September 5. 2012
American Lessons for Malaysia
by Karim Raslan (04-09-12) @http://www.thestar.com.my
However, his latest column titled “It’s still half-time in America” captured my own uneasiness as I weighed up the Republican Party’s National Convention in Tampa as well as our own Merdeka Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur; so here goes.
On the one hand, there was businessman-turned-politician Willard Mitt Romney being annointed as the Republican Party’s presidential candidate and on the other, hordes of flag-waving Malaysians.
Of course, Malaysia is not America but there are parallels that are worth exploring. First off, both events tried (but failed) to be inclusive and inspiring.In one, a stiff multi-millionaire accepted his party’s nomination, while the other’s celebrations appeared to prioritise the Government of the day rather than the nation itself.
Second, it’s sad to see how far America’s “Grand Old Party” (or GOP) has declined. The Republican Party has been hijacked by “Tea Party” extremists whose views are full of rage and frustration as they watch their nation changing steadily but surely.
Research by the Washington Post in late August indicates that 92% of the GOP is white compared to just 58% in the Democratic Party.Conversely, the Economist inNovember 2011 predicted that by 2050, the Latino share of the population will grow from 15% to 30% whilst African and Asian-Americans will rise from 19% to 24%.
Unfortunately, the GOP (despite Condoleezza Rice’s star turn) isn’t responding to these demographic changes.Instead, the party remains overwhelmingly white, wealthy and hostile to those who do not conform.
As Friedman wrote very pithily of the convention: “It was a festival of hypocrisy – without shame.”However, the Republicans are just one part of the American political debate.They have to fight for supremacy with their Democratic nemeses.
While the conflict is intense and heated – a fundamental battle between different visions of society – democracy’s deep roots and a culture of civility means that there’s an ability to “hold” the centre.
Moreover, American identity is sufficiently broad and adaptable to accommodate almost everyone – from the Tea Party-types with their hyper-conservative ideas to the liberals of the Democratic Party.
In essence, American politics is an open market where anyone can situate themselves. Still as the GOP insists on becoming narrower and less accommodating, there’s no doubt that they’re in danger of sidelining themselves.
Malaysia’s politics isn’t nearly as broad-based. We are merely entering into an era of strong two-party (or coalition) politics. Moreover, Malaysian politicians have been “bashing” a racial and/or religious drum in their attempt to force ordinary citizens to one side or the other of the political divide.
This strategy constantly undermines our society’s precious cohesiveness.A desire for purity and exclusiveness has also damaged our own “Grand Old Party”, UMNO, as the movement’s cosmopolitan and more free-wheeling tendencies have been steadily sidelined.
Needless to say, this has to change. UMNO needs to be able to reach across issues of faith, language and culture – using party members who can bridge these deep divisions.
At the same time and thanks to technology, our own definitions of national identity and what constitutes loyalty that previously were defined by an all-powerful Executive are now being challenged.
Can we handle the fact that there are now multiple, conflicting ideas of what it means to be Malaysian? Indeed, this is most contentious among the Malay community. Besides Islam, the Malay narrative has been royal and elitist: we were Malay because we were loyal subjects or followers.
Questioning and challenging our respective roles was and continues to be taboo.But the system is breaking down and many in UMNO are obviously uneasy with the more open, transparent and free-wheeling ways.
Malaysia is changing and the question is how we manage this move to a broader, less exclusive sense of Malay and Malaysian identity. We need to be injecting hope and a sense of belonging where all too many people feel anxiety and isolation.
Americans run the nastiest campaigns imaginable but after Inauguration Day, they theoretically reunite.
Violators of this rule are eventually punished by the deeply-ingrained sense of fairplay and the need to listen to different sides of any debate that their majority largely keeps to.
This sentiment exists in Malaysians as well and our politicians should respect this. I have no idea what will happen in either America or Malaysia’s next elections, but we need to accept each other’s worth and right to express our views if Malaysia is to live on.
Cue Friedman: “Exceptionalism has to be earned by each generation, and, when that happens, it speaks for itself. If only this election were a choice, not between two parties or two candidates, but between two exceptional journeys – with maps included.”