what was i sent here for?

Natalie Shobana Ambrose | Apr 3, 08 1:53pm
Persian poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (fondly know as Rumi) wrote, “The human being therefore has come into the world for a specific purpose and aim. If one does not fulfil that purpose, one has done nothing.

When I was younger I remember wishing so hard that I wasn’t Indian. Many times I’d ask my mother if I looked like I was of mixed parentage – my mother’s straight to the point answer ‘Of course you look Indian. What else would you look like? Both your parents are Indian. ‘

Much to my disappointment, without a shadow of doubt – I was Indian. My attempts to not stand in the sun didn’t help me on the fairness graph either.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like the way I looked or my inherited ability to roll my ‘r’s’.  I just didn’t want to be Indian because of the stigma of being Indian.  

To me, being Indian meant that we were not the brightest lot, we were poor, didn’t have much of a future and enjoyed fraternizing around coconut trees singing songs to our heart’s content.  

But that wasn’t me. I refused to be defined by society’s perception of Indians.

No matter how hard I tried not to be Indian, I was derogatorily called Tangachi (literally, little sister, but often denoting, cutie or ah-moi) and would be teased by students of other races attempting to speak Tamil (something only fellow Indians would understand).  

I grew up not seeing Indians on TV unless on the news, – usually at a crime scene – and I grew up listening to radio adverts mocking the Indian accent. Surrounded by all these observations, who in their right mind would want to be Indian?

Anything but Indian I pleaded. Anything! It must have been quite an amusing sight but an even more common sight in today’s Malaysia.

I’ve grown up since then, and fully embrace my Indian heritage. But what about society?  

Of course the likes of Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty, the glamorization of Bollywood moves and movies has helped in the acceptance of being Indian. But what does it mean to be a Malaysian Indian?

Always #3

Am I, Malaysian first and Indian second? Or am I, Indian first and Malaysian second?  

The reality of living in Malaysia means that we are defined by race.  Every application form we fill subjects us to define ourselves by race and the Indian box is always at its highest position at number 3.  

It didn’t matter that my parents raised their children to believe that we could be anything we wanted to if we really wanted to, because society dictated otherwise and the law makes sure we remember our ‘standing’ in the country. Always #3, nothing more.

I remember clearly being defined by race from a very young age. I remember while in primary school, my class teacher (who I thought was a very nice Malay lady) told the whole class that I looked like her maid.  

Not a very clued-in child, I thought, well her maid must be very pretty. Little did I realise what had just happened. Of course, when I got home and spoke of my day to my mother this compliment turned into the bitter reality of class-fuelled racism. I had been indirectly told I was #3 in the scheme of things!

I never understood what I had done for someone whom I respected – and my teacher of all people – to treat me in such a manner.

In a perfect world, we would not see colour, but the reality is we do see colour and we interpret and place judgments – good or bad based on our biases, socialization and upbringing.  

Maybe if we acknowledged that racism does exist in us, we might be better able to address it. It is a bit of a radical idea in harmonious unified Malaysia, but we all are biased to a certain extent.  It’s just that some people are able to conceal it better than others – but it that doesn’t mean it doesn’t’ exist.  

I’m not advocating racism, in fact the opposite. I’m looking for a solution. The first step to any recovery is acknowledging the problem, – if not what are we trying to fix?  

We may have different likes and beliefs – but when does a preference become racism?  

I believe it is when a sales person refuses to let you try on a dress because he thinks you can’t afford it. It is when a quota system limits you to the right of an education of your choice. Or when a job advertisement specifies what race, age and gender you should be before you can even apply.  

It is when scholarships are limited by race and not test scores, it is when you have to pay more for the same house your neighbour has – on top of paying for your child’s education because there weren’t spaces left for your race in the public tertiary education system.

How then are we to love our neighbours?

When life is defined and limited to race, problems arise.  When people are suppressed, repressed, bullied and forced to be voiceless a country suffers.  

For today, we, as a nation may look well, but will Malaysia have a multicultural society to brag about in twenty years to come or would we have to scour foreign lands for sightings of Malaysians?

Tolerating one another

As a nation, our greatest asset is the fact that we are a multicultural people, and as the travel brochures would say ‘living in harmony with one another’. Or, as the Tourism Malaysia ad says, Malaysia – Truly Asia!

Somehow it has become a song we sing rather than a reality we practice. In many ways, it should read Tolerating One Another. After all that is what we do best – tolerate.  

The very word advocates hatred. We should not have to put up with each other, rather we should embrace one another and strive to understand each other better …. not looking at race or religion.  
The only way to do this is to spend time with each other instead of allowing our prejudice to distance us from one another.  

It sounds very much like my moral classes back in the day. Maybe we should all hold hands and sing Kum-Ba-Yah or Rasa Sayang and sit around a bonfire and magically we will be transformed.

A huge part of me wishes I hadn’t spent all those years trying so hard not to be Indian. But an even bigger part of me hopes that young Indian children don’t feel like they have to apologize for being an Indian in Malaysia – for this is the only country they can call home.

Have migration enquiries to other countries increased in the last six months? I don’t think we need statistics to confirm it. As a young Indian living in Malaysia, why wouldn’t I embrace a country that allows me to be the best I can be without penalizing me for my race? As I ponder on RÅ«mÄ«’s words, I wonder to myself, will Malaysia allow me to fulfil my purpose or will I stay and achieve nothing


NATALIE SHOBANA AMBROSE is a writer, dancer, sociologist, care-giver, pianist, memories curator and concerned Malaysian in the midst of finishing her thesis in Strategy and Defence Studies at the Universiti Malaya.

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