Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heightened race rhetoric in Malaysia

Sep 10, 2009
Though fraught with twisted logic, the race debate is not all ugly
By Carolyn Hong

SOMETIMES, it seems one lives in multiple worlds in Malaysia.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a Mingguan Malaysia commentary by Awang Selamat, a pseudonym used by the newspapers' editors. It began like this:

'Previously we assumed that the Chinese were only interested in economic power, while political control was held by the Malays, but this doesn't appear to be so anymore.'

It continued: 'What will happen if the Chinese also control political power - where will the Malays be?'

The belligerence leapt off the page.

As I was reading it, my mobile phone beeped with an SMS invite to an iftar (breaking of fast) with Malay friends.

Even before I had finished reading the SMS, another one arrived from another Malay friend keen to check out the Ramadan bazaar in Kampong Baru, the most traditional Malay enclave in Kuala Lumpur.

Welcome to life in parallel worlds: one filled with fear among the races; another filled with friendship.

In recent weeks, the rhetoric on race - always a staple in Malaysian society - has grown louder and at times poisonous.

This latest round actually began soon after last year's general election when the Barisan Nasional lost its iron grip on power, largely because non-Malay voters favoured the opposition.

Umno fought back. Umno-linked organisations and newspapers dropped hints about the erosion of Malay power. Still, in recent weeks, the sentiments have become almost hostile.

It is hard to tell how far racial feelings are being deliberately stoked to further a political agenda.

My opposition friends lay all blame at Umno's door. My Umno friends insist that Malay fears about losing their special position are deeply felt and real.

The truth lies in-between. The rhetoric does seem more political than real. Malaysians leading their own lives will say that the situation on the ground is nowhere as belligerent as it seems in the media.

Certain ugly incidents have a whiff of political manipulation to them, like the protest two weeks ago by some Malays who stomped on a cow's head. The protesters objected to the building of a Hindu temple near their homes. Yesterday, 12 of them were charged with illegal assembly and six also had sedition charges slapped on them.

But, despite the ugliness of the incident, some good has also come out of it. The protest galvanised many Malays to speak up and condemn the protesters for insulting Hindus. Even some of my Umno friends were appalled - and they didn't hide it.

Some Malay friends made a trip to meet the Hindus in the neighbourhood, to assure them that the protest was not reflective of wider Malay sentiment.

'They were nervous to see me at first, and when I mentioned my friends were on their way, they got even more nervous!' said one of my friends.

The response of such Malays was heartening, because it seized the agenda from the intolerant.

Even though it is fraught with twisted logic and can be ugly at times, the race debate has a soul-searching side to it. My Malay friends and I have ended up talking about the subject endlessly and I've come to better understand Malay sentiments.

Political experts have described the Malay feeling as one of insecurity or anxiety, but the reality is more subtle and harder to pin down.

One conversation has stuck with me. A Malay friend who is a British-trained lawyer stayed back several years in London to work for a prestigious firm rather than land a cushy job at home immediately. He told me he wanted to shake off that inevitable impression that his success was due to pro-Malay government policies.

Another Malay friend who worked in government told me of complaints of discrimination in economic sectors controlled by the Chinese, ranging from the reluctance of Chinese employers to hire Malays to the lack of cooperation in selling construction supplies.

These chats have helped me understand the vicious cycle that Malaysia is in, and why my innocuous comment about the inefficiency of a Malay-owned restaurant was seen as an indictment of the entire race. I meant nothing of that sort. If my friends and I had not spoken about race, I might not have realised this imagined slight.

More importantly, the race debate has given rise to more Malaysians trying to change the racial framework of 'us versus them'.

Prominent Malays have come to the fore, refusing to allow race to define them. They include lawyers Malik Imtiaz Sarwar and Art Harun, writer Farish Noor, politicians Dzulkefly Ahmad and Khalid Samad, and university lecturer Azmi Shahrom.

Former MP Zaid Ibrahim published a book early this year, Saya Pun Melayu, or I Am Also Malay, which explores a Malay identity that's not bound to old political notions.

Such Malays have spoken up for the minorities, and challenge stereotypes at a cost to themselves, as many have been labelled as traitors.

It's a pity there aren't as many Chinese bridge-builders. Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng is one, but there aren't many more who will challenge Chinese stereotypes: The Chinese only want to make money, drink alcohol, and go to karaoke. They have no interest in the community. They are only out to protect their turf at the expense of everyone else.

That's how we have been asked to define ourselves. But that's not who we are. Malaysian Chinese need to break these stereotypes and empathise with others.

The race debate is not all ugly; away from the media glare, it has been a more thoughtful exercise.

That's why when some Malaysians are grim about the country, I'm not. As long as race is bound up with power, it will feature disproportionately in our lives.

But when so many Malaysians are trying to change the old dynamics, one feels more hope than despair.

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