by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar
“What do the Chinese want?” is a question that is being asked in certain political circles and within the media in the wake of the recently concluded Sarawak state election. The question and its likely answers have profound implications for inter-ethnic relations and the quest for 1Malaysia.
If the pattern of voting in elections is a barometer of the ethnic sentiments that prevail within a community, it appears that from a certain perspective, Chinese Malaysians are no different from Malaysians of other ethnic affiliations. For instance, in the 1964 General Election, the fear that Indonesia would attack Malaysia as part of its belligerent Konfrantasi policy was uppermost in the minds of the electorate, and the Chinese like the other communities, voted overwhelmingly for security, stability and national sovereignty. In the 2004 General Election, the Chinese, together with the other Malaysians, gave a ringing endorsement to the new Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in the hope that much desired change would take place.
Since the majority of Chinese live in urban areas, a certain urban consciousness also informs their voting. Like urbanites in most other parts of the world, they are concerned about issues pertaining to good governance, public integrity, political freedom, individual liberties, and economic progress. The erosion of support for the Barisan Nasional among all communities in urban constituencies in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur in the 2008 General Election testifies to this. Even in the Sarawak election in the middle of this month, it was obvious that Chief Minister Taib Mahmud’s over-extended stewardship, allegedly riddled with corruption and nepotism, evoked a negative reaction from a segment of the non-Chinese electorate as well in some of the cities.
There are also of course issues which are viewed from an ethnic perspective within the Chinese community which have caused electoral setbacks to the BN. Business opportunities for the community, mobility for its members in the public services and the dearth of Chinese in senior management positions in public universities are among some of the issues that have rankled this crucial minority for a long while. These are legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.
Some of them are being given serious attention since Dato’ Sri Najib Razak became Prime Minister in April 2009. It is a task that will take time as there are entrenched interests that are opposed to any accommodation of non-Malay aspirations, however just they maybe. These vested interests refuse to acknowledge that making the upper echelons of the public services less mono-ethnic for instance helps to restore a degree of equilibrium to an institution which at one time was more ethnically balanced.
Indeed, maintaining the equilibrium in important spheres of society is a fundamental prerequisite for inter-ethnic harmony in Malaysia. While some Malay groups do not seem to appreciate the significance of this, there are also non-Malay elements that do not value the principle of equilibrium.
Just two years after Merdeka, in 1959, the late Tun Dr. Lim Chong Eu, then MCA President, demanded a quantum of seats for his party in the parliamentary election and a status for Chinese education that transgressed the balance in political power that Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman sought to maintain, on the one hand, and the reasonable accommodation of vernacular schools that the Razak Report pledged to uphold, on the other. Lim failed partly because of the Tunku’s firmness and partly because there were MCA leaders like Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tun Ong Yoke Lin who understood the need for equilibrium.
However, the most organised and aggressive challenge to the principle of equilibrium emanated from Lee Kuan Yew when Singapore was part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965. While swearing allegiance to the Constitution, he espoused a four official language policy and a notion of equality and meritocracy that had little empathy for the gross economic and social inequalities that burdened the Malays and indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. His ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ was an ahistorical idea that attempted to repudiate an irrefutable fact: that the core of the Malaysian Federation had evolved from a Malay polity.
Lee’s antagonistic attitude towards Malay history and the cultural character of the land became even more apparent after Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. Ignoring the weight of Singapore’s pre-colonial Malay history--- it was part of the Johor-Riau Sultanate--- he legitimised the colonial view that Stamford Raffles was the founder of Singapore. It was his way of telling his people that Singapore need not regard itself as part of the Malay world.
This reluctance to come to terms with historical reality and all that it implies persists to this day in Malaysia. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) continued to pursue some of Lee’s policies on language, culture, and other aspects of Malaysian Malaysia for a period of time. Though it claims to honour the Malaysian Constitution, the party has failed to explain to its constituency that there is an unambiguous Malay basis to the Constitution, embodied in the Malay Sultanates, the Malay language, and Islam, the appreciation of which is fundamental to the maintenance of that equilibrium that recognises the rights of the non-Malays to use their languages and to practise their religions. Similarly, the party has made no attempt to elucidate to its supporters that the protection of the Special Position of the Malays and the indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak had become imperative because of the unprecedented accommodation of huge Chinese and Indian communities through the liberalisation of citizenship rules which in some ways is the essence of the equilibrium that permeates Malaysian politics and society.
What is worrying is that the DAP’s antipathy towards the first half of the equilibrium has become much more pervasive in recent years and now transcends party lines. As proof of this, while the entire Chinese community is wholeheartedly committed to Chinese education, it has adopted a lukewarm attitude towards the strengthening of the Malay language based national school system. And yet there are Chinese political leaders who proclaim loudly that they are Malaysian first and Chinese second but are not prepared to support Malaysia’s first language in the sphere of education. Is this negative attitude towards one of the most important channels for fostering national integration a subtle attempt to alter the equilibrium itself? Is this what the Chinese community wants--- to set aside the history, memory and identity of a people who have to a great extent defined the nation’s past and present?
If this is its objective, the consequences will be simply catastrophic just as any attempt to deny justice and fairness to the Chinese and other non-Malay communities as envisaged in the Malaysian Constitution will only lead to a colossal disaster. It is to balance the interests and aspirations of all communities in an equitable manner in an increasingly polarised environment that the idea of 1Malaysia was formally introduced two years ago.
1Malaysia, there is no need to emphasise, aims to sustain and strengthen the equilibrium in Malaysian society.
Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia.
29 April 2011.