The Culture of Ignorance

By on May 12, 2015 in Columns


As a child, I often wondered why I was considered ‘Malaysian Chinese’ rather than just ‘Malaysian’. I did not understand the need for deeper classification of race within a nationality. Whenever I asked, adults would either give me a condescending look or attempt to smile it away, hoping that I was young enough to be beguiled. Adults always had a strange way of sweeping things under the carpet; a concept still very foreign to me.

With maturity came the realization that Malaysia’s system of government was mostly based on racial politics. I found out that one’s ethnicity had to be mentioned in all important administration forms including exam papers, and even in one’s passport. “Why?” I asked some of my relatives one day. Most of them shrugged and simply said that it had been that way as long as they could remember. Even my mother, who had not been granted admission into a Malaysian university because she did not fit the racial quota, replied that life was unfair but we had to try our best to live with it.

These answers did not satisfy me; instead it served to only eat into my thoughts. I wondered why people’s opportunities should be restricted or hindered simply due to the color of their skin or the ethnicity of their parents. I could not see how race would determine one’s merits or behavior. For a time, I was highly convinced that the segregation seen in Malaysian society was solely due to the racial policies put forth by the government.

However, soon I realized that I had been seeing things only from one side of the spectrum. In contrast to my prior beliefs, not only was society passively accepting what has been dished out to them, I observed that the different racial groups were actually perpetuating the existing problem of racism by not integrating into society. For example, different ethnic groups have their individual schools which mainly taught in their mother tongues. With these different school systems, there is no proper cohesion within society. Even at social events, different groups always drifted towards their own kind. The juxtaposition between different groups was so stark it was almost like the contrast between primary colors. Yes, it is undeniable that preserving culture is important as it can be part of an individual’s identity. Nonetheless, the situation could have been improved if there were more attempts by the different ethnic groups to accept different cultures and to assimilate.

My parents had always told me that they moved to Sweden to grant me the opportunity of a less restrictive and better education. Seeing that the education system was so fragmented they were convinced that there was limited future in Malaysia. I however am convinced that they immigrated to Sweden to escape the prison-like racial marginalization back home.

Having spent about half my childhood in Malaysia and almost a half in Sweden, I have been brought up in two very different worlds. I noticed that culture in Sweden is as different as night and day in comparison to that in Malaysia. Malaysia being very conservative, often backwards thinking has hindered society from being more accepting and open-minded.  Strong censorship of the press and prosecution of so-called “radicals” and “liberals” who voice out their ideas for change have left people in the dark, in fear. When people are left in the dark, they make assumptions based on their limited knowledge.   Meanwhile, in Sweden, everything is very open. Half of the constitution consists of laws protecting the rights of freedom of expression. Schools in Sweden teach students to voice out their opinions whereas schools in Malaysia tell students to shut up for voicing too many opinions.

I have seen how racism has set its roots so deep in Malaysian society that even daily life has been impaired by it. Thus, seeing the recent rise of xenophobia and racism in Swedish society has deeply troubled me. Having experienced first-hand the effects of a racist government, I believe that it is very dangerous to vote in a political party with such ideals. This would empower them and also essentially give them the carte blanche to implement their racist manifestos. Voting in political parties with racist agendas into parliament would mean that the people have legitimized their actions. Even when the xenophobic parties may ultimately not win the election or be part of the ruling coalition, they may play an integral role as ‘kingmakers’ in a country’s government.

Drawing from my experiences from living in two very different societies, I can conclude that racism in a society does not have a single facet, but instead is a multifaceted problem. Racism is like cancer, a societal illness eating and infecting the core of societies.  Racism and discrimination grows from the culture of ignorance. It begins with a lack of understanding and ignorance for all things different from oneself leading to non-acceptance. It is like a parasitic vine strangling a tree. At first the seemingly harmless vine grows from the ground, but as it continues to grow, it infests itself deep within the roots of society and corrupts it. It squeezes the life out of the tree and even stops it from growing, from progressing. Racism isn’t inherited, instead it is taught from generation to generation and it still continues to be passed on today.

Thus, the root cause racism must be treated before it takes hold of the very young. Sadly, although the root causes such as social and political marginalization are too broad to be solved with immediate effect, it still must be chipped away, one chip at a time. In my mind, the best way forward is by education of history. History is a way of raising awareness, especially among the younger generations and breaking the culture of ignorance.

It has recently dawned upon me why many of the adults in Malaysia who I have questioned on this issue of racism have acted the way they did. I have learnt that not only the history textbooks have been manipulated, but many pertinent events have been completely disregarded. For example, until now, the Holocaust is still regarded as a fictional event in Malaysia. It has been omitted from history textbooks and if questions were to arise about it, it would be quickly shot down before being left to simmer. There is a wave of anti-Semitism spreading amongst the younger generations in Malaysia. It is heartbreaking when we realize that they had formed this hatred due to their lack of knowledge in history. Their knowledge of history has been perverted and therefore they were not given a chance to even form a balanced opinion of the matter. They were lead on a path of ignorance, and ignorance if left unchecked, breeds contempt.

The world is becoming increasingly globalized as people are moving from the four corners of the world. This would give rise to more opportunities for conflicts to take place as people from different backgrounds, beliefs and cultures are being thrown into the ‘melting pot’. At the same time, information has become more accessible in this technological era. The availability of information can also be used as a weapon to counter racism if applied correctly; to inform and remind people of that racist acts have always ended badly leading to much sorrow and bloodshed.

History has shown us that extreme movements of racism have led to genocides such as the Holocaust, the Nanjing Massacre and more recently, the Rwandan Genocide. If history has proved anything else, it has proven that we have not learnt from history. Let not the cycle repeat itself! In countries where freedom of speech is encouraged such as Sweden, we need to actively educate society by integrating and emphasizing important concepts such as the different instances where violent conflicts have arose due to nationality, ethnicity and discrimination into the history syllabus. By cultivating the message from a young age, it is an effective and direct method. Also, by equipping the general public with more knowledge based on history, they are able to form more reasonable and balanced opinions based on facts rather than on assumptions derived from the lack of knowledge.

Unlike Sweden, Malaysia proves to be a more challenging hurdle to overcome. This proves to be more difficult because the state only condones the teaching of history based on its restrictive perspective. This means that extra efforts are needed and more steps must be taken to step out of this culture of ignorance. Here, passiveness and omission are not the way forward. Society must step up and actively seek education in history. The responsibility of change rests upon its people to counter the prejudice of the state.

Quoting George Santayana:

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

To conclude, we who live privileged lives must step down from our thrones and get out hands dirty. We must start pruning the parasitic vines of ‘racism’ which are strangling our society. With one strike at a time, the roots soon will be cut off. Our first step should through education of history.

I believe that education empowers. Education opens minds. Last of all, education will stop the wheel of ignorance from turning.

This is the award winning essay written for the contest by Emrich Fonden and first published in DN, Beatrice won second place.