I LIKE to be rational when I read the news. I know what it’s like to read about something horrible happening in a particular country and imagine that the entire country is aflame.
When we read news about civil wars and violence in a country, most of us tend to neglect to look at maps to see where exactly these things are happening. In some cases, the conflict is happening in a particular part of that state and not where you would normally visit. This was true of the conflict in Sri Lanka decades ago that was confined mostly in the north, or in Nigeria where the Boko Haram are running rampage also in the north.
Even when there is no conflict, news about a natural disaster, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, can put people off going to that country. When Fukushima in Japan was struck by an earthquake in 2011, tourists shied away from visiting a country that is normally one of the safest in the world, for fear they would be contaminated by radiation from the damaged nuclear power plant in that city. Most of the former Soviet Union is safe but I still don’t understand why there are tours to the Cher-nobyl nuclear disaster area in the Ukraine.
The point I’m making is that people read the news and do not often get a sense of perspective. News tends to highlight the worst things that happen, and the effect is to scare people by making them assume that disasters engulf an entire country, or that one person represents an entire community.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be minimised in any way – it is literally everywhere and the only way to contain it is to stop people’s mobility. If we don’t move, we won’t spread it.
But it is the randomness of events that most scares us, especially when they’re violent, human-made acts that are seemingly impossible to predict. You happen to be walking on a city street and airplanes crash into a tower above you. Or you’re praying in a mosque and a shooter comes in and fires away at the congregation. Or worse, your children are at a school and someone comes in with an automatic rifle.
Lately we have watched in horror at yet more mass shootings in the United States, an almost weekly event. What has caused a lot of anguished talk is the fact that in the killings in Atlanta, Georgia, six of the seven victims were Asian women. Racism and misogyny seem to have intersected to fatal effect.
The United States is perhaps the one country these days where it is difficult to get a sense of perspective. We don’t feel like going to America these days for many reasons.
Firstly, the insane and easy availability of guns there, especially the sort of weapons that soldiers normally use in wars to kill as many people as possible. The other reason is the surge in violence against people of Asian descent.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, various NGOs have counted more that 3,700 cases of abuse and harassment against Asian-Americans, especially people who are less able to defend themselves, like the old and women and children. Before last week, there were two deaths of old men caused by such attacks. Now the number of fatalities has increased substantially, and the worry is that there will be more.
What a lot of commentators have noted is that it is no coincidence that the surge in attacks have followed in the wake of the pandemic. They point to former president Donald Trump calling the coronavirus the “China virus” and “Kung flu” as setting the tone for discriminatory attitudes towards Asian-Americans.
Words matter, especially in a political environment that was particularly nativist, that sought to blame the Other, whether black, Muslim or foreign, for everything that is wrong with society. In their blinkered way, white supremacists, like all supremacists, think that everything will be perfect if only everyone in their country looked like them.
While we are busy sympathising with Asian-Americans for the horrible things that are happening to them, we should perhaps also reflect on our own attitudes towards the Other, whether citizens or not. Recently there was a complaint about Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s use of the word “keli**” in their dictionary to describe a tambi, a young man of Indian origin. It is astounding that Dewan Bahasa did not pick up on the sensitivity of the word.
But the word is not uncommon. We talk about other communities in our everyday lives using all types of derogatory words. Do we stereotype people freely and then excuse ourselves by saying we were only joking?
As much as we rightfully bemoan what is happening in the United States, it might help to remember that we are not immune from the same sort of racism and misogyny in Malaysia. Never mind what we say and do to fellow citizens, we also need to be mindful of the foreigners who live among us as workers and refugees.
There has been an uptick of discriminatory language in the media about foreign workers and refugees in Malaysia, people who are the least protected by our law enforcers.
Once we blamed them for a surge in petty crimes. Now we blame them for the pandemic despite the fact that fewer foreigners are infected by the coronavirus than are Malaysians. When they are infected, the fault is often ours because of conditions in factories and detention centres where physical distancing is simply not possible.
So lowly do we think of poor, dark-skinned foreigners, as opposed to wealthy white ones, that when our government sent over 1,000 refugees back to their country of origin that had been taken over by a military coup, there was barely a word of protest from anyone (except for a few NGOs who work with refugees). We really need some self-reflection on our own hypocrisy.
By all means, sympathise with Americans of Asian origin and pray hard that no Malaysian currently in the United States, especially those who could be mistaken for mainland Chinese, would ever have to suffer any of that violence. But while we empathise, we should also be cleansing ourselves of the same impulses to see those different from us as the Other and blame them for all our troubles.
We should call out those of our Trump-like leaders who create the sort of enabling atmosphere that leads to discrimination. We may not have as many guns floating around as they do in the United States, but the bullets of hate remain the same and are just as painful.
Marina Mahathir wonders why some people are so easily misled by posturing racist politicians. The views expressed here are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sunday Star.