Weng Walker’s book The Myth of Common Association is a gold mine—the more you dig, the more you get. The story run two parallel narratives: one in the mid 1900s, the other in 2013; both spot landmark events in Malaysian politics. In the mid 1900s, Ngok Choy, a teacher from Batu Gajah was in love with his best friend, Anita Khairul. Fast forward 2013, Xi Wai is a professional in a GLC whose opinion piece on an online portal landed him in hot water. They are both intrinsically linked.
Weng Walker is profound in his thoughts and delivery. Here, I include excerpts from his book that provoked my thoughts. These are the parts that I read and reread and re-reread, then held a finger to mark the page as I looked 20 feet across the room to ponder his treatise.
Then, the British came and as they say, the rest was history. The British classified the Malayan social world into categories that they could understand and administer—Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Natives—diluting the richness and heterogeneity of pre-independant Malaya. Subsequently, our forefathers, nationalists, and independent fighters, needed to put aside theses heterogeneities, fossilising these colonial categories in their quest to mobilise support from their respective communities. The heterogeneity was subsumed under broadened ethnic categories, emphasising commonalities to strengthen each group’s bargaining power in the negotiation and making of a new nation. ~Pg 4-5
THOUGHTS: Once upon a time, the Chinese community were not just “Chinese”; we were Chinese Hokkien, or Chinese Hakka, or Chinese Cantonese, or Chinese Hainanese etc. Technically, we are still our respective dialect groups. However, we have been clumped into one singular identity: Chinese. This was the British way of managing the diverse identities in pre-independant Malaya; divide and conquer. Today, we are strictly Malay, or Chinese, or Indian, or Orang Asli, or Lain-lain. How ironic that erasing our heterogeneity has forced us into rigid constructs of race.
I am Chinese. I am Malaysian. Both are identities but both are also categories. Identities evolve but categories remain. Identities are always in a state of flux but categories are constant. Identities only make sense in the context of inclusion and exclusion. Identities shift because the way we include and exclude ‘the other’ changes. But categories stay on even though identities are no longer experienced in the same way. ~Pg 5
THOUGHTS: The very idea of identity is to draw an “us” and “them” column; probably the result of Darwinian Evolution. I assume that it’s a matter of survival—from what though? Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s game theory. If everybody is cliquing, my failure to do so will mean by exclusion, and possibly, demise. (My negative sentiments about the “Chinese must help Chinese” mentality is no stranger to this blog. However, I am now more sympathetic to the motivations.) However, perhaps the bigger crime is to assume that identity and category are interchangeable.
We are not even clear which version of multiculturalism we are advocating. One that tolerates diverse cultures by creating space for bargain and concession, or one that celebrates all cultures as equals by giving them equal recognition and access to state resources. ~Pg 197-198
THOUGHTS: So, there are two ideas here. Number one, is a colour blind society desirable? Number two, is the equality vs. equity conversation. To number one, I have to say that while a colour blind society might sound like a kindergarten ideal, it is not the reality we live in. Truth is, our race often determines our socioeconomic situation. Sadly, to unrecognise race could mean to allow large groups of people to fall through the cracks. In this case, I think a free market is not necessarily ideal—we know that breaking the poverty cycle is not as simply a matter of studying harder. This, of course, relates to the second point of equality vs equity. I personally believe in affirmative action (although the ones in Malaysia could use some transparency). Although there are outliers that beat all odds to break out of the difficult environments they were born into, to give everybody equal treatment is to mistreat some people. And since race and social class often intersect, to speak of one without the other will be an injustice.
I think the assimilation approach taken by the Indonesians and Thais may not be such a bad idea after all if we take a more fluid view of culture. We often speak of multiculturalism as though each culture is disparate and its boundaries fixed. In actual fact, when there is inter-migling of cultures, they tend to absorb each other’s characteristics and produce something new altogether. ~Pg 198
THOUGHTS: I completely agree with this point. I like the way Chinese Indonesians take Indonesian names and speak Indonesian as a first language. I often think that their sacrifice of the Chinese culture was a worthy price to pay for the assimilation. Having said that, Malaysia has our own share of syncretism, the Datuk Kong & Datuk Keramat deities being a good example.
On Systemic Economic Oppression…
Could we really blame socio-economic conditions if one child ends up better than the other when all of them faced similar family upbringing? Was hope amidst destitution really as deceitful and pointless as he thought? ~Pg 118-119
THOUGHTS: I do understand where the writer is coming from with this statement. But I would like to use an example outside of Malaysia. I very much enjoyed Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. He grew up poor in South Africa. The black community that he identified with were full of people in poverty that did whatever it took to get by. One line that stuck with me was this (paraphrased): you know that saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”? Well, they forgot to give us a fishing rod.
Firstly, no two children are the same. And secondly, I believe every child deserves a fishing rod.
On National Progress…
He wanted to avoid the sight of the unending hectares if oil palm trees- monotonous, brutal, unvaried and commoditised… the irreversible loss of the country’s primary rainforests to make way for this celebrated cash crop. There were also growing tracts of oil palm estates being replaced by new housing development, a more profitable sector that was gradually reshaping the landscape of Malaysia’s highways… The meaning of human progress and whether there was any other way to understand development. Housing replacing oil palm, oil palm destroying forests. Was progress really driving everyone to a uniform outcome defined by destructive modern standards? ~Pg 115-116
THOUGHTS: Of course we need money to feed ourselves. But discounting that fact, please hear me out. How do we measure progress? Money; infrastructure; happiness; maturity?
It is common consensus that the 5 years ish that former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi spent in office was a plateau in Malaysian economy. However, I remember a conversation with an Indonesian labourer. He told me that the years Badawi was in power were the best years for the foreign workers. They were payed fairly, granted perks, even given goodies during Hari Raya and Christmas celebrations (things changed after Badawi stepped down). This empathy sounds a lot like progress in my books. The recognition of human rights, celebration of compassion, and prioritising of happiness—is that not progress? When anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked what she considered the first sign of civilisation to be, she said “a human thigh bone with a healed fracture found in an archaeological site 15,000 years ago”. Not “hunting tools or religious artefacts or primitive forms of communal self-governance”. Nope. You see, for a broken femur to heal, someone must have cared for the individual, providing shelter, protection, food, and, drink over a period of time. Therefore, the first indication of human civilisation was the care provided so that a person’s fractured bone could heal. Compassion was a sign of progress.
There will always be a gap between democracy as an ideal and democracy as a procedure. ~Pg 99
THOUGHTS: Indeed. And the failings of democracy is inherently evident. But do you know what’s worse? No democracy. No democracy is way worse.
On the Dichotomy of Good and Bad..
To have a hero is also to have a villain. Such binary conception is a simplistic representation of reality. ~Pg 104
THOUGHTS: This is a fallacy of the Malaysian people. There is no perfect politician. Even right now, with the political powers split into two camps: Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional, it would be a misdeed to classify the two parties into the dichotomy of good and bad. They each have a whole pallet of qualities. Yes, one group might’ve hijacked the ruling party, but to conclude that the opposition is therefore “good” would be a lapse in judgement.