The oppressive issue of race and Covid-19 - Commander S THAYAPARAN (Retired) Royal Malaysian Navy
Saturday, April 11, 2020
Malaysiakini : “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have
allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the
lives they lead.” - James Baldwin
COMMENT | In case of 'Patient 1580', Tay Tian Yan of Sin Chew Dailywrote
about the Malay blogosphere's reaction to a “Chinese manageress” who
did not reveal her travel history nor quarantine herself but went back
to work after an overseas trip. Her actions – she was positive for the
coronavirus – resulted in 37 infections and the deaths of five members
of one of her subordinate's family.
Since the folks who perished
were “Malay”, the resulting fallout in the Malay blogosphere was
predictable. Tay wrote, “Very unfortunately, such negative sentiment has
spread wildly and been given a racist overtone. While tossing curses at
the manageress, Malay netizens also hurled hostile allegations against
her ethnic community, and we can imagine the language used is not going
to be any gracious.”
elaborated, “...This phenomenon occurs not just in the Malay society.
When the tabligh gathering at Masjid Seri Petaling spawned a massive
infectious cluster in the country, many Chinese netizens cursed not only
the participants but their race and religion as well.”
concludes with this: “Where the virus is concerned, there are no racial
or religious distinctions in humanity and every single earthling could
be its target. The virus will never exempt any specific community or be
particularly harsh to another. It is only looking for people who are
negligent, ignorant, foolish and stubborn, and such people can come from
any ethnic or religious group or nation.”
Is Tay correct when he
claims that the virus has exposed the underbelly of racism and prejudice
in Malaysia like any disaster would? Tay quotes a recent survey that suggests that “negative” comments against people of different backgrounds have surged during this time of crisis.
I think it is possible that “feelings” are heightened during this time
and more folks have a lot more time to spend venting on the Internet, I
think what this virus has demonstrated are the institutional weakness
and the deleterious effects of our racial and religious politics.
will give you an example. While Tay is correct that the virus does not
infect based on race and religion, what this virus does is expose the
systemic imbalances of the system. For instance, in the American
experience, recent data reveals that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by the virus.
Surgeon-General Dr Jerome Adams, “[…] acknowledges that African
Americans are much more vulnerable to Covid-19 due to health disparities
and historic racism around housing, education and employment. Adams
says he is now focusing on formulating a federal response to address the
Similarly, the “class” nature of the majority community
will come into focus because this pandemic will expose the decades of
political and social malfeasance that has been overlooked by successive
political establishments. It will also expose the underlying religious
agendas of operatives who believe that the current administration is
weak and their goals of religious superiority could be cemented at this
Let us take the Seri Petaling incident for example. When I wrote of the Hindu religious festival held
during this pandemic, I said: “It is also symptomatic of how religious
activities are exempt from public scrutiny on the grounds of religious
diversity and national harmony. The reality is that the people who
organised this festival and the state/federal institutions that
sanctioned them are responsible if the virus flares up into a new
Hence the question becomes how the state handles this
issue when it comes to religion. In the US for instance, certain states
are making an exception for “religious services” to be exempt from
lockdown orders to pander to the religious base. The reality is that
these religious people, who are gathering in large numbers, believe that
their god will save them and in the process jeopardising the lives of
In many ways, Malaysia has been proactive in
attempting to curtail religious activities but the broader point is that
the state is grappling with a recalcitrant minority who for decades
have been indoctrinated by religious and racial dogma, through various
propaganda arms of the government. This is why we get ministers talking
about how some folks are breaking the MCO and attending mosques
services, while the state waffles on putting stringent measures on possible Hari Raya balik kampung festivities.
to these statements by political operatives relying on dog-whistle
politics and arguments of racial economic competition when discussing
the impact of the lockdown. The question when it comes to combating
this virus is how does the state view religion – in this instance – and
how do the state’s mitigating strategies take into account the religious
sensitivities of the ruling elites political base?
racists' online response of "Patient 1580" is in response to the online
opprobrium received by the Seri Petaling attendees. The difference, of
course, is the numbers involved but also because the manner in which the
state has been pussyfooting around. Online discourse is a distraction
from the systemic deficiencies brought upon by racial politics that all
Malaysians seem to subscribe to.
Our racial strategies
cannot merely blame the Malay political elite for the system in place.
Non-Malay participation in furthering racial and religious supremacy in
the power-sharing formula is necessary for non-Malays to participate in
the political process and is often overlooked. 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
never really acknowledge that we are part of the problem with our
fidelity to supposedly multiracial parties in name only and not in
I am an outlier when it comes to the government's response to this pandemic. I happen to believe that this 'Malay über alles' government is on the right track and so far the state security apparatus has been doing a good job. We should separate the political machinations of this current government and their response to this pandemic. I do think that these MCO exceptions recently announced is a step in the wrong direction.
it now, we have people lining outside Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN)
because of the announced governmental payouts and the reality is that
social distancing guidelines are non-existent. People are still flocking
to hypermarkets to stock up on essentials and all of these "exceptions"
will place a heavy load on the state security apparatus if enforcement
The fact that most of the industries mentioned are
going to be extremely difficult to monitor and are essentially "soft
targets" when it comes to this virus, is a misstep that could come back
to haunt this government but more importantly, proves dangerous to the
rakyat. I assumed the government was biting the bullet and sailing into
the storm instead of attempting various Trumpian moves to avoid it.
other concern is that Perikatan Nasional's political chicanery will
bleed into the state's response. The last thing we need is petty
fiefdoms squabbling over power and turf while the country goes through a
What I hope folks understand is that the recovery phase of this pandemic will further expose how compromised the system is.
That will be the real test for this government and the Malaysian polity.