A racist start to Ramadhan

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It is ironic that Ahmad Ismail’s racist remarks came just as the fasting month of Ramadhan was beginning. This, being a holy month where patience and forebearance are lauded above all, made the timing of his press conference and abusive remarks all the more pointed and bitter, observes Aliran member Farish A Noor.

It is not often that I sermonise in my articles, and it has been a month since the OtherMalaysia.org research project was brought to a close. Yet despite everything the tone and tenor of Malaysia’s convoluted politics and the country’s slide into decline forces us to take stock of how far Malaysia has travelled over the past 50 years of its independence, or hasn’t.

With the feeble administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi teetering on the verge of implosion and collapse, Malaysians are preparing themselves for the worst to come. Since 2004 Malaysia has in fact been running on autopilot, a point made clear to me by a European diplomat who once asked me ‘Is anyone running this country and does Badawi even know what is going on?” Coccooned from the realities of a society that has experienced large scale and even traumatic changes, the Badawi government proved itself to be totally dislocated and clueless over what was happening.

In time, historians like myself will have to take up our pens and write the political obituary of Prime Minister Badawi. The portrait will not be a pretty one: While this ‘man of the people’  was surrounded by a closed circle of relatives and family friends who were his confidants, Badawi seemed totally oblivious to the fate of millions of ordinary Malaysians who had to endure five years of his lacklustre non-leadership. Badawi claimed to be the ‘Prime Minister of all Malaysians’, but showed scant concern for the plight of dozens of Hindu temples that were being demolished in the country. And when Malaysia’s Hindu community begged and pleaded for his intervention to save their cherished places of worship, this ‘leader of all Malaysians’ chose to look the other way and was cowed into submission by the more vocal, communitarian and sectarian bigots of his own right-wing ethno-nationalist party.

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Time and again Badawi could and should have done the right thing, to control the extremists in the ranks of his own party. But he chose instead to let them play to the gallery to shore up his own flaccid personality and lagging popularity. On two occassions – at his Umno party’s general assembly – the leader of the Youth Wing of Umno brandished a weapon in public while professing that the Malays were the community that deserved a special position and privileges in Malaysia. Such hot-headed right-wing rantings are befit for a demagogue of a fascist party, but once again Badawi did nothing to curb the excesses of the extremists of his own party Umno.

The most recent outrage came when yet another Umno leader – Ahmad Ismail – caused a ruckus in the state of Penang when he and his followers openly threatened and insulted Malaysians of non-Malay origin at a press conference. In a statement calculated to inflame tempers, the Umno members called on the Malays to unite and warned the Chinese Malaysian community not to behave like American Jews. A photo of a Chinese Malaysian politician was torn and tempers flared as expected.

Again the Malaysian public is asking: What is Badawi going to do?

For decades Malaysians of all walks of life have had to live by the propaganda of the Umno party and the coalition it has led. Malaysians have been warned about the dangers of communism, socialism, class-based workers and student movements; and even taught to fear a free and independent media. Yet the vile and poisonous racist outbursts that have emanated and echoed across the corridors of power in the country have by and large come from Umno and its band of vociferous sabre-rattling leaders, whose only recourse to an intelligent argument has been vile racist remarks, sexist jokes and abuse. How many times must Malaysians have to tolerate this party whose leaders and members remain the most brazen and vocally racist in the country? And how much longer do Malaysians have to wait before the present Prime Minister, whose impotence and inability to act and speak decisively has been one of the root causes of Malaysia’s social fragmentation?

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It is doubly ironic that Ahmad Ismail’s racist remarks came just as the fasting month of Ramadhan was beginning. This, being a holy month where patience and forebearance are lauded above all, made the timing of his press conference and abusive remarks all the more pointed and bitter. At the rate things are going in Malaysia – and Malaysia’s Central Bank has reported a capital flight of US$1.1 billion in August alone – the fall of Badawi and the Umno-led government may come sooner than later. Historians will no doubt have ample time to write and ruminate about the manifold failings of Badawi, but his fall will serve as a benchmark in the country’s history as it signifies the moment when Malaysians have had enough of the most ineffective governance the country has had for five decades, and were willing to accept anything else instead, whatever the cost.

Dr. Farish A Noor is Affiliated Professor at Universitas Muhamadiyah Surakarta, Indonesia

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