The Contemporary Teenager: Living in 21st Century Malaysia

A perceived racial “arms race” presides over Malaysia. The growing animosity between Malaysia’s racial groups, cultivated by political parties spewing sectorial rhetoric, will inevitably preface a future of mutually assured destruction.

The Contemporary Teenager: Living in 21st Century Malaysia
A Malaysian crowd in an election campaign rally / Image: Putera Daniel Hakeem

Racial identity is unequivocally integral to Malaysian society. How one deals with it differs from person to person. Discussions on the conceptual understanding of race do not dominate conversations, yet they haunt daily interactions. Preconceived notions of the different races facilitate quick judgement, the people you meet prescribed by a race dictatorially assigned based on skin, structure, behaviour, and slang alone.

A perceived racial “arms race” presides over Malaysia. For instance, a recent recommendation for the reimplementation of local/city elections, removed since 1969, received immense backlash. Individuals and political parties linked democratic participation with a possible decline in Malay political power, consequently, putting into question their place (read: superiority) in Malaysia. A conversation on greater government accountability and transparency had been derailed to a vicious fight on race. Perhaps it is a feature and by-design of a multi-ethnic society, but the near-constant emphasis on such an “arms race”, will inevitably preface a future of mutually assured destruction.

The constant polarisation in the peninsula is merely a manifestation of the legacy of British colonial rule, namely, the all-too-familiar ‘divide and conquer’ British tactic, used to avert economic and social interaction among ethnic groups in pre-independent Malaya. Through the monoethnic domination of certain industries, such as tin mining by the Chinese, agriculture by the Malays and commodities like rubber by Indian labourers – these were, of course, dwarfed in comparison to the British who owned most of these plantations and industries – labourers of all kinds remained in their own homogenous communities with little outside interaction. This was the state adopted by the post-colonial governing parties

Outside of racial division, decades of economic restructuring and Malay-favourable policies have borne fruit – growing class division has derived from a change in the economic demographic, with new money producing a now-sizable upper-middle class. Class divisions are revealed through language, as more affluent families increasingly prioritise English education over their mother tongues (be it Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, or others), as one’s grasp of the English language opens up a billion opportunities due to the undeniable dominance of English in academia. 

Moreover, the average English-educated teenager experiences the world differently from their Malay-educated counterparts. The consumption of English media inevitably leads to the exposure to “liberal” Western culture, whereas the average Malay teen, consuming typically “traditional” – I’d argue, conservative (most prominently seen through the portrayal of women in TV shows characterised with a homogenous identity of motherhood, marriage, and subordination to men) – local media and entertainment, emerge with a starkly different perception of the world. In a landscape where linguistically homogeneous news, radio stations, and movies thrive, it is easy to be trapped in a communal bubble, protected from the diversity in opinion, culture, and perspective that surrounds you. Ideas about the world and how it should be run are powerfully shaped by language, with differing political socialisations leading to different individual ideological outcomes.

Living in 21st Century Malaysia as a teen – perhaps, a universal experience of teenhood – presents you with difficult questions of constitutional privilege, personal identity, beliefs and morality. As a Malay teenager just about to begin tertiary education, you may wonder if the numerous scholarships, loans and even placements as part of the Malay privileges prescribed by the constitution are necessary and fair; privileges that were supposedly attained through a social contract between the Malays, Chinese and Indian racial groups before independence by elitist and colonial supporting parties (UMNO, MCA and MIC) and further expanded under the now defunct New Economic Policy (NEP). As a Chinese or Indian teenager, perhaps this would be your first time clearly witnessing your state neglect you based purely on your heritage. Class consciousness, whether explicitly or implicitly, begins to seep through, when the Malay friends and foes you grew up with, knowing their lavish lifestyles, big houses and annual grand vacations, proceed to university, leeching off a Malay-privileged scholarship or an ethnic placement quota.

The Malay Dilemma of the past, where political and economic control was allegedly deserved as per their rights as “indigenous” peoples, may no longer be suitable in the 21st Century. As we enter a new era of strengthening democratic institutions and values – as seen through the, finally, free and fair elections of 2018 and 2022 – a more equitable and needs-based conversation on policy must be embraced. A new Malay dilemma needs to be answered, one which transcends ethnic lines, highlighting growing socioeconomic division and inequalities. No longer is there a war between the ‘poor’ Malays and the ‘rich’ Chinese; instead, a new frontier has opened between the working-class majority and the capital-owning minority. Working-class Malays have to ask themselves if they are truly so different from their Chinese colleagues: yes, the Chinese may speak a different language at home, eat different foods and celebrate different holidays, but you both work the same job, take the same train or own the same car, afford the same groceries and live in the same housing. As for Malay business tycoons, they may celebrate the same festivals, but at their multi-million ringgit bungalows. They may speak like you but they certainly do not live like you. We must ask ourselves, do blanket Malay affirmative action policies benefit the working-class Malays, or just the Malay tycoons?

Youth may be wasted on the young, but the young are given grace to lead. But, what is there for us to salvage? Do we continue the ignorance of the old? Hide the issues of the past? Or do we embrace this complicated path? Perhaps, previous generations, due to the newness of it all, were disinclined to having a united nation, but now, due to their mismanagement and failures, we have a common interest in building anew.

By Putera Daniel Hakeem

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of The PublicAsian.