Wong Choon Mei Aug 30, 08 9:59am
Racism is on the rise in Malaysia, with the number of incidents of intolerance on a clear uptrend that may not be containable if politicians of the day continue their current practice of using race and religion to compartmentalise society, some experts told Malaysiakini in an interview.
“The momentum of racism has increased with time and the perception of racial discrimination in the abuses in the implementation of the New Economic Policy,” said Dr Ramon Navaratnam, a member of the government's New Unity Advisory Panel.
“Some recent surveys also bear out this unfortunate negative trend,” he said.Two recent incidents that sparked nationwide outcry earlier this month have added to worries the rift between the main races - Malay, Chinese and Indian - is widening.One was a rowdy protest by mainly Malay groups against a Bar Council forum on conversion to Islam. The other involved a government school teacher who hurled a barrage of racial slurs at her Indian pupils.
Both incidents rattled Malaysians, still adjusting to the novelty of having voted in the nation’s first meaningful opposition in 50 years.The shocking disrespect for each other exhibited during the blow-ups reinforced the view of many that they had been right to have punished the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition with a reduced majority during the March general election.
“The Barisan approach to evolving government policies and practices of national unity had become more questionable as the March 8th general elections indicated,” Navaratnam said.“There was some frustration and anger over religious and racial politicking,” said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.
“However, the outcome of the last general election should not be seen as a demise of ethno-religious politics. It is still very much alive.”Billed as a ‘political tsunami’, the March polls saw Barisan losing their long-held two-thirds majority in parliament.Rival, the Pakatan Rakyat, however gained ground, winning over voters with a manifesto that included promises of greater social equity and justice.
The Pakatan won 82 out of the 222 parliamentary seats, the biggest haul ever by an opposition alliance.Communal politicsBarisan, which has ruled the country for more than five decades, has long promoted a brand of politics described by many as “communal politics’.It was also responsible for introducing the New Economic Policy, an affirmative action plan that favours the Malays.
Although, the coalition consists of several parties representing the main races, it is largely controlled by the Malay-led Umno, while the Chinese-based MCA and Indian MIC play only small roles.
“Racial politics has helped to embed racism in our subconscious mind,” said Khoo, who believes awareness of racism more than racism per se is increasing.“One hand cannot clap. Umno may have created communal politics in this country but its partners in the Barisan coalition have helped to perpetuate it by endorsing the kind of politics Umno is practicing. So they too will have to shoulder the blame,” Khoo added.
While the Umno-led Barisan sets policies for the nation as a whole, member parties have to toe the party line and speak only for their own respective communities rather than for the nation, or Malaysians, as a whole. It is this rule that political watchers blame for driving the wedge deeper among the ethnic groups. The Barisan, however, says it is necessary to prevent sensitive issues from being played up and in the process disrupt nation building efforts.“This has been the major source of racial disharmony so to speak. This feeling of alienation and marginalisation appears to permeate among all racial and religious groups, particularly since the 1980's. This is a dangerous trend that has to be arrested,” said Navaratnam, who is also president of
Transparency International Malaysia.“Umno, MCA and MIC are seen as being more concerned with their own separate racial interests and political progress and survival than the welfare of the masses, regardless of race,” Navaratnam added.Globalisation and the InternetNevertheless there is a silver lining. Despite increasing number of instances of racial disharmony, Malaysians have become more vocal and outspoken about the type of society they wish to live in, thanks to better education, the Internet and consequent globalisation.
“What has changed the scene is the Internet that has exposed to the world abuses of the rich over the poor across the globe and in our own country! People are smarter, more mature and more questioning. The trends for change will continue with greater steam,” said Navaratnam.
But how far can reforms go? The main hurdle to forming an integrated Malaysian society continues to be its politicians, rather than religion, bigotry, mindset or refusal to understand each other’s ethnic ideology.“Some of our leaders use religion to divide and rule,” said Navaratnam. “Race and religion can go hand in hand. But our leaders must stand for all and promote better religious harmony. Not all do and that is the sad thing.”
“Socially, we want to live and co-exist harmoniously. If this is our choice, then we must accept that Malaysia is a multiracial country and start to celebrate our diversity,” said Khoo.“This government does not help in this area. It gives us a perception that it is promoting superiority of a particular religion and race over others. This is the main problem and it is not healthy.
”The latest victory by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim in the fiercely-fought Permatang Pauh by-election appears to bear out these views. Many political pundits attributed this week's triumph by the Pakatan de facto leader to the electorate’s rejection of racial politics and disgruntlement over economic issues.But even as the winds of change gather momentum, there are those who worry the ruling elite, in this instance
Umno, may not want to relinquish or even concede power without finally resorting to force.They point to the racial riots of 1969 and say at the end of the day, it is the big businesses and vested interests that have backed the Barisan’s stay in power who will push for the status quo to remain.
“They can resort to force, just like Burma, Zimbabwe and other authoritarian states, but it will come with a heavy price to pay. We will be reduced to the rank of pariahs in the international community,” said Khoo.