Q&A: Discuss the presence of racial polarity in Malaysian society with reference to 2 stories you have studied.

Q: Discuss the presence of racial polarity in Malaysian society with reference to 2 stories you have studied.

For Malaysian Form 6 Students

Q: Discuss the presence of racial polarity in Malaysian society with reference to 2 stories you have studied.
Through the Wall – Pretam Kaur
Pictures in My Mind – Pretam Kaur

Racial polarity is not uncommon in Malaysia’s multicultural society. Our history as a former British colony has accentuated this fact as the differences between the races are made even more obvious from socioeconomic aspects. Through the Wall and Pictures in My Mind by Pretam Kaur explore these differences through a child’s naïve perspective, focusing on the racial polarity between Indians and Chinese, with Malays being in the frame as well.

First of all, in Pretam Kaur’s Through the Wall, the treatment of the Chinese family and the Punjabi family towards their family members is starkly different. Throughout the story the Punjabi family is seen as a family that treats each other with equality, regardless of age or gender. The little girl whom we see the story through is not slighted despite being the only daughter in a family of boys. There is no mention of her being scolded for being curious or for talking. There are instances of her mother’s chiding and a slight quarrel with her brother, nevertheless that is part and parcel of everyday life and should not be viewed as discrimination towards her. However, this cannot be said for the Chinese family where there is a strong sense of patriarchy. When the grandfather and father argue over the newborn baby girl, the mother remains silent throughout, because set in conventional Chinese ways, women should only be seen and not be heard in a family. Thus, she is unable to speak up and can only cry even though she cares and loves for the baby, and will probably have disagreed to selling the child. This is further justified after the baby girl is sold to the Malay women. The Chinese grandfather makes a lot of noise inside the house, either grumbling over his dissent to sell the child or his annoyance at the mother’s crying, at which she can only return to her bed and cry.

In addition to the previous point, there is a dissimilar portrayal of the interaction between the races. In Pretam Kaur’s Through the Wall, we see the Punjabi family as concerned, curious neighbours, as they often peep through the chinks and cracks in the dividing wall between their homes to watch the Chinese family going about their everyday life. It is mentioned that they do not know if the Chinese family take peeps at them as well, hinting that the Chinese family are more seclusive and do not take interest in their neighbours. We see this difference clearly later on in the story when the Punjabi mother takes the initiative to help the Chinese woman in labour, while the Punjabi children also show interest in the birth of the baby girl, watching the process through the wall. Yet there is no mention of the Chinese family reciprocating this neighbourliness in any part of the story, showing the difference in their attitude towards each other.

On another note, the role of animals in the household also differs from race to race. In Through the Wall, the Punjabi family rears cows whereas the Chinese family doesn’t have any animals. The birth of a calf in the Punjabi family is greeted with more enthusiasm than the birth of the Chinese family’s daughter. For the calf, the father sweetens its mouth with brown sugar, a customary practice which is shown in various stories from Malaysian Short Stories. On the contrary, when the Chinese mother goes into labour, there is no mention of any of the family members coming to her aid. Instead it is the Punjabi mother who rushed to help her to give birth to the baby girl. Another instance of this is the birth of a calf in Pictures in My Mind. The family’s cow had calved in the graveyard and the father carried the calf home in his arms even though cows are protective of their newborns, showing the trust between animal and man. This importance of cows to the Indians could be due to the fact that the Indian families in both stories rear cows for a living, besides the sacred status of cows in Hinduism as a symbol of purity, innocence and life. The birth of a child in a Chinese household does not merit the importance of a birth of a calf in an Indian family; thus the polarity.

Apart from that, the attitude towards a business transaction is viewed from different perspectives for the Indians as opposed to the Malays and Chinese. This is clearly shown in Pictures in My Mind where the Malay man offers to buy Big Cow from Sunita’s father. Sunita’s father rejects the Malay man’s offer of two hundred dollars, and stands firm even when the price is increased to two hundred and twenty-five dollars, despite his urgent need for money as times as hard. To him, Big Cow holds sentimental value and he is in a way indebted to Big Cow for supporting his livelihood by bearing him calves throughout its lifetime. As mentioned earlier, cows are regarded as sacred in Indian culture, which also prevents him from sending the cow to the butcher’s gallows. As he says later during the schism between the villagers, “It’s a bit like Big Cow. I cannot turn butcher now,” showing that he stands by his moral compass unwaveringly. Instead, he takes his gold chain to the pawn shop for fifty dollars. On the other hand, the Malay man and the Chinese man view Big Cow as a tradable object and only focus on its monetary value, discussing the price of beef and the profit the Malay man could have made from the cow. Both believe that the Bengali is stupid for not selling the old, sick cow for a good price, not comprehending the cow’s importance to the family from a personal or religious point of view, and there is nothing wrong in that. Obviously, the Indians allow their heart to rule their head in business deals, whereas the Malays and Chinese have their eyes on monetary gain.

These are just a few aspects of note of racial polarization in these two stories. A person of different cultural background may not be able to fully understand the logic and reasoning behinds the words and actions of another person of different cultural background and this is excusable. The labelling of stereotypes may occur from time to time as well, but this is a norm that does no harm unless taken too far. More importantly, people should be able accept one another for who they are regardless of their background. If that were so, the world would be a better place.

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