The Question of Cultural Appropriation

By Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Malaysia has a strange relationship with race relations. On the one hand, we sell the image of a multiracial smorgasbord living together to the outside world. On the other, we live in silos and house unhealthy suspicion towards those who are our fellow countrymen but have different skin colours. This has been cultivated by decades of imperialist-minded, right-wing political parties who build their empires on racial and religious division. 60 years of Barisan Nasional rule has normalised communal politics where race-based political parties are formed and maintain their supporters through an illusion of protecting their own.

We can see this evidently now with the current government made up of parties championing racial supremacy more openly than ever before. Some even called for racial exclusivity in the cabinet, asserting only one race should lead the country as it makes up the majority. Strangely, these kinds of rhetoric have some sort of indefeasibility. Whilst critique of the majority race is often followed by threats, harassment even legal action at times, the reverse does not always carry repercussions of the same weight. The favouritism is stark.

Mira Filzah & Structural Racism

Recently, a picture Mira Filzah posted on Instagram went viral for all the wrong reasons. She was wearing an Indian lehenga for a photoshoot of a product which is lined up to be released soon. This was seen as cultural appropriation and, as everything related to race or religion in Malaysia, the matter raised split opinions. For me, there are many facets to this issue to uncover and we must be both compassionate and open-minded enough to accept very uncomfortable realities.

Cultural appropriation is a real, tangible issue that exists all around the world. In Malaysia, it is blown out of proportion due to the entanglement of identity to politics and material conditions. To me, Mira’s photoshoot is indicative of a larger phenomenon of cultural appropriation that happens quite often in Malaysia. In short, it is a feeling amongst minorities that what they have to offer is wanted but they themselves are not.

To elaborate further on this, it must be acknowledged that racial minorities are subject to systemic racism in Malaysia under the guise of positive economic discrimination whereby, we are told about scholarships, discounts, government aid and other special treatment to which we have do not have access to. We are taught that the reason for these economic assistances are to equalise the disproportionate share of capital amongst different racial groups (ie: the majority racial group owning lesser than the rest). However, we see our friends from the majority race who are well-to-do, more than ourselves, still getting the support intended for the lower class of their race.

We then hear strange new justifications for the ‘special rights’. Instead of an economic assistance to uplift less fortunate members of the community, we are told that they are a birth-right, that somehow by being born in a certain race they are deserving of better treatment and of more respect. We are subject to political rhetoric that paints us in a negative light.

The Responsibility of the Majority Race

After generations of being treated as second-class citizens and having elements of our culture being subjected to ridicule, suddenly we see the majority race picking parts of our culture to be highlighted by themselves as mere aesthetic tokens without ever addressing the deeply racial difficulties we face. This makes us feel invalidated as the very things that our people have created is co-opted by those who treat us as ‘lesser-than’s’. Of course, one might say that the individual who, in this case, donned the clothes themselves do not hold any racist feelings towards the minorities. This, in my opinion, is not a valid argument.

The racial sentiments intertwined within the fabric of Malaysian society make it impossible for us to separate the responsibility of uplifting the discriminated races from the majority race. This is because political power is concentrated with the majority race, such that they make a very effective pressure group to instill changes within how things are run locally. Individuals from this race, then, hold a specific responsibility to speak out against discrimination as much as they can wherever they find it. Sitting quietly without getting involved is not an option, as any silence is not a neutral act, rather it indirectly aids to maintain the status quo.

It might seem shallow and reductionist to boil everything down to racial relations and political activism. However, the reality of the fragile racial situation in Malaysia is such that all members of the majority race who care about racial equality need to be vocal and normalise the push for ending systemic discrimination. Until and unless they do, any utilisation of a minority race’s culture for profit and without the acknowledgement of the said community will seem like a usurpation.

Culture is Flexible and Immaterial but it Matters

Of course, another argument that pops up is the fact that culture is changing and ever-flexible, especially in a culturally diverse region as Nusantara. However, this is not an argument, it is simply a matter of fact that every current culture evolved from many before and will amalgamate into new ones. Anyone pushing for gatekeeping to keep others from enjoying their culture is not only misunderstanding the origins of culture but also fighting a losing battle against natural processes that happen over time. Hence, the sudden Indian racial purists and segregationists that popped up after this incident are silly.

However, we progressives must not look down upon them automatically and denounce them as following a colonialist mindset. In fact, the outcry is against the neo-imperialist agenda of undermining the legitimate ownership of minority races over Malaysia. In media, minorities are viewed with suspicion or their beliefs are painted as subversive, either directly or through subtle wording. Sometimes, even the person uttering these statements do not understand how offensive they are being. For example, they might say things like ‘Wow even when they aren’t Muslims they still behave in a good manner’. Whilst the underlying sentiment is one of praise or appreciation, the unspoken assumption is that being Muslim is the standard everyone is judged by.

The discrimination even bleeds into material matters. For Indians specifically, we see a greater difficulty to rent houses or even get call-backs from employers. This stripping of basic necessities impacts upon how a group acts towards another, especially one that holds as much political power as Malays. On top of that, we get front row seats to the majority race co-opting our clothing or our food whilst denying us? No, we don’t have any political power or even economic power but we do have power over our culture and you don’t get to have it without us.

Is this right? Is this the perfect solution? Of course not! But we need to take every opportunity to educate the masses and empower the disempowered. Culture might not be material, but to those without material power, it matters. When we eradicate structural racism, or at least erect mechanisms to eradicate it eventually through educating society at large, the majority race, as the ones who hold political power, must step up to help if they don’t want to be labelled as cultural appropriators.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Yashee says:

    Heu Arveent! I was a bit unclear on how to draw the line between cultural appropriation vs. cultural appreciation, and the whole concept in general. This article shed some clarity on that, and gave me a broader understanding on the subject matter. I think it was well-written, and trying to cover multiple angles (from both the perspective of the appropriator AND the minority group) was important as the article then became inclusive of whoever reading it, regardless of which side they originated from. I hope this reaches more people out there who are willing to acknowledge and understand more about this. Anyway, thanks for writing it. Good job! 🙂

  2. Sirhan W says:

    Yes, it’s complicated when it’s made complicated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *