Friday, November 21, 2008

Growing unease over race debate

Nov 21, 2008

Malays feeling uneasy as minority races become more strident

By Carolyn Hong

NOT too many years ago, Malaysians would look over their shoulders before daring to whisper criticism of the country's 'social contract', or Malay rights.

But today, these are openly debated, with the minority communities no longer holding back, and the boundaries of discussion being pushed further and further.

The status quo has been upended, and there is a strong sense of uncertainty as the three major communities grope for a new equilibrium.

A Malay writer on Malay/Muslim issues told The Straits Times that many Malays are uneasy as they try to come to terms with the reality that non-Malays are no longer suppressing their thoughts and feelings.

'It is not just anger they feel, it is fear now that our status quo is being challenged,' she said.

But observers note that while the Malay sentiment is strong, they are hampered by the absence of a strong intellectual Malay voice to articulate their position. Many Malay intellectuals have, in fact, lent their voices to the more liberal view, leaving the debate with unequal firepower.

The sense of Malay frustration was captured by Foreign Minister Rais Yatim when he pointed out last week that while Umno had punished a grassroots leader for calling the Chinese squatters, those who humiliated the Malays were standing tall and laughing.

Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar said in a recent interview with Utusan Malaysia that when others spoke up, people described it as the voice of the people - but when the Malays spoke, it was seen as excessive.

'All actions taken by the Malays are regarded as excessive, hurtful and racist, while the actions of others, even though communal in tone, are not,' he said.

It's not clear if they are speaking for the majority of the Malays, but a recent independent survey does show unhappiness among Malays to some extent.

According to Merdeka Centre's survey in September, 36 per cent of Malay respondents said that Penang Umno leader Ahmad Ismail's controversial comment that the Chinese were squatters was 'appropriate'.

Fifty-eight per cent said it was not.

Take the non-Malay view: 97 per cent of Indians and 90 per cent of Chinese said it was inappropriate.

The results are an indication of ambivalence among Malays over a racial issue that non-Malays regard as obviously wrong.

It is not difficult to trace the start of this racial debate, which was partly born out of a sense of insecurity after Malay political power seemed to have weakened after the March 8 general election, in which the opposition won big on a multiracial platform.

But it actually had an earlier start: When Umno unrolled a stronger push for pro-Malay economic policies. This provoked a backlash from the minorities, and as a result, retaliation by the majority community.

The country's 'social contract' - a gentlemen's agreement among the founding fathers to guarantee a special position for the Malays - has also been dragged in.

It is no secret that many Malays feel aggrieved that non-Malays appear to be making more and more demands, and seem to be breaking their end of the bargain that had long kept the country on an even keel.

They feel under siege, and are more aggrieved that their responses are seen as racist diatribes.

Further, many Malay intellectuals in the public eye and writers have taken the side of what has been described as 'new Malaysia'.

They include prominent constitutional expert Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, lawyer Haris Ibrahim and academics such as Dr Farish Noor, who is based in Singapore, and Associate Professor Azmi Shahrom from the University of Malaya's Law Faculty.

Former premier Mahathir Mohamad regards them as being in the minority.

In a recent entry in his popular blog, he said the views of the young Malays may 'sound refreshing', but maintained that they were in the minority.

'The majority of the Malay professionals and young Malays have hardened their stand on the position of their race since the disaster of 2008,' he wrote.

Observers have noted that Tun Dr Mahathir is probably one of the more sober voices on this side of the fence.

Former News Straits Times editor A. Kadir Jasin wrote in his blog that the problem is that Malays seem to be unable to articulate proper arguments to defend their position and rights.

Both have warned that the an increasingly strident debate is taking Malaysia down a divisive path.

'I emboldened myself to give a warning of the possibility (I repeat possibility) of the 'fringe Malays' who may be violent if they feel that the rights of the Malays are threatened and disputed on racial grounds,' Datuk Kadir wrote on Tuesday.

Dr Mahathir also said that racist sentiments were rising, and could affect the country's stability through political wrangling that would in turn damage its economy.

'This slide must be stopped. No one should disregard the obligation to uphold the social contract,' he said.

This may be scare-mongering, but what seems likely is that Umno or Barisan Nasional could paint itself into a position that will make it increasingly hard for it to regain support.

About 65 per cent of Malaysians now live in urban centres, and the Election Commission estimated recently that another two million new and young voters could be added to the rolls by the next election.

Young urbanites are natural opposition supporters.

The racial rhetoric is not going to end as the door to debate is not easy to slam shut once it is opened, but its path could be better directed.

[Comment: The reality is that any policy to guarantee the privileges of a race will be seen as racist, and it will take an intellectual contortionist to argue that it is not. The bumiputra policy should have been pitched as a temporary policy meant to equalise opportunities and allow one (or more) races to catch up. Instead, it entrenched the privileges of one race and instead of promoting practices for this race to catch up, allowed it to wallow in self-indulgence, while being spoon-fed benefits. This divergence of political position led to Singapore's ejection from the Malayan Federation, and Malay Malaysia has gone its way, while Singapore has pursued the path of meritocracy.

However, the issue of race and race-based privileges for the "sons of the earth" will continue to fester. Malaysia will have to face and resolve that issue somewhere along the road and it could be explosive, or if guided with intelligence, strong leadership, and clear rational minds, it could be contained. However, I have never attributed intelligence, or rationality to Malaysian leaders. Their leadership is even more nepotic, and leads me to wonder if they are there by virtue of ability or connections. The answer is less than assuring.]

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