school. they grabbed cold drinks and sat down to gossip a little, the way secondary school girls do. during the conversation, the topic of discussion strayed towards the current state of dissatisfaction and violence among the races in malaysia.

it was then that my aunt's best friend loudly declared, "yalah, that's why i haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate those malays lah."

my parents were horrified. there, sitting in same the living room, quietly reading the newspaper, was the malay man they called their friend. they were throughly embarrassed that their guest had to be subject to such a blatant display of ignorance and belief in stereotypes in their very own home.

just as they were about to chide my aunt's best friend for her behaviour, the quiet malay man got up, rolled up his newspaper and said to her, softly, "well, i'm malay. do you hate me too?"

needless to say, my aunt's best friend chose her words much more carefully from then on.


i know it isn't exactly a story one would expect for "project happy malaysia", but it was a story, one of the many my parents told me, that taught me to look beyond the stereotypes and avoid dishing out generous amounts of prejudice on people who share this country that i am proud to call my home.

in school, i have definitely had chinese classmates that were neither greedy nor miserly, indian friends who tell the truth and malay friends who work their butts off in school and truly deserve every cent of the scholarships they received. if there were any conflicts between us, it was the usual misunderstandings that friends have and they were never tinged with racist sentiments.

i am ever grateful that although i don't have a "happy malaysia" story to share - sadly, i have never encountered an honest policeman and i have definitely never been chided by an air steward - my parents, the people you would most expect to be angry and bitter about racial inequality and "the system", have an endless supply of them to pass onto my sister and me.

happy 49th year of independence, malaysia!

lishun at 7:13 AM