The recent incident pertaining to the security guard at a Shah Alam polytechnic has brought up again issues with racism in the country. A number of individuals in social media tried to downplay the whole issue. I would like to take this opportunity to perhaps deliberate what’s racist and what’s not:
Setting up the stage
At nine, I began adopting my nickname Billy. I thought it was a nice name and that I actually chose to name myself that after the Blue Ranger of the first Power Ranger series. I thought I resonated with Billy’s character that he is the smart one and wanted to be a scientist like him – and thankfully I am still on track towards that goal. I felt that I was in one with the identity of being the smart and studious one.
To my horror, at some point during that year, I have also learnt that “Billy” also refers to a male goat. Soon, a number of my friends in school were calling me names. It was pretty difficult initially until I began to take it less seriously. I thought to myself that if I interpret those teasing as mere noises or perhaps more sarcastically: mere barking of dogs I will not feel hurt. At some point, I began to retaliate by proclaiming to the teasers that I am unmoved by their “barkings”. Eventually, I got used to it and prevailed.
Fast forward to about 9 years later where I found myself in the National Service. There was a competition early on in the program where teams had to compete to exhibit their team cheers, identity, and sense of team spirit. I got very passionate throughout the team building process and the identity of Company Alpha became one with me. Unfortunately, our team were last during the competition. Walking out ashamed heading towards the dormitory, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of trainees from Company Delta. Although no pushing and shoving were involved, they were shaming me and my friend who as walking with me for losing the competition. Decidedly to step up right away, trying to defend myself, my passion and team identity while also anchoring my approach to what I have adopted some 9 years ago, I outspokenly said: “Anjing tengah menyalak” (English translation: Dogs are barking)
Back in the dormitory, the news where I uttered those words to the other trainees spread like wildfire. One of my other roommates came to me and highlighted that members of Company Delta were insulted by my remark. It then crossed my mind that unknowingly, my remarks have offended them because the group of trainees who were shaming me was mostly Malays. Thinking back on hindsight, when I used the same terms earlier back in school, I was actually directing them towards mostly Chinese friends who by no chance at all will get offended by the remark (not to justify my remarks, really). I took the initiative to head towards to Company Delta’s dormitory right away with the intention to talk this out with them and apologize right away. My roommates came along hastily fearing the worse for me. Fortunately, with the chanced presence of a trainer in their dormitory, everything was sorted out without fighting.
On hindsight, I actually understood why they had shamed me as a group. It was because I had earlier actually questioned Company Delta’s mascot during the Q&A session for being a snake rather than a dragon because it was a reptilian without legs! (I was really being too smart there). It was in fact during the questioning, I had created enemies and that I have offended members of Company Delta! They were offended because, I have sarcastically questioned or insulted their identity and symbolism as Company Delta.
Expressive Utility and Identity
Now, I believe, the context of being insulted and offended as I have presented above is actually very analogous to what can be perceived as racist or not because racist remarks are derogatory that it hurts the identity of individual being called at. In political science (and maybe microeconomics) we call this expressive utility. In other words, if you are a Liverpool fan you get angry when a Manchester United fan insults Liverpool. We get satisfaction by doing things that resonate with the identity that we mould ourselves with. More importantly, we get defensive when our identity is insulted, mocked or threatened in order to preserve that identity whether the identity is created through our race, religion, community or personality.
Simply put, I was offended by my friends for calling me Billy goat because my identity of being Billy the smart one was insulted. Company Delta was offended by my questioning because it hurt their identity while the group of Malay trainees from Company Delta to whom I used the barking term again was insulted because it was a sensitive term for Malays in general in the country.
So what’s racist and what’s not?
The recent incident at the Shah Alam polytechnic has raised a number of responses. Some tried to downplay the seriousness of the incident while others were sensitive about it. To me, I personally believe it was certainly an irresponsible and racist thing to do for the security guard in question to have uttered the K-word to the group of Indian students and even had the audacity to not apologize. To put it more seriously, I will go to the extent and say anyone who likes to downplay and rationalize this is outright ignorant and irresponsible.Despite the fact there is a legitimate historical context to the K-word that it was used in Sejarah Melayu (despite it is not really a true historical account) and that it was used to refer some certain Raja Chulan whatsoever, knowing that the K-word would offend most Indians in Malaysia in general, we should avoid using the term especially in a derogatory sense! Yes, the word was used objectively and legitimately before but one should not downplay or rationalize the use of it when it is uttered in a derogatory manner!
My point is, whether the hurt occurs or not goes back to the identity of the person and his or her expressive utility. But, it becomes racist when the term you use is aimed at hurting an individual’s identity along racial lines whether you may or may not actually hurt the person. A racist remark is racist already by intention and not by the eventual hurt. Just because you think that a specific term was a legitimate objective term and that you think it should not be offensive, it does not permit you to downplay an inherently racist remark. Just because you do not internalize the offense, it does not mean that it is not racist. It is not your identity that is being insulted it is another’s. In short, anyone who tries to downplay a racist remark is in no position to do so because they do not and will not be able to understand the experience of the victim whose race identity is being insulted. Downplaying racist remarks and trying to rationalize them is thus too easy of a normative reasoning. So, one should not rationalize and downplay the seriousness of a racist remark.
Knowing the K-word and its legitimate historical context that it was more objectively used before does not allow us to downplay the seriousness of the issue. If anything, we do not want to create a moral hazard situation that makes any other person calling an Indian the K-word becomes “culturally accepted” in our country. This goes the same for irresponsible political leaders who used the term “Cina Pendatang”. Yes, it is true that our ancestors (in fact it was my grandfather who migrated from Hainan) who migrated from China but it does not mean that since it is a historical fact, it is not racist to use it. It offends us as Chinese Malaysians who were born and grew up in Malaysian. It hurts us and our identity as Malaysians! In fact, why am I using “Chinese Malaysians” we are all “Malaysians”, no?
Even if people take such derogatory term lightly, there would be a limit as to how much one could endure. I had an Indian friend who was teased at by another friend using the Hokkien version of the K-word in school for a while back then. Initially, it was a friendly play around joke but it turned out to be a pretty serious outburst from that Indian friend after it got out of hand. That is what I mean about moral hazard; if we leave this long enough unaccounted for, it will go out of hand. A line has to be drawn so that we can learn to be sensitive towards what is offensive to others especially when a certain term is used in a racist, derogatory manner. The golden rule is thus, be sensitive and avoid saying silly things that that is racist. This goes also to all irresponsible political leaders out there who loves to call Chinese Malaysians “Cina Pendatang” too or else try to face the wrath of “1000 years of death“!!
(Disclaimer: 1000 years of death is a reference to the Naruto series and this is meant to be a humour for my readers who have endured my long writing here. In fact, this disclaimer too, it is by no means meant to be seditious. If anything, I do not have powers to perform the Jutsu. So don’t worry, it is not a legitimate threat at all.)
I would certainly love to believe that we can look pass all these trivial terms but we are human, aren’t we? We have emotions, feelings and, more importantly, a specific form of identity that each of us adheres to – even if we can rationalize. We cannot be expected to feel in a certain way that is to accommodate of another’s irresponsible action. To be learned and to be educated is not to rationalize the context of a racist remark but to identify and acknowledge that we are beings with identity and emotions and thus be sensitive of what may be offensive and what may be not. Perhaps, we can only look pass this when we are all truly Malaysians; when there is no affirmative action policy that is discriminatory along racial lines and when our race is not politicized. Clearly, the current situation in Malaysia is not helping, right?
Taking a step back
That being said, I would still love to be critical about the incident at the polytechnic. I would like to remind my readers that despite the fact that I have apparently painted the security guard to be the culprit here, I am just basing my judgement from what have been reported so far and what I have viewed like most other from the video available in social networks. Anything that happened prior to the video and after the video was not documented. In fact, the video was abruptly cut after another security guard tried to reconcile. As such, I would like to invite my readers, being social media users to consider the scenario in which that the security guard may have had a bad day and was annoyed by the presence of the group of students who may or may not have caused a nuisance. This may have led him into uttering the K-word. We cannot say for sure from the video. What we do know is that the students were given permission to enter the premise. Similar to the situation that I have experienced before as described above something may have incited the security guard.
But still, that the security guard refused to apologize and in fact, wanted to bring in his gang members is deplorable! I would also be interested to see how this unfolds and if any individuals will make a public stand for this security guard in the same spirit as Low Yat before.
In the end…
I would love to take this opportunity to apologize to all members of Company Delta who attended the first phase of national service intake in of 2009 of Kem Padang Hijau, Kluang for criticizing your mascot back then. Also, I miss all of you Company Alpha members!
Graduate student at McCourt School of Public Policy – Georgetown University
Master’s degree in Public Policy (Class of 2016)
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*This post was originally published in Billy Hoo’s notes. It is republished with his permission.
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