“Oh, them? They’re all like that”.
Have you ever found yourself thinking about a certain group of people in that manner?
The formation of our identity is often defined by what we aren’t just as much as by what we are. In the process, we may have developed an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality, otherwise known as ingroups and outgroups. The desire to belong to a certain group causes us to exclude some people based on certain characteristics; after all, privileges are only privileges if they aren’t accessible to everyone.
Over time, this has grown into different forms of social identification, from antisemitism to nationalism. By attaching our own identities with a larger crowd, we are able to feel more secure about our own social position. However, while social identification of this sort does serve its purpose, it can become worrying when taken to the extreme. This is particularly true in cases when the attention shifts from the self towards the ‘others’ – outgroup derogation.
In politics, one notable example of a politician exploiting these tendencies – using notions of national, religious, or ethnic identities to gain support and trust – would be Donald Trump. A controversial candidate for the United States presidential elections of 2016, Trump unabashedly segregates the idea of what defines an American into the categories of ‘true Americans’ and ‘immigrants’. Although whether this appeals to voters at large remains to be seen. What is undeniable, however, is his popularity with a particular demographic.
Infamous for his politically incorrect comments, the Republican candidate provides a reassuring voice by branding minorities such as Mexicans, Muslims, and immigrants as villains. His rhetoric is comforting because it pins the blame onto specific parties. And if the problem is as easily identifiable as all that, the solution is simple: keep them out.
Under Trump’s rule, there would be no gray areas, only good guys and bad guys; black and white; ‘them’ and ‘us’. Through this triumphant, unapologetic scapegoating, the ‘us’ is defined as ‘Americans’, as ‘those who are like us’. By way of such circular reasoning, he provides his supporters with a clear-cut method of identification – to associate themselves with certain ingroups, while exiling outgroups as terrorists, rapists, and cheats.
He is, nevertheless, not the only politician to rely on such perceptions of ‘them’ and ‘us’.
In Malaysia, race and religion are, on some level, political tools which shape the Malaysian identity. This is further catalysed by Article 153 of the Malaysian constitution (which ensures the protection of Bumiputera interests, both socially and politically), and in programs such as the New Economic Policy (an initiative aimed predominantly at improving the economic standing of Bumiputeras). The economic efficiency and social equity of such measures will not be discussed; after all, it is technically illegal to suggest the repeal of Article 153. So never mind the fact that these policies focus on ensuring outcomes instead of opportunities, or that certain ethnic minorities considered as Bumiputeras under the Constitution remain overlooked. Or that (according to our current Prime Minister) the Bumiputera agenda will be given prominence in the already-controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Let us assume, for now, the infallibility of these programs.
Be that as it may, the comments of Malaysian politicians aren’t always reassuring even after considering these pro-bumiputera policies. Take, for one, the constant association of Islam and the Malay ethnicity with certain political parties. By equating the religion and race with the organization, politicians often aim to gain the support of voters by appealing to their individual identities. The occasional fuss that occurs around celebrations such as Valentine’s Day or Christmas further solidifies the idea that a non-Islamic lifestyle is a lifestyle of ‘them’.
In truth, isn’t it merely a different facet of the multicultural Malaysian identity? This is, of course, not to say that only one party is guilty of creating divisiveness. A typical response from the other parties would often be an expression of their opposition and dissatisfaction, causing these ‘outgroups’ to form their respective ‘ingroups’ and identities, be it in race, religion, or politics.
Another case in point would be Malaysians’ attitude towards immigrant workers. The whole issue of the phantom voters during the 2013 general election (without claiming the truth of the incident), as well as numerous reactions (one case in point being this one that links it to terrorism) towards the recent proposal to bring in 1.5 million Bangladeshi workers exemplify the issue. It reflects a certain negative perspective of immigrants – a view mostly perpetuated by stereotyping and baseless assumptions.
Studies have shown that political-economic factors aren’t the real reasons for this sort of thinking; rather, ethnic-based nationalism is identified as the cause. These foreigners make easy scapegoats, and it is easier to blame crimes from petty theft to the destruction of the economy on them, rather than to take responsibility by recognizing our own roles.
In this view, the whole idea of who is or isn’t a Malaysian becomes rather hypocritical. We lay claim to the country and the privileges afforded by that claim, paradoxically asserting our rights while denying the same to others, based on- what? Whose predecessors were here first?
Bad news, buddy. Unless you were a direct descendant of the aboriginals, there already were people here before you.
And there will always be people coming in after you.
The phrase pendatang asing (literal translation: foreign immigrants) is often used negatively, but why should it be so? Are we really going to stick with xenophobic, ethnocentric ideals as the basis of the Malaysian identity? The Malaysia that, in primary school, was always taught to us to be the land of multiracial harmony?
Now, the point of this article is not to advocate the exit of Donald Trump from the nominations, or the abolishment of pro-Bumiputera policies, or the relaxation of immigration laws – rather, it is to prompt us to examine our own prejudices and ideas of entitlement.
Who do we consider as ‘us’, and by default, who do we exclude as ‘them’? And under close scrutiny, can we still claim that the reason for all this is in the name of equality and fairness, rather than self-interest? If Malaysians (politicians included) truly do embrace the nation’s multiculturalism and diversity as much as they say they do, perhaps it’s time to stop incessantly segregating people into race, religion, political affiliation, or nationality, and recognize them, quite simply, as humans.
By Yee Heng Yeh
Feature image source: freemalaysiatoday.com