NEGOTIATING ETHNIC IDENTITIES - Alcohol as a Social Marker in East and West Malaysia By Timo Kortteinen1 Academy Research Fellow Department of Sociology University of Helsinki Finland
The paper will be published in Akademika in 2008.
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Abstract From the point of view of alcohol consumption, there are two contradicting tendencies in the present-day Malaysian society. On the one hand, Western influences, including the consumption of alcoholic beverages, have gained ground along with industrialisation and increased standards of living. On the other hand, Islam has become more influential in the country during the past couple of decades. These two contradict each other as far as alcohol consumption is concerned. The paper sets out to examine present-day alcohol consumption as well as positive and negative experiences related to alcohol in Peninsular Malaysia as well as in Sarawak, East Malaysia. The focus of the paper is to study the impact of ethnic and religious identity on alcohol consumption in East and West Malaysia. The information on West (Peninsular) Malaysia was collected in 1996 and 1997 and the information on East Malaysia (Sarawak) in 1999. The study, however, is not only about the quantities and qualities of alcohol consumed in Malaysia. The alcohol issue is used as a ‘window’ through which the broader issue of the construction of ethnic or racial boundaries in the country is studied. Officially, Malays do not drink alcohol because they are Muslims. In reality, however, some Malays do drink. Ideologically, politically and socially drinking is used as a way of segregating races in Malaysia in general and defining the superiority of the Malay race in particular.
Introduction Malaysia is a multiracial society. Racial identities while well formed and strong were created and consolidated by British colonial rule when differences between racial groups2 were governed by occupational categories. Government degree and the interests of the emerging capitalist economy into discrete groups segregated the population. Both residential and occupational divisions were compounded by language and cultural norms of ethnic affiliation (Guinness 1992, 14). The Chinese were mainly resident in urban areas, in economic activities associated with working in tin industry, and in trade and in commerce. Indians worked in rubber plantations in isolated parts of the rural areas. Malays were engaged in subsistence agriculture without much contact with either the Chinese or the Indians (Abraham 1997, 4).
Racial groups need to be separated from ethnic groups. The British colonialists did not make this distinction. Both among the Malays and Chinese (Hakka, Teochew, and Cantonese) in Malaya there were different ethnic groups with different cultures and dialects. These groups did not necessarily communicate with each other. The British, however, ignored these differences and only saw a Malay ‘race’ and a Chinese ‘race’.
3 This racial division also largely coincides with religious differences. Malays are Muslims, Indians Hindus and Chinese Buddhists or believers in other Chinese faiths. After Independence in 1957, the racial or ethnic division has been reproduced and reinforced by the policies of Malay-led governments.
In 1997, according to ILO data, of a population of roughly 22 million, around 62 per cent was Malay, 29 per cent Chinese, nine per cent Indians and the remaining one per cent orang asli (Malaysian aboriginals) and other races and nationalities. The Chinese have traditionally been regarded as the best to do of all the races. The indigenous Malaysian business class, traditionally, has consisted primarily of Chinese while Malays have been regarded as farmers. Indians are generally regarded as the least well-to-do ethnic or racial group.
The populations of Sabah and Sarawak on the Borneon part of the country are more heterogeneous...
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