In 1977, the brilliant Syed Hussein Alatas published one of the most important sociological works on Malayan and Malaysian social history, the Myth of the Lazy Native.
The book came around the same period as that of Orientalism by Edward Said, which captured the imaginations of scholars and activists engaged in the field known as post-colonial theory.
Few would argue against the fact that Orientalism deserves its place as one of the foundational texts of postcolonial studies.
Said's book was about the narratives, discourses and depictions of non-Western cultures produced by colonial experts and ‘explorers'- journals, scientific explorations, travellers, writers, novelists and so on.
These narratives served to project Western European ideologies about the cultures and people of the Middle-East, often as static, unchanging, and pre-modern.
The purpose, Said explains, was not to produce accurate or grounded accounts of those cultures, but to emphasise the importance of the modern colonial project and the virtues of European civilisation.
In other words, to redefine and clarify what it means to be European, by writing about ‘Others' seen as different and non-European.
Syed Hussein's Myth of the Lazy Native, though surprisingly not as recognised as Orientalism, in many ways parallels the arguments Said put forth, except now in the specific case of South-East Asia.
Myths have always been an integral part to the nation-building project; people have relied upon symbols and narratives that aim to capture a sense of collective identity and history that communities and their leaders can espouse to.
In our case, for example, these may include ancient Hindu-Sanskrit mythologies in the form of epics, and that of Hang Tuah.
However, there are also myths created in another sense - myth about those deemed to be different from us.
Myths about races and ethnic groups abound in Malaysian society and these are rooted in the racial ideology that was introduced by our former British masters.
Syed Hussein describes how the reluctance and disinterest shown by local indigenous people to participate in the colonial labour enterprises was used against them by the British as a sign of indolence and laziness.
The historical descriptions are detailed and complex, but the underlying principle is beautifully simple - there was never a need for local natives of Malaya to participate in the colonial industries and labour, as they already had their own ways of life and systems of economic production.
However, since colonialism by definition was about indentured servitude to fuel imperial desires and European Civilisation, the need for indentured labour power drove the British to use the perceived laziness of the natives to draft in other migrant workers, primarily Chinese and Indians.
The excuses that were used included constructions of myths about these migrant groups, usually as a broad comparison to the natives; the Chinese were deemed industrious, hardworking but cunning, while the Indians compliant but prone to aggression and violence.
Each group was placed in separate and distinct sectors, with divisions maintained at every turn.
It is not hard to see how this led inevitably to the racial myths we depend upon even till this day.
This is the three-headed Cerberus of Malaysia, the source of ethnic politics that exploded in 1969, and continues to define the contours of political struggle today.
Do we not still hold some form of broad general beliefs about the different races in our country?
Many of these ideological beliefs have brought about very real consequences- think of the Hindraf movement in recent years, in which a large group of enfeebled and marginalised minorities are seeking redistributive justice from the British crown for ultimately being the root of their status as second class citizens.
In fact, the very idea that citizenship privileges in Malaysia are based upon racial differences is a result of the perpetuation of old myths about difference.
It is those mythical differences that we are hopefully trying to move beyond with the politics of today.
Parties, in power and in opposition, are starting to realise that race-based discourses are increasingly obsolete and cannot be sustained, despite the presence of some hyper-conservative groups.
Voting citizens are more aware that in order to ensure better representation of their needs and interests, solidarity has to be built and sustained across racial, gender, religious and class differences.
We must contend and come face to face with those myths that we have grown so used to and admit to ourselves that we have been wrong in assuming such stereotypes to be true- that some ‘groups' of people are inherently polite or rude, rowdy or well-mannered, violent or deceitful, lazy or hard-working.
It is the same as myths about women and Asians being bad drivers, or Arabs being prone to terrorism, or Islam being inherently undemocratic- all ideological shorthand to justify discrimination, bigotry and prejudice.
Yet, while I do believe many of us are starting to move beyond racial myths ingrained in our society, in their place we are replacing new, more concerning myths that have worrying echoes of colonialism.
Having seen a mass influx of labour migration in the past decade, Malaysia is now home to a far more diverse and heterogenous polity.
We are understandably confused and sometimes threatened by a sense of loss; loss of what used to look and feel familiar.
Some of us may feel that things (society, culture, values, and people) have become more fragmented and intensely connected at the same time.
David Harvey calls this time-space compression under post-modernity.
While this is debatable, one thing may hold true for Malaysian society.
We have most definitely been seeing the rise of new myths about new migrant communities in our midst- the perception, in general, that ‘they are here to take our jobs and money' is most common, but so are more subtle and insidious myths about different migrant workers.
We think of some as being a major reason for increasing crime rates (unskilled/low skilled male migrant workers from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East) despite actual crime statistics pointing in the opposite direction (migrant workers make up almost a third of our labour force, but only 2 percent of crimes are committed by them).
We think of others as somehow less than human and therefore not entitled to the same basic rights and protections (female domestic workers, whom we call ‘maids', are not even deemed worthy of getting a single day off per week and are expected to stay indoors preferably with no outside contact).
The proliferation of such myths may be a signal of the threat we feel to our own status as citizens, by the sense that we need to have someone to blame for an increasingly uncertain and turbulent global world.
On the other hand, it may also be that ingrained ideology that some people will always be inferior to us that has long been a foundational belief in our national culture which is rearing its head in new ways.
Whichever it is, we have to be critically aware that we do not perpetuate new myths in order to replace the old ones, risking the possibility of having a Malaysian nation that is truly humane, just and worth defending.