Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Revisiting an article i read in 2006

Though written in 2006, i find this article by Dr C.M. relevant today


Ethnic controversies have become more frequent and more intense in recent times. What explains this trend? Is it possible to resolve these controversies to the satisfaction of the different ethnic communities?

Ethnic Consciousness : The Malays

If ethnic controversies have become more pronounced, it is partly because ethnic consciousness has been increasing among all communities since the early seventies. Within the Malay community, the New Economic Policy (NEP), especially in the seventies and eighties, with its emphasis upon ethnic quotas and the like in the economy and education, was partly responsible for this. So was Islamic resurgence which in a sense was linked to the NEP since rapid Malay urbanization in those decades reinforced the community’s attachment to certain religious forms, symbols and practices that set it apart from the non-Muslim communities in the country. A whole generation of Malays and Muslims (the two identities are interchangeable) socialized in the ethos created by the NEP and Islamic resurgence are now occupying positions of authority and performing roles of influence in society. By and large, they tend to be exclusive and ethnic centred in their outlook and approach.

The global environment has strengthened this exclusive outlook. The subjugation and oppression of Muslims in various parts of the world, often accompanied by their stigmatization and demonization, much starker today than ever before, has created a situation where Muslims are convinced that they are under siege. Consequently, a significant segment of the Muslim community ---the Ummah---has chosen to defend itself by re-asserting its religious identity. Malaysian Muslims, who are already acutely conscious of their identity, are part of that trend.

Ethnic Consciousness: The Non-Malays

Among the non-Malays and non-Muslims, negative reactions to both the NEP and Islamic resurgence have resulted in an upsurge of commitment to their own ethnic identities and interests. There are quite a few non-Malays in various sectors of society who partly because of their own experiences with the NEP in particular bear deep communal grudges which do not conduce towards social harmony. It is resentment whose significance cannot be underestimated since a huge portion of the Chinese and Indian populace is already third or fourth generation Malaysian and therefore more conscious of the promise of equality embodied in the nation’s Constitution.

These attitudes have been further aggravated by the situation in the school system. With the switch from English to Malay as the main medium of instruction in national schools in the early seventies, the vast majority of Chinese in the 7 to 12 age group now attend state run Chinese primary schools, thus depriving themselves of the opportunity to mix with Malay and Indian Malaysians at a critical stage of their lives. This lack of exposure to, and interaction with, ‘the other’ --- which is also true of the Malay student in a national primary school today --- has undoubtedly contributed towards the growth of the type of communal posturing that we are witnessing in the Malaysia of 2006.

As with the Malays, there are also global forces impacting upon the non-Malay mind. Islamic and Muslim demonization, propagated through myriad websites some of which are closely linked to the Christian Right and Zionism, is often accepted as the truth by many non-Muslims and non-Malays in the country. They refuse to see demonization as a tool employed by the powerful and their cohorts to not only denigrate their adversaries but also to camouflage their own hegemonic designs over the land and resources of the demonized. The tragedies of Palestine and Iraq--- and the diabolical Anglo- American- Israeli role in them---- bear testimony to this. If a lot of non-Malays are not prepared to acknowledge this, it is partly because of their entrenched antipathy towards the NEP and other such policies associated with a Malay helmed government.

Ethnicity and Politics

While we have attempted to understand some of the domestic and global factors responsible for increased ethnic consciousness in recent times which in turn has ignited certain current ethnic controversies, it is important to emphasize that there are also some perennial forces at work which tend to keep the ethnic temperature high in societies like ours. The political manipulation of ethnic sentiments is one such force. It has been shown that in most multi-ethnic societies politicians on both sides of the government-opposition divide just cannot resist the temptation of exploiting ethnic issues in order to enhance their electoral standing. In Malaysia this has been happening since the introduction of electoral politics in the fifties. It may even have taken a turn for the worse in the last few years since ethnicity itself has reached new heights of late.

In any case, it is not just to mobilize votes that politicians manipulate ethnic feelings. Manipulation sometimes serves to conceal and camouflage widening income disparities and social iniquities within a particular community. It is perhaps not a coincidence therefore that as intra-community disparities widen--- between 1999 and 2004, they had worsened among all communities--- the communal rhetoric of certain political actors is also getting shriller. Since these disparities are most serious within the Malay-bumiputra community, is it any wonder that some of its politicians are vying with each other to portray themselves as ethnic heroes?

Possible Solutions

Having identified some of the causes for the deteriorating ethnic situation, we should now reflect upon some possible solutions. It would be too simplistic to suggest the rescinding of the NEP or the abolition of Chinese medium schools as the remedies. For even if the NEP is not there, the underlying fears and aspirations of the Malay-Bumiputra community related to its economic strength and resilience would still have to be addressed. Similarly, the Chinese school has become a metaphor for the community’s sense of ethnic security and identity. This is why any effective, long-term solution should seek to overcome fundamental fears and apprehensions of all communities.

The fundamental fears of the Malays are linked, directly or indirectly, to their position in what was historically a Malay polity. They are afraid that in spite of all the constitutional provisions and public policies, they could one day lose control over their own land because of their perceived inability to compete with the economically more robust Chinese. If that happens, not only will the Malays cease to be politically preeminent; some of the principal Malay characteristics of the Malaysian nation, such as the status of Islam as the religion of the Federation; the position of Malay as the sole official and national language; and the role of the Malay Rulers as constitutional heads of their respective states would also be jeopardized. Among some Malays, this fear has acquired an added dimension in recent times. As a result of rapid economic globalization and Malaysia’s own position as an open economy in this increasingly borderless world, the pressures upon the Malay community to compete in both the domestic and international arenas have multiplied. If anything, China’s success in the global economy has also made a segment of the community somewhat uneasy about the future.

Assuaging Fears

To assuage these fears within the community which are largely unfounded, Malay leaders in every sphere of society--- government, opposition, media, academia, business, labour---- have an important role to play. They should show the community through honest and rational analysis that the Malays have made tremendous economic and social progress in the last 49 years. In almost every profession today, Malay participation is significant, compared to the situation 30 years ago. Likewise, in the upper echelons of commerce and industry there are a number of Malays whose hallmark is their competence and ability. All this has been achieved not through ethnic quotas and special privileges per se as it is erroneously believed in certain quarters --- though quotas and privileges would have played a minor role. The primary reason for this success is the vast expansion of opportunities for the Malay masses through education. It is because of the state’s massive investment in education at all levels --- which any just and responsible government would have done even if it was not faced with the same ethnic challenges---that the Malay community has witnessed such a dramatic transformation in its socio-economic status in such a short while. To put it differently, it is the state’s commitment to social justice, and not its ethnic agenda, that is mainly responsible for the upliftment of the Malay community.

If the State is sincere about strengthening the Malay economy in the coming years, it is justice that should be its central concern. What this means is that it should harness all its energies to tackle what is undoubtedly the single most important challenge confronting the Malay economy: the challenge of widening economic disparities within the community. The state should also go all out to combat the pervasive rentier culture which has inhibited the growth of genuine entrepreneurship. Eradicating both corruption, which has emasculated the economy, and abuse of power should also be its national priorities. None of these goals would require ethnicizing the economy. On the contrary, an ethnic approach would prevent the state from coming to grips with the real problems facing the community and the nation.

At the same time, Malay leaders should assure their community that neither Malay political preeminence nor institutions such as the monarchical system, the Malay language or Islam are under any threat from the non-Malay populace. The vast majority of non- Malays accept that a Malay core within a multi-ethnic national leadership is vital for national stability and harmony. What is important is for that core to be just and fair to all communities. The non-Malays have never questioned the status of our Sultans as constitutional monarchs. Young Chinese and Indian Malaysians speak Malay with effortless ease. Since Merdeka ,no Muslim group has challenged the constitutional role of Islam as the religion of the Federation.

However, it is true that of late some non-Muslims have become concerned about certain aspects of Islamic law that impinge directly upon their interests. While this in no way constitutes a threat to the religion, Muslim leaders have an obligation to present the Islamic position on these legal issues in a manner that reflects the religion’s commitment to justice, compassion and mercy. Indeed, if Muslims demonstrate through deeds the universal essence of Islam, there is no doubt at all that the non-Muslim response to the religion will be more positive than what it is today.

The other fear that has been expressed about China’s role is also without any basis. China has sought assiduously to cultivate close ties with the indigenous leaderships of all Southeast countries, including Malaysia. The Malaysian government in particular has enjoyed a warm relationship with Beijing since 1974 when Malaysia became the first country in non-communist Southeast Asia to recognize China. The last thing that China would want to do is act as patron and protector for Chinese communities in the region!

Malay Fears: The Non-Malay Role

It is not just Malay leaders who should dispel the unjustified apprehensions of the Malay community. Chinese and other non-Malay leaders can also give a helping hand. Chinese Chambers of Commerce at national and state levels and other trade and manufacturing bodies operating within the community can take proactive measures to assist Malays, other Bumiputras and even Indians to establish small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Since non-Chinese business people have always found it difficult to access the production, supply and distribution networks of SMEs, aid from Chinese businesses could provide a breakthrough. Malays and other non-Chinese should also be given opportunities to occupy the upper echelons of Chinese dominated corporations. If concrete steps are taken to encourage Malays and others to progress in those segments of the private sector where Chinese Malaysians wield considerable influence, mutual trust and understanding between the communities will develop. It is worth observing that so far there has been no organized, sustained long-term effort at the collective level on the part of the Chinese community to help Malays and other Bumiputras in commerce and industry.

Chinese and other non-Malays should also develop a stronger bond with Malay --- a bond which goes beyond their present functional relationship with the language. If more non-Malays produce poems, short stories and novels in Malay, respect and even affection between the communities could grow. By the same token, more non-Malay media commentators, academics, NGO activists and politicians should endeavour to explain what Islam really is, what its stand is on violence, and why the centers of power in the West are demonizing the religion. When non-Malays begin to understand the motives behind global hegemony and its targeting of Islam and Muslims and display less antipathy towards the religion and its followers, the Malays --- hopefully --- will also become more confident about the non-Malays and their sincerity.

Non-Malay Fears

After analyzing Malay fears, let us now turn to non-Malay fears about their position in the country. Sections of the non-Malay communities have for a long while complained about discrimination against them in the award of university places and scholarships; in recruitment into the civil service; in promotions in the police and the armed forces; in the procurement of contracts; in the disbursement of import permits; in the allocation of low-cost housing units and so on. They regard the NEP and the constitutional provisions that underlie the policy as inimical to the interests of the non-Malays. It is not just discrimination in education or the economy that riles them; they are equally concerned about what they perceive as their lack of political clout. UMNO, they feel, dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional. Some non-Malays are also of the view that their languages, cultures and religions are not accorded the prominence they deserve.

A significant segment of the non-Malay populace has concluded from all this that Chinese, Indians and other non-indigenous Malaysians are ‘second-class citizens’. Many are convinced that they will never attain equality with the Malays and other Bumiputras. Simply put, they are pessimistic about their future.

Addressing Non-Malay Fears

While it is granted that there are hurdles, some major, others minor, in the path of non-Malay progress, the overall situation of the non-Malay communities, especially the Chinese, is better than it is made out to be by some of their ethnic champions. The Chinese remain as ubiquitous in the economy as they were before the NEP was launched in 1971. A wealth profile of the nation would reveal that the Chinese rich continue to dominate the upper crust of the economy. Chinese dialects are still widely spoken in the country. Chinese newspapers are among the nation’s best selling newspapers. By recognizing Chinese as a medium of instruction in the national primary school system, the Malaysian government has accorded the language a role which it performs in hardly any other country outside China. Tamil is also a medium of instruction in primary school. Various aspects of Chinese and Indian cultures are practiced without hindrance while the Chinese lunar new year like the Buddhist Vesak, the Hindu Deepavali and Christmas are national holidays. Very few countries in the world have mainstreamed the religious festivals of their minorities the way Malaysia has. Needless to say, freedom of worship is both a constitutional right and a social practice.

Non-Malays are also actively involved in the civic and political life of the nation. Apart from playing leading roles in trade unions and NGOs, Chinese, Indian and other Malaysians are at the helm of a number of political parties both in the ruling coalition and in the opposition. Since Merdeka there has been substantial non-Malay representation in the federal parliament and in most state assemblies. Non-Malays also sit in the federal cabinet and in the state executive councils. In other words, non-Malays are integral and essential to the nation’s political process.

The Malay Polity

However, to appreciate the significance of the non-Malay role in the political, economic, social, cultural and religious life of the nation, one has to comprehend the context in which the Malaysian state was established. As we have alluded to before, Malaysia evolved from a Malay polity. This is an irrefutable, indisputable fact about our nation which every Malaysian should try to understand. We know that the basic features of the Malay polity--- the Sultans, the Malay language, Islam--- were incorporated into the Malaysian Constitution. In the Proclamation of Independence there are specific references to the ‘Malay States’ and the ‘Malay Federation’. The British colonialists recognized the Sultanates with which they entered into treaties as ‘Malay kingdoms’.
And indeed, right through the pre-colonial period there were Malay kingdoms which functioned as states with all the attributes of statehood: territorial control, domestic jurisdiction, external trade relations and diplomatic exchanges. Equally important, these Sultanates used a language, Malay, which was the lingua franca of the region, and adhered formally to a religion, Islam, which was the basis of law and administration. Together, Malay and Islam, provided an identity to the people.

It was a people with a Malay identity and a Malay history that acceded to the accommodation of recently domiciled immigrants through the 1948 Federation of Malaya Agreement which culminated in the 1957 Merdeka Constitution. What it implied in reality was that the Malays were willing to share their polity with communities with whom they has very little cultural or religious affinity. Because the numbers of Chinese and Indians who became citizens on incredibly liberal terms were huge --- by 1960, almost half of the total population of Malaya was non-Malay---the demographic character of the polity itself underwent a dramatic transformation. In a nutshell, the Malays who constituted a people, a polity, in the past became a community among communities in their own land. I have often argued in my writings that this diminution in the status of the Malays which has few parallels in the annals of human history is one of the greatest sacrifices that any people have made in the course of accommodating the other.

It was mainly because of this sacrifice that the affirmative action clauses were put into the Constitution. Since the Chinese and others now had citizenship rights, it was felt that the economically weaker Malays had to be protected in areas pertaining to land ownership, scholarships, business licenses and civil service positions. The Constitution also provided for rural electoral weightage which helped ensure Malay political preeminence--- again an attempt to safeguard the Malay position in a situation where everyone enjoyed equal political rights.

In fact, in a number of other places too, the Constitution attempts to balance the interests of the inheritors of the Malay polity with the interests of a democratic society which had conferred rights upon its new citizens. For instance, while Malay is the official and national language, the use and study of other languages is also guaranteed. While Islam is the religion of the Federation, there is freedom to practise other religions. Establishing an equilibrium between the demands of a Malay polity and the needs of a multi-cultural, multi-religious state that had emerged from that polity is one of the most remarkable achievements of the Malaysian Constitution.

Delivering Justice

This nexus between the Malay polity and the Malaysian Constitution, how it came about, and what it implies for multi-ethnic Malaysia should be communicated to the non-Malay citizenry, especially the younger generation. Those who wield influence and authority within the non-Malay communities, from business people to educationists, should make it a point to socialize the young into this understanding of how contemporary Malaysia emerged partly through the sacrifice of the forefathers of their Malay brothers and sisters. It is a pity that very few Chinese and Indians subscribe to such a perspective.

If it is important for non-Malays to develop some empathy with the idea of a Malaysian nation that had emerged from a Malay polity, it is imperative that Malay leaders convince the Chinese and Indian communities that they are committed to the evolution of a social order that will be less and less preoccupied with ethnic policies and more and more devoted to an all-embracing vision of justice that focuses upon our common humanity. We have observed that only when justice supplants ethnicity will it be possible to overcome the current challenges facing the Malay economy. It is an observation that applies with equal force to the non-Malay situation. Leaving aside some demands that stem from a lack of appreciation of the nature of our multi-ethnic society, there are many legitimate non-Malay grievances that revolve around issues of access and mobility that can only be resolved if the Malay leadership is passionate about delivering justice to all, regardless of ethnic affiliation.

It is only when such a notion of justice prevails that our ethnic fears will be laid to rest.

Dr.Chandra Muzaffar is President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

31 October 2006

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