A Response to Mariam Mokhtar’s “A superior Malay … is an Arab”

So, The Heat Malaysia featured an article by (who I assume to be) guest writer Mariam Mokhtar. She’s pretty prolific, with her own website and articles/opinion pieces featured in a bunch of news portals. Go click on this link above and then come back.

Done? Cools.

Okay, if you were too lazy to read the whole thing, Mariam basically is writing about the modern Malay fascination with Arab culture. I’m sure you’ve seen examples of it. Lots of people are emulating the clothes, rituals, habits and speech patterns (using the Arabic names for holidays like Hari Raya, for example). There’s also a pretty heavy focus on religion in many of these cases. Mariam argues that the adoption of this culture is making Malay people intolerant and arrogant towards non-Malays and patronising towards Malays who choose not to adopt those ‘Arabic’ aspects.

But here’s my problem. She does it terribly.

Ms Mokhtar, if you’re reading this, know that I have no hard feelings on you personally, but your opinion piece is honestly quite horrifying to read.

She starts off with an anecdote that goes:

“Until the 1990s, a Malay boy would  usually reply that his ambition would be to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Today, a sea [of] change has occurred.

A child social worker said, “These days, many Malay boys aspire to become ustaz. They appear to have no other ambition, or interests.””

I don’t know who this child social worker is, but they’re a horrible child social worker. I thought people in that field were supposed to encourage kids to achieve their dream? I mean, who are you to say that taking up a religious profession means a lack of ambition?

She goes on and gives a list of occupations that she thinks are more ‘beneficial’ (engineers and scientists, lecturers and trade workers) and compliments those people for wanting to help their communities, as if those in a religious profession are lazy and ignorant themselves.

Come on, Ms Mokhtar, I’m sure you know better than to generalize an entire group?

But wait.

She then writes:

“Many Malays today, are intolerant and arrogant. They claim superiority over other Malaysians, but when it comes to meritocracy, they suddenly cry foul, and blame the non-Malays of denying them of their rights. […] Today, the Malays have allowed the insidious Arabisation to creep into their everyday life, and dilute their own culture. Their children are given Arabic sounding names, which are difficult to spell and are almost unpronounceable. […] Why does the Malay man not ride his camel to work, rather than terrorise other road users with his kapchai or Proton?”

You have got to be kidding me, right? Calling an entire culture ‘insidious’? Making fun of their naming conventions? Using ridiculous stereotypes like ‘Arabs ride camels’? I’m sorry, which group of people are you calling out for being intolerant of other cultures again?

And here is where the nail in the coffin lies, guys. She ends her piece with this stunning work of journalistic talent:

“The Saudi Arabians depend on Pakistani and Bangladeshi menial labourers. We, too, depend heavily on Bangladeshi workers.

If he’s not careful, the ‘superior’ Malay will be an Arab… or perhaps a Bangladeshi.”

Give this woman a Pulitzer Prize, folks! I’m going to ignore the incredibly obvious question of “How is that at all relevant to this discussion?” because that would be too easy. How on Earth could you be so condescending to foreign workers? If ‘superior Malays’ are not ‘careful’, they’ll end up like Bangladeshis?

How do you mean, Ms Mokhtar? Do you mean to say that they will begin to work extremely hard? Do you mean to say that they’ll be willing to travel thousands of kilometres, going through isolation in a foreign country in hope of a better life for their family? Or perhaps you wanted to say that they’d face persecution, abuses of their rights, and offensive opinion pieces put out on The Heat Malaysia treating them like the butt of a bad joke?

No, Ms Mokhtar, I don’t believe you meant to say any of those things. You were just trying to make a cheap shot at the expense of one of the most marginalized communities in Malaysia, and while trying to prove how ‘intolerant and arrogant’ a certain group of people were because they adopted Arab culture, you proved that a person could be just as intolerant and arrogant and condescending without adopting it.

I have friends from many different national backgrounds, I am happy to say. Some of them are from the Middle East, some of them are from Bangladesh. They vary in educational qualification and income levels, but the most important thing is that they vary at all. They’re not some homogeneous, faceless, monolithic group that it’s okay to make fun of.

Your opinion piece was basically the equivalent of saying “Don’t be intolerant… because everyone knows only Arabs are intolerant! And don’t even get me started on the Bangladeshis!” I hope you realize the problem with that statement.

I’m sorry, but I’d very much prefer to live in a Malaysia where we celebrate a variety of different cultures, Arab, Malay, Bangladeshi, what have you. The day when a group of ‘Arabicised’ Malay people start giving me flak for being Malaysian-Chinese, then maybe I’ll write about that, but I sure as heck won’t be putting down entire cultures and groups of people while I do.