Thursday, April 15, 2021
'Racial Politics, A Malaysian Disease?' By Karim Raslan.
'Racial Politics, A Malaysian Disease?' By Karim Raslan.

Racial Politics, A Malaysian Disease?

High living costs and poor public transport are just the surface symptoms of Malaysia’s malaise, says a government doctor. The root of the disease is the separation of society into tribal silos.

I am sipping tea in an eclectically decorated, hipster-style cafe in Penang. The place – a restored old shophouse – is packed. Tourists from Singapore to China mix with yuppie Malaysians eating cheesecake. Nearby, hordes of backpackers throng the alleys of Georgetown, filling up bars and taking selfies with street art.

Since 2008, Penang has transformed itself from a local food haven to a global tourist magnet. The state has, for better or for worse, seen rapid development.

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Prashanth, a 33-year-old doctor working at the Penang General Hospital, has his own take on the situation.

“It’s overdevelopment. Yes, the economy is being stimulated, but things are moving too fast and without proper consultation.”

“When you exercise, you develop muscles. It’s good for you, strengthens your body. But take on too much too quickly and your body will suffer for it. There is always a price to pay.”

True enough. Weeks after we met, Penang was struck by the worst floods in recent memory, leaving seven dead and thousands displaced.

Prashanth grew up in Bayan Baru, son to a clerk and a lawyer. His grandfather was a cowherder who immigrated to Malaysia from South India.

A bright young man, he studied at the prestigious Penang Free School and later earned a medical degree in Russia.

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Prashanth is a typical doctor in the sense he has a diagnosis and prescription for every problem you bring up, including both state and national issues.

“The real issues aren’t being tackled. First, there is a lack of affordable housing in Penang. Second, the cost of living is way too high. Finally, Penang lacks public transport options,” he said.

“Here’s the problem. It’s not the people, it’s the system. When we kick out this or that politician, we are simply treating symptoms. We aren’t going to the root of the problem, the real disease.”

And what is that disease?

“It’s racial politics. The real key to overcoming our differences is language. I can speak English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Tamil and I even picked up Russian when I was studying. We need to make that effort to communicate with each other.

“It’s the same with our bodies. Cells must communicate with each other to function. When the signals between cells break down, that is when you have problems.

“Take cancer for example. Cancer happens when the cells in our body experience uncontrollable growth instead of dying out like regular cells. The political issues that are dividing our country today, is a cancer afflicting our nation.

“I am Malaysian first, Indian second. That should be the way.”

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At the same time, Prashanth remains acutely aware of his Indian heritage. He traces his origins to the Thevars in Tamil Nadu.

“Indians are even more divided. To this day it matters to many people if you are Brahmin or Shudra, Tamil or Punjabi, Sri Lankan or a ‘real’ Indian.”

But even this part of his identity is somewhat complex: his mother is Chinese-Malaysian, albeit raised by an Indian family.

Prashanth at Penang General Hospital in Malaysia. Photo: Karim Raslan
Prashanth at Penang General Hospital in Malaysia. Photo: Karim Raslan

As he says: “Her ‘hardware’ is Chinese, but her ‘software’ is Indian.”

Prashanth also mentions with some pride that his wife is a Punjabi Hindu from Bangsar – for some Indian-Malaysians, practically an “interracial” marriage.

“Where has all this division gotten us? Nowhere. The Indians used to serve as clerks and secretaries in the civil service. Nowadays, that is exceedingly rare.”

“This country became rich on rubber [harvested] on the backs of Indian labour. But more than 60 years on, the average Indian is still struggling.”

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Reflecting on Prashanth’s sombre outtake of the situation, I realise that perhaps his insistent “Malaysian first” attitude is necessary given the challenges facing the Indian-Malaysians.

Ten years after the 2007 Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) rally, which saw thousands of Indian-Malaysians take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to protest against the community’s grievances, it’s not clear if things have really gotten better for them.

For one thing, there have been hotly debated allegations that up to 300,000 Indian-Malaysians are stateless due to various factors. But whatever the number, even one Malaysian being stuck in such a predicament is unacceptable.

I work at a government hospital because at the end of the day, I want to serve Malaysians.

As the nation moves towards general elections next year, these issues will come to the fore. Being distributed across the country, the Indian-Malaysian community has the power to again be kingmaker in closely contested races.

But will their lot necessarily improve? The community has seen multiple “saviours” pass them by: the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) which is part of the ruling coalition, the HINDRAF activists and now the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan. Each election has seen the same promises dangled before them with little to show for it.

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Prashanth remains adamant however, that Malaysian identity needs to go beyond racial silos.

“I work nine hours, seeing 100 patients a day. I continue my work in a government hospital because at the end of the day, I want to serve Malaysians, no matter their race or creed or class. If we could let go of race-based politics, then Malaysia would be a much better place.

“Now that I have a daughter, I am thinking of her future. I don’t want her to grow up Indian. I want her to grow up Malaysian.”


Karim Raslan is a well-known Southeast Asian commentator and columnist. Follow Karim on Twitter: @fromKMR | Instagram: fromkmr

This article is published in collaboration with Ceritalah ASEAN. It is also published on the South China Morning Post.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ASEAN Economic Forum.