Negotiating Love in Malaysia

by Yvonne Tan

Maybe it is just me, but conversion, of course tied to religion and race, seem to be a preoccupation of the dating world here. There is always hesitation between Muslims and non-Muslims because everyone knows if you are truly committed, you would have to convert. In some ways, it also shows that people are aware that you can fall in love with someone from a different race, but you preemptively stop yourself beforehand. 

Maybe you’ve had a friend who would say they would date this particular person if it wasn’t for the fact that they were Muslim. Or maybe you’ve known a Muslim and non-Muslim couple that have been together for many years but decided to part ways when it was time to “settle down” and get serious with someone from the same religion and race. Even if they did stay together, people would immediately raise concerns on what they were eventually going to do in the long run. 

I would argue that it extends beyond the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy. I had a relative who went to a Christian college and when an Indian, who was a Christian himself, had taken interest in her, she felt they had too many differences and would not be able to get along. There is also very real understanding within the Indian community that they are being discriminated against by other races, and thus you may have also known Indian friends that view being able to have a Malay/Chinese/Eurasian partner was almost equivalent to having managed to overcome racism pitted against them. Lest we forget caste still has a residual effect even within the Malaysian Indian community, having had a friend ask you to introduce them to girls from a specific caste and no one else. 

To navigate these complex boundaries as a young person with a clear idea of what your parents and community expect of you, has a “scriptlessness” element. Psychologists find that people who experienced unrequited love can quickly overcome it, however, the objects of unrequited love do not, given the lack of cultural models [1]. Even though there have always been cultural models of forbidden love, such as the renowned Romeo and Juliet, they remain within the exaggerated, absurd world and far removed from the context of Malaysia where there is still some sense that you can’t just marry only for love as your heart desires as one also has important duties towards your parents. In fact, the few mixed-race dating scripts that we have from the indie/alternative scene usually ends in heartbreak as they are not allowed to be together long-term such as Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet and Amanda Lee Koe’s short story Flamingo Valley

You’d wonder maybe if you’re both heirs to one of Malaysia’s biggest conglomerates it might be different? However as illustrated with Chryseis Tan and Faliq Nasimuddin’s wedding, one side questioned if Chryseis had truly converted to Islam and on another brought up Islamic practices that she now is “trapped” to adhere to. Religion has become spaces of homogenizing not only religion but ethnicity so closely tied to it.

Projek Dialog’s video “Kebebasan Beragama Mengikut Perlembagaan Malaysia” by Prof. Faridah Jalil has stated that it is possible to convert religion in our constitution but as she said the legal process is extremely difficult. Maznah Mohammad states that Islamic legal bureaucracy and modern Sharia has employed “majority-making” devices that had successfully implemented “(1) a ‘ring-fencing’ device, to keep members from leaving the flock, (2) a gate-keeping mechanism for the Malay family to be homogenously Muslim and (3) an internal disciplining ideology for privileging male entitlements as a basis for remaking the new Islamic family” [2]. 

Hence, other ethnic groups have some sense of these devices being employed, also exercise gatekeeping on an individual level to ensure their cultural identity is “preserved” especially with the knowledge that it is threatened. And just maybe this is why being a “Banana” or a “Coconut” is seen as highly disgraceful even in our context. Although these terms deal more with embracing Western culture rather Malay Muslim, the shock discovering an interracial couple accompanied with questions like “So you are going to become Malay?”, “Do your parents approve?” or “How do you two get along?” has the same pejorative that you have lost your culture. 

Playing tug-and-pull with state-sanctioned ethnic and religious assimilation and “imagined minorities” [3], there is no simple solution in sight for two people, despite differing faiths and religion, to be truly celebrated by their communities. Although there are occasional interpretations of how mixed-race couples were the epitome of our nation’s multiracial and multireligious narrative when really plural Malaysia is about tolerating and living harmoniously around each other but not truly together. 

Nevertheless, having recognized such “scriptlessness” surrounding interracial marriages, there are efforts to build a constructive cultural model. Take for instance, The Chindian Diaries, a Facebook community project sharing stories on not only growing up Chindian but also the stories and struggle of inter-racial Indian and Chinese couples. There have also been efforts, especially in the photography medium that aim to tell the sidelined stories of people who are mixed race such as #ProjekCampur by Depth of V and Same Same project. As negotiating different cultures and religions — and one could say it is the very fabric of being Malaysian — happens on such a personal level especially in romantic relationships, constructing our own script might be a step-in bridging distrusts and identity anxieties.  

 

References

 [1] Baumeister, Roy F., Sara R. Wotman, and Arlene M. Stillwell. “Unrequited love: On heartbreak, anger, guilt, scriptlessness, and humiliation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 64, no. 3 (1993): 377. 

[2] Mohamad, Maznah. “Making majority, undoing family: Law, religion and the Islamization of the state in Malaysia.” Economy and Society 39, no. 3 (2010): 360-384, p. 378-279.

[3] Tan, Zi Hao, Imagined minorities: rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia, 11 July 2018 New Mandala [https://www.newmandala.org/imagined-minorities-rethinking-race-appeal-malaysia/]