Thursday January 29, 2009
The language of race
A WRITER'S LIFE
By DINA ZAMAN
Unity and Malaysian friendships are based on respect, honesty and the like, but it is not easy to be politically correct and sensitive at all times.
AN OPINION editorial written by Murad Ahmed in The London Times
caught my eye and sparked this week’s piece. Ahmed had recounted the good Prince Harry’s politically incorrect blunder when he called a colleague a “Paki
Ahmed stated: “Paki
’ is a word from a different age – one that would be spat out just before an Asian received a swift Doc Marten boot to the head.
“It was more often heard in the phrase ‘Go home, Paki
’ than ‘My Paki
friend’. It was intended to be a form of violence and intimidation towards immigrants who had come to these shores from the Indian subcontinent. It became, through its very use, racist.
“To put it politely, anyone who thinks that the word ‘Paki
’ is acceptable is unaware of this sordid history or unable to understand its significance. Put another way, if you think that it’s all right to call someone a ‘Paki
’ you’re ignorant or stupid.
“See how using words in a certain way can come across as insulting or cruel? That’s the point. Words are powerful, and we should take care how we use them.”
You may not want to admit to it, but we practise the language of bigotry right here in Malaysia.
I have been told many times by friends of every race that when they call or joke with friends using terms like ‘Melayu
’ and so forth, it was only in jest and comradeship.
“But Dina, we’re Malaysians. We have a rude sense of humour. We insult each other all the time and it means nothing!”
Perhaps, in print, words look rather still and motionless. But language is not just alphabets of a person’s ethnic community; language is sound.
Phonetics, linguistics and pronunciation.
An example. Say the word ‘Melayu’ devoid of feelings and history. It remains that: just a word and sound.
Add the following context to the word ‘Melayu’. What ‘Melayu’ means – a race and its rich history – and another meaning, which is, to wilt.
Add emotions to the word ‘Melayu’: sadness. Anger. Happiness. Joy. The word ‘Melayu’ now takes on a different meaning to the reader and listener.
Now try that with words like ‘Apek
’. ‘Orang Hutan
’. These are not words of love. These are words uttered to hurt.
The God honest truth is it is not easy to be politically correct and sensitive at all times. In a rage, or behind closed doors and with like-minded sympathetic souls, we confess how terrible or good the Malays/Chinese/Indians are.
This is the reality we live in. How many of us are truly magnanimous? We tell each other the truths which may not sit very well with our neighbours and friends that we meet and socialise with, and put up a façade of liberal and open views.
But it is leading double lives that will destroy us, as we whisper and promote bigotry.
When we do try to mend fences, meet halfway, we are defeated by insurmountable barriers such as religious conversion, fraught inter-racial relationships, and glass ceilings that cannot be broken.
But no, I am reminded all the time, all of us do have friends of all races. See, I have three Indian friends and one Malay friend. See?
Perhaps I am simplistic. Unity and Malaysian friendships are not based on how many friends of each race we have, know and work with.
You do not have a token Malay friend, for the sake of looking liberal and being oh-so-open-minded.
Allow me to quote writer Leslie Lau: “Unity cannot be taught in classrooms.” Nor at work. Not even home.
Seeing ourselves and others as human beings who share the same values, dreams, have to be encouraged by our parents, and we ourselves. We are not frogs living under coconut shells, so to speak.
The thing with race in this country is that it is not about equal numbers of a community in class or at work. Giving scholarships to deserving non-Malays will definitely make their lives better, but will it enhance inter-racial relationships with the Malays? Or anyone for that matter?
In our bid to be correct, we sensitise ourselves so much to the real issue that we not see the forest for the trees. Perhaps it’s time that we admit to ourselves that while we are all Malaysians, we are different. And it is accepting our differences that we find commonalities with each other.
I receive many emails from readers. When it comes to race, there is anger, bitterness and sadness. When I do communicate with some of the readers to say that not all Malaysians are what they think, more vitriol is hurled.
It is this anger, and the language used, that will be inherited by the younger generation. Is this what we want?
The first thing we need to do to heal is to stop using language as a tool of hatred. Then we can begin on the rest later. We must also remember that we, to quote Malcom Gladwell, “… are not prisoners of our ethnic histories”.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She wishes all her readers Gong Xi Fa Cai.