If Malaysians are determined to get out of our communal rut, we have to learn to respect one another, individually and as communities of various ethnicities and faiths, observes Angeline Loh.
In our current political environment, Malaysians are becoming more aware of what we tend to term, ‘racism’.
No doubt, since 13 May 1969, the word was one confined to whispers, as was discussion of the topic that was mainly more open, behind closed doors. Yet, every now and then, the topic would emerge in verbal expression about an apparent incidence of race discrimination, by those who felt victimised in this way.
Since the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP/DEB), the practice of affirmative action in favour of “bumiputra” made the system of privileges more visible, where selective ‘positive discrimination’ virtually became the unquestionable norm. Within this environment, those who came under the select category (bumiputra) but seemed to be sidelined, and those excluded (non-bumiputra) from the select category, carried on with compressed lips to maintain the peace and harmony of toleration in the national interest. The subject of race discrimination became altogether taboo. [Bumiputra i.e. Orang Asal, and indigenous peoples of Sarawak and Sabah were more publicised by the mainstream media only recently since 2008. They had been neglected and exploited by the current administration that has dominated government for the past 49 years since Malaysia was formed in 1963.]
It was a peaceful toleration imposed with suppression of dissent. Could we call this, peace or harmony in our multiracial society? Such was the peace of autocracy and dictatorship prevalent in most of Asia and Africa after World War II when imperialist empires crumbled and native nationalistic feelings ran high for independence and sovereignty. Malaya, like some other British colonised territories was left with pockets of migrant minorities, living outside the traditional system established by the indigenous rulers, but administered by British colonial authorities. There seemed no bridge between the two systems. The British never encouraged assimilation.
Many potentially sovereign nations in Southeast Asia had to wrench independence out of the hands of colonial powers that came from Western Europe, with the exception of Japan which greatest influence was achieved economically after the war. [Japan had a policy of colonisation through conquest, particularly on the Chinese mainland but also towards Korea and Russia for a long time. The issue was taken up at the war crimes trials in Tokyo after WWII.]
Malaya, however, was picking itself up and seemed to be undecided on the question of independence. Different factions advocated different political solutions for the future. Yet, overall, there appears to have been a feeling of ‘wait-and-see-when-the-Brits-come-back’ (according to most conventional historical accounts). No specific body could claim to spearhead a popular united mobilisation towards independence or liberation from colonial rule, as was happening, for example, in Indonesia and Philippines. Malaya had no acknowledged popular de facto leadership to lead the charge towards independence.
With this kind of segmented political history, it was inevitable that communalism became the mechanism of communal survival. It hung mainly on who the former colonial government would favour as allies they could work with, to hammer out some kind of independence arrangement for a future sovereign nation. It looked like the British colonial divide-and-rule tactic had succeeded too well in this country. Obtaining independence was hailed by all as an achievement; yet it turned out to be more of an achievement for some than for others. What had not been done in this country was the exploration of political, economic and social options under varied ideologies to shape the future nation. No real discussion ensued from the anticipation of independence except the question of the position of the Malay rulers and elite, who were the usual negotiators with the Colonial authorities.
In contrast, an intellectual renaissance occurred in China in the early 20th century with the New Culture Movement (the May 4th Movement, 1919),when China was threatened with fragmentation by western imperialist powers and Qing government reform attempts failed, causing it to flounder in political quicksand. Intellectuals like Hu Shih held public discussions on pragmatism, Sun Yat-sen on republicanism and nationalism, whilst Mao Zedong looked to the Soviet Union for inspiration, but invented his own brand of communism to suit his vision for China. These ‘new’ ideas emerged as China searched for a viable ideology to protect its sovereignty and independence from imperialist encroachment and division of the nation.
Malaya in contrast, faced two extremes i.e. absolute monarchy of the sultans – the traditional set up of governance in the Malay states, and authoritarian communism, at that time, the newly adopted populist political system in China, the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe. The British in collaboration with the elite Malay ruling class installed a system of constitutional monarchy over a system of parliamentary democracy, a variation of what they had in the UK.
Nevertheless, this was only the framework around which other alternative systems could operate, as in Britain today. Perhaps, this was the middle path to maintain the monarchy, appeasing the rulers of the Malay states and the Malay elite, but leaving an open end for populists’ choice of government, hopefully, keeping democracy intact. What the Colonial authorities seemed to overlook was that the indigenous population had never known or experienced any other system of government apart from monarchical rule under the sultans and colonial rule. Both these systems were not exactly democratic. They had never experienced democracy as such and were ignorant of the nature of democracy in the British sense.
Despite their privileges and open opportunities to learn from experience overseas, some of the Malay elites seemed to give the questions of government and governance of a sovereign nation less serious consideration than self-interested enjoyment and profit. Onn Jaafar was an exception, who was subsequently ostracised by Umno for his supposedly British-influenced ideas. Onn Jaafar perhaps understood the basic need for unity and equality in forming a nation better than many of his compatriots. Those from the Communists factions who also aspired to Malayan independence were sidelined and subsequently suppressed by the British with the support of the Malayan leaders they favoured.
In the Cold War aftermath (1947 -1991) of World War II, the British interest lay in maintaining close links with their victorious western war allies; thus nurturing leaders of anticipated independent nations like Malaya was not their business. What mattered was the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and protection of Western political and military interests against the Soviet Union and its bloc of eastern partners.
The post-Second World War period also saw the official formation of the United Nations in 1945 and the UN General Assembly that passed Resolution 1514, Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Territories and Peoples in 1960, intended to free territories from colonial domination with a right of self-determination. Therefore, it was in Britain’s interest to be seen as justly handing over independence to an erstwhile colony to fend for itself, whilst concentrating on the British bid to become a world power.
Yet, the British are only partly to blame for the initial irresponsibility of the Malay elite in establishing a communally divided independent nation. Basically, few amongst the initial leaders of this country made an effort to think of its future as a united multiracial nation or showed interest in the daunting task of bringing cohesion to an initially divided multiracial society. The fault also lies with those who wanted to keep an iron hold on power indefinitely, through race and religious politics.
From this historical background of popular ignorance and inexperience of democracy or any alternative systems to unite Malaysia’s multiracial population in a spirit of fraternity beyond mere tolerance, we have much to learn. Still, at this point in time, when freedom of speech is selectively curtailed and the more destructive and divisive elements in society are encouraged in their mission to cause unease and suspicion amongst the rakyat, hope lies in unifying for change. But, for how long?
If Malaysians are determined to get out of this communal rut, we have to learn to respect one another, individually and as communities of various ethnicities and faiths. We must grow out of giving way to impulsive reactions to irrational and false perceptions and generalisations regarding the ethnic profile of others. We must learn to ask intelligent and educated questions, without prejudging a situation. Growing up is a difficult process – adolescence being one of the hardest to cope with. Yet, that is possibly where we are, and we must not be defensive or discouraged by what we do not understand or know.
The will to learn and the determination to mature does not stop at common difficulties but must struggle through this painful process to make the dream of justice, peace and unity a reality. With the realisation of a shared struggle in condemning corruption, ethnic and religious aggravation, and campaigning for a true democracy as one people, a milestone has been reached. But there are many more along the way before arriving at our destination of true unity and appreciation of being the people of a united nation, called Malaysia.