Remembering Cynthia Joseph: Reflecting on the Intersection of Gender and Ethnicity in Malaysia

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 10:45
Oral Presentation
Maznah MOHAMAD, National University of Singapore, Singapore
The life and works of the late Cynthia Joseph inform the subject of this paper. Joseph’s study of young females within the schooling system strikes at the heart of the many critiques of Malaysia’s affirmative action policy, or the New Economic Policy (NEP). The later was originally conceived and implemented in 1972 to narrow socio-economic inequality in a new nation previously governed and segregated by race under colonialism. Although the NEP was intended to diminish racial differences, 40 years or so after its implementation, ethnic relations have evidently become more strained than ever. While old inequalities have disappeared (such as urban-rural divide on the basis of ethnicity), new ones have taken shape (along the lines of religion and ethnicized political power). Why have this been so? Joseph’s many studies unpack this question by delving into the micro and everyday experiences among those furthest from the reins of power. The narratives of young female students she studied disprove the success of the NEP. Joseph’s portrayal of the life of Malaysian schoolgirls of different ethnicities tells this story. Charting their life-course as they embrace, accommodate, negotiate or circumvent the NEP, Joseph’s study mirrors her own bittersweet trajectory, of her migration from Malaysia to Australia. It reminds policy makers that nation-making should only be built upon the notion of inclusivity rather than exclusivity. By reviewing many of Joseph’s seminal works on this question the paper revisits the notion of gender and ethnicity as they intersect at the crossroads of nation-making, democratic transition and political reformation in current day Malaysia. What are the new agendas and articulations for reforms? Can a subjectivity based on race, gender and class be re-invented and lead to meaningful political and social transformations in the country?