Reluctant Assimilation: Of survival & neo-colonialism

By Syirxh A

Three years ago, I left Malaysia to study in the UK. “Come back with a British accent,” my mum said. I’m already fluent in English; it’s my first language and the language I process my thoughts in. It’s my lifelong regret that I converse in the Coloniser’s speech better than my mother tongue, Malay. For my parents to want a British accent on top of that seemed like overkill.

Yet here I am now, with a pseudo-British accent, using slang like “safe” and “peak” which feel awkward rolling off my tongue. Maybe when I start using “innit” unironically, my transformation into a Mat Salleh will be complete.

Despite the risk of getting too deep into Southeast Asian class analysis, I’d be painting a false picture of Malaysian neo-colonial glorification if I didn’t mention social class. In many countries, English proficiency is seen as a mark of socioeconomic standing. The same is true in Malaysia; there’s a class divide marked by language. As a Commonwealth nation, we use English in many situations, but the frequency of its usage varies. 

Malaysia has three main ethnic groups; Malay, Indian and Chinese people. Local linguist Asmah Haji Omar said: “Malay is for nationalism while English is for nationism”. The former is for national identity while the latter is for political ties between races; Malaysians in multicultural environments tend to utilise multilingualism more. 

But regardless of the population of Chinese and Indian Malaysians, they are often concentrated in areas like Penang, Subang Jaya or Kuala Lumpur. In rural areas, English isn’t typically necessary; most of the people Malays there interact with fellow Malays or non-Malays who speak fluent Malay.

 A study on the attitudes of students in rural areas showed that the widespread use of Malay was a reason for low English proficiency. This creates a geographical distribution of English usage with a contrast between more-developed areas, where upper classes coalesce, and rural areas.

It’s common among the middle-upper classes for children to attend language classes, get private tutoring and – if they’re lucky – enrol in an international school. I also grew up during a time before Netflix became a streaming giant with an online personality; instead television kept us company. TV channels in Malaysia have different pricing packages; Western channels, like Disney and BBC, cost more than local channels. Not everyone had the privilege of growing up watching Thomas the Tank Engine. 

The combination of Western media and education access opens a trove of possibilities for the privileged, particularly to obtain overseas qualifications. The West is seen as the land of opportunity, so Malaysians raise kids to aspire for American or British education, echoing the colonial mindset of Western nations being centres for progress. Even within Malaysian borders, education is riddled with neo-colonial influence, as universities look towards the West for guidance. Thus, the global manifestation of neo-colonialism is propagated, whether that be through our class structures or through our education system.

I run the risk of sounding like a hypocrite – I’m a middle-class Malaysian studying overseas. But it’s near impossible for individuals to escape the structures they operate within (and I don’t want to get into personal experiences of my country’s treatment of queer people). While I recognise my privilege, I embody a different position within the UK’s race-class structure. Here I am an immigrant, put into the dichotomy of “good ones” versus “bad ones”.

I started this article talking about the English language for good reason; it’s something I’ve been complimented for in the UK, and it ties in with assimilation. Never mind that I’m a fluent English speaker; with the traits I externalise – the lilt of Kuala Lumpur in my voice, my religious aversion to alcohol, my “interesting” name – I remind people of foreignness. Unfortunately, the UK crowned itself with a monopoly over the English language, and therefore won’t accept that foreigners speak different types of English.

British politics promote violent assimilation; “good immigrants” are rewarded while “bad immigrants” are villainised. Language isn’t the sole indicator of the neo-colonialist assimilation project, but it plays a part. Universities are not exempt from this. For international students, a huge part of our experience is affected by English proficiency. Even with an amazing command of the language, one’s accent, cultural background and confidence play a role in how others perceive their speech. This is among the reasons why international students feel out of place, and there is a link between language and discrimination. 

Findings suggest that if a native speaker makes a judgment on the inadequacy of a student’s language, they show indifference and disrespect. We want to make friends with home students, but have to change a part of ourselves to do so.

Despite years of training in Speaking English to Please Westerners, I’ve felt the pressures to survive within my social circles. Freshers’ Week was tough; conversations revolved a little too much around alcohol. I have no problem with people drinking, but the immense peer pressure to participate in those conversations felt problematic. I’ve changed my speech patterns to fit into British culture, adopting slang I’d be appalled to hear back home. I’ve explained my country’s politics while keeping my commentary interesting enough within UK students’ allocated attention span for global politics, using words that trivialise my knowledge: “Malaysian politics is peak”.

This doesn’t end at university. Research shows that English deficiency shuts out “managerial and professional” jobs, creating a gap among immigrants. The response from Tories to only bring in “skilled” immigrants ignores the system where xenophobia upholds capitalist class divide. Tory immigration policy – which measures skills via English fluency – reinforces xenophobia, which reinforces class, which reinforces the racist model minority myth, etcetera etcetera. 

As a young teen, I believed that I’d be immune to these problems: I spoke the same language as Britons, what reason would they have to exclude me? Why would they discriminate against me when I’ve done everything the capitalist system told me to? In reality, there’s no way for immigrants to prove ourselves in a structure built to harm us.

Assimilation may be ignored by locals, but it permeates all aspects of an immigrant’s life. It isn’t an isolated issue of race, or class, or neo-colonialism, or immigration – it’s all those and more. I grew up continents away from the USA or UK – arguably the two largest Western political powers – and yet my childhood was riddled with subconscious neo-colonialism reinforced by my Malaysian class privilege. Assimilation can be planted in Southeast Asia and grow in the West, under global capitalist and racist structures. These structures seem abstract in our minds, but they directly impact my life and I can guarantee they impact yours. My experience isn’t the only one, and it’s important to continue analysing migration and assimilation into the wider context of global structures.