This column first appeared in The Malay Mail Online on March 12, 2015.
MARCH 12 — “Please don’t run, I won’t rob you.” The thought flashed through my mind.
I could not stop myself from thinking that two days ago.
In a swanky city café I felt all so urban and in — I would not go as far as calling myself chic, urbane or fabulous but my shirt was ironed and pants were involved — until the lady at the table next to me got up abruptly and took her drink, cigarette and shopping bags with her as soon as I was seated; and relocated to a table much further away. With only a sprinkling of patrons inside and on the sidewalk where I was, it did appear like she was trying to distance herself. The lemongrass tea lost its fragrance after that.
Perhaps I was just being paranoid.
Perhaps I was just being Malaysian.
Either way, I could not help feeling that being tall by local standards, biggish and Tamil had something to do with it. You would think after decades of being reduced to a demographical statistic in conversations, deliberations and judgements I’d be immune to being referred to as that Indian guy; yet it might knock your socks off to know that people never get used to being demeaned.
It actually hurts.
A stranger striking a mortal blow to your social acceptability by just treating you funny, because he or she thinks people who look like you have to be funny — not in a Russell Peters way, more like Bentong Kali (N1).
Suddenly the office wear and laptop cannot compensate for what others think of you.
And boy do they think all sorts about you just by looking at you! That’s Malaysia.
On days like those, I could be forgiven for assuming that my countrymen are convinced that there are only three career advancements for me; snatch thief, gangland hit-man or loud tough guy around a pretentious politician at a Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat rally. (Personally, gangland hit-man would be far more desirable than listening to monotonous unimaginative Parliamentarians!)
I exaggerate? Have you had people cross the road just not to be on the same side as you in bright daylight? Or how about in a packed parking lot after rush hour, just yourself and this lady who wished she did not have to get out of her car right then after seeing you get out of yours?
“Hey lady, I’m really sorry about parking here and creating a mini-episode in your otherwise tranquil middle-class utopia-like life. But can you take your hand slowly off the steering-lock?”
Fear is universal and racial profiling is a reality of life, but rarely are there countries where those in charge readily agree with base summations by the basest of us all that deciding a person’s worth by just looking at them is correct.
Malaysia is such a country.
It’s a #TrueFact
What’s wrong with shortcuts?
This is a favourite statistic which never gets stale, one-third of African-Americans below 40 have been in prison before or in them now. Gang violence is readily connected to repressed minorities in depressed economic zones.
Meaning there are many black people with problems with the law and they live in volatile areas with body-counts.
So the next time there is a shoot-out, are we being casual and lazy trying to pin it on the first black dude running away from the scene of the crime? Or are we just being practical, responsive and respectful to the laws of average by zeroing in on the usual suspects?
When transposed to Malaysia, does it not handily explain the treatment of those with dark brown skin?
Indian boys are radically overrepresented in detention centres, police jails, interrogation rooms and prisons, that the stereotypes which emerge from those numbers only increase the likelihood of other Indian boys being targeted to join them because their demographics agrees with crime and punishment.
A contrarian told me that perhaps it is overtly race-prejudiced enforcement and prosecutorial agencies, absence of social integration for these boys and higher poverty among them that are seamlessly subjugating them. They are the victims, not perpetrators.
Sounds complicated, the reasons, however the reality nevertheless results in any Indian youth to worry whenever a crime’s committed in the vicinity — for he’s a possible suspect.
Alright I admit, there are some advantages, I’ve never been mugged since I was 13.
‘I’m no racist, I’m just telling you how it is’
Malaysians have turned stereotypes into a state of mind. Stereotype statements are not discussed anymore, let alone criticised, they are accepted as facts.
If I had a ringgit (N2) for every time a local politician started his explanation of a problem/police dealings/Parliamentary submission/constituency management with “Well this Chinese guy…”, then I would not be stealing, killing and murdering innocent people for very cheap anymore.
In the wake of 9-11, racial profiling which was on the wane in the US went full throttle. Stopping and minding more about those looking Arab/Muslims was seen just being careful. Not that the US is the paradise for reason and justice, but whether up or down with racial profiling, all kinds of people argued, debated, went to court over racial profiling, not the least the American Civil Liberties Union.
Malaysia is odd, because no one actually thinks there is something intrinsically wrong in consigning inclinations to some more than others based on how they look. Ministers, senior civil servants and personalities openly and without restraint issue statements which suggest that people behave solely by their race assignations.
Back to America, they have lots of problems over race relations and the stereotypes that persist. Having neo-Nazi groups, the Klu Klax Klan (N3) and the Tea Party (N4) do not aid the cause but the government and its institutions actively seek to dispel generalisations based on race and self-regulate themselves away from relying on racial prejudice.
The only country I can think of which is reminiscent of us is Japan. Visiting a beach my friend said it was fine to leave my valuables unattended while we swam. I gave her a cheeky smile and asked in a strained way whether she was really sure about it. She said perhaps some thefts, very rare she added, and it must be the work of outsiders like migrant Koreans (N5).
Just like Malaysians, the universe does make sense as long as we are all willing to uphold the sanctity of stereotypes.
This week — an emotional week — marks the anniversary of the MH370 flight disappearance. The investigation report stated one of the air-traffic controllers was asleep. There are so many questions to be asked — when was he asleep, why was he the only one on duty, why did his deputy not assume the role when he was away and will this alter flight management procedures for Malaysian aviation — but for the typical Malaysian the first question would be: “What race was he?”
Somehow the mystery beguiling even the most brilliant aviation minds can be unravelled by simply knowing someone’s ethnicity. After all, you can’t escape stereotypes, not if you are Malaysian.
(N1) Super-famous gangster cum robber shot down in the 1990s, not the best advert for the Pahang town. But he was all Kali.
(N2) Even if that ringgit is worth less next week.
(N3) Which is incidentally a Christian party, not a racist party, if you read their press release.
(N4) Which is incidentally a thoroughly racist party filled with Christians, and no, they don’t read.
(N5) In her defence, she did not blame everything on the Koreans, just the nasty bits.