Dec 5, 2008

Of Race, Ethnicity and Nationality

I had an interesting conversation with a close friend of mine and her sister. They are Pakistanis residing in Canada. Both expressed their dislike of being addressed as Indians. 'We're Pakistani' they emphasised - they were born and raised in Pakistan. 'So, what is your race?' I asked. Again, they answered, 'Pakistani,' with equal emphasis. I was puzzled. Pakistan as a nation came into being after the Partition in 1947. Prior to that, everyone within the borders of what is now Bangladesh, India and Pakistan were known as Indians - as a nationality and, for a majority of India's population, as an ethnic group.

Does this mean, addendum to my friends' response, that Pakistani as an ethnic group came into being alongside the creation of Pakistan as a nation? In that same light, is there a difference between Indian as a race and Indian as a nationality? Certainly for Indians in Malaysia, the answer is a resounding 'yes'. I honestly don't mean to poke holes in how my friends identify themselves in terms of race, ethnicity and nationality. I was merely intrigued by the similarity of conflicts applied to the problematic issue of the 'Malaysian'.

The idea of the 'Malaysian' implies a complicated synthesis of such constructs as ethnicity: Malay, Chinese, Indian, aborigines and other invisible minority groups; and religion: Chinese Muslim, Indian Muslim, Chinese Christian, Chinese Indian and a multitude of other race/ethnicity clusters. Malays, as the previously unquestioned original peoples of the country, reserve certain rights and privileges over the rest of the country's population. From my simple observation, there has been a stronger emphasis on the Muslim Malay since the controversy regarding Muslims converting to other religions.

As a Muslim country (an idea that is highly debatable in itself), Malay and Muslim is conceptually inseparable according to the country's constitution. This begs the question : What of the Chinese Muslim and Indian Muslim? Are they allotted certain rights and privileges by virtue of their faith? Or are they still to be deprived, by virtue of their race, of the rights and privileges allotted to their fellow countrymen who are of the same faith? Or are they to be allocated a (hybrid) class that gives them the benefits of one social group without the disadvantages of another? If a hybridised society is the answer, then Malaysia will be flooded with these hybrid gclassess due to the perennially developing social groupings based on race and ethnicity.

Maintaining one's racial and ethnic identity is at once purposeful and problematic. While homogeneity is clearly undesirably for an infinite list of reasons, preserving cultural diversity is often potentially divisive and exclusionary. It is at the heart of the Holocaust, Serbia's ethnic cleansing, Rwanda's genocide and Malaysia's own small-scale but equally tragic pogrom that lead to Singapore's autonomy.

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