November 11, 2015
Najib Razak’s Apartheid based on Religion
by Dr. Syed Farid Alatas
Apartheid is an Afrikaans word which literally means “apart-hood”. It refers to a system of racial discrimination and segregation that was established in South Africa and derives its notoriety from that case.
As in many countries, racial segregation began in South Africa during the colonial period, first under the Dutch from the end of the seventeenth century and then under the British who took possession in 1795. But, it was only much later in 1948 that racial segregation became an official policy. White Afrikaner minority rule was established through legislation by the National Party which ruled South Africa from 1948 to 1994.
Under apartheid legislation the population was classified into four racial groups—white, coloured, Indian and black. Millions of non-white South Africans were forcefully removed from their homes and relocated to segregated neighbourhoods. There was no political representation for non-whites.
Non-whites became separate and unequal inhabitants of South Africa, with little rights and poor access to decent public services and facilities. Apartheid ended with the election of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black President in 1994.
Although the term apartheid is mainly associated with South Africa, comparisons have been made with Israel. Many scholars and writers have sought to compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with South Africa’s treatment of non-whites during the period of apartheid.
Those who apply the apartheid analogy to Israel say that the institution of controls such as military checkpoints, restrictive marriage laws, unequal access to land and other resources, and indeed the West Bank barrier itself, that West Bank Palestinians are subject to, is evidence of an apartheid-type state.
The American linguist, philosopher and political commentator Noam Chomsky said of the Occupied Territories that “what Israel is doing is much worse than apartheid… What is happening in the Occupied Territories is much worse [than in South Africa]. There is a crucial difference. The South African Nationalists needed the black population. That was their workforce… The Israeli relationship to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories is totally different. They just do not want them. They want them out, or at least in prison.”
What is the danger of an apartheid-type system developing in Malaysia? Most historians and sociologists who have studied the pre-colonial Malay world agree that the racial divides that characterize Malaysia today were far less prior to the coming of the Europeans.
There was a great deal of assimilation to Malay culture and inter-marriage, from where we get the Baba or Straits Chinese and the Jawi Peranakan. But, colonial Malaya introduced racism that led to instances of apartheid. For example, the Selangor Club was a whites-only establishment. Locals, along with dogs and other pets, were not granted admission.
Such an environment enabled the British and other Europeans to keep up the illusion of racial purity and superiority, to forget that they were in the East, and to socialize with their own kind. Physical segregation was accompanied by racist views that the British had of the Malayans.
A.R. Wallace, the nineteenth century naturalist, said in his work, The Malay Archipelago, that “[t]he intellect of the Malay race seems rather deficient. They are incapable of anything beyond the simplest combination of ideas and have little taste or energy for the acquirement of knowledge.”
Perhaps the most well-known stereotype was that of the indolence of the Malays. The Malays were stereotyped as lazy and unwilling to perform hard work. The pioneering work of Syed Hussein Alatas, The Myth of the Lazy Native, argued that the characterization of the Malays and other natives such as the Javanese and Filipinos as lazy was part of the ideological justification of the Europeans to rule the colonies as well as import foreign labour.
The Chinese in Malaya were frequently referred to as “greedy Chinamen” who could be found anywhere there was an opportunity to make money. The European view of the Indians was extremely instrumental, looking upon them as a docile population that could be easily exploited as a source of cheap labour.
In the colonial system, racial segregation was not total. Neither was it absent. Indeed it was a system of mini-apartheid that was founded on racist attitudes towards the Malayans. Now we have to be wary that mini-apartheid is being brought back to Malaysia in a different guise, that of religion.
It comes from an excessive sense of impurity and fear of contamination that can only be a reflection of the social and political insecurity that some Malays are currently experiencing.
In such a context, there is a need to live in a way that exaggerates the Islamic identity so that the Malays can feel that not all is being lost. The emphasis on the tudung and other aspects of the dress code are examples of the bid to strengthen religious identity.
It is, of course, understandable that people would attempt to emphasize their Malayness or Muslimness if they felt themselves to be under threat economically or politically. What is horrifying, however, are attempts by the political leadership to capitalize on these fears by introducing apartheid-like measures.
What is unacceptable is to try to differentiate the inhabitants of Malaysia through legislation that would end up segregating people.
Recently it was announced that the Domestic Trade, Cooperatives and Consumerism Ministry is considering a reckless proposal to legislate the segregation of trolleys for halal and non-halal food items in shopping malls. This is ostensibly to alleviate the fears of Muslims regarding the contamination of the food they purchased by non-halal items.
It was suggested that non-halal products could use red trollies while halal products would use trollies of another colour. Well, let us say that the trollies for halal items were green. This would amount to Muslims using green trollies and non-Muslims using red trollies throughout the supermarkets of Malaysia. As if Malaysians were not divided enough, do we have to deal with yet another identity marker, that of trolley pusher?
Making it compulsory for supermarkets to practise such segregation, or even allowing them to do so, sets a very dangerous precedent and puts Malaysia on the slippery slope towards an apartheid-like state. Will the segregation stop with the trollies?
After some time, it may be suggested by some that Muslims feel offended or uncomfortable to see “pork-infested” items being sold in the same supermarkets that they patronize. They may object to seeing alcohol being sold in front of their eyes. They may demand that there be separate supermarkets for Muslims.
This demand may also be extended to kedai runcit and convenience stores. I can also imagine that in future some people may object to non-Muslims eating in halal restaurants. What is to guarantee that these non-Muslims may not inadvertently bring traces of porcine substances into the halal restaurants?
Therefore, it would seem sensible to call for segregated halal restaurants in which Muslims and non-Muslims dined in separate areas and used utensils that were washed and stored separately. There would even be calls to make it compulsory to have separate restaurants for Muslims and non-Muslims. The call for segregation would escalate to encompass more and more areas of life in order that the Muslim consumer would not worry about contamination.
Malay politicians and religious leaders have to take a decision. They can choose to play to the gallery of narrow-mindedness and racism and take advantage of the obsessions of certain unschooled Muslims. They can choose to capitalize on the ignorance of certain sections of the Muslim population of Malaysia. Or, they can take the lead by educating these Muslims on how to live a decent Islamic life, that is, one with a multiculturalist sensibility, that is not ridden with doubts and insecurities.
The last chapter of the Qur’an, entitled Nas or Humankind, asks humans to seek refuge with God from the mischief of Satan, the whisperer of evil (al-waswas) into the hearts or men and women. In this way, Satan attempts to destroy belief by planting psychological anxiety in Muslims, affecting the purity of their faith and way of life.
The duty of the Muslim is to fight this insecurity and live harmoniously with all. Such a spirit of Islam was exemplified by Sayyidina Ali ibn Abi Talib, the cousin and son-in-law of the Holy Prophet and Caliph of Islam, when he advised his governor, Malik al-Ashtar, to have mercy, kindness and affection for his subjects for they are “either your brother in religion or one like you in creation.”
* Dr Syed Farid Alatas is an Assoc Prof at NUS.