Just as cultures vary widely across the world, so do approaches to multiculturalism. Not every multiethnic or multicultural society operates in exactly the same way, so multiple frameworks are required to understand multiculturalism in various societies.
In “Postcoloniality, Race, and Multiculturalism,” the introduction to Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009), Daniel P. S. Goh and Philip Holden argue that the race-based models of multiculturalism that currently predominate in Singapore and Malaysia derive from colonial systems of racial categorization that have become entrenched in the societies and politics of the nations (3, 6-8). In order to understand how multiculturalism in Singapore and Malaysia differs from Western multiculturalism, Goh and Holden define it as postcolonial multiculturalism, and the citizens of Singapore and Malaysia as postcolonial actors (2, 4). The authors define postcolonial actors as those who “have no choice but to negotiate the colonial legacies of racialization and transform them into postcolonial multiculturalisms” (4). They understand multiculturalism in Singapore and Malaysia as different from multiculturalism in many Western nations because of their continuous grappling with a colonial legacy.
I am intrigued by the fact that multiculturalism in Malaysia is based on ethnic categories that were imposed during colonial rule. Goh and Holden point out that the official categories of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Others (CMIO) were originally implemented by the British, who believed that people in Malaysia had “‘no clear conception of race’” (4-5). All of these ethnic groups were present in Malaysia and Singapore when British colonization began. This contrasts with the way multiculturalism is represented in the U.K., where immigration, primarily from formerly-colonized nations, has changed the ethnic makeup of the nation. Anti-immigration groups depict England as an ethnically homogenous place being “invaded” by “other” ethnicities, while those who support multiculturalism still expect those who are not white and ethnically English to culturally assimilate. Interestingly, the ethnic categories considered in both national contexts derive from British ideas about what constitutes race and ethnicity and how people should be categorized. British colonialism has played a large role in the way multiculturalism is conceived and practiced around the world.
Goh, Daniel P. S. and Philip Holden. “Postcoloniality, Race, and Multiculturalism.” Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore. Routledge, 2009, pp. 1-8.