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The Mamak Dilemma – Shame, Opportunity, Assimilation, and an Identity Lost

By Mohd Ikhram Merican


“How shall a man escape from his ancestors, or draw off from his veins the black drop which he drew from his father’s or mother’s life?” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

For some time now I’ve felt that the Indian Muslim or Mamak community at large suffers from a pitiful cultural and identity crisis. Being a Muslim of Indian origin, I have first-hand experience with the dilemma afflicting this community that has contributed so much to the culture, politics, and economy of Malaysia for well over a few centuries. I also worry that so many members of this, my community, are shedding their identity by becoming over-zealous converts.

Some of the offensive and snide remarks by an individual with clear Indian ancestry at the on-going UMNO General Assembly have motivated me to finally pen this letter.

My ancestral beginnings in Malaysia start with my great-grandfather, K.K Daud, in Penang in the early 20th century; although I suspect earlier generations were already making trade excursions to the Malay Peninsula. My grandfather, D Mohamed Ibraheem, born in India, was brought to study at the Methodist Boys School in Penang. He was a scholar, a sportsman, and a gentleman. These exact traits, decades later, were to become my obligation at my Alma Mater, the Victoria Institution.

My grandfather was a linguist of sorts. He learned Latin, was sufficiently proficient in Malay, and a master in English and Tamil. All of his children bore a combination of Tamil and Muslim names, a testament to his pride as a Tamilian and an unashamed celebration of his Indian roots. He worked hard, contributed to Penang’s economy, was a well respected member of his community, and raised a good family. For all intents and purposes, he was well assimilated into the fabric of Penangite society. He did not have to shed his cultural identity to do this.

My father and his generation, like their preceding generations, spoke excellent Tamil. Most of them were privileged to have an English education. A significant number of them have gone on to becoming prominent captains of industry in Malaysia and abroad. None of them coveted handouts from the government or needed to shake-off their “Indian-ess” to progress in Malaysia. It was never an option. Their parents worked hard to educate them.

My generation does not speak Tamil as well as the previous generations. Most of us speak English or Malay. Suddenly it has become important to be seen as practicing Malay culture. Article 160 of the Constitution states that a “Malay” is a person who professes the religion of Islam, habitually speaks the Malay language, conforms to Malay custom and –

  1. was before Merdeka Day born in the Federation or in Singapore or born of parents one of whom was born in the Federation or in Singapore, or was on that day domiciled in the Federation or in Singapore; or
  2. is the issue of such a person;

Many Indian Muslims have used or would like to use this provision to “convert”.

I have no disrespect for the Malay culture which is beautiful. We can all learn a thing or two from Malay adat. However, I do hold a grudge against the deliberate extermination of one’s own heritage. I further find it offensive when Indian Muslims, in their eagerness to convert, use Machiavellian means to identify themselves as Malay. It demonstrates a lack of dignity and self-worth.

Naturally, I feel sick when I read of the charades of UMNO politicians, academicians, and community leaders masquerading as Malays, spewing hatred against other races, sometimes against their own roots. Even when they’re challenged as to their real identity, they shamelessly defend their false Malay roots. For some, Tamil is still spoken in whispers, in the privacy of their homes, like it were a “dirty” parlance.

Why? For special rights? For economic handouts? My grandfather worked very, very hard for providence. So did the men of his generation. The early Indian Muslim traders who came to these shores were an industrious lot who earned their bread. They contributed to Malaysia’s rich heritage without becoming cultural orphans. They cherished their roots. Hardship and experience polished them. It earned them monopolies in certain trades that last till today.

This legacy is being destroyed. A culture and heritage is disappearing only to be replaced by a false sense of security. In the process, the Indian Muslims are offending not only their own race and the Chinese, but many Malays too. In the long run, we as a community will isolate ourselves from our roots and the nation in which we want so much to assimilate with.

“Distinguished ancestors shed a powerful light on their descendants, and forbid the concealment either of their merits or of their demerits.” – Gaius Sallustius Crispus.

Compliments: Malaysia Today


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R ajman
10 years 7 months ago

Thanks for this article. M A Salam, your contribution to this site …..really be appreciated. I wonder why there is no comments from members. Is this site a dormant???