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How Important Is The Concept Of “Race” For Understanding Contemporary Malaysia?

2836 words - 12 pages

7. How important is the concept of “race” for understanding contemporary Malaysia?
The concept of race as defined by Rex and Mason is “an essentially biological concept based on distinctive sets of hereditary phenotypical features that distinguish varieties of mankind” (1986, p. 189). In Malaysia however, race is oftentimes used to mean ‘ethnicity’, which is incorrect as ethnic groups are sub-divisions of a particular racial stock differentiated by history and cultural practices (Rex and Mason, 1986, p. 189). Nevertheless, the concept of race is an important one in understanding how it has shaped the politics and society of Malaysia. In this essay I will explain how ...view middle of the document...

330). Though racial stereotypes and tensions amongst the various ethnic groups in Malaysia have existed before the mid nineteenth century, there were still possibilities of bridging the ethnic boundaries that exists. However, from the middle of the 1800s, colonial rule solidified those ethnic boundaries with its import of European ‘racism’ (Hirschman, 1986, p. 332). This shift in colonial perceptions of race in Malaysia was predicated upon two factors, one being the increasing legitimacy of racial theory based on social Darwinism and the other the need for a justification for the spread and maintenance of colonial rule in Malaysia.
Before the late nineteenth century, according to Hirschman, early contacts between the Chinese, Indians and Malays though not always peaceful and free of mutual suspicion, there were no visible racial divisions among the ethnic groups (1986, p. 338). Proof of this can be seen in evidences of intermarriage such as the Baba Chinese communities, engendered from the intermarriage of the Chinese and Malay cultures as well as the Jawi Peranakan , a product of intermarriage between the Indian Muslims and Malays. Interethnic economic ties were also not uncommon with traditional Malay elites working alongside the Chinese for mutual interests. According to Khoo, “Parties did not always split along ethnic lines. More often it was coalitions of Malays and Chinese fighting other Malay-Chinese groupings (1972, cited in Hirschman, 1986, p. 339).
However, in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, ethnic boundaries became more salient as lines of division were drawn by the British. The British stance on race and ethnicity is that of an ethnocentric one, the belief that one’s group is centrally more important and other groups are measure in relation to one’s own. This shift is perception occurred during the nineteenth century as science gave the belief of racial hierarchy legitimacy through social Darwinism and fitting well with the wake of rapid technological and economic advances of European societies (Hirschman, 1986, p. 341). Under this ideology of racial supremacy, the British adopted stereotyped views of the racial groups in Malaysia.
According to Shamsul, “Most knowledge about the Malays has been constructed and elaborated in an Orientalist mold by colonial administrator-scholars and that anthropologist and other specialists in Malay studies subsequently used this knowledge, usually without problematizing many of the key terms” (2001, p. 356). Colonist views of the Malays rested upon three dimensions: paternalism, the Malay capacity and the Malay ‘laziness’. The first dimension of paternalism is “a belief that management of the affairs of the country of individuals should be done in the manner of a father dealing with his children” (Hirschman, 1986, p. 342) which is visible in the patronizing attitude the British had of the Malays an exemplar of which is Frank Swettenham’s account of Malays saying...

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