Terms such as ‘racist’ and ‘racism’ are used frequently in the media these days without any attempt to ascertain their appropriateness in the Malaysian context.
The term ‘race’ has a biological or physical dimension to it. It has been employed in studies about relations between ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ peoples in the United States and Europe. Physical attributes such as skin pigmentation figure to a degree in their relations.
However, in societies like ours, the physical characteristics of a community have very little bearing upon its relations with another community. Attitudes in various spheres of activity are not shaped by these characteristics. This is why it is wrong to use the term ‘race’ or ‘racist’ or ‘racism’ in any discourse about community relations in Malaysia.
It would be more accurate to describe Malaysia as an ethnocentric society given our preoccupation with ethnicity. When each community becomes overly ethnocentric, inter-ethnic harmony is threatened. It leads to a situation where the influential segment of a particular community is unwilling to, or incapable of, seeing the other community’s point of view.
Ethnocentrism can degenerate into communalism. Communalism describes attitudes and actions which are negative, even antagonistic towards the ethnic other. Sometimes, ethnocentrism can give rise to chauvinism, which is adulation of the greatness of one’s own community often at the expense of the other.
Communalism is rife in Malaysia. There are also chauvinists in the country. But there is no racism.
It is important to clarify this since certain incidents reported as ‘racist’ by the local media are picked up by the foreign media and presented as such. To some foreign newspaper readers and television viewers, given their own background, the word conjures visions of hate-filled, venom spewing racists on a rampage, holding the nation to ransom.
In any case why should we use the word ‘race’ at all to describe so-called racial types when there is enough scientific evidence today to show that genetic differences between racial types are so negligible that it would not even warrant separate categorization. Simply put, what it points to is that eternal, perennial truth that there is only one race - the human race.
The writer is chairperson, Board of Trustees, Yayasan 1Malaysia.