Interrogating National Identity Ethnicity, Language and History in K.S. Maniam's The Return and Shirley Geok-lin Lim's Joss and Gold

Jeyathurai, Dashini
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Center for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
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The author examines how two Malaysian authors, ethnically Chinese Shirley Geok-lin Lim and ethnically Indian K.S. Maniam, challenge the Malay identity that the government has crafted and presented as the national identity for all Malaysians. In their novels in English Joss & Gold (2001) and The Return (1981) respectively, Lim and Maniam interrogate this construct through the lenses of ethnicity, history and language. In critiquing the government’s troubling construction of a monoethnic and monolingual national identity, Lim and Maniam present both the alienation and the unstable existences of ethnic minorities that are purposely excluded from the national identity by the Malay nationalist culture. Malaya attained independence from Britain on the 31st of August 1957. “Malaysia” came into existence after the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman convinced Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, three British crown colonies, to join Malaya in a federal union. Singapore would later leave the union on the 9th of August 1965. When the British left Malaya, they transferred political power to the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), a right-wing political party that continues to be a powerful advocate of organization believes that the Malay ethnic majority are the rightful citizens of Malaysia and deserve to be given special political, economic and educational privileges. Then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, a Malay himself, created this concept as well as the practice of giving special privileges to Malays. He also coined the term bumiputera (sons/princes of the soil) to refer to Malays. Both the term and practice came into official use in 1965 and are still in existence today. Two years later, the predominantly Malay government established Malay as the national language of the country. In 1970, the government made Islam the state religion. Today, all Malays are required by law to profess Islam as their faith or lose their status as bumiputera1. By making special allowances for Malays based on their status as bumiputera and institutionalizing Malay as the national language and Islam as the state religion, the government constructed a national identity that was Malaysian in name, but Malay in spirit. Both Joss and Gold and The Return are two decades apart but their relevance to the recent political and social turmoil in Malaysia is undeniable. They speak to a burgeoning dissatisfaction among Malaysian ethnic minorities who have become far less willing to tolerate a government and national identity that denies them the full privileges of their citizenship.
This journal has been published at different time periods under the following titles: Explorations: A Graduate Student Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Explorations in Southeast Asian Studies, and The Journal of the Southeast Asian Studies Association.
Explorations: A Graduate Student Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 9 (1):65-77.
Malaysia, Literature
12 pages
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