Playing with the race card

journal posted 2016-09-03 - last updated 2016-09-08
The race card

Sep. 17, 2015:

Traveling around Borneo was already like traveling in the US Bible Belt: struggling to peacefully co-exist with beings who see this life as little more than a scorecard for the Hereafter. But now, at the edge of the imaginary line that separates Malaysia and Brunei, it was like being transported to an alternate Jim Crow universe (Jow Crim?), as I gaped at the arrival/landing card - that impatiently stared back at me, waiting for its empty box to be filled: Race.

Race? No thanks, too old

Not that I was naive about the situation in Brunei. Brunei is an absolute monarch, calling itself a "Malay Islamic Sultanate" - leveraging the power of the dominant ethnic group to legitimatize its rule. So in Brunei, as in Malaysia and Singapore, citizens are tracked by "race" from birth. But the surprising discovery was that Brunei, unlike Malaysia and Singapore, even tries to pigeonhole visitors into its zany little ethno-religious concoction - from day zero.

Furthermore, the attempt was doomed to failure, as "race" categorization schemes are specific to a region. The Brunei/Malaysia/Singapore scheme corresponds to what is called "ethnicity" in the US (distinguishing the Chinese, Indian, and Malay "races"), while the US scheme basically provides new names for the original (and now discredited) pseudo-skin-color scheme: white, yellow, brown, red, and black. As a result, the US race categorization "Asian", for instance, would be meaningless in Brunei. Needless to say, both systems lack substance and are arbitrary divisions of the continuum that is humanity. Nonetheless, the Brunei bureaucracy expected an answer, without providing a hint of guidance. Such an absurd system must be fed accordingly: Garbage Out requires Garbage In.

After considering providing the same reply that I occasionally supply to forms that ask for "Sex" ("No thanks, too old"), I finally settled on the simplest reply: "human".

Just shut up, and get in line!

Then, just before joining the queue, apprehension kicked in - what kind of trouble will this bring? Why not let it slide, and just play the game their way? What can possibly be gained by doing this? It just appears to be a pointless sophmoric prank that will only bring me more hassles.

I normally play pragmatics not heroics but, despite desperately yearning to get through these endless checkpoints as quickly as possible, there is simply a limit to how much force-feeding of stupidity can be stomached before it must be upchucked back into the face of the feeder. It may be futile to question all the ridiculous "security" requirements, but I felt ready to justify my claim of being "human" - and was curious to hear any counter-claim that might be proposed. Still, the risks raced through the brain: increased interrogation, detention, refused entry, possibly even arrest for obstructing their official duties. How much was I willing to pay to play this little game? Game on - I was all in, prepared to accept all but arrest just to see how serious Brunei officials were about playing their race card.

The immigration police were not amused. While other backpackers breezed through with no questions asked, I was questioned about nearly everything on the card. First visit? Purpose? Stay how long? Finally, the stamp came down and I was on my way. But, after all the questions, nothing was said about the "race" issue!

Tallying the game's outcome, I was forced to admit defeat. Even though, to my relief, they had countered with the minimum force - increased interrogation and delay - they also had avoided the challenge to Brunei's race-based system. On the other hand, my curiosity was at least partially satisfied: they'd shown that they did not take the race card seriously enough to be bothered with defending its integrity against the challenge. Or maybe they just didn't take the challenge seriously.

Religion? No thanks...

But could the "race" question be a cover for another matter, that cannot be taken so lightly?

Syariah will not affect non-Muslims Contrary to the disingenuous claims of Brunei's "Islamic experts" that "Syariah will not affect non-Muslims", Brunei's Syariah Penal Code (SPC), which became effective in May 2014, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims (see Brunei Shell Petroleum summary) - though our busload of travellers were not told this, and in fact did not receive any guidance at all on what is expected or prohibited under the new law.

Still, there are specific offences that are applicable only to Muslims, such as apostasy (renunciation of Islam). So how do the authorities identify Muslims? A 2015 US State Dept. report claims: The government required residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity, which were used in part to determine whether he or she was Muslim. Ethnic Malays traveling in the country were generally assumed to be Muslim and required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment. Religious authorities reportedly checked identity cards for ethnicity when conducting raids against suspected violators of sharia. Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications and foreign Muslims were subject to SPC. So Brunei identifies Muslims at their border, and then subjects them to a special set of stricter laws. Wait - is Donald Trump stealing his anti-Muslim immigration policy from a Muslim government? Or maybe he and Brunei's leader, as fellow billionaire real estate speculators, are of one mind?

In fact, the first conviction under the Syariah Penal Code was not a citizen of Brunei but an Indonesian man caught smoking in public during fasting hours of the month of Ramadhan (He was fined $2,500 - about US$1,830. Aptly enough, this inaugural conviction is one of the offences and punishments that are not even prescribed by the Al Quran and Sunnah - tradition of the prophet Muhammad - that have been included in the Penal Code. So much for the claim that the purpose of the Syariah Penal Code is to preserve the religion...).

A 2003 US State Dept. report claimed: The Government requires residents to carry an identity card that states the bearer's religion; however, the Government no longer requires visitors to identify their religion on their landing cards. So to ease enforcement of the Syariah Penal Code, can we expect to see the race card upgraded with a return of the religion question? And will there be some gift offered to induce Muslim visitors to reveal their religion since, currently, admitting to being a Muslim buys a visitor nothing - other than more opportunities to end up in prison?

Muslims only