Promoting ethnic harmony becomes an untenable proposition when there are certain quarters in our society who thrive and profit from racism and discrimination, Mustafa K Anuar writes.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests in the United States were triggered by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis policeman.
Demonstrations spilled over beyond the shores of the US as the concern for the welfare of African Americans and other people of colour gained traction in Europe, India, Japan, Australia and elsewhere.
Statues that remind people of racism, bigotry, torture and exploitation of people of colour in the South by western imperial powers of yore were disfigured or pulled down.
There is even a cheeky photo that has gone viral on social media, showing the American Statue of Liberty hiding behind a building and wondering whether it is safe to go back to where it came from.
Response to the conflictual American race relations appears to be a bit lukewarm among Malaysians. There are several reasons one could think of as to why this is so.
For one, many Malaysians are too preoccupied in grappling with the socioeconomic fallout from the pandemic, such as retrenchment, increasing debts, the high cost of living, reduced standards of living and poverty.
Two, the American woes seem to be too far away for some to be bothered about.
Three, concerned Malaysians aren’t able to take to the streets to register their outrage because processions are disallowed, according to the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases (Measures Within Infected Local Areas) (No. 7) Regulations 2020 that was gazetted by the federal government on 9 June.
Finally, there are certain quarters who probably think that the problems faced by the African Americans are no big deal because they themselves harbour racist sentiments.
Having said that, the challenges faced by the African Americans should nonetheless concern Malaysians not because our situation is as bad as, if not worse than, than that of the US; it involves the important question of justice and social inequities.
There are lessons from that multi-ethnic and multicultural country that we need to revisit.
For one thing, we are often reminded that having a national language would go a long way towards uniting the diverse people in our country. Hence, the promotion of the Malay language to the position of bahasa kebangsaan (national language).
In the American case, African Americans speak, dream, breathe and write the English language just like the whites. And yet, this common language fails to some extent to serve as a bridge or glue between the two groups.
This is, of course, not to devalue the political and cultural significance of having a common or national language in a multicultural setting.
But the American situation suggests that a common language can only do so much, beyond which there are menacing factors at play. Language in this context is not the be all and end all.
In particular, there is structural, institutional and individual racism that fosters discrimination or oppression against African Americans and other people of colour in terms of unequal access to justice, education, employment, housing, property and security.
And being a black woman would mean facing a double whammy of racism and patriarchal bias.
It helps to foster a sense of belonging when one is not made to feel discriminated against based on ethnic, religious, gender and cultural backgrounds. Social inclusion is essential.
Diversity and differences are also considered irritants in some areas of life in Malaysia, which we need to address squarely.
It is the kind of refusal to acknowledge and celebrate diversity that is displayed and pursued by ethno-nationalists in many multi-ethnic countries like ours. The American white supremacists are one example.
Promoting ethnic harmony becomes an untenable proposition when there are certain quarters in our society who thrive and profit from racism and discrimination.
Certain ethnic-based political parties profess to champion the cause of their respective ethnic bases to the extent that it harms the common good of society.
Divide and rule, a playbook borrowed unashamedly from the colonial British, has been used as a political strategy time and again to gain and maintain power. This colonial legacy is condemned by progressive peoples elsewhere in the world.
This, perhaps, explains why a ministry of national unity is still around after over 60 years of independence.
The ministry is either a runaway success or an embodiment of a failed strategy to address the root causes of our ethnic tension and conflict.