Against The Grain: Rejecting ethnicity

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 2, 2020 - November 08, 2020.
Against The Grain: Rejecting ethnicity
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We do not really know or understand ethnicity. We do not know it, yet it controls our lives. We are defined by it even though we resist it. We are literally forced to fit ourselves into ethnic or racial categories, forced to identify with one ethnic group or another. Much of this has to do with gaining access to education, housing and political participation.

But the strange thing is that Malaysians and Singaporeans did not make up this idea of ethnicity, as central as it is to daily life. The ideas of race and ethnicity were creations of the Europeans, who had colonised much of the world since the 16th century. In the 19th century, they invented racial categories to create a hierarchy of different groups of human beings, putting themselves at the top of that hierarchy and thereby justifying their colonial rule in terms of their supposed racial and civilisational superiority.

By the 20th century, the term “ethnicity” came to replace “race” as the latter term came to be associated with racism. A racist believes that human capacities are largely determined by biological race and that some races are superior to others. Ethnicity, however, is said to have more to do with cultural factors such as language, beliefs and values. So, we talk about ethnicity but we may actually mean race.

How did ‘race’ start?

The practice of classifying the local population based on race or ethnicity was part of British colonial rule. Local censuses used race categories and the British colonial authorities issued identity cards that stated the holder’s race on them. In the early days, these censuses were quite specific, recording birthplaces as well as language or linguistic groups.

For example, labels such as Arab, Bengali or Hokkien were used. Later on, however, the different races were classified under broader categories such as Chinese, Malay and Indian. So, the current Malay-Chinese-Indian model around which Malaysian and Singapore society is organised today can be traced back to colonial rule.

Race and stereotypes

The problem with race and ethnicity is not so much that there are those categories but rather that they tend to be understood in terms of racist stereotypes. These stereotypes were developed during British colonial rule and were trafficked in by the British. But over the decades of colonial rule, the Chinese, Indians and Malays themselves gradually internalised the stereotypes.

In pre-colonial times, it was unlikely that the racial divisions we have today were perceived as such. There certainly was not any racial ideology, that is, the belief in the inherent biological or genetic differences that made one race superior to another. Also, although it is likely that there were some conflicts among the different groups, there was a great deal of acculturation too.

The proof of this can be seen today. We have the Chinese Peranakan, who adopted aspects of Malay culture. There was also much assimilation through intermarriage. For example, it was quite common for Indian Muslims to actually become Malay through intermarriage with Malays. We can see in Malaysia and Singapore today that there are loose boundaries between Malays, Indian Muslims and Arabs, with relatively few barriers to intermarriage among them.

When the British came, they brought with them a racial ideology. This ideology guided the development of a racial classification that was based on biology rather than other criteria. A race-dominated status system was created. This reflected the derogatory views the Europeans had of the so-called natives. For example, British colonial officers regarded the Malays as being rude and uncivilised in character, of feeble intellect and at a low stage of intellectual development, indolent, submissive and prone to piracy.

There was also the belief that the Malays were a lazy race. This belief came about partly because they were not willing to work for Europeans on the plantations. The traditional fishing and agriculture gave them a better life.

British views about the Chinese and Indians were no less praiseworthy. The Chinese were said to be greedy and easy to govern because they knew who their masters were, while the Indians were docile and easy to control.

If they looked down on the Asians they ruled over, the British created a flattering image of themselves. As British colonial administrator Frederick Weld said, “I doubt if Asiatics can ever really be taught to govern themselves. I think that capacity for governing is a characteristic of our race.” And govern they did, with a paternalistic spirit. What the British did was to incorporate the biological idea of race into their colonial orientation, emphasise the inferiority of the colonised and justify rule over them due to that perception of inferiority.


Racial discrimination is not something perpetrated solely by whites against non-whites. Racism exists in Asia as well. Nevertheless, Asians, including Malaysians, have been less open and less self-reflective about racism in their own backyard. What is needed everywhere is greater acceptance of multiculturalism and the tolerance and understanding that follows from that.

To the extent that Malaysians and Singaporeans have internalised the various stereotypes about the different groups, stereotypes that developed in the colonial period, we can say that these are not genuinely multicultural societies. Multiculturalism refers to more than just tolerance. It refers to mutual understanding, interest and compassion.

The inculcation of the spirit of multiculturalism is the celebration of cultural variety and diversity. And of course, multiculturalism does not mean there is no dominant culture in the country. For example, it is possible for Malaysia to practise multiculturalism while having Malay as the national language and Islam as the religion of state.

Multiculturalism is defined as an orientation that attaches great importance to the peaceful coexistence and commingling of diverse cultures within a society to the extent that there is mutual borrowing and influence between these cultures. Furthermore, this interaction is not merely a matter of fact but something cherished and celebrated by society. Multiculturalism does not merely refer to the coexistence of a plurality of cultures but is a social context that encourages the possibilities for harmonious interactions of different cultures.

For multiculturalism to develop in a society, people must have four attributes or capacities. These would be present among truly multicultural people. They are the interest in encountering other civilisations; the awareness of the multicultural origins of modern civilisation; the recognition of the need for inter-civilisational encounters of mutual learning; and the recognition of the need to see the point of view of the other.

Neither Malaysia nor Singapore is truly a multiculturalist society. They are multicultural in the sense that there are many coexisting cultures. But the various religions and cultures merely coexist in these countries. Yet, we could say that Malaysians and Singaporeans are not multiculturalist in the sense that the various ethnic groups do not yet have a genuine understanding of each other’s history and culture.

There is only tolerance, that is, a grudging acceptance of the other — not true integration that comes with the celebration of being multicultural or developing an admiration and interest in the culture of the other. Multiculturalism is something that we have to work towards. It is part of the ongoing project of building the nation.

Syed Farid Alatas is professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore

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