ALSO BY

By Yin Ee Kiong

The racial conundrum in Umno

I refer to the two letters in Malaysiakini, Umno full of 'non-Malay' leaders and You can't 'convert' to another race.

I sympathise with the writer, presumably Malay, who complained that Umno is full of non-Malay leaders. Yes, it would seem that many of our high-profile politicians and corporate leaders are mamaks.

Among them are; Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Zainuddin Maidin, Kadir Sheik Fadzir, Shahrizat Abdul Jali, Nor Mohamed Yakcop, Kalimullah Hassan, Khalid Mohamed, Munir Majid and Shaik Osman Majid. These are but a few that come to mind.

However, those who call themselves Malay must first define what exactly is a Malay or rather, who are the Malays? In Malaysia, the word is broadly used for anyone who is not Chinese, Indian, Orang Asli, Kadazan, Murut or any of the East Malaysia native races.

Strictly speaking, this is incorrect as Malay refers to the natives of Riau. They come from the Riau Island off Sumatera and make up only a small proportion of the population. Ask anyone in Sumatera and they will refer to themselves as Sumaterans or if pressed, identify themselves as Bataks, Nias, Bugis, Mandalings, Acehnese, Malay and others.

When the letter writer complains that Umno is full of non-Malay leaders, she should not single out the mamaks because there are others who, strictly speaking, are not Malays. For example, Najib Razak is of Bugis descent and Hishammuddin Hussein has Turkish blood. And of course, everyone knows that our first prime minister is of Malay and Thai descent. I suspect very few Malay leaders in Umno originally came from Riau.

Letter writer Unprivileged Race is correct, to an extent, that it is not possible to change one's race. It is not possible anywhere else except Malaysia. Under Article 160(2) of the Federal Constitution, a Malay is defined as someone who practises Islam, habitually speaks Malay and practises Malay customs. Therefore, it is possible for anyone to become a Malay through the process of socio-cultural, religious and marital assimilation. The Malays even have a term for this - 'masuk Melayu'.

Such a definition brings with it a particular conundrum. For instance, what is the legal racial status of someone who was born Malay but has now converted out of Islam? Does the act of leaving Islam also remove that person's ethnicity?

If we go by the constitution, it should. And does it mean that the person also loses his bumiputera status and all the privileges that go with it? In what racial category do we put these apostates? What if a challenge is made in court regarding their racial status? How will the courts rule? I am sure this is a conundrum which the powers-that-be pray they will not have to face.

Citizenship can be conferred or removed. But seriously, how is it possible for one to confer ethnicity or remove it? Come to think of it, does race really matter? In countries that have colour-blind policies, it doesn't matter. In fact, there are laws against racial discrimination in many countries. No one is asked his race or religion when he fills in a form.

In Malaysia, we have institutionalised racial discrimination in the guise of affirmative action. It is only in Malaysia where race and religion are so inextricably intertwined and where politics are race-based that one would complain when the mamaks form a significant proportion of the ruling party's leadership. They may be "celup" Malays but they are still Malays. The constitution says they are. So there, my friend, eat your heart out!

Race is the underlying cause of many of our nation's problems. Our leaders make policies along racial lines. They talk of Bangsa Malaysia yet exploit race for their own ends. Isn't it time we all remove our race-tinted glasses?