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All you hybrids, emerge from your closet

— By Ooi Kee Beng

THE MALAYSIAN INSIDER, APRIL 30, 2010 — Ethnocentrism is not the opposite of multiracialism. For some reason, we tend to suppose it to be so. The truth of the matter is, the contradistinction between the two is political, not logical.

Like all terms that lend themselves to political polarisation, these two result from a rationalising process through which constituencies are formed, ready to be manipulated.

And so, while an ethnocentric policy favours a certain prescriptive community, a multiracial perspective involves or acts on behalf of various races. What both postures do in common, however, is entertain — though to different degrees — an essentialist view of ethnicity.

While the ethnocentric bluntly champions his or her own self, the multiracialist admits that other groups are equal to his own group, at least before the law of the land. The strategy is that since we are different from each other, we have to circle each other like wary dogs. We have to tolerate each other.

Multiracialism, being a political expedience, therefore harbours one fatal weakness. It does not give due acknowledgement to how we as individuals are endlessly changing, even culturally. As a result, we merely aim to tolerate each other, and not enjoy each other’s evolving selves.

Instead of just adopting multiracialism as the political opposite of ethnocentrism, we should instead seek the latter’s conceptual opposite, which I argue, is the acknowledgement of individual hybridism.

We live and we learn, and in this learning of facts and developing of social behaviour, we evolve. Individually, we mature culturally and emotionally in unique directions, and in time, we gain confidence to consider ourselves as being distinct in inherent ways from other members of our ethnicity or gender or
class or family.

To acknowledge our evolving selves therefore, is to acknowledge this individual hybridism.

What politics does is to encourage hybrids to think of themselves as group creatures, and their individual differences, born of unique fates, meetings and experiences, are subordinate to a collective essence. This is understandable, because without that type of consciousness, professional politicians would be without a constituency.

Appealing to superstitions such as race and the like is the easy route to power for the charlatan. Imagine if they had to debate definite issues and discuss complex matters with their fellow men and women. Most of them might come out sounding like unelectable idiots.

For the rest of us, professing multiracialism is not enough. Taking delight in human pluralism must extend to the self’s experience of its own hybridism and that of other individuals.

Hybrids need to stand up and be counted.

* This article is taken from the May 2010 issue of “Penang Economic Monthly”, published by the Socio-economic and Environmental Institute (SERI), Penang, now out at all good bookshops and newsagents.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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