'Are we all racists?' A response - Commander S THAYAPARAN (Retired) Royal Malaysian Navy
Saturday, May 25, 2019
Malaysiakini : “What I want you to know is that this is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility.” ― Ta-Nehisi Coates, 'Between the World and Me'
| PSM’s S Arutchelvan makes the same mistake in the racial discourse
that most people but especially political operatives make. He conflates
a whole range of issues – social, economic and political – and arrives
at the conclusion that all Malaysians are racists and efforts need to be
made to sort out our differences through a class-based prescription.
Arutchelvan correctly acknowledges the systemic racism of policies
meant for the majority, he makes false equivalencies between those
rejecting those policies and the majority who benefit from them. The
matriculation quota, for instance, is a racist policy. Those objecting
to such a policy are rejecting racism; not being racists themselves
merely because they view such ill-treatment through their non-Malay
community lens and support non-Malay political operatives who oppose
Similarly, the debate about language requirements in certain sections of the private sector is not ab initio “racist” merely because some in the Chinese community say it is. Malaysiakini columnist Zan Azlee, for instance, correctly points
to the weaponisation of language and this could also be applied to the
public sector of Malaysia where citizens' interaction with a bureaucracy
defined by race and religion becomes a cultural battleground instead of
a public service.
The racial discourse in this country is a
tricky terrain to navigate. Firstly, there have been very few studies –
encouraged by the government – on individual issues which are flashpoints for racial and religious agitations. Most people, when they
talk of racism, can point to the political structure and bureaucracy but
have a harder time defining racism beyond those structures.
discourse is problematic for obvious reasons or rather, reasons that
should be obvious but political operatives ignore these reasons for
agendas of their own. Let us take education for instance. Since
public education is mired in racial and religious supremacy, non-Malays
have had to resort to private education. This was not done in any sort
of racial calculation but rather because of survival. This, in turn,
developed two separate cultures in young people, the first based on
racial and religious privilege and the second based on resentment. This
feeds into the private sector which, of course, is part of the larger
capitalist narrative of this country which profits from divisions in
societies if left unchecked.
And even when it comes to political
structures, the discourse is hampered by tunnel vision while other
factors which contribute to racial hegemony are dismissed or even
ignored. The always readable William Leong Jee Keen - whose series of essays for Malaysiakini is a must read – makes the same mistake when talking about Malay power structures.
In his 'Divisive politics: Strategic actions of the elites',
William makes the mistake of narrowly defining the political elites. He
concentrates on the Malay-Muslim political elite as exemplified by the
Bersatu/Umno/PAS troika and narrows his focus on the racial and
religious agenda of Malay supremacy but ignores an important point,
perhaps the most important point.
point is non-Malay participation in furthering racial and religious
supremacy in the power-sharing formula that is necessary for non-Malays
to participate in the political process. Indeed the 'Bangsa Malaysia'
propaganda which is aimed at the non-Malay communities acts as some sort
of narcotising agent for non-Malay discontent, while Malays, even in
multiracial coalitions, are free, nay, encouraged to display their
Malayness either in defence of non-Malay political operatives or as some
sort of bona fide against attacks from the Malay far-right.
racial strategies of the non-Malays are complicit in maintaining
divisive politics because the realpolitik of Malaysia is that if we –
non-Malays – do not employ these strategies, there would be no line in
the sand when it comes to racial and religious supremacy. It also means
that we can never really have an honest dialogue about race because we
are part of the problem.
For instance, when DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang dodges a debate that
he called for because the worry is that former premier Najib Abdul
Razak will spin it into a racial issue, this is wonky thinking. Of
course, Najib is going to spin it into a racial issue but the worry is
that someone like Kit Siang is going to have to defend Harapan's record
of either supporting egalitarian policies – which the far-right would
pounce on – or reaffirming egalitarian policies which the far-right
would pounce on.
Never mind that Harapan's record is
pitifully poor when it comes to these policies; the reality is that Kit
Siang would still be demonised by the far-right for reaffirming agendas
that Harapan has not carried out. The real issue is what is so wrong
about egalitarian policies? The answer is that it is not politically
expedient. Najib knows this and you can bet your last ringgit that most
political operatives, Malay and non-Malay, know this too.
is it important to have multiracial parties? Well, the answer is
simple. We can objectively examine their policies and compare them to
the racial and religious hegemonic policies of race-based parties. This
is more difficult then it sounds because, from a utilitarian calculus,
the MCA, for instance, did more for the Chinese community – working in a
racist system – than the policies of Umno did for the Malay community
during a time when the DAP was advocating for egalitarian policies for
is why a hack from Umno can tell the citizens of this country not to
fight for equal rights and be content to be "good citizens of this
country". This is why people who support these multiracial parties have
to hold them accountable for not carrying out their agendas. This is
important because we all know what eventually happens to power
structures which support racial and religious supremacy.
really bothers me is that the real lesson of the historic Harapan win
may be that people are more interested in dislodging a kleptocracy
instead of reforming an ethnocracy. We can - and should - do both.