In conjunction with #WhyMalaysia week, Tiara Shafiq shares with us about what it takes to be Malaysian, according to the system.
The day after I flew back up from Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur (KL) for the third time in
about six months, I was sitting in one of the rooms at KDN (Ministry of Home Affairs), where an interviewer two years my senior asked: “Why do you want to be a Malaysian citizen?”
To be honest I don’t know anymore.
I was born in 1985 in Johor Bahru, but due to my parents being
foreigners at the time (my dad being on a work permit) I was born a
foreigner too. It wasn’t until just before I entered primary school
that our whole family received permanent residency—a process that
involved internal mishaps and anxious moments.
I do not remember life before permanent residency, but I do remember
how much of a pain it was to be as a Permanent Resident (PR), a seemingly unknown status within Malaysia, one where I had to keep explaining my right to exist over and over again. What made it even worse was that I was a Bangladeshi, a supposedly “dirty illegal”; never mind that my parents were educated middle-class and that my father was brought in as a civil engineer.
School was a torture cell for me. This was supposedly one of the best
schools in the state and yet they treated me as inhumane garbage. No
child should ever have to be told by their teachers to “go back to
your country”. No child should ever have to explain the news reports
that claimed that Bangladeshis were robbing houses and stealing women
(only to be told upon protest that I should “grow thicker skin”). I
had teachers tell my classmates, in front of my face, “don’t let the
Bangla girl do better than you”. Even my art skills came under
scrutiny, with teachers mocking me during exams saying “my six-year-old
could do better”. The students copied the teachers in their mockery of
me. It didn’t matter that I won tons of awards every year, that I was
the best English language student the whole time I was there—their
perception of my race invalidated any good thing I tried to do or achieved.
No one stood up for me. Instead, when I attempted suicide in the
prayer room at age 11, the only other person there said “God will send
you to hell”. I begged my parents to send me elsewhere, even overseas,
but a combination of their overprotective paranoia plus the fact that
as a PR I am meant to be in a government-run school (ironic, given the
fact that my school kept trying to expel me every other year claiming
I didn’t have a “student visa”) had me staying in the local school
system for 11 years. Not that secondary school was much better—a
little less overt in their racism, perhaps, but you notice it when the
Malay prefects and the non-Malay prefects hold separate meetings on
why the other group should not field a candidate for Head Prefect, or
when you’re sitting in assembly and one of the admins suddenly
announces that no permanent residents will be accepted as prefects—
when everyone knows you’re the only permanent resident there anyway.
The last day of SPM was like a release from jail.
Leaving school meant leaving the worst of the overt racism, but the
anti-Bangla sentiment still manifests one way or another. Every
discussion about race in Malaysia talks about Malays, Chinese, Indians
– the rest of us don’t exist. Every so often a radio host will pipe up
again about “those Banglas stealing our women”. I find journal
articles about how Bangladeshi workers, those with less privileges than
my parents, are brought to Malaysia on the promise of “Islamic
brotherhood” – only to find that no such brotherhood actually exists.
And then there are the PR-related issues. How, because of some random
Member of Parliament going on about the red Identity Cards not actually being red, all PRs had to change ICs—
at our expense. The wait for a return pass on our passport, which was later revealed to actually be for Indonesians
only. One of my cousins came to Malaysia on a Malaysia My Second Home
permit, a 5-year temporary visa, and he had more rights than we did. I
was heavily into alternative education and youth empowerment then, and
spent quite a few years campaigning for the rights of Malaysian youth;
however, since I was in a no man’s land politically speaking, hardly
anyone with power would have paid any attention to me.
After what seemed like forever—12 years, the minimum waiting time,
plus any time spent overseas; we tacked on an extra year just in case
—we were finally eligible to apply for citizenship. This took two
attempts; the first was rejected after five years of waiting due to
ridiculous reasons—my dad’s language essay was a few words too
short, and they claimed I wasn’t a permanent resident in the first
place. Absolutely stupid! My parents spent over 35 years in the
country, I was born and raised here, and you are going to reject us
based on your incompetence and biases?
I wasn’t willing to go for a second attempt. I had moved to Australia
at this point, where the migration process is still a pain and subtle
racism does exist, but where I’m also more openly accepted and where
my Bangladeshi heritage isn’t a big problem. Politicians and ministers
took my concerns seriously, I was recognised and accepted as a
Queenslander, and for most purposes I felt more welcomed in Australia
than I ever did in Malaysia. If it weren’t for my parents I wouldn’t
have tried going for citizenship again…but what the hell.
Thankfully our application was accepted this time—in less than a
year even—but it’s not a straightforward process. Instead I find
myself having to fly up and down from Brisbane to KL every few months
for yet another step in this long, drawn-out malarkey. The questions
asked of me were inane enough (“Write 150 words on the importance of
National Day!”) but the most galling part involved sitting in the
interview room, being asked what my most important responsibility and
contribution was as a new citizen…only to be told by the
interviewers that the right answer is to vote for the ruling party,
because they were the ones who gave me the “gift” of permanent
The permanent residency and citizenship is NOT a “gift”, it’s a RIGHT.
One that was denied to me because YOUR SYSTEMS are incompetent,
I spent my ENTIRE LIFE representing Malaysia overseas, immersed in
Malaysian culture as the only one I knew, living as a Malaysian, told
to throw away all Bangladeshi-ness from myself, forced to assimilate –
and you tell me this is a GIFT?
Your ruling party openly stated that my people were only here as
troublemakers and made laws that severely disadvantaged us, and you
think it’s my duty to vote for them?
I probably have more right to this country than you, lady. Don’t tell
me what to do.
I’m still waiting. They say I should get my final papers by the end of
this year. My father already got his—that coveted blue IC, the red
passport that makes for far easier travel anywhere (and really the
main reason we’re bothering with this application).
This article may put my application in a precarious spot, in a country
where pasting a picture of an upside down flag on your blog is
…but I’ve stopped caring.
Why a country that did not welcome me the many years I tried to
embrace it and make it mine?
Why Malaysia, indeed.
Tiara the Merch Girl is a performance artist, creative producer, and Creatrix of Awesome who escaped the ghost town of Ulu Tiram for Brisbane, Australia. She spends her time getting up to creative sexytimes, rabble-rousing about politics and culture on her blog, and signing up for anything that looks interesting. Currently she is working on The San Fran Plan, spending a few months in San Francisco in mid-2011 to further her performance skills and explore gender, sexuality, and relationships from the perspective of a female queer migrant minority.