Rational intellectual discourse could act as a bulwark against rising bigotry and extremism while promoting a deepening of democracy in Malaysia, says Mustafa K Anuar.
It was 45 years ago today when a chapter in Malaysia’s history was smeared with blood of the 13 May 1969 tragedy.
There’s obviously nothing celebratory about this unfortunate date, but draw some lessons we must from this chilling incident especially if we don’t want to see a catastrophic recurrence and a consequent erosion of democratic space.
The authorities identified the socio-economic disparity between ethnic groups as a major cause of the riots ― and to redress this imbalance, the government then formulated the New Economic Policy. Other analysts have suggested that opportunistic political manoeuvring after the Alliance’s setback in the 1969 general election may have inspired or contributed to the communal violence.
It is also generally felt that ethnic relations and harmony cannot be taken for granted. In this regard, interethnic dialogue is crucial in the noble endeavour to promote mutual understanding, trust and respect, especially at a historical juncture when suspicion and distrust was rife, and emotions ran high.
There is a high value to sitting down together at a table, amicably exchanging views, seeking clarifications and reaching a consensus or compromise ― that is, after leaving as much baggage and emotions as possible at the door prior to the conversation.
One can hardly overemphasise the political utility of civilised conversations. It is indeed of paramount importance that Malaysians of various ethnic backgrounds develop the knack for having discussions pertaining to issues that are of national significance and also emotive in nature, such as ethnicity and religion.
Admittedly, such conversations may not necessarily be conducted without a hitch. There are sure to be hiccups and drawbacks, but these shouldn’t deter us ― in our long journey to collective harmony and progress ― from making such bridge-building initiatives as the one spearheaded by Pas MP for Parit Buntar and its National Unity Committee chairman, Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa (see photo).
Holding Muhibbah-type durian parties of yore or exposing to university students via its ethnic relations studies the various cultural costumes and musical instruments of each ethnic community, for instance, may have its merits to a limited degree. But we also need to have sophisticated conversations about some tough questions, such as ethnic discrimination in the civil service as well as the private sector; government scholarships; and religious bigotry.
But more than that, engaging in conversations helps to broaden the parameters for freedom of expression, and also legitimate dissent. A widened democratic space is certainly crucial for minorities, ethnic, cultural and political, so that they don’t find themselves being trampled by the tyranny of the majority in a democratic country, where every stakeholder has a right to claim ownership.
It also goes a long way towards helping to cultivate a strong tradition of intellectual discourse that is sorely needed in our society, which is often riddled with slander, poison pen culture, book bans, film censorship and sex videos. Seen from this perspective, flashing the keris or wriggling your tired bum is really blasé.
However, if public expressions in recent days and months are of any significance, certain quarters in Malaysian society appear to have the inability or refusal to learn something useful from this dark blot in our collective memory. If anything, they have been strident and rabid in their public articulations particularly pertaining to Islam and hudud to the extent of threatening to tear the very fabric of this multiethnic society.
While it is vital that freedom of expression is promoted and defended, it doesn’t help to have right-wing groups such as the Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (Isma) abusing this freedom, mouthing hate-speech in the name of Islam and Malay supremacy. Demonising “the Other”, namely the ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, as “intruders”, “trespassers” and an historical “mistake” clearly is not the recipe for interethnic understanding and trust, apart from committing factual errors on the part of Isma.
For, you just don’t do that to your fellow citizens, your fellow human beings, your neighbours ― even if they’re not Muslim. On the contrary, it is all the more incumbent upon Muslims, particularly those who are properly guided by Islamic teachings, to treat those outside of their faith with a sense of compassion, justice and respect. They don’t call Islam a religion of peace for nothing, do they?
Besides, there are other issues of the day that also deserve our rapt attention ― and action ― such as the rising cost of living, the impending GST, the endemic corruption, lack of government accountability, gerrymandering and the continuous slide in the ranking of local universities. In fact, Malaysians of various ethnic groups could unite around these issues that affect their lives in one way or another. That is why the brouhaha arising from Isma and their ilk is perceived by some as a devious attempt to deflect the attention of Malaysians away from the issues mentioned above.
Indeed, flirting with such emotive issues of race and religion can be explosive if it eventually manages to stoke the fire of ethnic sentiments of others on both sides of the ethnic divide. On balance, some of the criticisms against rabid statements, such as Isma’s, were ethnically scathing as well.
As intimated above, such hate speech only gives freedom of speech a bad name, especially in Malaysia where freedom of expression and of the press is often frowned upon by the powers that be.
The law enforcement agencies have already warned Malaysians not to touch on, at least publicly, issues regarding race and religion. Such a stand by the authorities has the effect of blurring the line between hate speech and racial incitement on the one hand and legitimate and civilised articulation of race and religion on the other.
Furthermore, the conflation of the two ends of the communication spectrum may lead to further erosion of freedom of expression in the public domain. The spectre of ethnic tension, if not violent conflict, on the horizon may well serve as a convenient excuse for the powers that be to further constrict the democratic space that is available at the moment, be it in the online media or elsewhere.
It is in this context that public opinion could possibly be swayed to acquiesce to a further restriction of public expression all in the name of national security. In fact, over the years this has been virtually the standard operating procedure for the powers that be to put fear into the general populace and subsequently to clamp down on criticism and dissent.
Also at stake is the vital platform for voices of moderation that have a role to play in the promotion of a democratic society that celebrates the rich diversity and difference that we have in the realms of culture and politics. It is important that this group of people has better access to avenues for intellectual discourse. For, this bulwark against bigotry and extremism is the possible hope for the growth of intellectual tradition, deepening of democracy, and the overall progress of the Malaysian society.
To ignore lessons from our collective history is to do so at our own peril.