October 28, 2010
Reaping Our Racial Harvest
BOTH the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister stated just before the UMNO General Assembly last week that there should be no more discussion or debate about the social contract and other issues pertaining to race in our country. It was wishful thinking, for over the next two days, delegate after delegate at the Assembly, spoke out on racial issues. Outside the Assembly, the race debate raged on, especially over the Internet.
1Malaysia Message is not lost among UMNO Delegates
UMNO delegates, like others, should be allowed to speak out honestly on how they feel on the (race) issue without offending the sensitivities of others. The racial tone at this year’s assembly was milder or more conciliatory than previous years. The pre-assembly briefings by the party president, Youth and Wanita leaders seem to have some effect in ensuring that the 1Malaysia message is not lost among its members.
Datuk Seri Najib Razak gave a strong assurance at this assembly that the special position of the Malays, as enshrined in the Constitution, cannot be taken away while reminding the members to respect the rights of the non-Malays as stated in the same Constitution. It may not seem much but what the prime minister did was significant. For the first time, he was openly addressing a major anxiety among many Malays, which has become a stumbling block to promoting 1Malaysia. Although his message has allayed the concern of his members, it would take much more to put the issue to rest once and for all.
Promoting Positive Race Relations
The issue is really HOW race debates should be conducted. In the interest of promoting positive race relations, we should not suppress genuine feelings from being expressed legitimately or “sweep them under the carpet”. Our government should let our people of all races express their honest fears or worries as long as they do not resort to racial slurs or insults. Our political leaders should reach out and engage with each other and also with all those with such genuine concerns in an open manner.
One can argue that it is a good sign of a more mature civil society that lately more people are speaking out honestly but sensitively on how they feel about race issues rather than just keeping such feelings to themselves and their loved ones.
We should not let a situation develop where there is a silent build-up of pent-up frustrations and anger until an explosive point. Neither should we be too free to allow the race debate to degenerate to a point of being destructive, abusive and derogatory. The government should enforce the “zero tolerance” against racial slurs and insults using our laws.
Race Relations Act?
If necessary, our policymakers should consider enacting a new and comprehensive law (such as a Race Relations Act) to curb cases of racial slur, abuse, instigation and other racialist or chauvinistic behaviour. We need to deal appropriately with the “spoilers” of racial unity who have a hidden agenda to instigate, provoke, divide and distract. In any kind of human relations, it is always harder to build goodwill and understanding but easy to undermine and destroy and these spoilers, who are present in every society, know it.
Today’s negative race relations can be mostly attributed to more than five decades of racial politicking since independence. We reap what we sow. It would be pointless for political parties, including those which are only multi-racial in name, to point fingers at each other for the deteriorated state of race relations.
Few people are questioning the rationale of having race-based parties at the time of independence as the state of social development among the various communities might have required such an arrangement for greater efficiency in representation and governance. But there was not much effort in promoting multiracial politics and little attempt to address the growing income disparity between the races in the post-Merdeka period until it reached a boiling point on May 13, 1969.
Social Justice and National Unity
Social justice is an essential element of national unity; the other two elements being equality and mutual respect. The formulation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, to address the social inequality and injustice by assisting the majority of the poor bumiputras to be more self reliant and competitive, was the first response to the May 13 crisis on the economic front. At the same time, on the political front, the formation of the 10-party National Front from the original three race-based parties of the Alliance to include multiracial parties (at least in name), signalled a move towards multiracial politics and representation.
However, for the next 40 years or so after that, not much was done by most political parties to move away from racial politics until recently. There were several attempts by the government to promote meritocracy and multiracialism such as the Bangsa Malaysia concept. The most promising one so far is 1Malaysia.
NEP to NEM: Politics of Inclusion
The progression from the NEP to the new NEM may have obstacles and challenges but the government must be determined and have the political will to see it through in an inclusive manner, without letting any sector feel a sense of loss or fear.
The NEP was perhaps one of the most noble and elaborate social engineering schemes ever proposed anywhere in the world at that time but its implementation was fraught with problems and abuses to a point that many people have accused it of being “bastardised”.
The part failure of one programme (NEP) should not be an excuse to deter the government from abandoning its objective of helping the poor of all races. Hopefully, the lessons learnt from the mistakes of the NEP would enable the NEM to better address the social inequalities and poverty without necessarily compromising the economic growth and competitiveness of the country.
The other political aspect of managing race relations is to steadily move away from race-based politics and representation. What might be politically expedient at the time of independence may not be so today. There is now a greater public recognition that intensive race-based representation in the long run is outdated, divisive and economically destructive for the country in facing the new challenges. It would certainly undermine our journey to achieve 1Malaysia.
Why can’t a Malaysian of a certain ethnic origin represent or speak out for the welfare of Malaysians of other ethnic origins. Why can’t the relative poverty of the bumiputras be equally the concern of others as well? Why must the representation of an ethnic group be monopolised by people of the same ethnicity? Such race-based political representation is not even stated in the constitution. The world of today and the new world of tomorrow would demand that we evolve towards multiracial or cross-racial representation sooner rather than later.
It would be a positive way forward for our emerging civil, plural and democratic society when all ethnic groups would be peacefully and respectfully divided with cross-racial unity and representation. In such a scenario, we would support, agree or disagree with each other based on policies, ideologies, principles and position on issues rather than just race.
A generation from now, let us not look back and start pointing fingers at each other again for not doing the right things. If only we can all develop a positive and inclusive approach and outlook from now, we should be able to reap the beauty of our multiracial harvest by then.
*The writer, the CEO of a Kuala Lumpur-based think-tank and strategic consultancy firm, like many others, believes that there is only one race – the human race. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org