Xenophobia in a multicultural society

Blog / Monday, July 25th, 2016

To the outside world, Malaysia, despite its various problems with government corruption on a global scale, is a considerably moderate and multicultural society. For decades, various ethnicities have learnt to live with each other harmoniously. And truth be told, this is something that is very visible, particularly in Borneo where the hometown is situated.

It’s something that is to be proud of, and constantly reinforced when in a recent election, many – myself included – professed to not wanting the “West Malaysian brand of racial politics” which is divisive to be replicated here. “Here” where mixed marriages are common; where those of Malay heritage can eat alongside those who aren’t without it becoming a political or religious issue. And “here” where visiting friends from abroad would comment on how friendly and welcoming everyone is (except, of course, these ‘friendly locals’ have yet to try and get into every single crevice of their personal business yet….but that’s a different post altogether).

Which, in all, is very nice and encouraging on the surface level. It certainly paints a very pretty, politically-correct picture.

But underneath those smiles and friendliness lies an underbelly of xenophobia that makes me cringe. And it’s a layer that most seems comfortable not talking about because “it’s just the way it is”.

Nothing is just the way it is.

Refusal to talk about the casual racism, sexism and homophobia prevalent among certain individuals or groups that hold considerable amount of power or influence will eventually lead to bigger problems. And having been privy to a “summer of chaos and discontent” in Europe, it is all the more prudent that this is talked about, especially in higher education institutions. And that this should be a problem that’s acknowledged if it’s the kinds of attitude that is prevalent among those who work in higher education, where anti-intellectualism is more acceptable because it makes one – especially if you’re female – less threatening. Indeed, if this is the kind of attitudes which are common, what sort of future generations are we then producing?

That is extremely troubling to me.

Not just as an academic or educator, but as a human being. And this troubling reality was reinforced as I sat and watched with disbelief among fellow friends and academics as majority of Britain voted to leave the European Union in June. Suddenly, even the melting pot of cultures that is London holds elements of unfamiliarity, as if that sense of security is suddenly lost. The political and economic outcomes of Brexit aside, the results of the referendum is a legitimisation of xenophobia and racism. All of a sudden, people feel justified to shout abuse at someone who is different. It didn’t happen overnight; the kind of differentiation starts from the incessant need to draw a line between “us” and “them”, where “they” in this equation are the migrants, those of a different ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion…and the list goes on. And it’s the kind of implosion that can happen to everyone, every city, every country if we let this kind of attitude or resentment simmer for too long because every kind of flippant comment is dismissed as “the status quo”.

It’s easy to scoff and say this will never happen here. No one pays attention to Borneo, we’re too inconsequential and small to matter.

Is it? Are we? Does this mean that xenophobia and racism do not happen because we’re apparently small and inconsequential?

Resentment starts when we least expect it; the flippant ways in which we brush someone off or judge them according to their appearance, or behaviour, or nationality — that builds up resentment. That casual racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia builds intolerance.

And it almost feels that, as if to be considered “local”, I must then feel the same way about those “not from around here”. I don’t understand how it is OK, upon determining that yes, I’m a “local” immediately warrants it justifiable that the other person can then just start sharing their thoughts about how the bigger the city gets, the more migrants and international students are coming here, the more robberies/break-ins/scams happen. Nor when racial slurs are casually thrown around in offices in front of colleagues of different ethnicities. Or when student disabilities are casually dismissed, because God knows if you’re (East/Southeast) Asian and have a PhD, you’re also a mental health professional! Or, god forbid, being properly Asian, one should know better than to “succumb” to something as “foreign” as mental illness.

The numerous times I’ve commented about how all academic staff should be sent to sensitivity training is laughed off as me being “too Western” and have obviously been “away for too long”. Thank goodness for that! I’d rather I go through the endless cycle of culture shock and cultural adjustment every time I go abroad for a holiday or a conference and return to work than to be small-minded like some are. I’d rather offend everyone with my “Western sensibilities and political correctness” than to be stuck in the vicious cycle of so-called small town mentality.

Because, guess what? This isn’t OK!

This is especially not OK when you work in a higher education institution and professed to love teaching and your students. Yes, universities are the best time to expose students to alternative viewpoints and opinions, to challenge them to things they will not encounter otherwise in a school or if they never leave the country. But when teaching staff – even those who have lived abroad – perpetuate the kind of discriminatory behaviour and language, you’re producing an endless cycle of young people who will now be racist, sexist and homophobic. Who will go on to perpetuate their own fears and xenophobia unto their children. And we will never get out of the unproductive mantra of “this is just the way things are”. Or worst yet, take it out on those deemed to be different.

And if you think you can get away with being xenophobic to outsiders and those who are different, and still say you’re proud of the multicultural society you come from because you can live harmoniously with other ethnicities, then you should be ashamed of yourself! I am ashamed to be Bornean in this case. These multicultural milestones you’re so proud of are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, because what it shows is that you don’t understand what multiculturalism actually means.

Do you want people like that to educate your children in university?

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