Using chopsticks to put foot in mouth

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad says if we eat with chopsticks, this means we are more China Chinese than Malaysians.

As far as succinct reactions that say it all, I must defer to our juniors and their generous use of emojis. The ones that come to mind are the facepalm one, the woozy face one, and the eyes tightly squeezed together in frustration one.

Really, only a politician could turn what might be Malaysia’s most unifying factor - food and eating - into something so divisive.

It’s times like this that we have to ask ourselves, is dividing us the only reason politicians exist? Given they seem to do so little else of value, we are indeed forced to wonder.

I believe young people also call this kind of behaviour ‘gatekeeping’ - where some self-righteous, pompous person tries to arrogantly determine who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. In this case: who is Malaysian, and who is not.

There is a fairly straightforward legal definition of who is Malaysian or not (though statelessness continues to be a problem we must work aggressively on). But Dr Mahathir is implying that some of us are "more Malaysian" than others.

I try to steer clear of gatekeeping myself, so I won’t claim I’m "more Malaysian" than Dr Mahathir or anyone else. By that same principle though, I would never accept Dr Mahathir or anyone else claiming they are "more Malaysian" than the rest of us - certainly not because of how we eat.

Dr Mahathir has a singular, unchanging, and somewhat toxic way of looking at race in Malaysia; and his prominent place in Malaysian history has ensured the spread of that toxicity over vast swathes of space and time.

One of the most vivid images I have of Dr Mahathir in my head is of this old man who is constantly disappointed, perplexed, and grumpy that people don’t behave the way he wants them to.

He’s always sarcastically implying that despite his brilliant and flawless leadership, the nation cannot succeed because "Malays are too lazy", the "Chinese are too arrogant", and goodness knows what other false stereotypes.

I genuinely think that the nation has not succeeded because he keeps sarcastically implying these things, making them self-fulfilling prophecies.

Where Malaysia needs leaders to encourage us, inspire us, and believe in us, what we got was the kind of sour old man who never ceases to play one child against another: Why aren’t you as good as your brother? Why can’t you be as clever as your sister?

Perhaps our biggest consolation is that Malaysia’s future will not be determined by this old man, nor will our nation be stuck forever in this binary, racist thinking, despite his best efforts to keep it that way.

We can see this in how netizens reacted in full force, applying their considerable prowess to ridiculing this chopsticks logic. I probably don’t need to add to their brilliant points.

At the end of the day, whether Malaysians are getting riled up to debate chopsticks, the names of alcoholic beverages, or what type of calligraphy we’re teaching in our schools, I feel like we’re really always falling for the same trick.

Bad leaders have played the race card for centuries, as a means to pursue their selfish political aims. It’s as simple and effective as it is odious and cancerous.

The formula is usually the same. People are frustrated with their lives, often due to bad leadership and governance. Some demagogue comes along and feeds the people lies along the lines of “All your suffering is due to X! Let us rise up and exterminate them!”

Throughout history, X has been the Jews, the Armenians, the Catholics, the Protestants, the Tamils, the Sinhalese, the blacks, the whites, the Hutu, the Tutsi, the Chinese, the Malays. The people change, the narrative is always the same.

Dr Mahathir will live and die with that same one-dimensional view of race. In his mind, only assimilation along the lines of Indonesia and Thailand will work.

These paths are not the answer. Indeed, they just make the problem worse.

That said though, rule number one of dealing with trolls is not to get too caught up with their false narratives and frameworks.

If Dr Mahathir’s mistake is to constantly blame everyone but himself, then we must not make the same mistake.

I feel that the real reason Dr Mahathir’s ideology still persists is because we as the rakyat have failed to build a more constructive, affirmative, and positive ideology on our own from the ground up.

I think many of us know exactly what a united, strong, and cohesive Malaysia would look like - a Malaysia where celebrating, respecting, and learning from cultural differences make us stronger, not weaker.

The trouble is, we seem to think it is the responsibility of politicians to make this Malaysia a reality. So, we keep waiting for them to do so. Waiting and waiting, year after year, decade after decade.

Those who wait as such, wait in vain. Our political system incentivises politicians that divide (like Dr Mahathir), not leaders that unite.

This is why we need to look outside politics, to start building inclusive models of how we can lead ourselves.

We need better examples and instances where diverse groups of Malaysians - representing all races, geographies, classes, professions, and so on - come together to connect, cooperate, and co-exist. We need to come together in such groups, and lead Malaysians in projects based on the values that unite us all - projects that will benefit us all.

If we can build such models at the level of civil society, it will be the first step of a better Malaysia for all of us - a Malaysia where we come together to focus more on ensuring everyone has good food to eat, and less on how that food gets from plate to mouth.

NATHANIEL TAN works with Projek #BangsaMalaysia. Twitter: @NatAsasi, Clubhouse: @Nathaniel_Tan, Email: #BangsaMalaysia #NextGenDemocracy.

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