Pagar makan padi?

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Much heated debate – including the memorable exchanges between Nazri and Mahathir – surrounded the Biro Tata Negara controversy. If Umno is not racist, why does it maintain an indoctrination agency like the BTN, wonders Stephen Tan Ban Cheng, in our cover story.

 If Umno is not racist, why does it maintain an indoctrination agency like the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) which inculcates in young Malay minds the idea of Ketuanan Melayu and wariness of the other races?  (For more on the BTN, read Dr Azly Rahman’s chapter On the Problem of Ketuanan Melayu and the Work of the Biro Tata Negara in the book Multiethnic Malasia.) – Kee Thuan Chye on 18 October 2009.

The raging public furore over the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) underlines the naked inability of all component parties of the Barisan Nasional (BN) to restrain and moderate the unhealthy inclinations of a former Prime Minister.

It is now known that since the late 1980s the publicly-funded BTN (National Civics Bureau in English) has been allegedly indoctrinating Ketuanan Melayu or racial supremacy among Malay Malaysians.  Worse, the BTN, funded by our taxes, has also been allegedly instilling hatred against Chinese Malaysians.

In the movie The Power of One: Rainmaker, it stated very clearly that “an ideology that attacks those who least threaten it will not outlast its own generation”. In this instance, Ketuanan Melayu can only be justified if the Chinese Malaysians are conflated into one identity that it never was, is or will be.

Clearly, the Chinese – forget for a while about those in Malaysia – are linguistically divided into various dialect groups, economically divided into various social classes and religiously divided into as many religions as can be found in the world.

In Malaysia, it is an unstated rule for years on end since Merdeka in 1957 that there was a distinctive division between the Malaysian-born or Peranakans such as the Babas and Nyonyas on the one hand and the sin kheks (or new arrivals) on the other, although the sands of time have papered over this cleavage.

Clearly, the Chinese have been dissipated along lines that mark their different dialect groups, social class and religious inclinations. So, except for their supposed cultural affinity, how does a Chinese community threaten anyone when there is no community per se?

Nevertheless, according to a recent Malaysian Insider report headlined ‘Inner details of BTN reveal past transgressions by Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, the BTN has allegedly been stereotyping the various races as if each was a single entity, demonising Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders as spies for the Jews, demonising the Democratic Action Party (DAP) as a communist party with close ties to Singapore, and demonising Pas as Islamic militants.

Here is the classic case of naming, blaming and shaming people as a “group”without any perceived member of the group present and without those named, blamed and shamed having any recourse to respond at all.  Where has the idea of upholding the pride and dignity of every Malaysian gone to?  Awry? And why?  And even so, at the very expense of each and every Malaysian taxpayer, oblivious to the fact that has been recurring for perhaps 20 or more years!

And here comes the crunch. In another report headlined ‘Dr M transformed BTN to a super-racist agency, says former director. The Malaysia Insider quoted Johari Abdul, a former BTN director who is now the PKR Member of Parliament for Sungai Petani, as stating that “it was former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir who transformed the BTN into a full-fledged racist indoctrination agency.”

Johari said the BTN was originally headed by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then a civil servant. Abdullah left the Malaysian public service for the political arena where he eventually succeeded Mahathir as the fifth Prime Minister on 31 October 2003.  Mahathir was Prime Minister for more than 22 years from 16 July 1981.

It is well known that today, Abdullah has become the arch-rival of his predecessor after being hounded out of office on 3 April 2009. He enjoyed the second shortest tenure – five years and five months – among the Malaysian prime ministers to date.

The second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein, was in office for five years three months from 22 September 1970 till 14 January 1976.  His untimely demise shortened what political observers agreed would otherwise have been a long tenure.  The third Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn, was in office for five years six months from 15 January 1976 till 16 July 1981.

Since Independence on 31 August 1957, West Malaysian-based parties such as the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), together with the trend-setting United Malays National Organisation (Umno), had ruled the then Malaya as the Alliance until 1963 when the federation was enlarged into Malaysia through a merger involving Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.

In 1976, the Alliance, already incorporating the East Malaysian political parties since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, was enlarged into the Barisan Nasional (BN) through the inclusion of hitherto West Malaysian-based opposition parties such as the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (Gerakan) and the People’s Progressive Party (PPP).

That the Biro Tata Negara had been transformed in the late 1980s – obviously, after Mahathir consolidated his grip on the premiership following the resignation of his first Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam on 16 March 1986 – without even a hint of opposition from these BN components constitutes eloquent testimony to the naked inability of all component parties to restrain and moderate the unhealthy inclinations of a former prime minister.

This cowardly acquiescense to the existence of this ugly ogre standing in the way of our nation-building efforts for perhaps 20 years or more must be contrasted with the forthright courage of those who have exposed this detriment.

Among others in my thoughts are ordinary Malaysians such as petroleum chemist and environmental pollution-control specialist Mariam Mokhtar, who hails from Ipoh and describes herself as someone who “values change but respects culture”, and Pas member Suhaizan Kaiat, who revealed that the party had as early as 2006 pushed for a revamp of the BTN.

Ordinary Malaysians must thank other Malaysians who have courageously spoken out against the hatred and indignity that was freely spewed out during the courses they attended.  Ordinary Malaysians must recall what a former High Court Judge, Datuk Ian Chin, said when he exposed the existencd of a “boot camp” in The Star on 29 November last year.

Among other things that Ian Chin said on the eve of leaving the Bench on 1 December 2008 was that “former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had made thinly veiled threats against Judges at the Judges Conference in 1997”. The former judge alleged Mahathir had threatened to sack judges who did not support him, although Mahathir subsequently denied the claims.

At least two more dignitaries come to mind: former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Seri Nazri.  Both have been forthrightly courageous in wanting a revamp of the BTN.  Razaleigh recalled how he was victimised and demonised when he was in the opposition Semangat’46 in the October 1990 general election.

Nazri, as a current holder of political office, at least has the guts to call a spade a spade, despite having to contend with the likes of Mahathir.

Amidst all these exchanges, what must not be lost on Malaysians is that the culture of public service that used to be the hallmark of these BN component parties has been more than compromised by our relentless march towards authoritarianism.

From the time of our first Prime Minister, our beloved Bapa Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, our political leaders had begun as our protectors in a democracy.  They were also the protectors of our democracy.  Over the years, there has been a succession of leaders.

Have some of our leaders become our predators in an authoritarian system?  Has the pagar jaga the padi or has the pagar makan the padi? (Has the fence guarded the rice grains or has it eaten them?)

As a nation, we enjoyed the checks and balances of power in our democracy, we rejoiced in the rule of law and we thrived in the doctrine of proportionality.  Indeed, we Malaysians bathed in the fragrant juice of all the freedoms that democracy offered – freedom of faith, freedom of association, freedom of expression, among others.

We enjoyed the politics of consultation, compromise and consensus just as we rejected the politics of confrontation, conflict and chaos.  Our political parties were fundamental expressions of our democracy.  Like in all other democracies, our political parties are supposed to be bottom-up democratic bodies.  Have they now become top-down authoritarian outfits?

As in all other democracies, these bottom-up bodies complement the role of our top-down civil service  Therein lies one of the secret intricacies of democracy.  Therein also lies the way to ensure that the system does not produce the excesses of other systems that rob their people of their pride and dignity.

After 8 March 2008, Malaysians know the power of their ballot.  Through the informed exercise of the ballot, we ensure that the dignity of all our fellow Malaysians is respected.  This respect for fellow Malaysians must never be trampled upon, as it was trampled upon when the wind of arbitrariness blew off the candle that epitomised the life of Teoh Beng Hock.
Indeed, the dignity of any Malaysian, however humble he or she is, must always be upheld.  And it can only be upheld if we Malaysians reject the hatred and indignity that the present BTN represents and put in its place the love and dignity that this nation must embrace.

Tan Ban Cheng, a 59-year old journalist-turned lawyer with a small practice in his hometown of Penang, is a keen observer of Malaysian and world politics.  He graduated with double degree in law and political science from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, at the ripe old age of 48.

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