The Timah brouhaha: Living precariously in multi-ethnic Malaysia

If we do not wake up, race-baiting will slow down - if not halt - the progress of the nation

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There is a lesson to be learned from the kind of politics that legendary opposition leader Dr Tan Chee Khoon practised half a century ago.

This lesson is even more relevant in our society today, with inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations simmering in recent years.

Better known as Mr Opposition, Tan relentlessly pursued his passion for multi-ethnic politics, as manifested in the political parties he helped to build.

After the Labour Party that he joined was disbanded, Tan helped to form the multi-ethnic Gerakan party in 1968, together with a few prominent individuals.

But he left Gerakan in 1972 to form Parti Keadilan Masyarakat Malaysia (Malaysian Social Justice Party or Pekemas) because he disagreed with his colleagues’ move to take Gerakan into the race-based ruling Alliance back then.

Tan consciously and relentlessly avoided racial politics because he believed in being inclusive and that this was the way forward for a diverse Malaysia.

Driven by a sense of social justice, the medical doctor was also well known for his tireless service to the poor and the needy, irrespective of their colour and creed. He did not crave power or wealth, which could have smirched his mission to help the dispossessed.

That is why Aliran found it fitting to bestow on Tan its Outstanding Malaysian award at an Aliran Merdeka dinner on 1 September 1984.

Tan’s chosen path stands in stark contrast with some politicians and certain quarters in our society today who act in ways that are exclusive. They often drive a wedge between ethnic and religious communities for their own ends.

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These elements ‘weaponise’ race and religion in their bid to whip up political support (and votes) from their mono-ethnic and mono-religious base. Unfortunately, in certain cases, their actions allow racial bigotry and religious extremism to rage and simmer.

These quarters are adept at magnifying and exploiting differences between the ethnic communities instead of finding common ground to work together and improve the people’s quality of life. Worse, they sometimes depict the targeted group, the ‘other’, as a community to be frowned upon and thus deserving second-class treatment.

These divisive tactics and issues waste much time and energy and could hold back the nation’s progress or even take it backwards.

It is unfortunate that religion, which is supposed to promote the wellbeing of individuals, communities and society, has also been used to thwart mutual understanding, respect and peaceful coexistence among our diverse ethnic communities.

It does not help that discriminatory policies are still in place after so many decades of independence. For example, access to public universities and employment in the civil service is largely limited to certain ethnic communities, even though others have the required qualifications as well.

When certain segments of society face such injustice and unfairness, they are bound to feel unhappy and resentful. This hinders the creation of a harmonious society.

Successive governments, especially the Ministry of National Unity, have launched many programmes over the years to promote unity. But given that the root causes of disunity have not been resolved, is it any surprise that these programmes have not achieved the desired results?

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This is largely because these policies and programmes to promote unity, crafted under these administrations, are not grounded in social reality. They fail to deal with the toxic politics of race and religion and certain discriminatory government policies in our diverse society.

Obviously, all this goes against the spirit of the much-touted “Malaysian family”, which Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has espoused.

Any national unity policy that fails to remove the obstacles to unity on the ground will not bear fruit. If these obstacles are not removed, it will not take much to stoke the embers of racial and religious bigotry.

The current brouhaha surrounding the Timah (tin in Malay) whisky is a case in point. The controversy revolves around the argument that the branding has hurt the sensitivities of Muslims who do not drink alcohol.

Critics claimed the word timah is derived from the name Fatimah, who was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Such a contention, however, has serious implications: it depicts Malay-Muslims as gullible and lacking in conviction.

The counterargument is that the Malaysian-made whisky was named in recognition of timah the metal, which contributed to the development of the nation. The word should not confuse teetotaller Muslims easily in any way.

People of faiths other than Islam should not be barred from their cultural practices or preferences, such as consuming alcohol.

Perhaps those who protest against the use of the word timah as the brand name of the whisky should be more concerned that many Malay-Muslim politicians and others appear profusely drunk on power and wealth.

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Their stupor has blinded them to the needs of the poor and the vulnerable, thus betraying the people’s trust and mandate. This abdication of their responsibility deserves our concern and condemnation.

Some Malaysians even wonder whether the Timah controversy is a sly strategy to divert public attention away from critical issues such as the revelations in the Pandora Papers and other corruption and embezzlement scandals.

The attempt by certain elements within the opposition to score points against Pas over the Timah controversy suggests that they too have been duped by this red herring.

If we do not wake up, race-baiting will slow down – if not halt – the progress of the nation, especially when the economy is struggling to recover. If that happens, as Tan could have told us, all of us – the Malays and other ethnic groups – will suffer the consequences.

Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
21 October 2021
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