For too long, thinking about race in Malaysia has been directed by state discourse. The state-driven paradigm of pluralism, as manifested in the separate and separable “Malay”/ “Chinese”/ “Indian”/ “Others” racial categorizations, with their origins in the political economy of nineteenth-century British colonial rule, is deeply embedded in ideologies, policies, and practices and also integrated into formal structures and institutions. Although these categories of race and naming have lost much of their salience on the ground, the state continues to mobilize them as a primary marker of difference and differentiation between groups. The inherent violence of the hegemonic “MCIO” construct has also engendered inequalities by exercising enormous power as the basis for dominance and control. In spite of the pervasiveness of state representations, social shifts and transitions – as epitomized by cultural representations in literature and, also, film, music, the visual and performing arts – are signs of transformation and transcendence that suggest a move away from race-based thinking. These social indicators offer us a space to begin a new conversation about race in Malaysia. This lecture explores the significance of these changes in challenging dominant constructions of race and their implications for cultural politics and Malaysian Studies. By focusing on the tensions between state constructions of race and cultural practices and productions “from below”, this lecture contends that the disjunction that exists between “how we are represented and how we have come to represent ourselves” constitutes an important point of departure for knowledge construction. Since state and other hegemonic actors who benefit from dominant racial paradigms have a vested interest in maintaining them and tend to resist reform and innovation, it is imperative that the attempt to rearticulate race is done at, from, and through this site of ideological and conceptual rupture. The term “rethinking” in the title, then, points not only to the new directions in Malaysian social relations but also to the need to conceive new paradigms in the light of evolving social and cultural realities.
Dr. Gabriel received her PhD from the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on postcolonial literary and cultural studies, specifically, on ideologies of home and nation, diaspora, minority communities, multiculturalism, identity politics and questions of race and cultural translation.