In our Selected Exhortations category, we republish interesting stuff such as must-read articles and essays not originally written exclusively for the blawg, and which have come to our attention. Please feel free to email [email protected] if you would like to reproduce your writing, but first follow our Writer’s Guide here. This article was previously published inLoyarBurok’s monthly column, “The Monkeysuit Protocol” in August Man magazine’s January 2012 issue.
You’ve had enough. You were done. Your siew pau business had hit the proverbial plateau and it wasn’t going to be long before you found yourself hurtling down the slope of diminishing returns.
There was no point investing in fancy paper casings for added presentation pizzazz. That would only drive A&P costs up and your primarily Chinese clientele away. The same bunch who’d never pay extra for packaging unless it was (1) edible (2) contained life-extending properties (3) good luck to do so.
It was time to get a grip, Bobby, and an expansion plan, too. The sort that’d provide a sustainable injection of cash into your business and cement your name in the Hall of Catering fame, Bumiputera style.
BUMI-POWER YOUR BUSINESS, BOBBY
You’re ready to unleash your kosher siew paus at the largest population in Malaysia. Shamsul Samy Singh, childhood friend and recent Muslim convert with friends in JAKIM, already has halal certification waiting for you. Meanwhile, Saiful, the janitor you picked up from some petrol station was ready to be the new butcher and pastry chef. But in a dream one night, the god of prosperity appears and wags his wrinkly gold finger at you, “Not enough power lah, friend.” he says. “If you want trade discounts, preferential partner listings, and perks to pump up your profitability, you need to become Bumiputera.”
Next morning, you call Ali Malai, your primary school buddy, for confirmation. He suggests you both meet at the the Royal Selangor Golf Club. While there, Ali – now, a successful small-time exporter of palm oil – looks up from his drink (“It’s orange juice.”) and speaks, “Friend, of course you can do business fine in whatever skin you’re in. Question is whether you want to fly like a sparrow or soar like an eagle. Kalau nak jadi helang, then ko patut jadi Melayu.” He then attacks his chop of some sort with gusto (“It’s chicken. Really.”) and leaves you pondering the wisdom of bailing out on your roots for a couple of extra bucks.
LIVE LIKE YOU’RE SPECIAL, BOBBY
“Ok, why is being Malay beneficial again?” you ask, prompting a snort of incredulity from your pal. “You see this suit? It’s Hugo Boss! If I weren’t Malay, this would be Bugo Hoss, some cheap imitation! My RM450,000 house? 7% discount. My daughters? Both received education sholarships easily! As for business, you get to skip the tedious tender process and deal direct. You’d have sources of cash from different places so you won’t need to be so kiamsap like a Chinaman anymore. All this is called the Privileged Life, special only to the Malays.”
This sounds promising but it also feels like a lot of work. Ali dismisses your concerns nonchalantly, “Relak brudder. You’re just changing your race, not the flight date on your budget airline ticket. No need to consult the Almanac for an auspicious date! All the steps are in the Federal Constitution.”
Rights of the Malays: The Lawyer Speaketh
Section on Article 153 grants the Yang di-Pertuan Agong responsibility for safeguarding the special position of the Bumiputera (the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak) as well as the legitimate interests of the other communities. It also specifies ways to do this, e.g establishing – when reasonable – quotas for entry into the civil service, public scholarships and public education. The term ‘when reasonable’ suggests that such moves only be made in situations where the Malays and other natives are at risk of being crowded out of the business and public sphere as they were deemed to be a vulnerable group at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. The term ‘position’ has since often been exchanged conveniently by politicians with the word ‘rights’, a misinterpretation that has led to controversial affirmative action policies with a racialist stance favouring the Bumiputera who comprise the majority of the population.
THE 4 CONDITIONS TO MALAYNESS
You’re home and you’ve just read Article 160 of the Federal Constitution, bought for RM5 from the bookstore. According to the supreme law of the land, becoming Malay was easy enough. There were a few requirements but no mention of mandatory circumcision. And that was good enough for you.
Becoming a Malay: The Lawyer Speaketh
Article 160 of the Federal Constitution states that a Malay is a Malaysian citizen:
(1) Who professes to be a Muslim
(2) Who habitually speaks Bahasa Malaysia
(3) Who adheres to Malay customs
(4) Who has been domiciled in Malaysia or Singapore
So you bus down to the Kompleks Pusat Islam, bringing with you the necessary documents and Muslim witnesses (Ali and Samy). You fill up some forms, then file into the Conversion room whereby you’re briefed on the 5 pillars of Islam by the Ustaz. A Shahada recital by you and a prayer of absolution by him later, you’re a Muslim named Lokman Heng. Forgiven of all your past sins all the way from the time you, as an 8-year-old, attached fireworks to the neighbour’s cat. And his son.
Your friends then insist you make a stop at Kampung Bahru to pick up some sarongs, sambal belachan and tempeh. “You must live like a Malay now, Lokman. Now, let’s get some betel leaves for you to chew before we commence Operasi Transformasi!” they advised. “Operasi Transformasi?” you ask.“Of course! You still have to master Bahasa Malaysia and undergo the Big Snip!”
LIVING LA VIDA LOKMAN
It’s 6 months, 36 tuition lessons on Bahasa Malaysia, and a visit to the ‘Tok Mudim’ later. Pork has left your vocabulary even though it continues to taunt you when you saunter past a char siew stall. ‘Bukit Kepong’ with Jin Shamsuddin has become your favourite movie. And sambal belachan has become such a staple that a meal without it meant epileptic fits stoppable only by direct spooning of the condiment down your throat.
It was a myth that Malays were lazy because thanks to Ali and Samy, Operasi Transformasi had been more gruelling than you first imagined. Beyond remembering to pray 5 times a day, you had to learn how to fast without fainting, wean yourself off Chinese drama serials and get addicted to ‘Kisah Benar’ instead, stop stalking dead people for 4-digit clues or gambling at Genting Highlands and get used to having tea-breaks three times a day. On top of that, you had to include santan in all your meals. If there were any signs of Operasi Transformasi’s success to go by, it was how you’d ballooned to 90kg and been put on Lipitol for high cholesterol.
MOVING IN FOR THE KILL
You appraise yourself before your new standing mirror (courtesy of Courts Mammoth. Tanpa cengkeram!) Dressed in a tan suit with a light yellow long-sleeved shirt (material courtesy of Kamdar. Memang berbaloi!), you’re ready for your first catering job. An order of 180 halal chicken siew paus for someone throwing a birthday kenduri for his 12-year-old. You’d already submitted your quotation earlier by fax. Now, it was just you in the game because Chan Ah Fook Catering was clearly not Malay enough to seal this deal. While Yummy Ramaswamy Sdn Bhd’s halal certification was found to be fake. At least that’s according to Ali.
And of course Ali is wrong.
When you meet Encik Syaredzan, you’re told about a miscommunication and conveyed his sincerest apologies. Then you’re informed that beyond a reasonable quote, Yummy Ramaswamy had been foresighted enough to offer free Milo Dinosaur for the kids (“He’s plainly the best man for the job”.). As it turns out, Chan Ah Fook had cheated by planting rumours of Ramaswamy’s fake halal certification and upon discovery of this vile deed, had been disqualified. Still reeling from rejection, you try your luck, “Eh, sure you don’t want to try me out, Encik Syaredzan? I help you, you help me…understand?” Your cheeky winks are met with knitted eyebrows and then a curt “That’s unconstitutional.” And that’s it. The ‘ka ching’ of the cash register becomes a ‘ka boom’ of your hopes.
ONCE A MUSLIM, ALWAYS A MALAY
Later, as you confront a defensive Ali, you learn that your first prospective client’s a lawyer. “How am I supposed to know he specialises in Constitutional Law? Or that there’s even a difference between ‘special position of the Malays’ and ‘special rights’?” moaned your friend. “I just found out myself via wikipedia, ok!” “You idiot,” you rant. “You mean my manhood was assaulted for nothing?” Ali cowers. “You’d better help transform me back to a pork-walloping free-thinking Chinaman, Ali Malai!” But Ali stutters, “There’s no reverse transformasi once you’re a Muslim, Lokman.”
Freedom of Religion and its Exceptions: The Lawyer Speaketh
The freedom of religion is enshrined in the Federal Constitution under Article 11 which provides that every person has the right to profess and practise his or her religion. It also provides that Islam is the country’s religion but others may be practised in peace and harmony. However, in Malaysia, Muslims who wish to convert out of Islam face severe obstacles. As the Syariah Courts have jurisdiction in Muslim affairs, despite Article 121 limiting their power, many Muslim converts who wish to return to their original faiths hit a brick wall in these courts and continuous appeals become a necessary evil.
Your jaw drops. Your heart races. You feel as if your newly clogged arteries are going to give way to a heart attack. But a tiny part inside you tells you that you can fight this absurdity. You were Chinese. You were shamelessly thick-skinned. You were also the grand nephew of the late Uncle Kong, divorce lawyer extraordinaire from Penang who himself was a quintruple convertee – Buddhism to Islam to Christianity to Kabbalah and then Scientology (posthumously, too). But most of all, you were Bobby Heng with friends and favours from the 603 gang. Everything was going to be beres.