Contesting Indigenous Identity

The ‘new-Self’ and ‘new-Other[s]’
Although the Malaysian government has argued that their efforts are meant to unite Malaysia in campaigns such as bangsa Malaysia (which suggests Malaysian unity), the Malaysian government, according to Nah, has instead exchanged roles with the European ruler and created a ‘new-Self’—that is, a new dominant racial group—by its practice of privileging Malay citizens (Nah 2003, p. 513). According to Nah, “The politics of difference that characterizes [Malaysia]” stems from “the creation of predominant conceptions of ‘Self’” and the separation of ‘Self’ from ‘Other(s)’ (Nah 2003, p. 511). Therefore, Nah argues, “the postcolonial ‘Self’ in Malaysia is legitimized through inherited imperial mechanisms of power” (Nah 2003, p. 512). Prior to independence, agreements regarding issues such as land and rights in Malaysia (then British Malaya) were settled between the British and leaders of groups recognized as indigenous by the British. Nah writes, “[the Malays’] status as ‘indigenous’ people was strengthened through comparisons with additional ethnic/racial groups—in particular, the numerically significant ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indians’—that were more easily cast as ‘immigrant’ Others” (Nah 2003, p. 513).

The concept of ‘Self’ versus ‘Other(s),’ according to Nah, “is deeply embedded in colonial constructions of identity, created through processes of Other-ing practiced by British administrators of the past… [and]…While a ‘new-Self’ has emerged [in Malaysia] it has done so while situated in colonial discursive practices that have continued to create unexpected binds even as postcolonial futures are imagined” (Nah 2003, p. 512). Nah explains that “This became a powerful rallying point for nationalist discourses, and subsequently legitimized the assignment of a position of privilege for one group, the Malays, in the postcolonial nation-state” [and, eventually] “the [British] ‘Self’,” according to Nah, “became displaced and replaced by the previously colonized ‘native’ ‘Other’ (the Malays)” (Nah 2003, p. 512). As a result, a kind of reverse colonization occurred; the Malays “shift[ed] to being a ‘new-Self’ against ‘new-Others’ on the basis of indigeneity” and via claims that the ‘Others’—the Chinese and Indians—have genealogical claims to lands other than Malaysia and, ultimately, do not possess birthrights as the Malays do (Nah 2003, p. 512).

Evidence of ‘Inherited [Colonial] Mechanisms’
Historically, social and political practices enforced by the British “reinforced an ethnic-centered construction of identity” (Nah 2003, p. 520). “Through regulating everyday practices—for example, with the introduction of ethnic-based legislation (e.g. the Malay Reservations Act), the setting up of a ‘Department of Chinese Studies’, and the allowance of special government-approved toddy shops for ‘Indians’—the management of ethnic divisions reified distinction and difference” (Shamsul, 1997; Nah 2003, p. 520). Even “‘harmless’ bureaucratic practices of census-taking” reinforced the concept of the racial categories of ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘Indian’ among Malaysians (Hirschman 1986, 1987; Milner 1995; Nah 2003, p. 520). Over time it became apparent that “Falling within these categories had material benefits, and thus it was in the interest of the local populace to ascribe to one of these” (Nah 2003, p. 520). The purpose of the Reid Commission, established in 1956, was “to make recommendations concerning a Constitution for the soon-to-be independent Malaya” and was “expressly charged to include provisions for ‘the safeguarding of the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of other communities’ (Malaya Constitutional Commission, 1957, p. 1; Nah 2003, p. 520).

According to Nah, “while fighting against the fetters of colonialism, Malay nationalists and anti-colonialists employed inherited [colonial] mechanisms, and retained the tools of constraint, of those from whom they sought to establish freedom” (Nah 2003, p. 520). In fact the “colonial definition of ‘Malay,’” the British practice of differentiating between ‘indigenous’ and ‘immigrant’ groups, and the unequal treatment of the various categorized peoples, were all transferred into the emerging nation-state of Malaysia (Nah 2003, p. 520). According to Nah, “Rather than deconstructing assumptions, or the [environment] within which they operated [during Colonialism], the [Malays or] ‘new-Self’ accepted matter-of-factly the colonial legacy of socially-constructed patterns for inscribing and understanding society. Issues in Malaysia pertaining to: national identity, ethnicity, race, and arguments concerning ‘rights’ were addressed within colon(ial)ized mindsets” (Nah 2003, p. 520-521).

Contesting Indigenous Identity
However, the political dominance of the ‘Malay’ ‘new-Self,’ according to Nah, “is brought into question by the presence of a marginalized ethnic/racial group, the orang asli. Also socially constructed under British rule, the orang asli postcolonial identity contains more ‘solid claims’ to indigeneity, and yet they have not received the same level of political power, representation and economic resources as their ‘Malay’ brethren” (Nah 2003, p. 521) In fact there is “evidence of Malay immigration into the Peninsula, as well as the ‘assimilatory’ nature of Malay ethnic identity (Nah, 2003; Benjamin, 2002). Nah writes, “Malay culture has been an ‘assimilatory’ one throughout generations” (Benjamin, 2002; Nah 2003, p. 521). “‘Malay’ is a category which…was subject to redefinition [and]…For centuries, people of foreign origin had been accepted into particular Malay communities” (Milner 1995, p. 12; Nah 2003, p. 521). In fact, one could transform oneself by acquiring Malay “language, dress, customs, and religion [and] ‘become Malay’” (Milner 1995, p. 12; Nah 2003, p. 521). Additionally, there are Malays not native to Malaysia but, as aforementioned, such Malays, upon relocation to Malaysia, may receive the same privileges of Malaysian-born Malay citizens. However, Malaysian-born Chinese and Indians are barred from these privileges despite their family’s significant generational presence in Malaysia. For this reason, according to Nah, “the ‘indigenous purity’ of [the Malay] ethnic/racial identity [which has been] crucial for political discourses, is placed under ongoing threat” (Nah 2003, p. 521)

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