Anti-Racism in Malaysia: An Introductory Resource List

“No Answers, No Apology: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia” by Human Rights Watch (2014)

Between 2000 and 2009, there is an overrepresentation of minorities who died by the lethal force in the hands of the police: 40% of those who died were Indonesian migrants, followed by 21% Indians. This Human Rights Watch report, the most comprehensive of its kind, is a primer to understanding the racialised nature of police violence in Malaysia and its opaque regime of accountability (most investigations over police brutality are carried out internally). Re-reading it will give new impetus to the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill, shelved by the government in October 2019 due to strong police resistance.

Read the report here. Also read: The Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police (2004), reports by Suhakam, SUARAM Human Rights reports and anti-discrimination resources by KOMAS.

Taming the Wild: Aborigines and Racial Knowledge in Colonial Malaya by Sandra Khor Manickam (2015)

Is race just biology and genetic differences? Of course not. In Taming the Wild, we are introduced to the classificatory practices of the census, colonial anthropology, and later-discredited scientific developments in the early part of the century that led to the indigenous groups in Malaysia acquiring their sticky association of backward tribes more attuned to the ways of the land. 

Purchase for RM64 at GerakBudaya here, or listen to the author’s interview with BFM 89.9 here. See also the Center for Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CMIS) at the University of Malaya, where important decolonising work is happening, and read our interview with  Welyne Jehom, the head of research at CMIS here. Also follow Gerai OAJaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) and the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC).

Gerimis Art Project

Gerimis’s archival work, zines, exhibitions and publications highlight indigenous forms of knowledge through the development of an art project. Notably, these projects focus on the relationship between orang asal and the environment: through stories of the land, interactions with plants and animals, and craft traditions of respecting the earth.

Follow Gerimis Art Project on Facebook here and on Instagram here. To hear more indigenous stories, check out Iban Dream, a fantasy fiction series by Golda Mowe. For more on the relationship between orang asal and the environment, see also, Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia by Tuck-Po Lye (2004); The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia by Colin Nicholas (2000) – available for free in PDF hereMoney Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia by Lukas Straumann (2014).

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson (1991)

Anderson’s canonical study of nations centers an emotional and cultural imagination as the foundation of contemporary statehood. Nations, defined as “imagined communities,” allow us to believe ourselves as belonging to a “horizontal comradeship” with a shared sense of history, values and beliefs. It exposes the appeal, and fragility, of – in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – the “single story” of state-based conceptions of the nation, but also shows how individuals might act to shift these tales.

Download a free pdf here or purchase for £13 at Verso here. See also: Taming Babel by Rachel Leow (2016), Yee I-Lann’s artworks interrogating the borders of nationhood.

“Imagined minorities: rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia” by Tan Zi Hao (New Mandala, 2018)

Drawing heavily from Benedict Anderson’s study of nationhood, the artist and writer Tan Zi Hao analyses the appeal of self-minoritisation among the two largest ethnic groups in Malaysia – the Malay and Chinese. Victimisation is enabled here by access to economic and political power, most notably in museums, while actual minorities – orang asal, anak negeri etc – are entirely sidelined.

Read the article here. See also, “Malays and Orang Asli: contesting indigeneity,” by Rusaslina Idrus In: Melayu: The Politics, Poetics and Paradoxes of Malayness (2011).

“In Cold Blood: The Truth of the Batang Kali Massacre” by BBC (1993)

State violence during the Emergency has frequently haunted discussions on racial relations in Malaysia. However, in the commemoration of historical trauma, there is often a dearth of information: the British government has refused to declassify the archives of the period, the successor Malaysian government has not fully acknowledged its complicity, and efforts are hampered by the amnesia on the part of many Chinese Malaysians, who are anxious to sanitise their own left-wing and labour origins. This BBC documentary begins to do this crucial work of remembrance and restitution of injustice.

Also read the compilation of May 13 oral histories published by GerakBudaya, Ong Kar Jin’s article on writing a history of May 13 through objects, as well as watch Fahmi Reza’s documentary on radical Merdeka visions in ‘10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka’.

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City by Christine BN Chin (2013)

This book helps us grapple with the reality that migrant workers are not a peripheral class, but sinews of Malaysian capitalism. Malaysia’s relentless drive towards industrialised status also produced in its wake, the need for migrant sex workers as a parallel class servicing the professionals in KL’s higher-end services economy. Throughout the book, there is a very empathetic tone towards the condition of migrancy–the decisions to migrate and undertake sex work depended less on individual choices, and are structured by the necessities of global capitalism. But even as migrants thread these path-dependent routes, they were quick to emphasise their own agency, and the cosmopolitan benefits that come with their itinerancy, no matter how narrow this vision of empowerment may seem to us.

Download a free pdf here or purchase an e-book for RM70 here. Also check out a R.Age op-documentary on the other lives that migrant workers lead in Malaysia here, and the #MigranJugaManusia masterlist of information and resources here. For a broader discussion on conditions of labour, both migrant and Malaysian, see Charles Hector’s history of labour unions in Malaysia here.

“Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore” by Sharon Frese, and Ng Yi-sheng, directed by Irfan Kasban (2019)

Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore (2019) from The Art of Strangers on Vimeo.This performance lecture explores how the legacy of black diasporic cultures can be found in contemporary Singapore.

See also, the Letters for Black Lives project here, which has resources in Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Urdu.

Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas (1977)

Syed Hussein Alatas’s Myth of the Lazy Native is a sociological analysis of the colonial image of “lazy” Malays, Filipino and Javanese from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Alatas argues that this image was crucial to furthering the aims of colonial capitalism. It reveals race and ethnicity – and the “essential” characteristics attributed to them – as political categories often manipulated by elites to justify and further their own goals: perhaps the most pernicious contemporary use of the myth of the lazy native was by Mahathir in The Malay Dilemma (1970) to justify race-based economic policies. This book famously inspired Edward Said’s canonical text, Orientalism (1978), a treatise on the colonial construction of the immutable difference between “East” and “West.”

Download a free pdf here, or purchase from Routledge for £36 here. See also The Origins of Malay Nationalism by William Roff (1967); “The Advent of the Bumiputra” in The End of Empire and Making of Malaya by Tim Harper (1998); and Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago by Nicholas J. Long (2013).

Cage of Freedom: Tamil Identity and the Ethnic Fetish in Malaysia (2006) and Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations by Andrew C. Willford (2014); Class, Race, and Colonialism in West Malaysia: The Indian Case by Michael R. Stenson (1980); and Religion-State Encounters in Hindu Domains: From the Straits Settlements to Singapore by Vineeta Sinha (2011)

Sugu Pivithra has become an overnight youtube sensation during the Movement Control Order for sharing her simple home-cooked recipes in Bahasa Malaysia that has attracted Malaysians across all class, racial and political divides. But behind the success of every youtube celebrity is the background story of a community’s plight, having first migrated to Malaysia as indentured labourers working in the rubber plantations. Vineeta’s, Wilford’s and Stenson’s studies survey the Tamil community’s efforts to come to terms with its marginalisation and methods of participation within Malaysia’s nation-building. The fetishisation of ethnicity and its religious mantle are understood as a political vehicle for social justice redress promised by the nation. It further underlines the significance of ethnicity as a double-edge sword that reproduces entrenched subjectivity, even as it offers some of the most potent forms of expression to render visible and account for the subjugation of a racial community.

See also, Beyond the Sea by P. Singaram (2016) and Crossing the Bay of Bengal by Sunil Amrith (2015).

“Now You Know Lah: Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia”, by Rojak Daily

The title says it all! Combat that ignorance.

See also Google Earth Voyager OA highlights. Other video resources: “The Story of Kam Agong” by Lawrence Jayaraj, Agnes Padan & Wong Chin Hor; “Dialog dengan Dendi” by Badrul Hisham; “Aku Mau Skola”, by Putri Purnama, and “Out of Sight: Malaysia’s Orang Asli”, by 101 East

The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State by James F. Warren (1981)

Warren’s fascinating study re-centers the Sulu Zone at the heart of the story of global colonial capitalism. Not only does the book explore how cross-cultural trade and European dominance affected men and women who were forest dwellers, fishermen, highlanders, and slaves, it captures the complex dynamics of ethnic constitution that emerged as the Sama-Bajau adapted to new fluid notion of ethnicity under the Sulu Sultanate, where as a feudal class servicing the Tausugs, they were able to expand their population through an ambivalent process assimilating people from across the Malay archipelago who were enslaved by the Iranuns and perpetuating this system of subjugation through their participation in slave-raiding.

On the same theme of cosmopolitan and fluid racial identities, also check out Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Sumit K. Mandal (2017); Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009) edited by Daniel PS Goh, Matilda Gabrielpillai, Philip Holden and Gaik Cheng Khoo.

On the Sulu Sea by Supriya Singh (1984)

Singh, a sociologist and journalist, here turns her eye to the Simunul Bajau community of Kampung Bokara in Sandakan, Sabah, This book is poignant ethnography on race-relations and magisterial thesis on learning from one another that opens with a poignant meditation, “The small room I rent in a Borneo village over the sea, feels strange on my first night. What will it be like to live in a village? Alone in a rented room? A woman on her own in a traditional environment? An Indian among the Simunul Bajaus, a Sikh among Muslims?”

On orang asal knowledge, see Deadly Dances in the Bornean Rainforest: Hunting Knowledge of the Penan Benalui by Rajindra K. Puri (2006) and Orang Asli Animal Tales by Lim Boo Liat (2010). For sociological work on orang asal, see Orang Asli Women of Malaysia: Perceptions, Situations & Aspirations by Adela Baer et al (2006) and Chita’ hae: Culture, crafts and customs of the Hma’ Meri in Kampung Sungai Bumbon, Pulau Carey by Raita Rahim (2007).

Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times by Philip A. Kuhn (2008)

Can we think of Chineseness as an identity that is constituted principally through its encounter with others? Where and when might this history of Chinese modernity be located? Philip A. Kuhn moves us out of the Mainland to the South Seas of the Malay Archipelago. Marshalling archival documents, epigraphy, print culture to make a persuasive reading of how the consciousness of one’s ethnic identity can only be emerged through cultural interactions and encounters with others, challenging the conventional view that ethnic purity existed prior to cultural contact.

Download a free e-pub here or purchase for SGD38 from NUS Press here. On Chinese communities in Malaysia, check out “Getting By”: Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia by Donald M. Nonini (2015). There is also a veritable tradition of nanyang fiction in Chinese that is being translated to English, most recently the English translation of Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like A Mirror, available from Kinokuniya here.

On variations of the same theme about how our identities have shifted, diffused, solidified, and evolved in relation to and against another, also check out White Paper on Race Relations published by Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara (1988), Race and Politics in Urban Malaya by Alvin Rabushka (1973), “Who Invented the Dayaks? Historical Case Studies in Art, Material Culture and Ethnic Identity from Borneo” by Dianne Margaret Tillotson (1994), Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore’s Plural Society by Anoma Pieris (2009) and Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka by Leonard Andaya (2008).

Additional Credits

With thanks to Sara Loh for contributions to this list.