The two-faced nature of race-based politics

  • All the pieces matter
  • Saturday, 09 Nov 2019

Racism isn't revealed by what you say in public, but what you say in private.

Integrity, meanwhile, is determined by whether you say the same thing consistently to everybody or whether you say different things to different people.

Today's controversy concerns remarks made by Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu that were revealed in a surreptitiously recorded video.

In the video, allegedly taken in Tanjung Piai, Ahmad Faizal appears to be talking to locals in an informal, relaxed setting.

Ahmad Faizal at one point talks about his "struggle" facing "puak-puak DAP", who are apparently giving him a hard time in Perak, where he says he is single-handedly trying to champion Malay rights - presumably against these predatory DAP Chinese types.

Predictably, people started getting up in arms, huffing and puffing.

I can't help but wonder though, whether these comments came as any surprise to the general public.

I can say with fair certainty that they did not come as any surprise to people in and around political circles.

Such individuals would have long been used to such talk.

Importantly, it isn't a one way street. You'd hear exactly the same type of racist comments in a gathering of non-Malay politicians and their circles, running down Malays and blaming them for everything that is wrong with Malaysia.

Not that this is limited to the political class either. I'd be willing to bet that anyone reading has at one point or another been exposed to some pretty racist comments or forwarded messages on WhatsApp.

There's no hiding that this is a pretty prevalent undercurrent of life in Malaysia (in the peninsular at least).

I wish I could say with confidence that we've at least noticed a reduction in racist rhetoric in public discourse, but given recent months, even that may be a stretch.

Some years ago, I wrote an article on racism at the dinner table, and how that is where the real seeds of the problem are planted. Since then, technology has opened another front, with Whatsapp being a major conduit for spreading chauvinist thinking.

To fully understand racism in Malaysia, we have to go as far back as colonial times.

Divide and rule was a British strategy, that served British interests. It helped keep colonial subjects in line, and discouraged them to unite and rise up against their then masters.

Against that backdrop, when it came to political organisation leading to Independence, it was fairly predictable that Malayans would decide to organise again along racial lines.

That decision would have repercussions for decades to come - repercussions we still feel very clearly today.

The decision in question is the basic formula of what was then The Alliance - the coalition that would one day become Barisan Nasional.

It's a simple formula (again, for the peninsular, anyway) - every major ethnic group was to have one political party each. These parties then came together in a coalition to run the country.

It was probably the easiest formula available at Independence.

The thing about political structures and institutions, however, is that they are among the most inert manmade things on earth, highly resistant to change.

A case in point may be the Westminster system of government in Britain. It seems as a system to be totally unable to cope effectively with managing the diverse political aspirations of the British today, creating political chaos, and costing the UK untold millions in resources, national attention, and time.

Compared to more innovative electoral systems around the world today, the Westminster system (which Malaysia still blindly copies) seems hopelessly archaic.

Similarly, many of Malaysia's politicians seem to cling inexplicably to this idea that the formula that best reflected the realities of the 1950s is one that still best reflects the realities of today.

Some claim that we have racist politics because we have racist people. Other people (who I generally agree with) argue that we have racist people because we have racist politics.

Needless to say, both are true. What we undoubtedly actually have is a self-perpetuating loop of racism.

A lot of it falls to a priori principles (starting or fundamental principles) and the raison d'etre (reason for being) of many of our political parties.

While political ideology is often mutable in Malaysia, and far, far more often than not plays second fiddle to feudal politics, the foundational premise on which a political party is established can often eventually turn into an albatross hung around our necks, constantly dragging us down.

If a party is set up to defend Malay, Chinese, or Muslim interests, for instance, that party often finds it hard to break out of exclusivist thinking.

Bersatu became exclusively Malay because they thought they could not otherwise win GE 14.

We will never know if a multiracial Bersatu may still have won GE 14, but what is done is done.

In choosing to be monoethnic, however, Bersatu set itself down a path that leads directly to what we see in the Ahmad Faizal video - the same thing that has been happening in Malaysian politics for decades.

Lacking the imagination or conviction to lead genuine change, we find ourselves back in a position where we see things like Malay/Chinese politicians talking about unity with their coalition partners in public, while relentless running down Chinese/Malay people (including both their political opponents and their political allies) in private.

This is the very definition of two-faced politics. The only difference is, in the era of the smartphone, the private is no longer as private as it used to be.

The problem here is structural, and the problem will persist as long as we have 'Malay parties' or 'Indian parties'.

This old school approach to coalition politics ultimately breeds - indeed incentives - such conflict.

The only way to rise up in a "Malay party" is to be a champion of "Malay rights", and the only way to be a champion of "Malay rights" is to do so at the expense of other ethnic groups.

Needless to say, the word "Malay" in the preceding paragraph can be replaced with "Chinese","Indian", or any East Malaysian ethnic group, and still be 100% true.

We know where this road leads. We've seen it before. It's decade after decade of racial conflict, which alienates us from one another and creates social distrust, which in turn has a direct long term effect on our economy and our day to day well being as a nation.

It feels like Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohammad started off alright. In recent months, however, one seems to have increasing reason to wonder what path he wants to lead Malaysia down.

In his radio address following the death of King George VI, when the Crown passed to Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill reminisced about how his "youth was passed in the august, unchallenged, and tranquil glories of the Victorian era."

Similarly, one can imagine why Dr. Mahathir has this notion that the Barisan Nasional formula, with a Malay party sitting unchallenged at the top of the political mountain, dictating terms to other race-based parties, is the one that works best.

After all, he probably thinks Malaysia's golden years were those when he ran Malaysia with an iron fist, using precisely that formula.

Whether or not those were indeed Malaysia's golden years, we will leave to the historians.

I am fairly confident, however, that if we do not start being committed to a new vision and a new political formula for Malaysia, the type of burning racial divides we are seeing in Tanjung Piai will long continue to plague us.

NATHANIEL TAN is a strategic communications consultant who specialises in identifying the right goals, and the right tools for achieving that job. He can be reached at, and would like to wish everyone Salam Maulidur Rasul.

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