Derek Kok reminiscence his past to find out how he started to see colour.

A, C, D, E, F . . .

I went to kindergarten at Tadika Riang Baru.

I remember competing with an ‘angmoh‘ kid for the attention of an Indian girl named Joanne. You could say she was my  ‘first crush’. I adored her. I thought her pixie haircut was cute. That smile, oh that smile. Tadika Riang Baru’s uniform never looked prettier on anyone else.

I remember that my best friend in kindergarten was Luvin Kumar, a Chindian boy.  We were like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Maybe Batman & Robin.

I remember a lot of things from my kindergarten days. But I also remember that I did not know a lot.

I didn’t know what was Malay, Chinese or Indian.

I didn’t know Joanne was Indian. All I knew was that oh-so-sweet smile.

I didn’t know the angmoh was an ‘angmoh‘. All I knew was that I did not appreciate him going after my girl. >:(

I didn’t know Luvin was Chindian.

I didn’t know back then that I did not ‘look Chinese’.

I remember my grandmother saying that I looked Malay. She also told me that if I misbehaved, the ‘apunehneh‘ (a not-so-nice term for Indians) will kidnap me. The apunehneh was like the Bogeyman;  an embodiment of terror which my grandmother used to great effect in order to keep my mischievous behaviour at bay.

Ke Bangku Sekolah Rendah

Then it was primary school. People say that you go to school to learn.

I did. I learnt what ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ meant.

My eyes started to see ‘colour’.

I even started to notice my own colour. Like my grandmother, people were remarking that I looked Malay. I remember how my mum’s colleagues in school would joyfully exclaim that I ‘looked Melayu‘. I never understood why were they grinning from ear to ear while going, “Eh macam Melayu la anak kamu ini!” (My mum was a teacher in the same school, horror of horrors).

I began to see that people were separated based on WHAT they are. I remember an ustazah coming into my class one day, asking those who were non-Muslims to raise our hands. Being the blur kid I was, I raised my hand in compliance.

She then looked straight at me, “Kamu ni Cina ke Melayu?

Cina, cikgu.

We were then asked to leave our class to go into another. Ah, the segregation of Moral and Pendidikan Islam students. I began to see that there was a “them vs us” culture right in the classrooms of a mission school.

In school, I learnt many new words. I learnt that certain words carried certain connotations with them, words that somehow like a magic spell from Harry Potter would incite mini fights in my all-boys school. Mind you, boys whose age did not even reach a double figure.

Words like keling.


Not only that, I also learnt a few things. Cina makan babi, Cina kedekut. Malays were dumb, lazy and could not speak English. I learnt that Indians were keling; the troublemakers in school. I learnt that the Chinese and Indians are to go back to China and India respectively if we don’t know how to speak Bahasa Melayu. I learnt that the Malays were good at sepak takraw, the Indians football and running, the Chinese in maths and basketball.

I was just the teacher’s son. A primary school kid in navy blue shorts.

But I learnt a lot didn’t I?

These ‘lessons’ I learnt, were they true?

I was just the teacher’s son. A primary school kid in navy blue shorts.

How could I have known, what was right or wrong with what I ‘learnt’ in school?

People always thought I was Malay from my looks. Didn’t help that I had a Malay slang to go with my look. In fact the most FAQ I am asked is – “You Malay ah?”

Funny thing was, I represented Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur to the Bahasa Melayu National-level Storytelling Competition for two consecutive years in primary school, falling in love with the language in the process. In Year 4, I placed fourth. In Year 5, I emerged as the National Champion, possibly the first non-Malay to win that title.

Masuk Sekolah Menengah

Then came secondary school.

History repeated itself.

Everyone thought I was Malay.

There was once I nearly got punished by the afternoon session supervisor. Reason? Saya tak pergi solat. He obviously thought I was Malay.

Racism was alive and well in school. It wasn’t an abstract concept, it could be seen by anyone who has a pair of eyes. Siva would sit next to Guna in class. A bunch of Chinese boys would be yakking away in Mandarin from the back of the classroom. The few Malays in class 5 Azam would huddle together. Our class teacher would valiantly try to change our seating arrangements to reflect a more Malaysian setting, but to no avail.

When we went for sports, the Chinese kids would naturally gravitate to the basketball courts, while the Malays and Indians would square off against each other in a game of futsal. When the bell rang for recess, the whole school would be in chaos. Imagine nearly a thousand hormonal and hungry boys on growth spurts rushing for food in the canteen. When the dust has settled (literally), you’ll see again people sitting according to their ethnicity.

I was the weird one in school. Unlike the other Chinese students, I mixed around with the other races. I was usually the only Chinese student who played futsal with the Malays and Indians. Some days I sat with the Chinese. Some days, the Indians welcomed me as one of their own.

My best friend in school was Ikhwan B. Mohd Yasin. People said that we were like brothers, some thought we were a gay couple. Sometimes, teachers would ask me, “Bila nak masuk Islam, Derek?

Belajar Rajin-rajin

I thought I am/was not racist.

I have a best friend who is a Malay.

I mixed around with people of every race.

I loved Bahasa Melayu.

I liked thinking that I represented what Malaysia was really about. My ‘Malaysian’ face was even part of a winning campaign that showcased the diversity of Malaysia.

But deep inside me, prejudices and stereotypes reign.

“Typical Malay. Lazy, subsidy-mentality, rempit.”

Cerita pusing. No action, talk only. Indians.”

“What a selfish, kiasu Chinese. Communist.”


We all know all these descriptions don’t do justice. There are very hard-working Malays out there, even in my very own school. I know of many Chinese guys who are the epitome of a bum. I have seen my Indian friends standing up for what they believe in. I remember Haris Ibrahim saying that there is only one race. The human race.

As a child, I was beautifully colour-blind. I want to be blind to what I can see now.

Who do I blame for this? My parents who pass off racist comments? My grandmother who indoctrinated me with the belief that Indian men will hunt me down if I misbehave? Or do I point my accusing finger at the education system of Malaysia?

Did they teach me racism?

Or is it the man in the mirror?

Are we all actually racists, deep inside?

Tepuk dada, tanyalah selera.

Derek wonders where Joanne is now. He is a leap-year baby who plans to read law. Mathematically, he is only four-years old, but people believe that he is actually an old, bald man disguised in the body of an 18-year old. A sufferer of severe split personality disorder, he changes personas according to the weather. Passionate for this country, he believes that all change starts with the man in the mirror. He is very single, but also not very available because his mum thinks he’s too young to date. Faced with the challenge of writing this blurb, his palms started sweating. And he yelled,”BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

Derek is a leap-year baby who is currently reading law. He is single but not available because his mum thinks that he’s too young to date. Follow his frivolous, inane and meaningless Tweets at @derekqiren.

70 replies on “They Taught Me Racism?”

  1. hie! sorry if this is OT but just wondering if there's a general email address for this site to which I can shoot a question/ comment to? was searching the site but couldn't find anything >.<

    any help is appreciated. thanks.

  2. Derek man, u the man….totally agree with you…if things are not gonna change…there is not gonna be a future malaysia generation…

  3. Fantastic read indeed. Haven't come across such a simple but powerful article for quite some time. Keep writing :)

  4. People can be taught truths and lies, at times by force of power.

    But no one can stop people from learning to tell them apart because the odds of Nature is stacked on the side of truth.

    What is taught can be unlearned but truth cannot be untruthed.

    I learnt not just to spot lies (that's getting easier by the day) but to spread truth.

    And Derek, no one can stop us from doing that.

  5. Nice piece Derek… Im too a sufferer of "are you malay? (sometimes nepal)" dont you just get tired of hearing that question LoL

  6. Mahatir murdered muhibbah for a few gold coins.

    Good article kiddo all the best. You better wear shades coz your future looks bright. ;)

  7. Derek, what a prolific writer and so so so darn true, whiter than white.
    Many politicians seem to compromise on their Intergrity and fan the flame of racism and hatred and the Govt fans this by doing nothing and allows it to flourish. The Govt hopes that by trying not to do anything people will not see what's happening……..

    What's wrong with the people ………

    Is it the politicians……..


    Live n let live?????????

    What's wrong with us Derek ?

  8. i second that! it resonates SO SO clearly with me. i went to a berbilang bangsa primary school too, and spoke BM with my chinese friends. it's just sad that after primary school, 99% of the ppl i've hung out with are chinese. seeing ppl of different races interacting makes me happy – but it's a rare sight in KL now, really…

  9. Derek man,

    Your piece was a brilliant study of how we could/ should have been. With guys like you, we'll never loose come what may. GodBless you bro.

  10. "Indian men will hunt me down if I misbehave"

    no wonder children( and many times adults) are scared of me

  11. I had many unpleasant experiences as I went to school in Kuala Lumpur. Such steorotypes and name calling is not as common back here in Sabah. But I fear that it is slowly changing!

  12. Derek, I gotta hand it to you, mate. Well said! All of it. Couldn't agree with you more. oh and… good luck with finding Joanne. Am definitely going to drop by your blog regularly now…


  13. Good write-up! Keep writing! :-) We also must not forget the Orang Asli students too especially those who go to schools where there are more Malays, Indians and Chinese students. They are so often segregated, bullied (example: extorting money from them) and neglected by students as well as teachers.

    Racism is getting worst in schools especially schools in rural areas or small towns. When I was in primary school (a methodist school), we had malays, indians, chinese and orang asli students and we mixed together very. Today, there are more primary schools around. Most of the Chinese-speaking Chinese today will send their kids to the Chinese schools, the Indians(who can only speak Tamil) will send their kids to the Tamil schools and the English-speaking Chinese/Indians(very few in small towns) will send their kids to SK schools.

    Once they go to secondary school, they get so comfortable mixing with their own kind of race. It's also due language barrier. Most of the Chinese and Indian students are not fluent in English or Malay. How are they going to communicate with each other? (I blame the primary school language teachers and the donkey education system)

    I feel most schools (I think) in bigger towns such as PJ or KL have a good mixture (errr..ok ok only lah)of races because they can speak good English or Malay and it's not so difficult to mix with each other.

    Most of the schools in Pen. Malayisa are located in rural areas and smaller towns and it's sad to know that racism is a very big problem in these schools.

  14. Tabik sama lu, Derek. Well i'm not good at writing neither persuading but i share the same thought. The root for the sentiment, in my case i'd say it's our education system. My father was a wise man. He even once said that it's ok if i married to a girl from a different ethnic. By the way i'm sure that you wont mind if i share your thought(your article actually) with others. Man, tell you what i'm going to have a back-up of this article. Your article will be inspiration for me to tell my story……. keep going bro.

    My best Regards.

  15. I am just like you my friend, just like you… Feels great to know there are true Malaysians out there.

    It "gives me hope".

    Take care,

    A Malaysian Indian brother.

  16. this is a good piece of mind! Go work derek. Perhaps with that we can change the stereotypes and prejudices that we all have inside us?

  17. CY Loh, thanks for the lyrics. Again, nature vs nurture. Is racism from within us, or was it 'taught' to us? Hmm.

    Lingswaran, thank you SO much for your kind & generous words!

    Paul Alan, what is your point? Are you implying that this racism is 'necessary' to maintain so-called peace and stability in this nation?? I believe that the divide-and-rule policy was basically THE reason why racism is rampant and alive today. In fact, BN still is employing this policy. So-called political stability at the cost of unity?

    A former student, Benjamin, Lily & Syah – THANK YOU SO MUCH! I am very encouraged and humbled!

    Tiara, it saddens me reading your comment. I apologise on behalf on my fellow Malaysians. I would like to encourage you to not let the bamboo/glass ceiling hinder you from making a difference in the world, from being who you are meant to be! Stay strong, persevere! I know it's easier said than done for me, but we give a shit, we care.

    Nana, I am flattered by your interest, HAHAHA. Although I'm very single and don't mind the age gap, I am not available cause my mum thinks I'm too young to date, hahahahah.

    Zana, thanks for your compliment and opinion! I share your sadness and pine for my colour-blind days. Wonder what happened along the way, sigh. Our parents, society or our schools?

    Cynthia, precisely! Thanks for those beautiful words!

    Rvin, I don't think you're digressing. ;) Well, it's not THAT bad in our school, but it's still VERY VERY clear to see. Maybe not so rampant in your batch ( who are more mature and IMHO the most racially diverse batch), but among the lower forms it is pretty bad. My class played futsal like this – Indians vs The Others. I used to play for the Indians, then I went to the other side. Got trashed.

    Abby, katak di bawah tempurung eh? Pada pendapat saya, masalah perkauman yang berlaku di dalam kaum itu sendiri timbul kerana masyarakat dan kaum itu mempunyai persepsi yang silap tentang apa itu Melayu, India atau Cina. Muncullah situasi seperti saudari Abby kongsikan – Cina yang tidak 'cukup Cina atau Melayu yang tidak 'cukup' India.

    Mengapa persepsi itu timbul? Adakah ia sifat serta naluri semulajadi kami? Atau adakah persepsi ini dibaja serta disiram stereotaip yang telah diturunkan oleh ibubapa serta guru-guru kami? Di manakah silapnya?

    Betul kata Abby bahawa stereotaip perkauman ini berlaku dimana-mana sahaja. Namun adakah kita sekadar menongkah dagu, menggeleng kepala dan terus menerima 'status quo' ini? Atau adakah kami yang sedar tentang barah perkauman yang kian menular ini akan bangkit dan cuba mengubah tanah air tercinta ini?

  18. I've got similar experiences. Derek well written! It's ironic that in primary school the separate the country and in Secondary they try to stick it back with glue.

    What can we do Derek?

  19. very true indeed

    but in the '10 5A we play futsal regardless of skin color though :D

    all that matters is we can release some study stress and score some goals.

  20. I'm sorry.

    "I was writing a story the other day about 2 boys fighting over wanting to play the white kingdom in a chess game, because it represents GOOD and black represents EVIL. The father came and said, asking, if one kingdom is green and the other is yellow, how can you tell which one is evil and which one is not?

  21. Derek,

    Saya rasa, sifat perkauman yang paling menyakitkan hati berlaku di dalam kaum itu sendiri. Apabila kita tidak cukup Melayu untuk rakan sekaum kita. Atau tidak cukup Cina untuk rakan sekaum yang lain. Masalah perkauman ini berlaku kepada mereka yang tidak banyak mengembara. Saya dibesarkan di tujuh buah sekolah. Saya boleh bezakan mentaliti mereka yang tak pernah berpindah, dengan mereka yang membesar di merata-rata tempat. Pembukaan minda tentang betapa besarnya dunia yang terdiri daripada berbilang kaum, hampir sukar difahami oleh mereka yang tak pernah tinggal di lebih daripada 2 buah rumah atau dua buah sekolah.

    Yang penting, cara kita dibesarkan dan apa yang kita didedahkan kepada. Stereotaip perkauman ini berlaku dimana-mana sahaja. Sesuatu yang kita kena faham. Paling penting, di dalam pemahaman kita, perlu disisipkan dengan tanggapan bahawa setiap orang dibesarkan dalam keadaan masing-masing.

    Jangan salahkan sesiapa. Kerana, jika mereka tidak bersikap demikian, tak mungkin kita boleh membuka minda untuk mempersoalkan hal ini.

    I was writing a story the other day about 2 boys fighting over wanting to play the white kingdom in a chess game, because it represents evil. The father came and said, asking, if one kingdom is green and the other is yellow, how can you tell which one is evil and which one is not?

    And just to note, the climate and weather also influences your skin colour throughout generation.

    You're still young. There's a lot in life to understand. :-)

  22. I don't ever remember wondering what your race was. Don't really recall the first time I met you but perhaps saw your nametag or something so knew you were ethnic Chinese.

    I didn't think the racism in that school was so bad. I actually saw students mixing around much more. A 'non' could be head prefect. There were no blatantly racist teachers. Well at least I didn't have any experiences with any blatantly racist teacher, I only spent a couple of years there and being a sixth former only really dealt with a few teachers.

    The school I came from was much worse. There were teachers who were blatantly racist, free to act however they wished able to say whatever they want. The rule was that only a Malay could hold the head prefect role. When I was in Form5 there weren't any proper Malay prefects (by proper I mean those who held any posts), except one Malay female prefect. So they decided that they should not only be racist but sexist and well and made a new rule that the head prefect needs to be a Malay male. This wasn't even an open secret, at one of their meetings the headmistress told the non Malay senior prefects that they can't be the head prefect because they weren't Malay.

    When I came to your school I was quite surprised how the racism wasn't so bad. Whenever I went around to the sports area I saw students of all races playing futsal. Back in my school even this was different, we had a team of Malays vs a team of 'nons'. Oh and when I was there there were other Chinese who played futsal, but they were of course your seniors.

    I feel like I've digressed much here, but hearing you talk about the situation in that school made me think back about my previous school and how much better things were when I was in Form6.

  23. Well said Derek. You have voiced out many points others have feared to even think about these days.

    I remember my Malay friends and I sitting on the long bangku in school eating from ONE packet of nasi lemak and there wasn't any fret about my saliva hand and yours…we were all ONE!

    Here's something I wanna share with all of you.

    "I am a person of colour, loving all the bright and different personalities each project in a rainbow.It's the same with people.We may be of different colour,but we ALL project various beautiful colours…together!"–CYNTHIA VANISHA PAUL

  24. Hi Derek,

    Very nicely put. But in my opinion – I had no idea who taught what to our kids, it just seems that upon growing up we seem to fail to embrace the unity/the oneness we were practicing while we were young & oblivious. So sad.

    But then again, it might be just my opinion.

  25. Imagine being the lone Bangladeshi kid all your years in school. A PR lagi.

    No one knows what to do with you.

    The school keeps trying to expel you every few years because they can't understand that permanent residents can study in state schools.

    You are either Malay, Indian, or Lain Lain depending on their mood.

    When the schools make policies around "PRs" or racial divisions you know they had you in mind.

    Despite being the best student in the school for many things, you are not recognised or acknowledged.

    Teachers motivate their students by saying "Don't let the Bangla kid do better than you" right in front of your face.

    You get asked every day as a 11 year old why there is so much stuff about Banglas in the paper, then being told to "go back to your country".

    A classmate tells you "speak in your mother tongue!" if you talk to the teacher in English.

    Your name, religion, nationality, race, identity is always under dispute.

    When you try to kill yourself by cutting your throat in the surau in primary school, all you hear is "God will send you to hell."

    no one gives a shit. no one cares.

  26. What a pleasant read! One of the more enjoyable articles I've read recently.

    Keep up the good work, Derek!

  27. Enlightening experience that helped recallled my school days in the 60’s where we’re not looked upon by the color of our skin but to be equelly treated as one irrespective of race or belief, the Sabah experience. Thanks Derek for the good write-up;what you’ve writen is now happening in Sabah,sadly after 43 yrs and its not getting any better.God bless n keep writing without fear.

  28. Well said Derek.. your jolted just what I had in my mind.

    >>>>Lingswaran Singh? Is that you, ex-law student from ukm, stayed in keris mas and hailed from penang… is that you? I repeat 3 times, IS THAT YOU?

  29. Everyone wants to be heard where racial problems r concerned. Everyone has an idea or a solution on how to solve it. Everyone thinks they know where it stems from. Few know what they r actually talking about. Can u imagine all the races living in total harmony in this country? It would mean total chaos for the ruling party. When everyone shares the same opinion and everyone is influenced by the same source, the ruling party will be threading on a very thin piece of thread. They have a solution and they have had it all this time…"Divide and conquer" The tools used to achieve this end are religion, race, ketuanan melayu and the likes. Go figure the rest of what i'am trying to say for urselves….I'am sure u r smart enough. Peace

  30. Derek dude, damn good stuff. I repeat DAMN GOOD STUFF. I repeat 3 times, DAMN GOOD STUFF. I must shake your hands.

  31. look at the lyrics from a song fom the broadway musical 'south pacific'. it's a song that challenges prejudices and implies that racism is taught:

    You've got to be taught

    To hate and fear,

    You've got to be taught

    From year to year,

    It's got to be drummed

    In your dear little ear

    You've got to be carefully taught.

    You've got to be taught to be afraid

    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

    And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,

    You've got to be carefully taught.

    You've got to be taught before it's too late,

    Before you are six or seven or eight,

    To hate all the people your relatives hate,

    You've got to be carefully taught!

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