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May 3, 2017

“Tell me, Daddy, what color is God’s skin?”

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – Probably one of the more interesting facets of the Malay world, which I married into, was the subject of skin color. I really didn't pay much attention to the fact that the Malay skin ranged from almost white to a deep chocolate color.


I thought that it was a natural product of the amount of melanin in the skin. I didn't realize there was a purposeful attempt to lighten the skin via genetics.


The Malay skin color, on the Peninsula, seems to have originally been a deep dark tan. Then, as the Arabs arrived around 700 A.D., or so, the skin color, among the elites, would become a lighter shade. This allowed the formation of the Malay upper class. If one looks at the current Malay king, inaugurated a few weeks ago, one will noticed he is almost as white as I am. This would mean, I think, that he has many Arab ancestors.


As for the local Malays here on the Sarawak River, there are a few kampongs where the skin color is noticeably lighter that the neighboring villages. I was curious but did not pay much attention.


Then, I ran into an obscure article which changed my way of thinking.


In the Malay world, a boy and girl will get married. The son will then build an extra room onto the father’s house and the couple will start a family. The son-in-law will hopefully have a good job, also.


The skin color came into the picture probably with the arrival of the British in the 1840s, or it could have come with the Arab traders. This part is hazy. Apparently, the British colonials hired people from the Malay kampung who had lighter skin thus ensuring them of a job for life with a pension. The Malays saw this and tried to find brides who were of lighter color.


The Chinese, who lived opposite the Malays on the river, began to sell their daughters to the Malays. It has been said the Chinese were so poor and downtrodden that they could not afford to keep them and what better way for their survival than to be brought up in the kampong. The Malay system of laws, or adat, required the Malays to raise the daughter as Moslem. The cost of the daughter was $50 plus a hand woven cloth. The Chinese would get the money and the Malays would get the daughter, and, hopefully, a new room added onto the house by a future groom, who had a good job.


The kampong (Gersik) was specifically selected because the Malays working there were specifically hired by the British, forming a civil service social class. They also had the money. As time moved forward, the genes mixed and a lighter skin Malay was produced in that kampong. As more Chinese females were added, the skin was further lightened.


If we fast forward to today, I am aware of some Chinese who have been sold to the Malays.


One is a general manager of a local hotel, while another just passed recently. There are a few others of my generation.


I had a long talk with a Malay girl, I suspect in her early 20s, at local kedai (shop) recently, and told her of my findings. She was a modern Malay, didn't wear a tudong and had obviously been overseas and was worldly.


She didn't know the history but said yes, some Malays were discriminated against because of their dark skin color. And she was very depressed about the situation. I was stunned to learn this because I thought in Islam all people were equal. I know there are lotions and other products on the market to lighten the skin, but I never thought it would get to this.


The problem probably goes much deeper, and social scientists could probably report much better than I can; but this is only an observation on my part coupled with a rare article and a few interviews.


After I told my wife what I was writing about, she related an antidote. She said the girls in her family all thought that the reason I married her was because of her light skin. She told them “No!” The guys from America and England all liked dark skin. They put away their creams and lotions and now parade around proudly with their beautiful skin color.


At least I had one positive effect on her family.


..Life is good. . . . .


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