PETALING JAYA: The present government must have the political will to stop the country from being divided into racial boxes, say academics and activists.
Economist Professor Dr Jomo Kwame Sundram, for instance, said although multicultural societies in other countries were more successful in overcoming past legacies of racial divides, Malaysia wasn’t.
He said Malaysia seemed to find it difficult to transcend the history left behind by British colonist.
“Unfortunately, after the suppression of the political left in the 1960s, politics in Malaysia involved varieties of ethno-populism, purporting to unite, represent and advance particular cultural communities, religious and/or what Malaysians call ‘race’, which has no scientific basis,” said Dr Jomo.
“Other multicultural societies have had much greater success in overcoming the legacy of rival ethno-populisms, but there must be supportive legal and other institutions for this to happen as this has been the political legacy of the last seven decades.
“Most Malaysians, especially politicians, find it difficult to transcend this history – actually shaped by the British from the 1930s as its empire began to be threatened,” said Dr Jomo, who is also part of the new Economic Action Council.
He was asked to comment on the barrage of race-based incidents that made headlines over the past few days, especially the tie-up between Umno and PAS, the racial remarks by Umno Padang Rengas MP Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz and the retort by Finance Minister and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.
Former rivals turned friends, Umno and PAS, formalised a collaboration on the basis of Malay and Muslim interests. Lim retorted to the Umno-PAS union as pitting one race against the others.
In another race-based incident, Nazri stated that the privileges of the Malays should not be questioned by the non-Malays, provoking MCA and MIC to threaten to look for a new coalition for betraying the spirit of Malaysia.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita) director Professor Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin agreed that the racial rhetorics dividing Malaysia were a British legacy that needed to be done away with.
“Before 1921, the categories were ‘nationalities’ in the National Census to indicate the different social categories of people in Malaya.
From Census 1921 onwards, the category of ‘race’ was introduced.
Previous ‘nationality’ categories were collapsed into the different races we have now. This is now our social DNA.
“Modern government, governance and all political activities have been defined, based and framed within these four magical racial categories.
“We breathe this as we grow from kid to adults and get buried according to race and religion-based cemetries,” said Shamsul.
“The four magical racial categories are Malay, Chinese, Indian and a big basket called ‘others’.
“We can never move away from race domination until we change the social categories in our Census.
Who can change this? The ruling goverment through amendment of the Constitution in Parliament with a two-thirds majority.
“The Barisan Nasional government didn’t do it, or else all the ethnic-based parties have to be dissolved and renamed.
“Pakatan Harapan with race-based Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia wouldn’t want it too. So, we are stuck.
“Everything in our life in Malaysia is race based, like it or not. We build modern Malaysian society in this cage-like frame. Is this modernisation? I consider it as tribalisation. Malaysian politics is tribal politics,” said Shamsul.
Shamsul said Kita was formed in 2007 with two mandates: To explain why ethnic conflicts occur in Malaysia and to investigate why there has been no violent conflict since the May 13 racial riots in 1969.
Moderation advocate Anas Zubedy said there weren’t enough avenues for people of different ethnicities to mingle.
“We have not, in a mass or national way, grown together as one people. We are growing up separately.
“The more we do that, the more we don’t understand each other, the more we avoid each other,” he said.
Two major problems that contribute to such segregation, he added, were the country’s education and housing policies.
“In government-based houses such as the People’s Housing Project (PPR), a policy could be implemented in which everyone would have at least one neighbour who is not their own race.
“To have a diverse community is something that needs to be engineered,” he said.
Writer Eddin Khoo said as New Malaysia was still “rooted very much” in Old Malaysia, the racial friction would come to a head if the contradictions of the Old Malaysia were not resolved.
“Every community has to stop playing the victim, as the issues they face are common to everyone.”
He said the New Economic Policy, intended to eradicate poverty and inequality, was a needs-based and not a race-based plan.
“We have been too government-dependent as a society; we don’t understand that all parts of society have to play a part to contribute to their communities,” he said.
Khoo called for a real narrative on unity that society could engage with on a daily basis.
“It has to start with the media and journalists, who lead responsible dialogue on this instead of being fixated on celebrities.”