Siapa Melayu?

By Jacqueline Ann Surin, The Nut Graph

IF it is true that Malay-rights group Perkasa was able to sabotage the government’s New Economic Model, hence obstructing much-needed reforms for the nation, what is this telling us?

It tells us that if the Barisan Nasional (BN) government is so easily held ransom by right-wing race-based groups, it is not fit to govern multiracial Malaysia. It also tells us something else about the BN government that further proves just how unqualified it is to run this country. If the BN is so easily swayed by the clamouring of “Malay rights”, often projected writ large as “ketuanan Melayu”, it is telling the rakyat this: that despite our independence from the British after more than 50 years, the current government still subscribes to and upholds the colonial construct of race and racial superiority.

Indeed, this fixation with race, especially the Malay race and its attending “rights”, as groups like Perkasa and parties like Umno would have it, is not just colonial. It’s also completely arbitrary and bewildering. Worse, it is this fixation that makes it so easy to deny equal opportunities for all citizens. And in worst-case scenarios, it makes it easy for racism to take root.

Now you’re Malay, now you’re not

Here is evidence of how arbitrary race is. Did you know that, depending on whether one is in Perlis or Pahang, one can either qualify or not for Malay reserve land because of the states’ different definitions of what constitutes a Malay?

Constitutional law expert Prof Emeritus Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi explains this in an e-mail interview. He says while all state constitutions have adopted the Federal Constitution’s definition of “Malay”, for purposes of Malay reserve land, all West Malaysian states have their own definitions as to the origins of a Malay.

So, apart from being a Muslim in all these states, in Kedah and Perlis, persons of “Malayan race or Arab descent may qualify as Malays”. In Johor, it is sufficient to be of a “Malaysian race” to be Malay. In the Federal Territories, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Selangor, Kelantan and Terrengganu, a Malay must belong to a “Malayan race”.

There are also other differences according to state with regard to language, custom and birth, and descent. Shad, who is also Mara University of Technology legal adviser, observes: “As one moves through the states in West Malaysia, one is Malay, then not Malay, then Malay again under these state enactments.”

And what exactly is a Malaysian or Malayan race? Do they include all the races in Malaysia, and/or previously in Malaya?

Shad notes that only the state constitutions of Malacca and Penang define “Malay” in line with the Federal Constitution’s definition. In these states, there are no requirements related to “ethnic origin” before one can qualify for Malay reserve land.

Constructing a Malay

Shad Saleem

Shad Saleem

However, even the Federal Constitution’s definition of “Malay” is “quite eclectic in that it allows someone to move in and out of being ‘Malay’,” Shad says. How so?

According to Article 160(2) of the Federal Constitution, a person is “Malay” if she or he satisfies the following four requirements:

must be Muslim;

speaks the Malay language habitually;

follows Malay adat; and,

was born in Malaya or in Singapore before Merdeka Day, or is descended from at least one parent who was born in Malaya or in Singapore before Merdeka Day.

“In the Federal definition, there is no requirement that one must be of Malay stock. Non-Malays who satisfy the four requirements will be deemed to be Malays. A convert to Islam may qualify as a Malay.

“Conversely, ethnic Malays who fail any one of the four requirements, for example, Malays from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia – may not qualify as Malays under the Federal definition,” Shad explains.

By this definition, even a Malay Malaysian who leaves the faith, or who stops speaking Malay or no longer practises Malay adat, will cease to be “Malay”.

This then begs the question: Who exactly is “Malay” in the context of Malaysian political life? And if privileges and “special rights” are going to be assigned to the “Malay” and denied the other races, shouldn’t “Malay” or “non-Malay” be something that is less arbitrary?

“My son is now Chinese”

Christopher De Shield, a Creole from Belize, tells a story that underscores how subjective the notion of race is, and the confusion it causes even within the National Registration Department (NRD).