Friday Jottings: A Mirage, Is It Not?


INDIANS the world over celebrated Rishi Sunak’s (picture) entry to  No 10 Downing Street, making him the first non-white British Prime Minister.

It is indeed a cause for celebration given that, for centuries, the English had lorded over the Indians in their own land, firstly by the Crown-sanctioned East India Company from 1757 to 1858 and then converted into a full realm of the British Crown until 1947.

And in the course of the nearly two-century of colonisation, the English squeezed the subcontinent of trillions of dollars, at least US$45 trillion according to several reports citing Indian economists. It cannot be ascertained if the Kohinoor diamond is included in that amount.

Nevertheless, with that kind of legacy, an Indian deserves to sit at the highest office of the British administration – in fact it should have happened much, much earlier.

Simply put, any British citizens whose origins are from nations once part of the empire where the sun never sets, have every right to occupy important positions including that of the PM as each of their nation had contributed to the well-being of Britain and its people.

Surely, never in the wildest dreams of the Indian freedom fighters, be it Gandhi, Chandra Bose, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rani Laxmi Bai and many others who shed their blood and lives to free India from the English yoke, that one day, a child of theirs will be the leader of British and on their own land.

Of course, one condition for Rishi Sunak to be considered, apart from exceptional political acumen, is the public acceptance of how British he is, albeit his non-white origin.

It brings forth an interesting anecdote from 2009 of a British postmaster of Sri Lankan origin, who ran a post office in Nottingham. Deva Kumarasiri was considered quite a celebrity with the white British but viewed with contempt by migrants.

The postmaster made it to national news when he decided that his post office would not serve migrants who did not speak English. After that became news, Kumarasiri was inundated with cards and messages of support from across the UK. He had then only been in England for 18 years.

In an interview he was quoted as saying: “The fabric of the nation begins to unravel if we don’t all speak the same language. When I left Sri Lanka I left behind that country’s culture, customs and language. I have done my utmost ever since to be part of this country’s culture. Far too many people come here and expect Britain to change to suit them.

Another quote that went quite well with the white locals were: “If these people are coming into our country, they should practise our language and culture. As far as I am concerned, if you can’t be British, you should go home.”

Given Sunak’s pedigree and polished British ways, Kumarasiri would most likely approve of him becoming the PM and vice versa, of the latter’s management of his post office.

But it took a long while for the British to realise Sunak.

In fact, less than two months ago, when the race for the PM’s post was still open between Sunak and Liz Truss, opinions were quite in abundance among the Indians that if Sunak lost out to Truss, it would have been due to racist tendencies.

Now that Sunak finally made it and that too after Truss floundered clumsily, does it now make Britain or the Conservatives less racist?

Migrant communities in the world over, Malaysia included, celebrated when Barrack Obama became the first African American president of the United States in 2009 through to 2017.

Obama’s achievement should be celebrated not only by migrants but also the rest of humanity given the history of the American white enslavement of Africans, the cruelties they suffered and the disenfranchisement they were subjected to.

In many ways than not, the white Americans owe it to the African Americans, for by and large, they were kidnapped from Africa and forced into slavery and treated as sub-humans, at times worse than animals.

Americanness slavery  lasted for 400 years. However, even after abolition, the segregation and discrimination persisted, mostly in the Southern states until 1965 when the Jim Crow legislation was finally repealed.

But Obama did not actually end or dilute racism in America.

Instead of taking America into higher grounds vis-à-vis of being non-racist, the nation opted for Donald Trump, widely viewed as anti-migrant and conversely the antithesis of Obama.

These narratives then lead to some non-Bumiputera Malaysians to recently wonder if Malaysia would ever allow a “Sunak” or for that matter an “Obama” to helm the PM post.

Though there are debates on whether it is constitutionally possible and that the constitution is silent on the race of those eligible, by and large, opinions are pessimistic.

But the pessimism is somewhat skewed towards making the Malay/Bumiputera of being racist for now allowing such possibilities while using the Sunak and Obama examples as terms of reference.

None cared to point out that from the day of independence, basically from the word go, Malayans who were non-Malay/Bumiputera assumed Cabinet posts and that there were no laws of segregation ala Jim Crow’s.

In fact, as the nation state evolved, the huge segments of the non-Malay/Bumiputera community that insist on pursuing their education in their own vernacular schools which is in direct contrast to the African Americans who fought to be allowed into white schools, universities, public transports and other amenities.

Neighbouring nations like Indonesia and Thailand cannot be used as comparisons because both opted for assimilation while Malaysia chose integration.

It is a murky and prickly issue which debate will usually be emotive, ignoring the course of history while Sunak and Obama are exemplars.

Yet, Kumarasiri, the Sri Lankan postmaster, may be the answer.

Shamsul Akmar is the editor of The Malaysian Reserve.