Monday, February 05, 2007

Malaysianese Twins

In college I took an entire course on Mark Twain (which seemed pointless at the time but which later came in immensely handy when I wrote some related things for the Hartford Courant), and we read what must be one of Twain’s less popular works, Pudd’nhead Wilson.

It’s a strange, messy and bleakly comic novel. I might be misremembering this but while there is some weird murder mystery business about a pair of unattached Siamese twins, the main plot thread of the book is about a light-skinned slave woman who switches her baby with a rich white baby, so that her son will have a better life. I think the book was originally going to be a comedy about Siamese twins but turned more serious as it went on, becoming more about the switched white and black babies. The “black” baby who is raised as a rich white turns out to be a cad and a murderer, while the other baby grows up to be more or less good.

I never liked that plot, because to my modern eye it seems unnecessarily close to racism, no matter what Twain’s intentions were. Maybe his point was sort of in support of nurture as opposed to nature, that the white upbringing makes the black baby evil, while the black upbringing makes the white baby good. But still, why couldn’t he have written a satire where the technically “black” baby didn’t turn out to be pure psychopathic evil? Disturbing, and a weird mix of allegory, ambiguity and bitterness about the human race in general. Like Melville’s The Confidence-Man. Oh well.

I write all this as preamble to an article I saw this evening, on of all places. Now, Malaysian readers will have to bear with me: maybe this has been big local news here for weeks and I am only seeing it now because the AP picked it up. Or maybe this sort of thing happens here all the time. But for me, the story seems like Malaysia’s version of Pudd’nhead Wilson and a perfect glimpse into how this country, like my own, has all sorts of darkly comic racial (and here, religious-cum-racial) issues to deal with.

Swapped Malay baby: I'm not Muslim

POSTED: 4:00 a.m. EST, February 5, 2007

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- An ethnic Chinese Malaysian mistakenly given by doctors to a Malay Muslim couple at birth nearly three decades ago is bracing for a possible legal battle so he can renounce Islam, an action that can be considered a crime in parts of Malaysia.

Zulhaidi Omar, 29, who now goes by the name Eddie to his family and friends, said he discovered his true identity by chance and met his biological parents in 1998 after years of being teased about his Chinese features.

"I want to get my life back in order now," Zulhaidi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his southern home state of Johor.

Zulhaidi, a sales executive raised in an ethnic Malay Muslim family, said he was revealing his story only now because he wants to take a Chinese name and change his religion to Buddhism. About 20 percent of the Malaysian population is Buddhist.

He declined to comment further, citing sensitivities concerning religion in this predominantly Muslim nation. The constitution does not allow Muslims to renounce their religion, and doing so is considered apostasy and punishable by jail in several states, though not in Johor.

Michael Tay, a politician with the Malaysian Chinese Association who is helping Zulhaidi, said he was negotiating with Johor state authorities to grant Zulhaidi's request.

"The academic question is whether he can return to his Chinese identity," Tay told the AP. "I have told (Zulhaidi) it could be an uphill battle, but he still wants it," Tay said.

It is not clear how long a resolution might take and the case could eventually be handed to the Islamic Shariah court, which presides over religious issues involving Muslims, Tay said.

State religious officials could not be immediately reached for comment.

Malaysian media first reported over the weekend Zulhaidi's claim that he was spotted working in a supermarket eight years ago by his biological sister who noticed he was the spitting image of their father, Teo Ma Leong, 67.

A DNA test later confirmed the relationship and Zulhaidi moved in with his parents three months later, The Star newspaper reported.

The Malay boy that the Teo family brought home because of the mix-up was raised as Tian Fa, and is now married to a Chinese woman, according to The Star. Tian Fa told the newspaper he has no intention of looking for his biological family and is happy to treat Teo and his wife, Lim Sai Hak, as his parents.

Note that, for whatever reasons, the one switched baby is full of questions and doubt and is questing for his true identity, while the other switched baby is perfectly, 100% happy with his life. Comedy gold.

I have no idea how this case will turn out, and I can’t and don’t want to draw any conclusions or make any comments because I am an outsider and guest in this complex nation, but however this turns out, I think Mark Twain would have recognized this situation as one tailor-made for some sort of savage social satire.


La Niña said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
La Niña said...

" he can renounce Islam, an action that can be considered a crime in parts of Malaysia."

Seriously? How can this possibly be considered a crime?

albtraum said...

From what I know, it's not possible for an ethnic Malay to change religions.