Are we too sensitive?

In multiracial Malaysia, we need honest conversations about race. Photo:

The TV series Game Of Thrones is a global hit, but showrunners David Benioff and David Weiss have confirmed they will be turning their back on dragons and dwarves and starting on a new project next year.

The hope, of course, is that history will repeat itself with another megahit for the duo. But instead of fans frothing with excitement over their new show, they are taking to Twitter foaming with anger.

This is because Benioff and Weiss are two white guys who are going to write a fantasy show about slavery.

OK, I’m being sensationalistic. The press release talks about their new show Confederate exploring an alternate timeline in the United States “in which slavery remains legal and has evolved into a modern institution”.

Racism is such a sensitive topic in the United States that it was bound to spark a reaction. As Malcolm Spellman, one of the other showrunners said, “You’re dealing with weapons-grade material here”.

In comparison, working on a documentary about the formation of Malaysia seems fairly low-key, indeed. But part of the reason why I was interested in taking part is because so much of our conversation in present Malaysian politics seems to be tinged with race.

Take for example the social contract. If you don’t know what it is, it is the arrangement between those in the Alliance (comprising Umno, MCA and MIC before Barisan Nasional) that allegedly resulted in at least two clauses in the Federal Constitution: One granting citizenship to foreign immigrants and their offspring, another granting the Agong the responsibility of safeguarding the special position of the Malays and local natives.

On the surface, the two clauses have nothing to do with each other. But modern-day politicians would remind you otherwise.

“Why are there still those who do not respect this agreement? If the Malays can accept it by not raising the matter of citizenship and acknowledging that we cannot shut down vernacular schools, why are there those among non-Malays who refuse to honour what they have previously agreed upon?”.

That was what Khairy Jamaluddin said to the Umno general assembly a few years ago (

Is this what the history of Malaysia hinges on? Warring races that found a middle road of appeasement?

Since so much of current political debate seems entrenched in race, for the documentary I decided I would try to tell the story of Malaysian history that would find its explanations in other areas.

I imagined a story that talked about waning British imperialism that could no longer support its outlying territories. Of how in their search for a suitable successor they found a Malay prince equally comfortable addressing a sultan in a royal palace and hobnobbing with governor-generals at the residence, Carcosa. And how his anointment as a successor paved the way for a smooth withdrawal of British rule. There would be no, or minimal, reference to race.

I failed miserably.

If you watched the documentary Road To Nationhood last year, you would instead have seen the story presented this way: Datuk Onn Jaafar successfully led the Malays to a seat at the negotiating table with the British. But when he suggested that Umno should represent more than just the Malays, he was rejected by his own party. And in the elections, his multiracial Independence for Malaya Party lost out to the loose alliance of racially-aligned political parties of Umno, MCA, and MIC.

In a democracy you get the government you deserve. And the politicians we have right now seem to be the only ones talking about race issues in Malaysia.

Should this be the case? Isn’t it the point that a diversity of views is better than a single monochromatic voice? Yes, the Game Of Thrones showrunners may have a point of view about racism that doesn’t line up with what black America thinks. But if they present it responsibly, by researching the issues thoroughly and then coming to their own conclusions – wouldn’t that be better than saying only the black view is the right view?

It is hard to discuss issues of race in the media right now. The key word is “sensitivity” when it comes to portraying interracial relationships in dramas. If you have a non-Malay as the lead in a Malay drama, you can be sure there will be discussion about whether he should be Muslim or not.

But as a result of this self-censorship, we are losing an opportunity to have a diverse range of views on the subject.

It’s important to note that the third and fourth producers of Confederate, Malcolm Spellman and his wife Nichelle, are black. Nichelle said the show is an opportunity to explore “how we could draw parallels between what has been described as America’s original sin to a present-day conversation”.

The next documentary I’m involved in will be about the formation of Malaysia. How Sabah and Sarawak got on board and how Singapore got out. And if while watching that you think some of what is said or done seems prescient, then remember the phrase: “History repeats itself”.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.

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Are we too sensitive?


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