I’ve always identified myself as a Malay my entire life. Minus the first four years, that is. When I was in kindergarten, I told everyone I was an English boy because I spoke English. Yeah, I was a really cute kid!
Even though I am a Malay, I speak Cantonese and I celebrate Chinese New Year. This is because I had Chinese ancestry on my mother’s side. I never thought much of it. But when I entered primary school around the age of seven, I received a slight shock.
I would be excited after the Chinese New Year holiday and enthusiastically tell my friends how much ang pow money I had received and that we played with firecrackers and watched lion dances. Some of the other Malay kids would tell me that I would be going to hell for that.
I was shocked because, in my seven-year-old mind, I didn’t see anything wrong with my family and I celebrating Chinese New Year. More or less, it was also the same way we celebrated Hari Raya Aidilfitri, minus going to the mosque in the morning, of course.
I was a bit confused and a little bit scared. I didn’t want to go to hell. Apparently, really bad things happen there and it sounded very torturous and painful. I wanted to go to heaven because that seemed more like a bed of clouds.
Fast forward 30 years and I’ve got a bit more matured and also, not so confused or scared anymore. I still identify myself as Malay, but with a percentage of Chinese and Bugis blood thrown into the mix. And I definitely know that I am a Muslim.
I seem to be a little bit more self-assured now. I still get poked a lot for being more fluent and comfortable speaking and writing in English. But I can handle the criticism. Basically, the way to handle it is to just ignore it.
Then out comes Firdaus 2050. He is the ideal Malay man in the year 2050, as conceptualised by the Ministry of Higher Education. A pamphlet describing Firdaus’ characteristics was distributed at the recent Umno General Assembly.
He is a successful entrepreneur who travels the world, from London to New York. He is extremely smart. He has a first-class degree majoring in maths, accounting and syariah. He has an MBA from France and a PhD from Harvard. He memorised the Quran when he was 15.
Firdaus is also extremely rich. He travels on a personal jet and his company is worth US$3.9 trillion. But he is very much in touch with the grassroots because he regularly feeds the poor and impoverished and always calls his mother in Baling, Kedah.
He speaks five languages - English, Malay, French, Japanese and Arabic. He is currently finalising the purchase of a corporate building next to the Trump Tower in New York City. And most importantly, he believes that his race is special, or ‘khairah ummah’.
An identity crisis
Firdaus has just given me an identity crisis. I don’t have a triple major degree, although my first degree is in Accountancy. I don’t have an MBA. I just have a MA in Broadcast Journalism. I definitely do not have a PhD.
I only speak three languages - English, Malay and Cantonese. I did take French in school but all I can really say is ‘Hello’ and ‘What time is it?’ I do a little bit of holiday travelling with my family and all of it is usually in economy class of a commercial airliner.
I don’t really want to be a corporate figure and to be extremely wealthy. All I enjoy doing is writing and making documentary films. I do speak to my mother a lot. We have a family WhatsApp group, where my brothers and I get regularly annoyed by our parents.
So with this concept of Firdaus 2050, where does that leave me? Am I not considered to be an ideal Malay man? Am I not Malay enough? Am I a failure if I do not aspire to the things Firdaus aspires to? Am I not a worthy member of my race?
Look, I don’t think that it is wrong to have a benchmark and to aspire to be better and move up in life. But in the context of Malaysia and the situation the country is in right now (look at Jamal Md Yunos’ red-shirts, for example), I just find it a tad problematic.
No, of course I’m not confused. So what if I feel more comfortable speaking in English? I still speak and write Malay fluently. So what if I want to celebrate Chinese New Year and play a little black jack? It’s a lot of fun! So what I don’t want to be rich? It’s less stressful!
I also don’t think that any particular race is the special race or the chosen one. Anyone can dream, have ambitions, strive to progress and be better. It doesn’t make me any less Malay, or I would rather say, Malaysian. You are Malaysian if you are Malaysian. That’s it.
ZAN AZLEE is a writer, documentary filmmaker, journalist and academician. He believes that you can never typecast race and ethnicity. You are who you are and that’s it. Visit FATBIDIN.COM to view his works.- Mkini