Third Culture Colonialism: A Critical Reflection of Lisette Scheer’s ‘Malaysian Memories’
Reading Lisette Scheer’s account of her Malaysian memories in the article “How Malaysian culture inspires a Dutch Designer”, I was reminded of how the late father of post-colonial theory, Edward Said, must’ve felt when he read colonial literature about the Orient. The article by white writer, Thomas Bird, propagates orientalism through Scheer’s voyeuristic accounts of her Malaysian memories packaged in eat-pray-love dressing.
Before I begin to deconstruct the orientalist text, I will outline my positionality by way of Feminist Standpoint Theory. I am a working class, eldest immigrant daughter of Malay and Palestinian descent. My mother is Malay of Minang ancestry and my father is Palestinian from Gaza. My parents were born and raised in their respective homelands, thus making me a child of diaspora. I was born in the United States while Mak was completing her Masters degree in sociology and we immigrated to Canada in 1997. We, as a family, are immigrant-settlers on Turtle Island. I am identifying my positionality to note that I was not raised in Malaysia and therefore cannot speak to the experience of Malaysian nationals. Rather, I am writing from the position of a ‘third culture kid’ and addressing the problematic nature of making gross generalizations of a land that we love but do not reside in. I am writing with the intention to leverage my transnational privilege and bring attention to culturally ignorant, orientalist work propagated by South China Morning Post.
Scheer begins by romanticising the simplicity in lifestyle of a Kuala Lumpur before the emergence of the Petronas Twin Towers. She states:
“The area where the twin towers stand today was the Selangor Turf Club, a cricket ground and racecourse that was surrounded by traditional residential buildings. There were no malls. Everyone knew each other. And it was safe, too.
My father would finish work every day at five and go and play polo. In those days it was just different. That kind of lifestyle isn’t possible any more.”
Her accounts bring to question: what exact lifestyle isn’t possible anymore? Her reference to the cricket club and her father playing polo are indications of her class position. My grandparents’ kampung is in Rembau, Negri Sembilan. While Rembau is known for its stables, no one in my family has played polo because we’re not privileged enough to do so. Wan lost her mother when she was 8 years old and stopped attending school to take on domestic responsibilities for her siblings. Scheer’s disregard of her class privilege aligns with her generalization of safety. Crime and violence happen every day at any point in history. To assume safety is a given standard to everyone around you indicates an upbringing shielded from violence and adversity.
Scheer proceeds to discuss the cultural confusion she experienced returning to Holland:
“Although I’m Dutch, returning to live in a small village in southern Holland was weird because I’d been educated in English up until that point. I never really managed to integrate. At school they called me the Little Chinese Girl and I was teased to death.”
As a mixed-raced immigrant who was raised in racist London, Ontario, I too was called Chinese while attending French Immersion school. I do not, however, empathize with Scheer’s account. How I wish my primary experience of otherness stopped at being “teased to death”. I switched into French Immersion school because my parents believed it would be better for job opportunities. I spoke English with a Malay accent because Mak and I briefly moved back to KL before immigrating to Canada. Wan babysat me while Mak worked as a lecturer and I grasped Bahasa Melayu while simultaneously communicating with Baba in English. I was 4 years old.
Scheer’s account of cultural confusion is cute in comparison. I distinctly remember a white boy spitting in my face when I was in first grade. What Scheer doesn’t take into consideration is how her experience of otherness is frozen in time. She is a white Dutch woman who’s national identity does not meet the same crucifictions racialized Dutch immigrants continue to experience under white institutions. Scheer in effect is preaching what we here on Turtle Island call: “white woman tears”.
Scheer continues to document her professional journey and concludes:
“But Holland was not the liberal place it is often portrayed to be and can be quite chauvinistic where professional women are concerned. You are expected to conform to stereotypes and I just didn’t fit the mould. I suppose I was homesick for Malaysia.”
This statement notes her experience of sexism in Holland but foolishly presents the belief that Malaysians aren’t expected to conform to stereotypes. Effectively, what Scheer was homesick for was a privileged, expat lifestyle that humanized her lived experience by affording her individuality through transnational institutions. It’s not Malaysia itself that affords her this individuality but rather her transnational privilege of being an expat in the so-called tropical paradise.
Expat life is inherently birthed out of colonialism and consequently coats the tone of Scheer’s final account:
“My dream is to see the baju kurung return, to see Malays dressing beautifully again. I want people here to feel proud of their heritage. Growing up this country was full of beautiful fabrics and colour. I’m on a crusade to make sure that doesn’t disappear.”
Wow. Where do we begin? Crusade?! Evidently, Scheer’s paternalistic statement foolishly echoes sentiments of the White Man’s Burden. Kurang ajar in the literal sense. Baju Kurung never went out of style in the first place. Mak continues to wear kain batik at home here in Canada while Mak Ngah and Mak Busu continue to do so in KL. Since I’ve only spent a handful of rayas in Malaysia, I also wear baju kurung every raya here in Canada too.
The irony of this declaration is Scheer’s company, Nala Designs, is an active force in squeezing out local Malaysian designers. Powered by publicity from international publications such as South China Morning Post, Scheer’s branding is amplified and erases the presence of local artists and entrepreneurs.
While quarantining in Malaysia in 2020, my creative partner, Bahamian-Canadian writer, Allayna Eizenga, contacted my cousin to ask about local companies to order baju kurung for my birthday. Allayna was quarantining in Spain at the time and knew how to leverage her transnational privilege to support local entrepreneurs. As daughters of diaspora, Allayna and I are intimately aware of the power of our currency. It was important for me to collaborate with local talent and so I made it my ‘crusade’ to commission women photographers like Annatasha Saifol and Nadine Shimona.
Thomas Bird’s article calls into question the hiring and editorial process of South China Morning Post. What is a white man doing writing cultural pieces about Asia through a perspective coated in whiteness? This shameful institutional support reinforces cultural erasure and extractivisionism. Perhaps Lisette wasn’t wrong to think she “was probably a Chinese princess in a previous life”. Afterall, contemporary neocolonial forces indeed provide a cushion lifestyle that nurtures her princess complex. If the beautiful aspects of Malaysian culture were to ‘disappear’ it would be done through the executions of neocolonialism. If Malaysian authenticity were to disappear it would be because the mat salleh continues to bastadarize our subjectivity.