What am I first? What defines me?
Earlier this month (or late last month), one of the biggest topics around town was the issue of our Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin declaring himself as Malay first. This topic has been making its rounds in Parliament for a couple of weeks by then, I believe on March 18, DAP stalwart Lim Kit Siang put out a challenge to BN MPs to declare themselves as Malaysian first.
I have to admit that I myself thought it was ridiculous for the DPM to make such a statement (especially for the reasons he gave: “All Malays will shun me …”), but over the few weeks, just passed it off as just another political game, and like most other things, are swept under the carpet until people forgot about it.
Except that people haven’t stopped. Every few days, I am reminded of the topic. I suppose even within our culture of sloganism, 1Malaysia really stands out and is just begging to be attacked.
Yesterday evening, I saw this tweet from writer Karim Raslan:
I am assuming that @Jeghui was responding to an earlier tweet by Karim which simply read:
“I am Malaysian first and foremost.”
Reading a tweet like that got me thinking. And I started asking myself why we needed to label ourselves. I am a Malaysian, yes, but am I also not a Chinese, a man, a journalist, a son, a brother and a human being?
This also reminds me of the hoo haa once about being “hyphenated”. I was younger then and while many people I know did not like the idea of hyphenation (I don’t even know if these words exist!), I thought to myself that at least it helps with accuracy. If I was not identified as a Malaysian-Chinese, how do I distinguish myself from the mainland Chinese or Hong Kong Chinese for example. And I thought that it was hell a lot better than how I am often identified abroad – as “oriental” or “Asian”.
I have grown to realise, however, that labels can be often damaging. We have seen how it took countries many years to get over racial discrimination, or the constant battle that people face because of their sexuality and how identifying differently – no matter how innocent – can lead to war.
So I replied to Karim and said:
After all, if I need to put labels on myself then, I am many things at the same time and identify differently to each in different circumstances. Karim’s reply to that was simple:
we need framework/identity.
However, I wasn’t sure if he was making a statement – or relating an observation. He didn’t respond to my query on that.
But either way, I am not sure about the inane need for people to box themselves especially in the context of identity. Our conversation, that included a few different Twitterers across different threads of discussion, pointed out some interesting things – a couple of us agreed that identity is fluid and it would be hard to identify as one thing first over another.
My argument was also the context in which we are identifying ourselves. This was a conversation I had with my friend Joanna who I am acting alongside in an upcoming play (details soon!) a few days ago when we started talking about race and national identity and I told her that I am unsure of Lim Kit Siang’s harping on the issue (he twittered lots about it, and even dedicated at least four blog posts on his personal blog on the issue).
She made an interesting point when I said that there are times when I feel that I need to identify more as Chinese than anything else (back to what I said about context earlier), and she said something along the lines of, “But how can you identify as Chinese when you’re so different from the people from mainland China?”.
Which brings me to the point of definition. Yes, I can barely identify myself with people from mainland China but is that how one defines a “Chinese”? The fact that my family has roots of over eight generation in this country means that we have evolved as people – and with that, our traditions, culture etc.I also mentioned to her that I might identify very differently to some of the other Chinese people in Malaysia because isn’t personal identity er, personal?
And that is why when Karim said that individual fluidity is fine but what about in the context of the nation, I wondered about needing again to box ourselves. But, if we do need an identity in the context of nation building, then we need to identify what the identity is.
And this identity has to be unifying because it is hard to build a country together if we are not unified. So, what we ALL need to agree on what this identity is. So if it is 1Malaysia, or muhibbah, or multi-culturalism (that we have for many years spoken about) – then no one group should dominate.
Everyone should be equal.
So, until we can all agree on what being a Malaysian first mean (in the context of the conversations that have been happening over the past few weeks), I am just a 30-year-old young ethnically-Chinese man who was born and lives in, and loves, Malaysia and would love to see the end of politicking and see our country move forward.
I’m just me.
9.21am Malaysian time (+8 GMT)