They Taught Me Racism?

Derek Kok reminiscence his past to find out how he started to see colour.

A, C, D, E, F . . .

I went to kindergarten at Tadika Riang Baru.

I remember competing with an ‘angmoh‘ kid for the attention of an Indian girl named Joanne. You could say she was my  ‘first crush’. I adored her. I thought her pixie haircut was cute. That smile, oh that smile. Tadika Riang Baru’s uniform never looked prettier on anyone else.

I remember that my best friend in kindergarten was Luvin Kumar, a Chindian boy.  We were like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Maybe Batman & Robin.

I remember a lot of things from my kindergarten days. But I also remember that I did not know a lot.

I didn’t know what was Malay, Chinese or Indian.

I didn’t know Joanne was Indian. All I knew was that oh-so-sweet smile.

I didn’t know the angmoh was an ‘angmoh‘. All I knew was that I did not appreciate him going after my girl. >:(

I didn’t know Luvin was Chindian.

I didn’t know back then that I did not ‘look Chinese’.

I remember my grandmother saying that I looked Malay. She also told me that if I misbehaved, the ‘apunehneh‘ (a not-so-nice term for Indians) will kidnap me. The apunehneh was like the Bogeyman;  an embodiment of terror which my grandmother used to great effect in order to keep my mischievous behaviour at bay.

Ke Bangku Sekolah Rendah

Then it was primary school. People say that you go to school to learn.

I did. I learnt what ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ meant.

My eyes started to see ‘colour’.

I even started to notice my own colour. Like my grandmother, people were remarking that I looked Malay. I remember how my mum’s colleagues in school would joyfully exclaim that I ‘looked Melayu‘. I never understood why were they grinning from ear to ear while going, “Eh macam Melayu la anak kamu ini!” (My mum was a teacher in the same school, horror of horrors).

I began to see that people were separated based on WHAT they are. I remember an ustazah coming into my class one day, asking those who were non-Muslims to raise our hands. Being the blur kid I was, I raised my hand in compliance.

She then looked straight at me, “Kamu ni Cina ke Melayu?

Cina, cikgu.

We were then asked to leave our class to go into another. Ah, the segregation of Moral and Pendidikan Islam students. I began to see that there was a “them vs us” culture right in the classrooms of a mission school.

In school, I learnt many new words. I learnt that certain words carried certain connotations with them, words that somehow like a magic spell from Harry Potter would incite mini fights in my all-boys school. Mind you, boys whose age did not even reach a double figure.

Words like keling.


Not only that, I also learnt a few things. Cina makan babi, Cina kedekut. Malays were dumb, lazy and could not speak English. I learnt that Indians were keling; the troublemakers in school. I learnt that the Chinese and Indians are to go back to China and India respectively if we don’t know how to speak Bahasa Melayu. I learnt that the Malays were good at sepak takraw, the Indians football and running, the Chinese in maths and basketball.

I was just the teacher’s son. A primary school kid in navy blue shorts.

But I learnt a lot didn’t I?

These ‘lessons’ I learnt, were they true?

I was just the teacher’s son. A primary school kid in navy blue shorts.

How could I have known, what was right or wrong with what I ‘learnt’ in school?

People always thought I was Malay from my looks. Didn’t help that I had a Malay slang to go with my look. In fact the most FAQ I am asked is – “You Malay ah?”

Funny thing was, I represented Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur to the Bahasa Melayu National-level Storytelling Competition for two consecutive years in primary school, falling in love with the language in the process. In Year 4, I placed fourth. In Year 5, I emerged as the National Champion, possibly the first non-Malay to win that title.

Masuk Sekolah Menengah

Then came secondary school.

History repeated itself.

Everyone thought I was Malay.

There was once I nearly got punished by the afternoon session supervisor. Reason? Saya tak pergi solat. He obviously thought I was Malay.

Racism was alive and well in school. It wasn’t an abstract concept, it could be seen by anyone who has a pair of eyes. Siva would sit next to Guna in class. A bunch of Chinese boys would be yakking away in Mandarin from the back of the classroom. The few Malays in class 5 Azam would huddle together. Our class teacher would valiantly try to change our seating arrangements to reflect a more Malaysian setting, but to no avail.

When we went for sports, the Chinese kids would naturally gravitate to the basketball courts, while the Malays and Indians would square off against each other in a game of futsal. When the bell rang for recess, the whole school would be in chaos. Imagine nearly a thousand hormonal and hungry boys on growth spurts rushing for food in the canteen. When the dust has settled (literally), you’ll see again people sitting according to their ethnicity.

I was the weird one in school. Unlike the other Chinese students, I mixed around with the other races. I was usually the only Chinese student who played futsal with the Malays and Indians. Some days I sat with the Chinese. Some days, the Indians welcomed me as one of their own.

My best friend in school was Ikhwan B. Mohd Yasin. People said that we were like brothers, some thought we were a gay couple. Sometimes, teachers would ask me, “Bila nak masuk Islam, Derek?

Belajar Rajin-rajin

I thought I am/was not racist.

I have a best friend who is a Malay.

I mixed around with people of every race.

I loved Bahasa Melayu.

I liked thinking that I represented what Malaysia was really about. My ‘Malaysian’ face was even part of a winning campaign that showcased the diversity of Malaysia.

But deep inside me, prejudices and stereotypes reign.

“Typical Malay. Lazy, subsidy-mentality, rempit.”

Cerita pusing. No action, talk only. Indians.”

“What a selfish, kiasu Chinese. Communist.”


We all know all these descriptions don’t do justice. There are very hard-working Malays out there, even in my very own school. I know of many Chinese guys who are the epitome of a bum. I have seen my Indian friends standing up for what they believe in. I remember Haris Ibrahim saying that there is only one race. The human race.

As a child, I was beautifully colour-blind. I want to be blind to what I can see now.

Who do I blame for this? My parents who pass off racist comments? My grandmother who indoctrinated me with the belief that Indian men will hunt me down if I misbehave? Or do I point my accusing finger at the education system of Malaysia?

Did they teach me racism?

Or is it the man in the mirror?

Are we all actually racists, deep inside?

Tepuk dada, tanyalah selera.

Derek wonders where Joanne is now. He is a leap-year baby who plans to read law. Mathematically, he is only four-years old, but people believe that he is actually an old, bald man disguised in the body of an 18-year old. A sufferer of severe split personality disorder, he changes personas according to the weather. Passionate for this country, he believes that all change starts with the man in the mirror. He is very single, but also not very available because his mum thinks he’s too young to date. Faced with the challenge of writing this blurb, his palms started sweating. And he yelled,”BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

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Derek is a leap-year baby who is currently reading law. He is single but not available because his mum thinks that he’s too young to date. Follow his frivolous, inane and meaningless Tweets at @derekqiren.

Posted on 2 February 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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