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Entry #1: Who is Anak Malaysia?

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By Amanda Cheong

What makes a nation? Is it geography—the arbitrary drawing of geopolitical lines on a map? Is it a shared sense of history, culture or common identity?

Who makes up the nation? And who holds the power to decide?

As a Canadian-born daughter of stateless Chinese-Bruneian immigrants, my lifelong personal struggle to reconcile my own conflicting national and ethnic identities has led me to explore how national boundaries become negotiated and defined, and what happens to those who are left on the outside.

Picture by Amanda Cheong

Picture of a poster on the LRT by Amanda Cheong

Coming to Kuala Lumpur in September of 2012, I was struck by a series of posters around the city depicting smiling children of various ethnicities under the slogan, “Kami Anak Malaysia” (translated from Bahasa Malaysia to mean “We are children of Malaysia”). This campaign epitomizes state-led efforts to advance the myth of multiethnic harmony in a country that is profoundly divided along racial lines.

These posters led me to ask the question, who exactly is considered anak Malaysia? Why are some ethnic groups included into the national fold, while others are deemed to be immutably foreign? In particular, I became curious about how formal citizenship and immigration policies, political rhetoric, and the mass media shape popular sentiment towards immigrants and their descendants in Sabah—a state that has become heavily politicized around the issue of (undocumented) immigration flows from the Philippines and Indonesia.

For the next few months, I will be exploring the lives and perspectives of undocumented and stateless children and their families in Sabah, who are among Malaysia’s most vulnerable and overlooked populations. In both rural and urban contexts, I will be seeking to investigate how public understandings of who is anak Malaysia contribute to their legal and social marginalization, and shape their own understandings of national identity and belonging. Fundamental to my research approach will be the highlighting of children’s voices, so that they may have the chance to tell their own stories and speak to the issues directly facing them.

I will use this blog as a platform upon which to share my thoughts and findings, and hopefully galvanize greater dialogue around an issue that is urgently deserving of greater attention. I hope that you follow along with me in this initiative! Your feedback and insights are most welcome, and can be left in the comments section, or emailed to me at amanda@voc.org.my. I look forward to hearing from you as this project progresses!

 

Amanda Cheong began her internship with VoC in September 2012. Born in Vancouver, Canada, she holds a B.A. Honours in Sociology from the University of British Columbia, and will be beginning her PhD in Sociology in September 2013. Her research interests include migration, nation-building, citizenship, race/ethnicity, and statelessness in Southeast Asia. Her senior honours thesis drew upon oral histories with stateless Chinese-Bruneian immigrants in Vancouver to investigate their changing understandings of citizenship and civic participation through the migration process. At VoC, Amanda is investigating how racialized public discourses surrounding who is a rightful “Malaysian” contribute to the marginalization of undocumented and stateless children in Sabah, and affect their own understandings of national identity and belonging. She can be contacted at amanda@voc.org.my.

 

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Voice of the Children. Youth Voices is a safe space for youth to engage constructively and discuss social issues.

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