Whoa whoa waitaminute... who's the decolonizer here?

So I was at the UNHQ last month as part of the representative delegation of NZ women's NGOs at CEDAW, and had a chance to catch up with a friend who works at the UN. We were catching up on lots of things an hour lunch can afford; so obviously, we went straight to the political situation in NZ including the emergent wave of radical activisms gaining momentum with Occupy, Blockade the Budget, student protests and the like. I was also earnestly sharing about my POC feminist punk band and my embrace of veganism, and started talking about this thing called decolonization, its relevance in facilitating a fair dialogue between indigineous and tau iwi people of colour in Aotearoa.... and then I wondered if such a thing can be contextually applied  in a country like Singapore (where I was born), and even perhaps a revivalism of Nusantara (Malay archipelago) indigeneity.

How would that work? he asks.

"Well, you know," I started. "Singapura as it has been since Independence is a mess. We (the Malays) are constitutionally recognised as the native people of the land but politically, socio-economically, we're disenfranchised, marginalised, still trailing decades behind.. " I meant this according to the steers of the global capitalist machinery of course. "The idea of utilising indigenous rights as a tool to ignite decolonisation in Singapura excites me...and why not? I mean, my granduncles were communists and they tried; some got detained, some got disappeared in the 70s, then my parents' generation probably traumatised by previous generation and the increasingly regimented government rule took the safe way but here we are, and our generation.. we have the tools at our fingertips.. "

He goes: Okay.. so in Singapore, the natives are Malay... and who would be the colonizers?

The majority.. the Chinese...

But if you talk about Nusantara,  the colonizers in Malaysia and Indonesia.. not similar is it?

He continued. "With the situation in West Papua and Indonesia at the moment.. and the political history between Bumiputra Malays, and indigenous tribes of West Malaysia.. I think it's an entirely different playing field very unlike the west.. there would surely be complexities in who can claim indigeneity..."

By this point, I listened intently to what my friend was saying. He was describing to me the Indonesia situation, since invasion of East Timor and more recently Papua, and relating how Indonesia is, in this light of day, a colonizer. How do we talk about decolonization now? Colonization which has perhaps since the late 80s/90s been interchangeably referred to as Orientalism and academically situated within a "Post(colonial)" context, has always historically been written by the west, and critiqued by the east as a legacy of white supremacy. We imagine Colonizers or those "superpower" white nations like the British, Dutch, Americans, Russians, Germans, Portugese. Yet in the history of the East, invasion from Sino/East Asian nations such as Japanese and Chinese throughout Southeast Asia is so brutally visible today not just in terms of population demographics, but the wider scale of the who's who (in economic power) in Asia...

Well, that's why I think whiteness is a privilege of colonizers, and not necessarily owned by white people in the west, I responded. In the context of Southeast Asia, I think that is still historically apt. My friend didn't look too convinced. To be honest, I wasn't too convinced of my own answer either!

Who are the colonizers today? That question took me a while to munch at. It made me tense and uncomfortable because here I was excited by the possibility of reviving indigenous dialogue with Malay communities in Singapore, thinking I could utilise international human rights language such as UN DRIP, and leverage off strategies tried and tested in the context of tangata whenua in Aotearoa for one, and then suddenly I get this reality-check smack on my head: there's still so much dialogue that NEEDS to happen and HASN'T yet happened in Asia. I bounced this question amongst other Asian migrant/descent activists as well as with an Indonesian guest speaker whom I met at a Communist League forum when I returned to NZ. Somehow, (and for me, disturbingly) consensus is the acceptance of nations such as Indonesia today as colonizers.

But shouldn't the question be why has this "colonization" taken place? Who (which nations//read: USA, Australia, NEW ZEALAND!?) are pulling the strings to make it happen? To whose interests is it to attribute a country such as Indonesia considerably renowned (for better or worse) as the largest Muslim country in the world, to gain such a reputation?

Let's begin with this. Firstly, how can we simply label Indonesia a colonizer without critically looking at the roots of white colonization. Dutch colonialism. Japanese occupation. Dutch re-colonisation attempt post 1945... Hello?!

Secondly, when we talk of colonizer-colonized characteristics, we observe colonizers generally being that of a majority in rule/ power and often an occupier ie. not the native of the land. Indonesia is ethnically diverse, not just by tribes, but also sub-sects of Hindu, Muslim, Christian all over. However Javanese are probably the largest ethnic group whose Suharto-led policies motivated inter-province migrations across various cities to an extent that they are considered the "majority" of Indonesia. But the Javanese, bio-anthropologically, a Malay race, are a people of the land, the natively Indonesian because Java is not a colony island of Indonesia. So in my view, we cannot simply compare them in the same way we do as the Chinese in Singapore.

I think that for people of colour with an indigenous affiliation in a different country such as myself, the way we frame our politics must continue to be challenged and would be required to constantly shift if we want to truly relate to the process of decolonisation. It's literally about multiplicity. Thus far, it feels like I have been doing decolonisation as an Asian migrant in New Zealand, as a member of the wider tau iwi community with respect to Maori. But I have yet to access, connect and participate as an under-recognised and under-rights protected member of the global community of indigenous people. Because somehow when we try, then something like Indonesia pops up and makes us doubt what we already know was true and real in the first place: colonization is a process historically white, historically west and still presently, true. And we really need to trust our instincts when it comes to how we communicate through this politics, this language, because at the end of the day, dude we're all trying to describe, narrate, relate in English. And we all know that there is inherent politics in itself. That must always be the first sign in where, when, how ever the conversation is happening before we, people of colour activists, come to any consensus on what decolonization means for us looking from the outside, but with roots so deep in Asia.

nasi goreng vegan - a vegan version of indonesian fried rice - heres hoping food comforts thy raging souls.


  1. Singapore is an American client state (i.e. neo-colony), with the ethnic Chinese serving as compradors or local Westernized stooges.

    Indeed, Singapore is a key American military satellite, ... I mean, "partner for peace" that enables the United States and its allies like Australia, New Zealand et al. to wage various imperial wars of aggression from the Vietnam War to the War on Terrorism--as well as to maintain the military containment of China.

    For instance, Singapore hosts the US Navy's 7th Fleet Logistics Force commander and his staff and frequently serves as hub for the US Navy and US military operations in Asia.

    Indeed, since its brief dalliance with Malaysia in the 1960s, Singapore has effectively existed as a neo-colonial ward of America and its capitalist allies during the Cold War, being dependent on them for "protection."

    This status continues to this very day, despite the denials of Singaporeans of all political stripes.

    As for Indonesia, that country is not that different from Singapore, as it is a glorified American military satrap--only with a more diverse ethnic/religious mix of “native” stooges ruling it.

    BTW, is being a "POC feminist punk vegan womyn" (LOL) really what passes for political radicalism in New Zealand/Aotearoa these days?

    Coffee shop revolutionaries of New Zealand unite! All you have to lose is your blinding privilege.

  2. Hi there Anonymous, I agree with you completely re the neo-colonial status of Singapore and in part, Indonesia. Hence the earnestness to see where the intersections of indigenous rights dialogue and action can take place in this context, this day and age.
    Re being a "POC feminist punk vegan womyn", I read possible condescension/sarcasm in that so I am not going to waste my time explaining myself.

  3. hey batik
    Having lived in both Singapore and Malaysia now, and endured racism from both majority ethnic groups in BOTH countries, I feel like I can now speak more frankly thank I have last I spoke with you on this subject.

    Chinese and Indians (and to an extent the other ethnic minorities in East Malaysia as well) have long chafed under the conditions of the social contract that we have willingly lived under. After 60 years of paying regressive social taxes for the mere right of existing as a citizen in ones own land of birth, eventually rubs people really sore, and as a ethnic minority (as well as economic, social and political minority, and you'd be dumb if you disagreed, because the facts and figures are all there). Ketuanan Melayu, or malay ascendancy, sovereignty, call it whatever you want - I feel hegemony is quite appropriate if you localise it to a domestic, national context - has been achieved, reached even in the late 80s to early 90s.

    I am Chinese. Malaysian born. With Thai ancestry.
    But my family never had much to begin with despite this common conception that Chinese HAVE ALL THE ECONOMIC POWER IN THE WORLD we are so powerful. I'm calling BULLSHIT on that one.

    Despite not having had much, our family made do, paid our dues, the regressive social taxes, my parents started a small business from scratch, gave away 30% equity like good Malaysian Chinese despite not having any to begin with, kept giving, giving, giving, giving, and then giving some more. For three generations my family gave to their country. And then gave some more. But back at school, my Malay school mates would bully the shit out of me, call me a Chinese faggot, swine, and carry my sorry ass back to China on a boat. ME. a 3rd generation Malaysian born Chinese.

  4. Tell me, after decades of paying my dues, my grandparents paid their dues, my parents paid their dues, and even I, even I paid my dues. I had to leave the fucking country so that I could get a fucking education. And my family kept paying. they didn't complain, well not outwardly anyway. We just gave. and then the politicians kept waving their fucking keris, kept screaming for Chinese blood, and these are top leaders of the country. It hurt me. It hurt my parents. It really really hurt us. We gave a lot. We gave up our opportunities, because I also want to see Malay friends and brothers and sisters advance. I am really happy to see a whole bunch of Malay kids coming over to NZ and get their PhDs, go home, whatevs. It means we have done something good, even if I never got even a shot a old University Malaya. So never mind. But as a kid, everywhere I went, I was the Chinese pig. that should swim back to china with a keris behind my fat ass should try and swim back. That was the kind of persecution I felt growing up. And the sort of rhetoric that I had to live with in the 90s. We paid Ms Batik, we did. Me, my family, and all of us. Average, middle class, hardworking Chinese, Indians, the 30something percent minorities and decreasing by the day.

    It would have been great if the Malays treated us like brothers, like countrymen, but you know there was this deep mistrust. Like as if we are paying for our right to live in the Country, and every moment now they would revoke our citizenship by changing the law as they can do since Parliament is sovereign.

    And then there's the Orang Asli, or orang asal. Did you know that they were not classified Bumiputera? No. they didn't fall within that classification. But if they had converted to Islam and taken a Malay muslim name, they could be naturalised as Bumiputera. In fact even Chinese and Indians could do it. Deny their Chineseness or Indianness, take up another ethnicity and identity and religion and just maybe get a shot at it and I know a few friends who've gone down that path too. Heck even one of my uncles did and I've seen how well he's doing. Pretty good, actually.

  5. So we paid and paid. And paid some more just to be second class minority citizens. It's even embedded into the constitution. We could lose our citizenships, but no.. not the Malay not ever. Who cares that the other indigenous people (non Malay) are actually being marginalised? In the 80s and 90s tons of them were being mass evicted from their native lands, and forests and having forests cleared out and resettled in settlements and native reserves. Their ancestral lands then got given to other Malay villagers who were moved in by the government to transform the land into some monoculture or other. Well guess who made money out of that? Guess who won? No one! Maybe the state government and the authorities getting the kickbacks. But till today the rural Malays in these places are still poor and indigenous have lost their identity and subsumed into the wider 'Malay' ethnic fabric. Diversity is all lumped into one big monolithic religious-ethic identity. even Chinese/Indian converts.

    My parents scrabbled together some coin to send me overseas to study because they knew that one day I will have to go.at the time I left the quota for university adminssions was something like 90% Malay. well guess I didn't stand a chance. neither did any of my friends who were top non-Malay scholars. They just didn't stand a chance. eventually they got full scholarships at universities abroad. stayed abroad. worked abroad. lived abroad. Why go back to a shit country that doesn't want you anyway, makes you pay regressive social taxes and then is bloody ungrateful about it, swearing death and blood and public lynching just so they can control the population through rhetoric, lies and get more votes?

    I am here to tell you about MY alterity- I claim alterity for my ethnic group that has chafed for generations under a shit regime that gave us nothing, and in return for all that we have given, paid us back with blood and vengeance. For what?

  6. You'll find the majority minority oppressions work similar ways all over the world. the majorities will typically oppress the minorities, and it's very rare to see a minority group sustain any modicum of power for long enough to exert effective control over a population. the only way for elites to do it (and this is their ONLY strategy) is through hegemonic discourse. and the colonials and western imperialists practically invented the method. It's systemic, Gramscian cultural and ideological transference of cultures. Sell the working class people the bourgeois ideal and then the bourgeois elite can rule them quite comfortably as the working class keeps getting distracted from the class and ideological struggle by fetishizing commodities (e.g. iPhones, Apple) to their dying days. There is NO EVIDENCE of cultural or ideological hegemony of the Chinese since the demise of these old Chinese kapitans and tycoons that dominated the political and economic spheres in Malaysia in the 40s-60s. That time is long gone, and the only Chinese kapitans and tycoons left are cronies of the Malay elite, who are bigger players than the Chinese, in fact. So I think you are labouring under a false assumption.

    Power cuts through several dimensions - social, economic and political usually. Indians and Chinese are a minority in practically EVERY SINGLE SPHERE. So it stands to reason that oppression EXISTS. I just want you to know this. Of course I don't want to diminish your experience as a minority in Singapore. I am a minority in Singapore too and get the outsider treatment, almost everyday an idiot at work tell me to bugger off back to Malaysia or NZ and that Singaporeans don't need the likes of me. I GET THAT TOO. maybe not the systematic denial of opportunities, but hey - I know a few Malay friends in NUS and some pretty sweet universities and they didn't have to work too damn hard to get in, unlike my mates back in Malaysia who couldn't get into universities despite being top of the class. That's ethnic minority discrimination WITHOUT proper justification, if you ask me, and the fact that Malaysia would not sign up to ANY of the international human rights treatises is also a pretty telling fact (Singapore too). But don't look at Malaysia for solutions of lessons learnt. There aren't any, the circumstances, histories and trajectories are so vastly different, they bear NO REAL OR LEGITIMATE comparisons. I just want you to know that there are no easy answers, and you DO NOT have a monopoly on the race issue in this part of the world. Now that I have said my 2 cents, I bid you good day.


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