Some people claim that the winners in the anti-ICERD rally were the conservative Malay-Muslims, and the losers Pakatan Harapan (PH) and to a lesser extent UMNO.
I beg to differ.
The real winners are the bullies and racists who threaten violence simply to get their way. Ketuanan Melayu or Malay supremacy tactics were paramount at the rally, with displays of silat groups and banners reminding everyone that Malaysia belongs to the Malays.
Prayers at the rally for the destruction of the PH administration were childish and showed that these bullies lacked creativity and brains. If their taunts and threats fail, God’s name is invoked to perpetuate a culture of fear.
The true losers are Malaysians, particularly the Malays. Here was a golden opportunity for Malaysians to rebuild the nation as a united people, through meritocracy. But fear triumphed.
Malaysians are now forced to play second fiddle to a handful of insecure Malay-Muslims who cannot grow up and cannot tolerate others being their equals. These insecure, belligerent people are determined that Malaysia should live in a toxic atmosphere. Think of the jealous boyfriend or husband who says, “If I can’t have you, no one else can.”
If these insecure people cared to read history, they would find that the foundation of Malaya/Malaysia was built on the blood, sweat and tears of all races. PAS leader Hadi Awang said non-Malays should be grateful that the Malays allow them to live in Malaysia. But he is misinformed. The original settlers of both East and West Malaysia were the Orang Asli – and Malay-Muslims repay their generosity by trampling on their rights.
Bullies and racists may have triumphed this time, but the Malays should heed the hidden messages from the anti-ICERD rally.
The rally served only to distract Malaysians, especially the Malays. Over the past few weeks, several Malay leaders were arrested and charged with money laundering, abuse of power, and stealing from the people. The rally allowed them a brief respite where they tried to be heroes once again.
Individuals such as former Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor may have felt like they regained their relevance, if only for an afternoon. They needed to remind the Malays that they champion their rights. The rally gave them ample opportunity to garner moral support from their sympathisers.
Interviews with people who attended the rally showed that some had no clue what ICERD means while others said the gathering was a relief from their day-to-day routines. The coach was free. They were allegedly given a small allowance, but it was still money in their hands. They were given free food and a chance to tell the folk in their villages that they had visited Kuala Lumpur.
The Malays in Malaysia are the poor relations of their cousins overseas. The Malays who have left Malaysia are confident and successful; they do not need crutches to survive. In the days before the ICERD issue, I met many middle-class and wealthy Malays who denounced the treaty as they believed ratifying it would mean the Malays losing their right to education. Have they been to schools where the dropout rate of Malays is high? Have they asked how the children perform at some Felda schools?
One professional Malay living and working in Malaysia claimed the special privileges of the Malays would be lost and Islam would be phased out if the ICERD were to be ratified. This person is perhaps oblivious to the fact that Malays who are spoon-fed become lazy and demotivated. Malays do not enjoy special privileges or a special position. There is nothing special about having a millstone around one’s neck.
A Malay engineer visited Dataran Merdeka in the early hours of the morning, before the rally started, to take a selfie. He disagreed with ICERD because he enjoys an Ali Baba work relationship. Others see him as a successful engineer, but would he agree to meritocracy and equality in the workplace?
After PH won GE-14, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad stood by his decision of Tommy Thomas as the Attorney-General. He was equally adamant that Lim Guan Eng should be the finance minister, yet when Malay extremists threatened to wreak havoc, he faltered. Why? Was he reverting to his Umno heredity or was this a politically expedient move?
PH carried the hopes and ideals of Malaysia Baru, but when it came to ICERD, it failed the people.
Why aren’t the Malays informed that ICERD is not the end of their little world? ICERD would have been the key to a more exciting future in which they would continue to play a positive role alongside other Malaysians. And their success would have been achieved under their own steam, through their brilliance and hard work.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.
Two new books bring sharply different perspectives to bear on the history of British imperialism in India up until the end of the Raj in 1947. Together, they offer important insights into how national political identities can evolve on the basis of self-awareness or self-delusion.
NEW DELHI – The books under review both describe the people and events that shaped the final years of the British Raj in India, and demonstrate a magisterial command of their subject. But the similarities end there: these books could not be more different in the ground they cover or, ultimately, in their sympathies.
The first is by Ramachandra Guha, a well-known Indian historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early life until 1914 (Gandhi Before India), and a historical survey of modern India following the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 (India After Gandhi). Guha’s new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, fills the gap in between, describing the final three and a half decades in the life of a saintly nationalist hero who would eventually be remembered as the father of a newly independent India. By contrast, the Mahatma plays no role in The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, the historian David Gilmour’s study of India’s colonial tormentors.
Gandhi’s Larger Truth
Gandhi, as we know, was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement against colonial rule. But he was also a philosopher committed to living out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change; hence the subtitle of his autobiography: “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”
No dictionary definition of “truth” captures the depth of meaning that Gandhi found in it. His truth, Guha notes, emerged from his convictions, and contained not just what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Such truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, especially the use of violence.
Gandhi described his method as satyagraha, which literally means “holding on to truth,” or, as he variously described it, harnessing a “truth-,” “love-,” or “soul-force.” He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism. To Gandhi, one who believes in truth and cares enough to obtain it cannot afford to be passive, and must be prepared to suffer actively for it.
Viewed in this way, non-violence – like the later concepts of non-cooperation and non-alignment – is not merely about renouncing violence, but about vindicating truth. In non-violence, suffering is intentionally taken upon oneself – instead of being inflicted on one’s opponents – because only by willingly accepting punishment can one demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions vis-à-vis one’s oppressors.
Guha details how Gandhi applied this approach to India’s movement for independence. Non-violence succeeded where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both failed. Gandhi showed the masses that freedom was a simple matter of right and wrong, and he furnished them with a form of resistance for which the British had no response.
Non-violent civil disobedience enabled Gandhi to expose the injustice of the law, giving him a moral advantage. By accepting his captors’ punishment, he held a mirror up to their brutality. And through hunger strikes and other acts of self-imposed suffering, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of truth. In the end, he rendered the perpetuation of British rule impossible, by exposing the lie at the heart of imperialist paternalism.
An Enigmatic Life
Yet as Guha reminds us, Gandhi’s fight was not just against imperialism, but also against religious bigotry at home – a commitment that is very relevant to the current era. The descendants of Gandhi’s detractors on the Hindu right now hold power in India, and support for their brand of nationalism is at an all-time high. In their estimation, Gandhi went too far to accommodate Muslim interests. Within the jingoistic Hindutva movement, his pacifism is regarded as unmanly.
But Gandhi, an openly practicing and deeply committed Hindu, defended a version of the faith that was inclusive and universalist, and thus demanded respect for all other faiths. Gandhi was murdered for being too pro-Muslim, and yet he died with the name of the Hindu god Rama on his lips. In the event, he had just come out of a fast that was meant to pressure his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, into transferring a larger share of undivided India’s assets to the new state of Pakistan. (Much to the Pakistanis’ horror, Gandhi had also announced that he would spurn the country he had failed to keep united, and spend the rest of his years in Pakistan.)
Such was the enigma of Gandhi. An idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined man, he marched only to the beat of his own drum, and often got everyone else to pick up the same rhythm. It has been said that he was half saint, half Tammany Hall politician. Like the best crossbreeds, he managed to synthesize the qualities of his component parts while transcending their contradictions.
But the Mahatma had a personal life, too. Guha describes in some detail Gandhi’s intimate friendship with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (though there is no suggestion of a physical relationship). He also recounts the troubling story of Gandhi’s experiments in sleeping naked with young women (including his own grand-niece) to test his vow of celibacy. Though there can be no doubt about the purity of his intentions – Gandhi gave up sex at the age of 35 – nor can there be any question that such idiosyncratic behavior alienated many of his followers (and remains controversial today).
Still, nothing in Guha’s thorough account diminishes Gandhi’s greatness or the extraordinary and lasting resonance of his life and message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma espoused the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace, and left colonialism utterly discredited. Moreover, he set an example of personal conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare leader who transcends the inadequacies of his followers.
India for the English
The British ruled India for centuries with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall. Stalin, for his part, found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” Though his numbers were off, he was right in principle: the British Raj operated with remarkably few people. Even at the peak of the empire in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons – including 60,000 in the army and police, and a mere 4,000 in civil government – to run a country of some 300 million people. The British in India never accounted for more than 0.05% of the population.
In his monumental book, Gilmour sheds light on how they did it. He delves meticulously into the lives of Britons who lived and worked in India over the course of “three centuries of ambition and experience.” (An Indian might be tempted to substitute “looting and racism” to describe the colonial period, but we won’t dwell on that.) A decade ago, in The Ruling Caste, Gilmour took readers on a similarly deep dive into the lives of the Englishmen who worked in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). But in his new volume, he has broadened the range substantially to include the soldiers, journalists, and “boxwallahs” (commercial classes), as well as the hunters who single-handedly decimated most of the subcontinent’s wildlife. In the case of the latter, they lived by the motto, “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”
In describing the social backgrounds of the young men whom Britain sent to govern its far-flung empire, Gilmour takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, and extracurricular (sometimes extramarital) activities. Much of this is familiar ground, notably trodden by the ICS’s own Philip Mason in his 1985 book The Men Who Ruled India. But Gilmour has pored over a wealth of private papers and unpublished correspondence, leaving his narrative enriched by an intimacy that humanizes his subjects.
More broadly, Gilmour explains how the British sustained their empire in India through an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity, the trappings of enlightened progressivism, and brute force. Of course, it should also be said that the British benefited a great deal from the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism, disunity, and lack of organized resistance on the part of the vanquished.
Paternalism and Oppression
The British were in India to do a job: to advance the strategic, commercial, and political interests of their home country. Interestingly, Gilmour notes that two-thirds of the viceroys in the six decades from 1884 had attended Eton, as had half of the governors of the richest province, Bombay. Elitism at home reinforced racism abroad.
Though Indians were permitted to take the civil-service examination from 1868 onward, they were long relegated to inferior positions. As one viceroy, Lord Mayo, put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Needless to say, few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for brown skins.” In Gilmour’s telling, the British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government. Their view of Indians was paternalistic at best, but more often contemptuous. Well into the twentieth century, Britons on the subcontinent spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians like “children” incapable of ruling themselves.
There were British families that served the empire in India over the course of several generations – some for more than 300 years – without ever establishing roots. They would often send their own children “home” for schooling while they “endured” years of separation from loved ones. But it was not all self-sacrifice and hard work. The British in India were afforded not just generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, but also the highest salaries in the empire. Some found it “quite impossible” even to spend their income. It is little wonder that English political reformer John Bright once described the empire as a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”
British society in India was shamelessly committed to its own pleasures. The families and hangers-on of senior officials routinely withdrew to mountain redoubts for months on end. As they whiled away their time with dances, banquets, and social fripperies, the Indian people, well out of their sight, continued to be ruthlessly exploited. In the summer capital of Simla, for example, so-called grass widows took in the cooler air while their husbands stayed behind to toil in the hot plains. These socialites’ principal activities included gambling, drinking, dancing, and adultery – usually in that order.
Meanwhile, racism became entrenched, pervasive, and increasingly repugnant over time. But while Gilmour acknowledges the racism, he does not address its connection to British self-interest. The Indians were systematically shown their place, with even those in government service being condemned to inferior ranks, piddling pay, and scarce opportunities for career advancement. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said of the ICS, it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”
Gilmour writes accessibly, often wittily, and with a wealth of telling anecdotes to bring the story to life. But he is unforgivably non-judgmental toward his subjects. The British imperial system was hopelessly disconnected from the Indians in whose interests it claimed to govern. Yet the very foreignness that Indians regarded as an indictment of colonial rule, Gilmour takes for granted, sometimes even framing it as a virtue.
Accordingly, he presents his cast of characters not just impartially, but often in an affectionate, sardonic light. Rarely does it seem to have occurred to him that these same men were racist oppressors, or at the very least the embodiment of a larger system of iniquity and injustice.
As a result, The British in India comes across as a curiously old-fashioned book, oblivious to the post-colonial currents that have already upended its assumptions. Because Gilmour demonstrates little awareness of the Indian perspective toward the British, we never learn what the subjects actually thought about their subjugators. The growing political consciousness among Indians that Guha describes makes no appearance, even though it provoked a British reaction.
Gilmour also disregards the unforgivable British attitude toward famines. Yet the deaths of 35 million Indians as a result of British imperial policy would seem to undermine his portraits of glittering durbars and elegant soirees.
The fact is that the British did little to advance the welfare of the people they were exploiting. As foreign rulers, they were more concerned with stability. Their job was to ensure imperial profit, not Indian progress, which would have undermined imperial rule anyway. Britain’s presence in India was motivated principally by pillage and plunder, but you wouldn’t know that from Gilmour’s telling. Only an Englishman could write about an emotionally fraught subject like colonialism with such benign detachment.
In reality, by the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a ruling caste not within Indian society, but on top of it. They did not intermarry or even dine with Indians. They lived in bungalows within exclusive cantonments or “Civil Lines,” well apart from the “Black Towns” where the locals lived. They ensconced themselves in little islands of Englishness in the hill stations, where they planted ferns and roses, and built cottages with nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge in Udhagamandalam (which the British, unable to pronounce the name, re-baptized “Ooty”). They patronized whites-only social clubs from which even Indian ICS men were blackballed.
More to the point, the British in India sneered at the people whose oppression paid for their comforts. Their loyalties remained staunchly wedded to their faraway homeland. Neither they nor their children mingled with the “natives.” Their clothes, books, and ideas all came from Britain, and British interests always took priority over those of the Indians under their rule. For the most part, the Britons would return “home” at the end of their careers. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in 1907, “A handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.”
That was the life of the British in India. Gandhi led the revolt that brought their sordid sojourn to an end. Guha and Gilmour offer an indispensable portrait of the people on each side of the colonial drama. As an Indian, though, I have little doubt about who is the worthier subject.
The death of George H.W. Bush has occasioned a fair amount of nostalgia for the old American establishment, of which Bush was undoubtedly a prominent member. It has also provoked a heated debate among commentators about that establishment, whose membership was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. You had to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to ascend to almost any position of power in the United States until the early 1960s. Surely, there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else?
Actually, there is. For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.
But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.
If at this point you think I am painting a fantasy of a world that never existed, let me give you a vivid example. On the Titanic’s maiden voyage, its first-class cabins were filled with the Forbes 400 of the age. As the ship began to sink and it became clear there were not enough lifeboats for everyone, something striking took place. As Wyn Wade recounts, the men let the women and children board the boats. In first class, about 95 percent of the women and children were saved, compared with only about 30 percent of the men. While, of course, first-class passengers had easier access to the boats, the point remains that some of the world’s most powerful men followed an unwritten code of conduct, even though it meant certain death for them.
Today’s elites are chosen in a much more open, democratic manner, largely through education. Those who do well on tests get into good colleges, then good graduate schools, then get the best jobs and so on. But their power flows from this treadmill of achievement, so they are constantly moving, looking out for their own survival and success. Their perspective is narrower, their horizon shorter-term, their actions more self-interested.
Most damagingly, they believe their status is legitimately earned. They lack some of the sense of the old WASP establishment that they were accidentally privileged from birth. So the old constraints have vanished. Today, chief executives and other elites pay themselves lavishly, jockey for personal advantage and focus on their own ascendancy.
The man who invented the term “meritocracy” did not mean it as a compliment. The British thinker Michael Young painted a dystopian picture of a society in which the new, technocratic elite, selected through exams, became increasingly smug, arrogant and ambitious, certain that modern inequality was a fair reflection of talent and hard work. Writing later about Tony Blair’s complimentary use of the term, Young warned that the prime minister was fostering a deeply immoral attitude toward those who were not being rewarded by the system, treating them as if they deserved their lower status.
President Trump uses a common refrain at his rallies to attack today’s elites and their arrogance. He focuses on their schooling and then says to the crowd, “They’re not elite. You’re the elite.” Trump has found a genuine vein of disgust among many Americans at the way they are perceived and treated by their more successful countrymen. The violent protests that have been happening in France are similarly fueled by rural, poorer people who believe that the metropolitan elites ignore their plight. The 2016 Brexit vote reflected the same revolt against technocrats.
Let me be clear. I — of all people — am not calling for a revival of the WASP establishment. I am asking, can we learn something from its virtues? Today’s elites should be more aware of their privilege and at least live by one simple old-fashioned, universal idea — rich or poor, talented or not, educated or uneducated, every human being has equal moral worth.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. – Alphonse Karr
Malaysians must be scratching their heads over how quickly the ICERD has gone from being a symbol of hope to a stark reminder that we have yet to come to grips with the racism that has plagued our nation for so long.
It was only a few weeks ago when Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, speaking at the United Nation’s (UN) General Assembly as head of the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, proudly announced to the world that “the new Malaysia will firmly espouse the principles promoted by the UN in our international engagements. These include the principles of truth, human rights, the rule of law, justice, fairness, responsibility and accountability, as well as sustainability”.
In this context, and while admitting that it was a sensitive issue, he “pledged to ratify all remaining core UN instruments (including ICERD) related to the protection of human rights”.
His speech was immediately hailed both at home and abroad as an indication of the new government’s commitment to human rights and democracy.
The Ketuanan Melayu pushback
The reaction of Umno-PAS and other Ketuanan Melayu groups was fast and furious. Insisting, contrary to the facts, that ICERD directly challenged Malay rights, the position of the rulers and even the role of Islam in Malaysia, they demanded that the government abandon plans to ratify ICERD.
Add to that unverified reports of unknown groups distributing Bibles to Malays (even leaving copies in mosques, apparently) and UMNO-PAS had all the ingredients necessary to create the perfect political storm. Having found a lethal mix of race and religion that could galvanise public opinion, divert attention from their own failures and put PH on the defensive, they are now enthusiastically milking it for all its worth. And it’s going to be worth a great deal to them.
Umno president Zahid Hamidi, in the best traditions of his party, starkly warned that the Malays would run amok if ICERD was ratified. PAS leader Hadi Awang, always at his best when it comes to religious demagoguery, insisted that it was “compulsory for Muslims to oppose ICERD” as it would diminish the special position of Islam in the country and weaken the Malays yet further.
Of course, ICERD does no such thing; it is in reality more an aspirational convention rather than a binding treaty. Members are given wide leeway to carve out for themselves exceptions to satisfy their own local laws; dozens of countries have, in fact, done so. Indeed, several local legal experts have confirmed that ratifying ICERD would not violate the constitution. Malay extremists, however, are determined to read into it whatever serves their nefarious agenda.
Anti-ICERD rallies are now being planned across the country with a mammoth one scheduled to take place on December 8. It is telling that the same people who did nothing when billions were being looted from the public purse, when our nation was being literally sold off to a foreign power, are now ready to push the country to the brink of instability over a non-existent threat.
In the meantime, a vicious and racist anti-DAP campaign, perhaps the worst we’ve ever seen thus far, is now underway.
PH in full retreat
Initially, PH luminaries defended the decision to ratify ICERD; it was, after all, mooted by none other than the Prime Minister himself at a very high-profile international event.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa (Minister in Prime Minister’s Department for religious affairs), for example, took Malay rights groups, including PAS, to task for claiming that Malay rights would be abolished if the convention is ratified. He stressed that ICERD “will not have any impact on what’s protected under the Federal Constitution”. PPBM president and Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said essentially the same thing.
However, as right-wing pressure grew, PH’s resolve crumbled and its ministers beat a hasty retreat from ICERD.
Muhyiddin started worrying publicly about whether ICERD would undermine the special position of the Malays. Syed Saddiq, the PPBM Youth chief and youth and sports minister, expressed concern that ICERD could undermine constitutional provisions pertaining to Malay rights. Other ministers with the exception of Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah (who continues to valiantly defend ICERD) simply kept their heads down.
PKR President Anwar Ibrahim, always ready to stand decisively on both sides of an issue, said that while ICERD did not conflict with the constitution, there was no hurry to ratify it given other more pressing priorities – as if the government cannot chew gum and walk at the same time. In Parliament, he even joined the chorus of opposition calls for the Foreign Minister to defer ratification.
Of course, all of them were careful not to reference the fact that it was the Prime Minister himself who surprised everyone by raising the issue at the UN. Mahathir himself finally agreed that it would be almost impossible for Malaysia to ratify ICERD because the government lacked the two-thirds majority it needed to amend the constitution. He also added that some aspects of ICERD were not suitable for Malaysia. It was a surreal moment that immediately begged the question of why the prime minister raised the issue at the UN in the first place.
Non-Malay politicians, for their part, justifiably terrified at being cast as the villains in the whole saga, are running for cover. DAP Secretary- General and Finance MMnister Lim Guan Eng said, “We did not raise the issue. It was Waytha (Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department) who did.” MCA and Gerakan as usual attacked DAP.
Left holding the bag
Unsurprisingly, Waytha Moorthy, whose portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Department obliged him to steer the ICERD issue forward, has now become the fall guy.
More than 115,000 signatures have also been collected for a petition demanding Waytha’s resignation; he now joins a growing list of PH ministers – Theresa Kok, Kulasegeran, and Gobind Singh – whose resignations are being demanded by Ketuanan Melayu groups for one reason or another.
If Waytha is guilty of anything, it was simply of taking the Prime ,inister’s UN speech at face value and acting upon it, as most responsible ministers would. After all, the foreign minister had tabled the same UN speech in Parliament and received unanimous PH support for making it official policy. Unfortunately for Waytha, when push came to shove, all his Cabinet colleagues (save for the foreign minister) left him holding the bag.
A PH-made fiasco
ICERD has, undoubtedly, dealt a serious political blow to the PH government. Despite its good intentions, the government failed to do its homework, failed to build a clear consensus within its own ranks and failed to agree on a game plan to manage the ratification process once it committed itself to doing so. They came across as a party in disarray, unable to even agree on a common position. Worse still, they did not have the courage of their own convictions to stand their ground against Umno-PAS.
PH’s mishandling of the ICERD issue has now given UMNO-PAS a new lease of life. In a single swoop, Umno-PAS appears to have out-manoeuvred PH and put it on the defensive. ICERD has also allowed Umno-PAS to burnish their credentials as the preeminent defender of all things Malay. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a brilliant (if obnoxious) political gambit by a party that until recently was given up for dead.
More dangerously, it has also allowed UMNO-PAS an opportunity to claw back some of the political power it lost at the ballot box; by threatening to run amuck whenever it feels Ketuanan Melayu is challenged, it will now be able to strongly influence national policies without even being in the Cabinet.
At the end of the day, by exploiting ICERD, UMNO-PAS has now forced PH’s Malay leadership to compete with them on the issue of who can best defend Ketuanan Melayu. Rather than being consigned to the dustbin of history after May 9, Ketuanan Melayu will now become the altar at which all Malay politicians will have to offer obeisance if they wish to hold power.
If PH doesn’t act swiftly and decisively to extricate itself from this mess, it will be the end of Malaysia Baru as we know it.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT
Does the prime minister really think it is his administration’s prerogative to grant or deny the freedoms that are associated with democratic life? A news report on Nov 8 quoted him as warning the public against causing trouble in “matters concerning race and religion” through the “abuse” of the freedom of expression “given by the government”.
If the report is accurate, Malaysians have reason to fear the possibility of losing one of the liberties that citizens of a democratic country normally consider to be their inalienable right.
Mahathir sounded like he was speaking as the leader of a Malaysia stuck in the pre-internet and pre-Reformasi era, when it was perhaps normal for the average citizen to think of the government as the dispenser of liberties.
But the advent of the internet, which roughly coincided with the emergence of the Reformasi movement, heralded the rise of democratic consciousness among ordinary educated Malaysians. Government controls over the flow of information were no longer effective, and anger over the perceived injustice to Anwar Ibrahim spread across cyberspace and across racial lines.
Malaysians gradually became accustomed to the idea that the freedom to express themselves and the freedom to avail themselves of information are integral parts of civilised democratic life. Today, they think of such liberties as theirs to own and not to be dispensed to them by the government at its pleasure.
An Iranian scholar writing about the 1979 overthrow of the 2,500-year-old Persian monarchy attributed the fall of the Shah, with all his military might, to the simple idea of distributing tape-recorded speeches of the then-exiled Ayatollah Khomeini.
Indeed, technology has played a crucial part in the rise of civil society in Malaysia. Futurist Alvin Toffler predicted in a 1970 book that dictators would fall with advancements in information technology and the availability of computers in every home.
Politicians in power, in Malaysia or anywhere else in the democratic world, must live with the reality that they can no longer effectively curtail freedom of speech. And Mahathir should not fret over this as long as his government enacts laws to punish those who threaten bodily harm with their speeches.
Indeed it is only a citizen’s own sense of decency and decorum, as well as his fear of running afoul of laws against the threat of violence, that should limit his outburst.
In the new Malaysia, we must constantly remind the government that freedom of speech is not some commodity for it to give or take away. It is our fundamental right. I may not like someone’s speech because it offends my beliefs, but I do not agree that he should be jailed. I can always counter his argument with my own speech or writing.
Even now there is a WhatsApp warfare over the possible ratification of ICERD and its alleged impact on so-called Malay rights and privileges. This is one of the signs of a working democracy. In fact, we are now seeing a rise in the number of public forums to educate citizens on current issues. But it is sad that these forums occur only in hotels and clubhouses and not on the campuses of our universities.
In the new Malaysia, any politician in power who threatens to withhold the freedom of speech will be seen as someone who is out of touch with the times. The new Malaysia rejects the cult of the strong man but welcomes a prime minister who knows how to manage the talents of his subordinates and sees civil society as a participant in governance.
It is true that many current members of the federal Cabinet have no experience in governance, but then neither are they experienced in the destruction of public institutions and the desecration of the Federal Constitution. And we should welcome that.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.