Racialized Narrative Structures in Malaysia

Alyssa talking to a man and taking notes on a computer.




Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Project Summary

This summer, I was able to conduct independent research in Malaysia with funding from the Kanta Marwah College Alumni Society Undergraduate Research Grant and guidance from my faculty mentor, Dr. Carruthers. My research project is broadly about the racial riots of May 13th 1969 which occurred in various parts of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It looks specifically at how oral accounts of this event are passed down to the youth today in the absence of a transparent state narrative and whether these accounts, if racialized, have an effect on race relations.

This topic is one of personal interest to me as I grew up hearing stories of my parents’ own experiences. They painted a dark moment in Malaysian history that was steeped in violence and civilian casualties. However, this contrasted heavily with how it was mentioned in textbooks or local media, where it was mostly glossed over and loomed as a spectre of racial discord. With explicit discussion effectively silenced due to the taboo surrounding it, I wondered how other people around my age learned about May 13th.

Using one-one-one semi-structured interviews, I talked to 15 interlocuters between the ages of 20 and 35, and of varying races who grew up in the Klang Valley. Through these interviews, I was able to learn what they knew about May 13th and how they came to do so. I also managed to discover more about their respective home environments, educational background, and social circles and how these factors played a significant role in shaping how the interlocuters came to perceive race and facilitating their interactions with people of other races.

Overall, this research project was an eye-opening experience as I had the chance to interact with a range of individuals, learn more about the different lives that my fellow Malaysians lead, and discover more of the Klang Valley through my interviews. It was a little intimidating conducting an independent project at first, but it was very educational as I am now more familiar with the initial processes involved such as conducting a literature review and applying for an IRB. I enjoyed conducting ethnographic fieldwork over the summer and I hope to be able to have more opportunities like this in the future.