The Making and Unmaking (?) of a Malay Race

in Social Analysis

In these remarks on race in Malaysia, I wish to engage the popularly held belief that racism in Malaysia is a legacy of colonialism. I will instead address the way racializing beliefs and practices in the Malaysian context are better understood in the context of processes of modern state- and nation-building during the period of so-called organized modernity, processes that were at work in both colonial and non-colonial settings. This explanation at the same time provides for a more effective resolution of what might otherwise appear to be a genuine paradox, namely, the fact that racism and anti-racism appear always to co-exist in the Malaysian context. I will deal with this sense of paradox historically by problematizing the most widely accepted explanation for the racialization of contemporary Malaysian society—that it is the legacy of Malaysia’s colonial past. Subjecting the argument for colonial exceptionalism to critical scrutiny clears the way for better explanations of the apparent persistence of racializing discourses and practices in post-colonial conditions, at the same time casting doubt on the effectiveness of the kinds of universalizing anti-racist practices and movements that characterize our times.