Saturday, January 14, 2012

Cheers to ethnicity.

Here's an example of how my own assumptions about ethnicity created an extremely embarrassing situation.

I was talking to an Indonesian friend on Facebook, asking if he wanted to write something for a new site I'm setting up for Muslims in Southeast Asia, going on and on about what he could write about. He then asked me if it was only for Muslims.

"If yes, then I'm so sorry... I'm not Muslim. I'm Protestant."


The thing is, I know that although the majority of Indonesians are Muslim, not all are. I've travelled there and seen Hindu temples, heard Buddhist chants, and personally know several Catholics at my university. I can't blame my mistake on ignorance. I knew it, so why did I immediately assume that this guy was Muslim?

I guess some (or many!) things are drilled into us from such a young age, it becomes almost like fact and terribly hard to disentangle. Like this advertisement for example, which originally appeared in a booklet of the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Malay Teachers in West Malaysia (KGMMB) in 1968. Apparently someone found it in Ohio University and sent it along to this guy, but also picked up by him, who says it was apparently first posted on Facebook by a Ben Golimbi.

"Good for us!"

I couldn't help smiling as I read this, yet I can't put my finger on why. Maybe it's because I associate such simple Malay with the Malay books and stories of my childhood. Maybe it's because the poster uses an old type of Malay full of hyphens and the number '2' to signify plurals. Maybe because the models look so happy and unaware of the controversy they would spark 40 years later. The text reads:

"Sa-tegok Guinness Stout membuka selera. Sa-gelas Guinness Stout memuleh tenaga. Kerana tiap2 sa-gelas Guinness Stout mengandongi khasiat. Ia memberi tenaga di-waktu badan berasa leteh dan lesu. Ini-lah minuman yang menambahkan khasiat kepada sa-barang santapan. Ya, sa-lepas bekerja, apabila berasa penat dan di-kala tiada selera, maka tidak ada-lah yang lebeh sempurna daripada sa-gelas Guinness Stout."

which roughly translates to:

"A sip of Guinness Stout whets your appetite. A glass of Guinness Stout replenishes your energy. Because every glass of Guinness Stout contains nourishment. It gives energy when your body feels tired and fatigued. This is the drink that adds nutrients to any meal. Yes, after work, when you feel tired and lack appetite, then there is nothing better than a glass of Guinness Stout."

I found some vintage beer ads that frame it as a medicinal product for mothers and babies, or something to be enjoyed with food. It's certainly very different from the highly sexualised imagery found in beer ads today (although there were plenty of chauvinistic beer ads!).

There's even the recent creation of halal beer -- a case of trying to Islamise too much?

Anyway, back to the poster. There are reams of comments on the Facebook post, mostly centering around:
  1. Ethnicity is not equivalent to religion. 
  2. These Malay-looking models as bad/lost/not strict enough Muslims.
  3. Judging, respect, and tolerance.
1. Ethnicity is not equivalent to religion. 

The models in this ad look Malay. Sure, I've been told by Indonesians that I have extremely typical Javanese facial features (thanks to which, I could be an undercover researcher on domestic workers!), but I have also been mistaken for Thai, Burmese, Malaysian, Cambodian, Filipino, French and Dutch. 

Take for instance, this blog. It is maintained by a Singaporean Malay Christian. He remains anonymous because of the enormous social consequences of being taken for having 'left' Islam. This is because Malay culture and Islam have intermingled to such a high degree that it is rare to find Malay Christians and it is easy to forget about Chinese Muslims.

Additionally, there are many Malays in Singapore who may not identify as Muslim, although they may have grown up as Muslims (or even then, not). This is why a campaign to reduce pre-marital sex (and consequently, unwanted teenage pregnancies) which used Islamic principles did not touch all the Malay youth. 

There are also Malays who identify as Muslim, but do things that the majority of Muslims would not consider very Muslim, like identifying as homosexual, drinking alcohol, dancing in clubs, eating pork, and having pre-marital sex (I know, sorry to clump it all together like that!)

2. These Malay-looking models are bad/lost/not strict enough Muslims.

Some respondents call out to this being a time of ignorance or zaman jahiliyah (as my mother likes to say), when Malays did not know all the rules about being Muslim. Because religion mostly consisted of learning how to recite the Qur'an melodiously (without necessarily knowing the meaning), listening to elder male religious figures of authorities known as kyai, tok sheikh, ustaz (oops, that's still in use today), and memorising a list of 25 prophets and 99 names/characteristics of Allah.

3. Judging, respect, and tolerance.

A couple of Malay commenters who drink alcohol justified their decisions. Others called them out for being sinners, cowards, and so on. Thankfully, many also called for others to stop judging, because only God alone can judge. But well, there is a strong discourse in Islam about giving advice (or use the Arabic term naseehah  if you like) to people with one's hand, mouth, and prayer -- based on many ahadith such as this one.

I believe this is also why some countries choose to include restrictive shari'a laws that cover the moral sphere, in addition to the usual women-related areas of marriage, divorce, and inheritance. For example, in 2009, there was a controversy on whether an Indonesian woman caught drinking beer in Malaysia would be caned. The Malaysian religious authorities threatened to cane her, but then they decided not to after all. Even though she asked for it to be over with, she still wasn't caned. It led instead to an intense debate about the Islamisation of Malaysia.

In any case, all the poster says is one glass for appetite or replenishing energy. It sounds just like an ad for tonic drinks like Yomeishu! 

Yomeishu: Baik untok kita!

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