Multicultural cohesion: who is doing it?

A person brought to my attention an article by Farish Noor who bemoans (he does a lot of this in his writings of late) the national impasse of bringing Malaysians together no thanks to a linguistic and culturally segregated education system. Aside from not talking about segregated education system as colonial heritage whose impact on Malaysia in the long run, Farish Noor groans about the political cowardice implicit in the refusal to establish a linguistic and culturally uniform education system, so that everybody can communicate with each other and hopefully communicate with elites and the powers that be. In other words, have access to hegemonic discourse. The bottom line for an overhaul of our education system is national cohesion and integrity, that we are bound by a sense of Malaysian-ness more profound than an excessive love for food.

With the political will to assert a change in the education system, what will be the likeliest outcome? That all schools are taught in Bahasa Malaysia, which is not neutral in its cultural baggage in relation to Malay hegemony inherent in Malaysian public life and governance? Or that all schools taught in English, which has much less to do with colonial baggage than that of current class relations?

Should the outcome be the former, non-Malay pupils will need to integrate into a cultural and linguistic system while (it is often assumed that) Malay pupils will have the upper hand, because well, Malay children speak Malay at home and the language will come more naturally to them in the classroom. To assert a linguistically uniform education system is fine in principle. But if the intended outcome is national cohesion based on language, we need to further examine the other factors that divide society, such as class, which is inconveniently wedded to the second possible outcome.

Farish Noor does not delve into the other factors however. Instead he cites the successful integration of second generation migrant children into the dominant societies of Germany, France, and the UK. How integrated they are! How unified they seem! All Turkish Germans are able to speak German and are rewarded with proper entry into greater society and opportunities to social mobility.

Issues related to multiculturalism in Western Europe have often couched on language. Migrants who enter the country to reside alongside their children who enter the education system must learn the ‘host’ country’s language. The level of language profiency is, however, another culturally-charged issue. As some European governments demand native-level fluency of its integration policy candidates, what can be demanded of them: native-level of grammatical correctness? accent? intelligibility?

Indeed, those who do not speak the local language will have the disadvantage of not being particularly employable and face greater risks of employment rights abuse and discrimination. These are often the arguments laid out as reasons for migrant communities to learn the local language(s), but also, more crucially, it is important as an indicator (for powers that be and a xenophobic society) of the level of willingness and effort that migrants demonstrate in order to integrate into their ‘host’ society.

And as I have tweeted on this issue before, policies directed towards integration and national cohesion conceal the power differences inherent in racist and xenophobic policies that serve to further perpetuate racism. What we must examine is: who is demanding for integration and national cohesion and who is demanded to do the integration.

While it might seem common sense that communities ‘new’ to a society learn the ways of its ‘host’ culture and mores, a society that often erroneously considers itself as unchanging and culturally stable, it must be pointed out that integration and national cohesion must be a two way process. Both sides must have the recognition and acceptance that their multicultural society is perpetually dynamic and that culturally dominant members of society are more inclined to racism and have greater leverage to inflict racist harm on an institutional level than minority communities.

Which is why despite findings that disprove the xenophobic assumption that migrant workers are taking away jobs from native communities, and despite racist sentimentalism that immigration is forever transforming the European or British “way of life”, a kind of life true only in mythic proportions, ‘native’ resentment is so hard to die. It is because native (mainly white) European societies have not been properly inducted at an institutional level into accepting that they too must integrate into a changing multicultural society. They too must accept changes in their views about non-White immigration to fit into a new reality.

To return to the multicultural Malaysian context, we expect the more culturally dominant community – the Malays – to reexamine their cherished beliefs about being the ‘original’ people of the land because it is this belief that causes the most anxiety, the greater amount of violence and footdragging, as it infers that Malays have much more to ‘lose’ than non-Malays should a pluralist egalitarian multicultural Malaysia exist. It is this same belief that fuels the anti-Malaysian ‘pendatang’ rhetoric, that non-Malays are somehow lesser Malaysians, not naturally embedded into the cultural fabric that by default privileges Malays and the Malay culture and language.

We have to acknowledge that in the project of national integration, each community, each individual, depending on their class/ethnic/gender subjectivity will be positioned differentially and the demands made (or lack of) on certain communities to demonstrate their willingness to integrate will reflect their various subjectivities. Malay hegemony in all facets of Malaysian public life, not only at an institutional level, must first be examined and taken apart in order to bring all Malaysians on an equal footing in our quest for national cohesion.

People and women, pronouns and hegemony

Ever wondered why people always say “he or she”, “man or woman”, and “his or her”, and not “she or he”, “woman or man”, or “her or his”. Does it roll of the tongue funny when people do? Does it sound unusual, somehow not right? People may argue that its sounds better to say “he or she” and “his or her” for instance. Others may say that it’s only fair because it’s about following an alphabetical sequence, because H comes before S, M before W. But not in the case of “his or her”. Why don’t we say “That is her or his prerogative”? Why should masculine pronouns always precede feminine ones?

French feminist theorists such as Helene Cixous and Simone de Beauvoir have written about the hierarchical nature of gendered language such as French (and English, just so you know) that places women as second to men in language and should one go even further, women and the feminine are also last, less important, inferior in language.

Now before you say how gender neutral Malay is, because we do not have gendered pronouns but use “dia” to refer to both women and men, Malay words borrowed from Sanskrit such as saudara is always followed by saudari, sastrawan is always followed by sastrawati, putera then puteri. You get the idea.

Another example of how women and the feminine are pretty much diminished in language is when we talk about people in general. There are people who are almost always men, and then there are women. This may sound incredibly far-fetched at first, but consider when we talk about a person whom we do not know, the first instinct is use the pronoun “he” to describe the person. “He” – men – is the default person not just in language but in the way view the world.

But the masculine bias in language is not limited to the human world. How many times do you use or hear people use the masculine pronoun “he” to describe an animal whose sex you do not know? “Look at that panda. Isn’t he is cute?”. Imagine how odd people will look at you when you say “Isn’t she so cute?”.

So why does any of this matter? It matters because we play into trap of hegemony too easily and without much questioning about the little things like gender bias in language and as a result we will continue to contribute to gender stereotypes. Hegemony is the dominant idea that people take as common sense. It is a form of dominance that requires the consent of people. The funny thing about hegemony is that people often get a little upset and resistant when their common sense is challenged.

But how do we contribute to gender stereotypes through gender bias in language? Simple: consider the number of times you’ve assumed a doctor, police officer, soldier, scientist or politician to be male until you discovered the gender of that person. You’re reading a book about a doctor, and in your mind you think of a man. You’re about to be introduced to a nurse, and you’ll imagine to meet a woman.

Gender stereotypes is a subtle yet powerful mechanism that ensures that women and men should remain the way they are or be or do something that totally makes sense. Gender stereotypes maintain the unequal status quo. Women are more suited to be nurses and homemakers because women are more caring – this is a gender stereotype.

You may argue that stereotypes are not necessarily bad, like what’s wrong with being caring anyway? It is after all a positive trait. But the assumption that all women are caring and therefore should be carers punishes women who are not. How shocked will you be when you hear a woman saying she hates the idea of being a mother and dislikes babies?

And so gender equality is not about the “big” things like eradicating gender-based violence and ensuring equal representation in “important” jobs, but also about the small things that add up and have the influence the bigger things. Challenge the way you use language and be surprised by how you challenge people’s taken-for-granted ideas about gender. Say “she or he”, “women and men”, “her and his”.

Use the pronoun “she” to assume a gender of a person you don’t know. Alternatively, you can use gender neutral pronouns such as “hir” in lieu of “her” or “his”, “zee” instead of “she” or “he”. Challenge the idea why people (read: women and men) have not been offended when they are all referred to as “him”, but why a gender-unknown person may be offended when referred to as “she”. You will discover much more than biases in language, but the nerve centre of inequality itself – disrupt and dismantle it.