I should have wanted to celebrate this. The union of my two best friends, and a new member into the Muslim community! Not that it was “us” Muslims versus “them” non-Muslims, but in a way itwas “us” versus “them” – not through any deliberate partisanship, but merely the passive receipt of an ambiguous “Malaysian way” that accepted, and therefore pardoned, further (however subconscious) endorsement of that thin bar between majority and minority, that exonerated us from actively assimilating.
‘Zhih, I have to ask – you sure, yeah, you know what you’re doing?’
I wanted to take those words back if only to say it at one-tenth the speed. Are. You. Sure.? Because once you got in, you never got out. Muslim apostasy – well, it wasn’t even an option. I didn’t have the cases on hand, back then, to cite to him (Lina Joy, Revathi Massosai, Abdullah-Jeffrey), but it was so crucial that he thought it plenty hard.
He nodded solemnly. And then he smiled.
I let out a breath. ‘Well. You’ll have to remember not to be resentful.’
The ring box still twirled in his fingers. ‘How do you mean?’
‘For the sake of your relationship. I mean, marriage – and converting to Islam – it won’t be a chip on your shoulder. It cannot be a sacrifice.’
‘I know that.’
‘It’s not a testimonial, not a tribute, not a debt to be repaid. It’s not even an honor. It’s not an award. You understand what I’m getting at?’
‘Yeah –’ His face was a muted mask. I hoped it meant he was chewing over what I just said. Then he broke into another open smile. ‘I know that, too. And I want to marry her. A common faith could be a good thing. We’ll be buried in the same cemetery.’ He paused. ‘That’s thinking really far, isn’t it? But I’ve researched and read and talked to people and consulted an ustaz. Anything else you think I should do?’
I smiled. ‘Ask her?’
‘This is good news, Zhih. I don’t sound like it, but I am happy for you. Really, I am. You and Fadihah, you’ve been together forever, I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not surprised. You guys’ve come a long way.’
‘Yeah,’ he said happily. ‘Yeah. Baffles me too when I think about it.’
He laughed again. What a gift, to hear someone laugh the way he did! Such genuine joy! How did we forget that religious institutions, ultimately, worked on an individual basis? That when we talked about Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, animists, it was people – real, very alive, very breathing people who were tangible – we could touch them, and see them, hear them (they talked! to us! individually!), smell them (time to put away the smell jokes, too) – it was persons we talked about. Persons who ate the same nasi kandar with the same tomato rice at the same Craven Café, who stepped into and got their feet wet from the same street potholes when it rained. Persons like Zhi Xiang, with persons they loved.
It wasn’t enough anymore to categorize us as Malays and Bumis and Chinese and Indians. Who were “the Malays”? If by our race, we were our religion, then you were constitutionally right. Well done well done. Applaud yourself, because you just pinned us down! You knew who we were! A genus of head-covering, Friday-praying, loudspeaker-proselytising, pork-averse, pork-utensil-averse, people – a superior race as descended from, very possibly, the Malaccan Sultanate itself, way back during the sixteenth-century spice trade – possibly even before! Some of us, any one of us, could be a descendent of Parameswara ! The Minangs amongst us, and Achehnese and Lampungs and Jawi Peranakans and Arab Peranakans and Chinese Peranakans – or shall we go by territorial loyalties? – Johorese and Kelantanese and Kedahans – any which one of us could be in way of the bloodline! All right, go on then, slab us all together, appropriate us all into that exclusive, political term – “Melayu”. Me. La. Yu. What a fine word! “Melayu”. Short and sweet, a perfectly triple-syllabic, triple-stressed word – one perfectly stressed syllable more than “Cina” or “India”, which confirmed our superiority! Orang MelaYU. Tanah MelaYU. Yes, you there, the politician, the rakyat, the orang Malaysia, you – you discovered a fine, fine word!
And the Chinese. The Chinese-“Malaysians”. That conspicuous third-generational immigrant collective from the North East, a swarm of economically-attuned, yellow-skinned bees that had somehow, so far, managed to thrive and breed amongst, within, “us”, the “real” “us” – this vaguely “big” bloc of “them” – Cantonese and Hokkiens and Hakka and Teochew – all of them belonging to that body of Northeastern inundation! The most visible threat – look at the sheer number of them! thank God their financial resources put a brake on reproduction rate – there were now, what, 5% less of them in the Malaysian spectrum? – still! a third of the country! – the most visible, patent threat to the jus soli and the “social contract” – BRING OUT THE KERIS! That was what you wanted to say, wasn’t it? BRING OUT THE KERIS. And then to wave it in front of the parliament, in front of some 200 seats, and to watch their faces turn red, blue, purple, in that order, and then back to brown or yellow or darker brown. Would they turn grey, too, for shame, on behalf of your buffoonery? But then Hishammudin did it already, didn’t he – prostituted the beautiful keris, almost feminine in the way its blade dipped and curved, selling out this beautiful, feminine artifact of the “indigenous” “Malay” – to, to do what? Empower the Malay? Assert ketuanan Melayu? Ward off “Chinese squatters” (and that was a topic for another day, Mr. Ahmad)?
And the Indians. Don’t forget the Indians. The Punjabis and Bengalis and Tamils and Sindhis and Ceylonese and Sikhs – inundation and infiltration! Entire families, caucuses of them in medicine and law, fraternizing with the other significant insider Other, crawling all over “our” economy and society and, now, politics! Hindraf, heard of Hindraf? Declared illegal after the 2007 rally (and still there was the organized outcry over Interlok) – yes, that was the one! Did you ever see as many Indians together at once as you witnessed that day on TV3? Barely 10% of the population, but they were there! seemingly unthreatening next to the constant cognitive bashing of yellow faces, but they were there! teeming all over the country! And the Indian-Muslims, too – what, they wanted Melayu status? You were joking, surely! Just because Article 160 said, quote unquote, “Malay” was a person who professed Islam and spoke Malay and practiced Malay customs and was born in the Federation before Independence – that was basis enough to exchange ethnic heritage for hak Melayu ? Joking, indeed!
And now, the gays. All righty, time to bring out whatever vilification you had stored in your pouch, time to smear us fully – make sure to get the eyes and nose and lips, and private parts too, especially the private parts, get precisely what you couldn’t bear about us – and SMEAR US FULLY. Deprecate us, then disparage us, and then deride us! LAUGH at us. RIDICULE us. And then talk about it amongst your heterosexual friends and pretend to be decorously empathetic and use individual “us”s – use me! – as your curio, as your specimen of the gay community, and, if you had a Facebook picture of me – better yet, of me and my dear Ena – DO NOT FORGET to show your conformist friends this pair of sexually apostate objet d’art of an unknown populace – be sure to make yourself an exemplar of liberal thought!
And of course there were the Bumis too. But hell, who were the bumis ? What a constitutionally present but corporeally invisible people. Frizzy, crimped hair? Mana dia ? Where were the “sons of the soil”? BumipuTERA. BumiPUTERA. Two syllables more than MelaYU, and three more than the Chinese or Indians! Where were the Mah Meri and Jakun and Orang Kanaq ? Mana dia Tanggang asli u’tuk hari ni ? Now they were at the top of the hierarchy. Didn’t matter if they were Islamized and re-classified as “Malay”, didn’t matter if they continued practising what they were practising (Christianity? Animism?) – they were the apex! an altogether un-minatory bracket of plebeians – I mean, privileged inhabitants – I mean, electors! all right, electors! – whose consolation prize was the immutability of position within, or at the summit of, Malaysian citizenry (a consolation borne of commiseration? sebab kesiankan mereka?! And what about the newest wave of immigrants? The Bangladeshis and Indonesians? Would they be single sonants of Bangs and Dons, sound abbreviates that denoted their social standing as well as those who sat in first class?
No, no, no. Of course that wasn’t what you meant. What you meant was that there was a distinction, a necessary distinction, between the races, that there was an intrinsic racial différance – hail that irony in this context! – that had to put up with, and to put out, the secondary issues of economy and education and rainforest conservation in the grand triage for national recuperation. You had it all laid out, my friend, my fellow Malaysian – you flipped on the bourgeois switch to paint out ethno-religio politics, in its rawest form, as it beat kompang beats in the soft heart of Malaysia. My dear kawanku, of course you knew it all. People like The Veej and Zhih and myself counted for less.
[i] Another worthwhile food outlet.
[ii] ketuanan Melayu : Malay supremacy
[iii] Mr Ahmad Ismail likens the ethnic Chinese community with “squatters” and “Jews in America” (to which Prime Minister Badawi responded by suspending Ahmad’s party posts for three years): http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2008/09/20089114243491366.html
[iv] Mana dia Tanggang asli u’tuk hari ni?: Where is the indigenous Tanggang of today?
I used “Tanggang” here to refer to “Si Tanggang”, a signature character in Malay myth who is turned to stone for betraying his mother. By “Tanggang asli” I am calling for the indigenous hero (or anti-hero) of the indigenous people, while aware of how inherently problematic that search is.
[v] sebab kesiankan mereka? : because of sympathy towards them?
[vi] kompang : a native instrument, not unlike the modern drum.