Race issue - it's quite complicated

Push for unity: File picture of volunteers from civil society groups holding up anti-racism placards.

"Where are you really from?" "Where are your people from?"

You might remember these questions in the comic video What Kind of Asian Are You? by Los Angeles-based artist Ken Tanaka last year.

In the two-minute video, an Asian-American jogger (played by actress Stella Choe) meets a fellow jogger who insists on getting to the bottom of her ethnic heritage by bombarding her with those oh-so-familiar questions.

The video attracted tens of thousands of hits as it struck a nerve with many around the world who have been or are constantly interrogated about their ethnicity.

What sent the video viral, however, was Choe's response. Instead of just putting up with it, as polite society tends to do, she prodded her interrogator, a white American, with her own questions: "Where are your people really from? A regular American, you mean you're Native American?"

We, of course, have our own version of the racial probe "But what (kind of Malaysian) are you?"

In fact, the question "Bangsa apa or what race?" is an unavoidable rite of passage for all Malaysians.

Tanaka's wry take on racial prejudice shows how a calm and open - albeit witty and dosed with lots of humour - approach can ease the tension in prickly situations.

This was what the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) tried to achieve in its first unity dialogue session "Voice of the Grassroots" at Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in Kuala Lumpur recently.

And to a certain extent it succeeded. After all, when was the last time we heard people express their thoughts on the so-called sensitive issues like racial identity, religious sensitivities, meritocracy, economic issues, and pork in public?

The dialogue chair, NUCC deputy chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye, told the crowd at the start that "We are here to listen" and they took it to heart.

When a participant said, "Respect needs to be mutual. We are sensitive about serving pork at public events like PIBG (Parent-Teacher Association) meetings but not sensitive about serving beef which cannot be taken by Malaysian Hindus" to a complaint from another participant that there are now rude, young Malaysians who demand their rights to sit at the same table as him with their pork dish even though they know he is Muslim, everyone just listened.

When another said, "We all belong to one race - human race. But if God had made us all the same, it would be boring," the crowd erupted with cheerful applause.

It did seem naïve at times but judging from the cordial and open mood of the session, it was clear that many are tired of the racial and religious consciousness that has pervaded this country, and that maybe we are really ready for a rational dialogue on race and religion.

At the dialogue, the de facto National Unity Minister, Minister in the Prime's Minister Department Tan Sri Joseph Kurup, proposed that the "race" column be scrapped from all forms in the country, noting that "50 years since the formation of Malaysia, sadly we are still separated by race and religious identity."

In many ways, this echoes Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak's own words at the unveiling of the NUCC: "If we do not see each other through the lens of race or religion, then we can attain the peak of nation building."

The proposal has deservedly earned kudos from various parties despite the quiet acknowledgement that it may be easier said than done.

As many have pointed out, with the practice of seeing and casting everything through racial lens so deeply entrenched in our society, the main challenge is to get the average Malaysian out of their comfort zone.

Dr Chandra Muzaffar, chairman of the Yayasan 1Malaysia Board of Trustees agrees. "Ethnicity pervades our lives. It is at the core of the consciousness of most Malaysians... it has become a sort of social habit in Malaysia… It (eliminating the ethnic category in certain forms) has to be done gradually and with a great deal of sensitivity."

Dr Chandra speaks from experience as Yayasan 1Malaysia (Y1M) had, in 2011, called for a review on the inclusion of ethnic category in forms.

"We too believed that eliminating the ethnic category in certain forms issued by both the public and private sectors will help, in a modest way, to reduce the present preoccupation with ethnic affiliation."

He says the foundation had reached out to various public and private entities to persuade them to review ethnicity in their forms but the response was divided.

"While some gave their endorsement, there were others who had their reservations," he says.

The Government too had tried to go down this road in August 2009 when it announced the Cabinet's decision to study a move to do away with the race requirement in official forms. It had, similarly, been lauded by various parties.

Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, then vice-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), had told this paper: "If you want unity, why emphasise on differences?"

Others who came out in support of the move in the local press included Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) executive director Shamsuddin Bardan who said: "If we aspire to be 1Malaysia, nationality should be our priority, (not race)."

One nation

Women's Aid Organisation executive director Ivy Josiah said that dropping the "race" column should only be a start. "We should also scrap race-based policies and race-based political parties and stand as one nation."

Then MIC vice-president Datuk S. Veerasingam had also expressed similar views: "When we read the word 'race' in a form, some people may think that special preference will be given to a specific race. So we must do away with this."

Unfortunately, the plan quietly died out, so much so that a quick survey among the public last week showed that many had forgotten that it was even mooted less than five years ago.

In fact, in 2011, it was highlighted that the Universities Admission Unit had asked for applicants to state their sub-race or dialect group under the race column. In other words, Indian applicants had to tick either Malayalee, Punjabi, Indian Muslim or others, while Malays had to state if they are Bugis, Boyan, Jawa, Jawi Pekan or Minangkabau.

The Higher Education Ministry later explained that it was to help the authorities to verify applicants' citizenship status with the National Registration Department (JPN).

In 2011, Subang Jaya assemblywoman Hannah Yeoh and her husband Ramachandran Muniandy tried to register their new-born daughter as Anak Malaysia in the race column of her birth certificate. They were told by the department that not only was it unacceptable, they also risked losing their child's rights as a citizen if they didn't conform to the convention.

Perhaps, if the issue gets complicated and threatens to disappear under the pile again, we can take a note from Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali's views when brushing off the new proposal to remove the race column from official forms nationwide: The forms are only paper. Why fear the change?