May 31. 2012
New Revolutionaries – The Solution to Race Politics
By Zubin Rada Krishnan
Zubin Rada Krishnan returned to Malaysia returned to Malaysia in 2004 after graduating from Oxford with a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He has spent most of his time since working in the business advisory arm of KPMG in Kuala Lumpur.
The running of the body politic along racial1 lines is a reflection of the pervasiveness of ‘racial politics’ in every aspect of Malaysian life. From business fiefdoms to food courts, from the playground to Parliament – the dispersion of power and the making of decisions are dependent on race.
Weighed down by history
From where will the solution to the ubiquity of racialism arise? Often, we look to an answer to filter (or even be imposed) from the top down. From the corridors of power, we expect pluralism and less reliance on racial and sectarian factors in the decisions that shape our nation. The remedy though, may lie closer to us than the lofty politics of the state.
Unfortunately, attempts by Malaysian political parties and their politicians to move the political sphere beyond racial lines have made marginal progress at best, and at worst, match the nastiest chauvinism of race-based partisanship. Noble are the goals of the Democratic Action Party, ostensibly based on the principles of racial equality2 and the Parti Gerakan Rakyat and its analogous non-ethnic stance. However, reality portrays a truth that meanders away from these intentions. The truth is that Malaysian politics has been played within an arena constructed on the foundations of racialism.
The failure of the Malayan Union in 1946 influenced the emergence of UMNO, the MCA and MIC – each setting out to defend their respective communities’ interests during the formation of a post-colonial nation. Concessions and settlements between communities allowed a fine balance to be struck, but on the basis of race.
Our political institutions (like our formal party system and the less formal norms of conduct and customs within politics) were crafted at a time when men who self-identified as Malay, Indian or Chinese were unsure of their future position in a new state free of colonial shackles. Each group pushed and shoved to gain traction in a perceived zero-sum game, where one lost if another gained. Such were the attitudes and behaviour of citizens toward politics – this was the political culture of the era. The political arena (consisting of our political institutions) set up during the birth of our nation was a reflection of this political culture and perhaps a necessary compromise to ensure the birth of an independent Malaysia.
Valiant efforts have been made to move beyond race within this old political arena. Ideas for escaping the stranglehold of the racial zero-sum game, were espoused not only by those of non-ethnic parties but also by progressive members of communitarian parties like Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Dato’ Onn Ja’afar. The results,however, have been circumscribed by historical exigencies – since communitarian parties win votes on the basis of race, they force their competitors into the same game.
Examples are not hard to find, take how the DAP has sought to win support through the championing of Chinese rights, most notably through the buttressing of Chinese vernacular education, and how Gerakan’s membership base is almost four-fifths Chinese in spite of its multi-ethnic principles. The way the game is defined constrains the way players can compete – this has been the story of the struggle by parties for non-ethnic politics in Malaysia.
The power of trust and the new revolutionaries
The body politic is too ensnared in the political culture of yesteryear to be a source of the solution to ‘the politics of race’ in Malaysia, because of historical circumstance, politics is race. Rather, the transcendence of racial cleavages will come about because the political arena necessarily reflects the man in the street – just as ours did when it was newly birthed, fifty-one years ago. And because it must reflect this man, it will only change when he changes.
For the Malaysian to transcend race, it must not take priority over other considerations when dealing with others. He must be able to connect with and trust his fellow man on a basis other than his bloodline. Such connections can be wrought through the development of civil society and social capital.
The concepts of civil society, and its vital byproduct, social capital, are increasingly salient in Malaysian public discourse3. Civil society is best described as the space between the power of the state and the lives of citizens – it is the space where NGOs, knitting circles, chambers of commerce and other voluntary groupings bring people together in a non-coercive manner. The valuable product of effective civil society is social capital. This is the sum of the connectivity between fellow citizens and encompasses the concomitant values of trust and reciprocity that arise because of these connections4.
We arguably, as a nation, already have a relative surfeit of social capital – but that of the inward-looking, bonding type. This kind of social capital is the result of groupings of people that are already alike and is what binds and reinforces ethnic groups.
What our country needs in order to break past the ‘politics of race’ is a profusion of bridging social capital – that which is outward-looking and which entails the building of trust across social cleavages.
Hopeful and idealistic these ideas might sound, but the creation of this type of social capital is actually quite ordinary – it manifests anywhere people come together and share values free of race. From the football pitch to social clubs and not necessarily anywhere glamorous, when Malaysians unite on commonalities besides race, they transcend the very concept. Such connections mean that people begin to cooperate on a plane above racial origin and we begin to find that “trustworthiness lubricates social life“.5
We need revolutionaries for change
This new notion of ‘we’ based on race-blind trust in contrast to the old battlefield of ‘us versus them’ may not however, manifest naturally. We need revolutionaries. But not the self-styled rebels who stand in the street braying and waving the flags of partisanship. The spotlight of the media may not be trained on these new revolutionaries; these ordinary people who stand up and take action to grow our civil society and our stock of social capital. From the mundane rock band fan clubs and local badminton leagues, these new revolutionaries will rise forth and usurp considerations of race from their routines, fostering trust across race lines so that it becomes a force of habit.
Our political arena was created in the image of the political culture of an era past. It will be forced to adapt if Malaysian attitudes and behaviour towards politics change – if Malaysians surmount race in their everyday life, what use will they have for a political arena that is racially defined? And who are these new revolutionaries who build ties between men instead of fortresses? They will have to be you and me. Collectively speaking,We.
Wait, this sounds familiar
Perhaps decades-old political institutions like our party system are beginning to reshape themselves in the form of the political culture of a new Malaysia. Maybe what we see is mere politicking.
Establishing race-blind trust between Malaysians
The most tangible way we can prompt a clear and sustainable end to the ‘politics of race’ is to keep struggling to solidify our civil society and by doing so, establishing race-blind trust between Malaysians. To be sure that the political arena will rid itself of the ‘politics of race’, we need to remove it from our lives first. Only when we look ourselves in the mirror and see unity can we expect the political arena to reflect this image.
1 The difference between race and ethnicity is actually quite significant, what we Malaysians refer to as race, is more like ethnicity. For the purposes of this piece they will be taken to mean the same thing – solidarity between people based on (real or assumed) shared bloodlines and customs.
2 Setapak Declaration, from the first DAP National Congress in 1967
3 Notably due to a few incisive speeches made by HRH Raja Nazrin
4 This definition of social capital is largely drawn from Robert Putnam’s seminal works
5 From Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone’