IF someone were to stop you on the street and ask: “Who are you?”, how would you answer that question? Would you say you are someone’s daughter, wife or mother? Or do you identify yourself by your profession (I am a teacher)? Or do you say I am Malay, Muslim, Kelantanese/Johorean/Sarawakian or Malaysian?
Identity is a tricky thing. The recent upheaval on Arab colonialism in Malaysia and the ongoing debate on being Malay have caused people to post various Facebook status and tweets. This actually reminded me of the time when Malaysians were warned of the “Budaya Kuning”, and about cultural imperialism and westernisation.
Needless to say, as Malaysia goes through a modernisation process, the public is exposed to new technological, economic and political changes which see their lives becoming increasingly unpredictable and subject to changing circumstances and choices. Modernity, and being surrounded by global influences and global transformation ensure that it would be difficult for one to live in solitude and without the influence of others.
As said by Anthony Giddens in “Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age”, “(...) no one can easily defend a secure ‘local life’ set off from larger social systems and organisations. Achieving control over change, in respect of lifestyle, demands an engagement with the outer social world rather than a retreat from it”.
In other words, one’s surrounding is said to contribute to his or her construction of identity. The “power” does not merely consist of physical attributes such as colonisation or invasion, but includes cultural products which may be inscribed with ideologies such as film, magazines and television programmes which are imported from all over the world and also social media.
Globalisation has brought in a variety of cultures. Exposure to different cultures through media and travelling is inevitable. And, exposure to things, such as clothing, food and even norms, is able to influence an individual’s process of constructing their identity.
For instance, most shopping malls have a bubble tea store; a popular drink from Taiwan. Chai tea latte is served in Starbucks all over the world and the drink has its roots in India. You can watch a Korean drama from the comfort of your living room and sleep listening to radio stations in the United States through life streaming on the Internet.
These choices act out like what anthropologist Ted Polhemus termed as a “supermarket” because an individual can just pick any style or personality they prefer and mix and match it in an attempt to construct their own identity.
So, it is safe to say that a Kelantanese may prefer lasagna over rice with budu, eats with chopsticks and likes to wear a flat top cap. But that does not make him or her any less Kelantanese, or Malay, for that matter.
People nowadays are not merely bound by internal factors, such as religion or family restrictions, when constructing their identities. The diversified possibilities of constructing their identity is likened to a patchwork, in which identities are not conformed to a specific uniformed essence, but instead are fluid and constantly changing and is a mix and match of an individuals’ preferences.
The cultural identity of Malays, for instance, can be recognised by a particular set of cultural traditions, beliefs, clothes and language. However, it should not be limited to a specific limited set of elements and instead acknowledges the changes that come with modernisation.
What Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin said in an article, “Debating about Identity in Malaysia: A Discourse Analysis”, rings true. He argued that the definition of ethnicities and races in Malaysia actually accommodate changes brought with time and are not limited to a set of signifiers. Therefore, the hybridisation of culture in one’s identity should not be looked at as an indication that one is not a “pure” breed Malay.
The terms Malay, Chinese and Indian were concocted by the British administration when they wanted to conduct a census. Their initial attempts to conduct a census met with much difficulty because people then identified themselves as being members of a specific clan, group or ethnicity as opposed to members of a particular “race”.
So much so that the first census, which was conducted in 1871, only listed the Boyanese, Bugis, Dayaks, Javanese, Manilamen and Malays under the big umbrella of the Malay race. However, census takers still had problems to make a consistent classification of the races as most of the people were themselves unsure of which race they belonged to within the categories administered by the colonialists and the list of the Malay race expanded to include about 18 different ethnic groups.
But over time, the notion of race, which was authoritatively defined, was slowly internalised. People of the supposedly same “racial category” began to appropriate their identity as defined by the colonialists and noted the difference of the different “racial categories”.
It was said that the categories delivered the message that communities could be enumerated, and that each “race” had a lot of things in common and might act as a unit politically to further their objectives.
It is clear that man invented the categories and put certain definition in a specific box and that the definition can be fluid. At the end of the day, what matters most is what you think about yourself. Do not be afraid to embrace a different culture. Only you know who you really are.
So, if you happen to see me wearing a black kebaya while sipping my favourite caramel flavoured bubble tea, please know that I am very much a Malay at heart.
The writer is a senior lecturer at UKM’s School of Media and Communication