Once again, current events are being framed through racial and religious lenses.
Khat. Zakir Naik. Fender bender murder. Soldiers “doing nothing except eating and sleeping”. These are the issues currently dominating our political conversation.
And that conversation is loud and sometimes downright racist and bigoted.
Political analyst Dr Abdul Latiff Mohd Ibrahim observed that based on what has been highlighted in the media – especially social media – there seems to be a rise in racial sentiments. But, overall, life continues as usual, he said.
“Social cohesion is playing an important part in this.
“As local scholars have pointed out, though true unity is still a project in progress, the people are committed to social cohesion and, hence, maintaining stability and harmony in the country.
“Isolated incidents cannot dent the cohesion that has been built over such a long time, ” he said.
Abdul Latiff added that one of the main reasons why such racial and religious tensions rise is because of how our society is structured: “We are divided along racial and ethnic lines, many of the things we do go along these lines, ” he pointed out.
Universiti Malaya sociopolitics professor Awang Azman Awang Pawi noted that ethnic issues in the country are terpendam (pent up).
However, he said the racial and religious issues are only heated among politicians, NGOs (non-governmental organisations) and religious leaders. Half the ordinary rakyat are concerned by these issues while the other half does not care.
“Most of the working class are busy with bread and butter (issues). They do not have time to think of these issues as they are more concerned with making a living.
“For some middle class (people), they are looking at the pros and cons of the issues, what is happening and what is the impact on the Pakatan Harapan government and the Opposition, ” he said.
James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said many issues – such as khat, Zakir Naik and the road rage incident – coming together at the same time could have a negative effect.
But he said the biggest contributor to negativity is social media, with many people posting material without realising that they are helping to push up racial tension. Many of them simply share or forward something because that is the nature of social media, he said.
The other major “pushers”, according to Chin, are politicians. For example, PAS leaders calling those against India-born preacher Zakir enemies of Islam, a tycoon saying that the army is useless.
“All these are used to feed politicians who need to play the ethnic champion game. Thus, you have the perfect echo system: things become racial, spread with additional rumours on social media, politicians get in with a racial statement, followed by more racial/religious social media postings and it goes on and on.
“Very often, after 48 hours, people cannot even remember the original conflict, ” he said.
Prof Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at the Jeffrey Sachs Centre on Sustainable Development at Sunway University, said we should not mislead ourselves by trying to find explanations for these episodes, their exact timing or some other juicy conspiracy theory.
Politicians and opinion leaders are doubtless to be blamed, he said. However, blaming them allows us to conveniently run away from our own responsibility and role.
“Rather, we should see the wider context: (1) change of government has not reduced inter-communal distrust; (2) all sides are jealously guarding negative change of status quo; (3) non-communal divides like class and environment fail to gain currency, ” he said.
“Given these contexts, poor stakeholder management in changes, an outsider who has nothing to lose if his host country burns like a bonfire, or an uncultured comment can immediately snowball to call out our deep sense of insecurity.”
Wong said such triggers might strike any country, but psychologically-healthy societies would respond proportionately and measuredly instead of going berserk.
Their elites – political, social, and bureaucratic – would act professionally and responsibly, he said.
He said Sabah and Sarawak must have the guts to stand up to bigotry if toxic Malayan politics get out of hand. Malaysian Borneans and their leaders need to put their foot down if anyone treats Sabah and Sarawak as just new possessions, he said.
“Sept 16 (Malaysia Day) must be treasured in our national psyche, not just enjoyed as another public holiday, ” he said.
Is there a hidden hand behind these issues? Who benefits from the unease?
In reply, Awang Azman said, “I see it more as a political strategy. The issue of when will there be a transfer of power arose and it disappeared and then it resurfaced. When the issue of khat was played up, the issue of succession sank.”
However, another political observer who did not want to be identified, offered his “chaos theory”.
“Who benefits when there is chaos? It is not the incumbent but the person who wants to take over from the incumbent.
“Wait for the next few days or weeks and you will see the hidden hands revealed, ” he said.
Abdul Latiff said, indirectly, those who lost the last election are the main beneficiaries of issues being polarised.
Going by the string of results from the past three or four by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia, it is obvious that race and religion still sell, especially in constituencies with majorities from a single race, he said.
“One must understand that the Opposition has been playing on this for the past decade. The problem is, instead of cutting off the Opposition’s attempt to manipulate race and religion, some individuals in parties of the ruling coalition become a little emotional as well, and this makes the situation worse.
“Another thing is the rather slow response from the government to explain issues as they arise.”
As for Chin, who benefits is obvious: PAS/Umno and right-wing groups. They, he said, are all betting that Pakatan will be a one-term government and they will be back in power soon.