By Ooi Kee Beng
For The Edge Malaysia, 25 January 2016.
The biggest paradox in Malaysian political narrative is how the call for unity is in reality a call for disunity. This comes about because calls for unity tend to be rhetorical appeals for racial unity vis-à-vis other races.
Since all societies today—and Malaysia started out already that way—are multi-cultural in reality, racial unity means inter-racial disunity. Such a paradigm cannot help but incessantly provoke confrontation and distrust. No long-term common goals can be sustained. Worse than that, any serious discussion becomes potentially a polarizing one—be it over type of education, form of worship, style of dressing, food for eating, treatment of women, etc. etc..
As the distrust grows, the calls for unity take on a religious character—religion being the major historical determinant of race. We see this happen more and more the worse the country’s economic conditions become. This is nothing new, nothing surprising.
We saw how desperate times in Germany in the 1930s led to the rise of a radically racist regime, and the momentum of that change quickly led to the destruction of traditional German society. With the fall of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in 1945, it became politically inexcusable in the West to use “race” as the rationale for formulating policies. In academia, we saw the dropping of the term “race” from practically all discussions, in favour of “ethnicity” as the apparently more neutral and therefore more scientifically acceptable concept.
Racialism became a rhetorical taboo globally. This did not in any way mean that racism was history. Far from it. It just meant that policy arguments based on race had very little traction after the Second World War. There were still some attempts to plant racialism as the rationale for state building. One was the generally unrecognized Republic of Rhodesia, which in 1978 had to transform itself into multicultural Zimbabwe. Another more significant case was South Africa’s apartheid regime, which lasted too long–from 1948 to 1994.
In the USA, where the suppression of black Americans had continued despite the ending of slavery in 1865, the civil rights movement managed in the 1960s to reduce substantially racial bias in administrative practices.
I am not claiming that racialism in Malaysia will necessary bring doom, but it certainly does not bode well, and it does not promise anything positive in the long run for the country as a whole. Pre-war Europe is not post-war Southeast Asia. Malaysia is not Germany.
And yet, while the West was fighting wars partially caused by the logic of ethno-nationalism, all over the colonised world, new countries came into being for whom “nationalism” was a rallying cry—and a very positive term. Its potency lay in it being a conceptual antidote to colonialism; to control by external powers.
The situation was always a complicated one. The construction of states from colonies, the transformation of colonial sub-economies into national ones, and the uniting of diverse ethnicities into a nationality; all this did not happen in a vacuum.
The Malay community—in their first show of unity—rejected the Malayan Union in 1946 as an attempt by the British to finally colonize them thoroughly. This jarred starkly with the view in the eyes of the world that the workings of British colonial manipulation over a century and more had in effect already incorporated Malay livelihoods into the global economy that was run from London. In fact, for all the Malayan communities, political life at this time was very much secondary to economic survival.
Given the plural society from which Malaysia emerged, late colonialism’s inter-ethnic disparity and inter-cultural dissonance bred a consciousness of Us versus Them; of the local, the bumiputera, the Melayu on one side, versus the extra-regional, the pendatang and the colonially imported peoples on the other side. And so, it appears totally natural today that Malaysian politics should be as racialized as it is.
Yet, this development was far from being a given thing. A development based on class consciousness alongside—if not above—ethnic consciousness was always in the offing. And this was most poignant if one focused on the Malay community itself. Arrayed against the so-called conservative alternative that the British fully supported for fear of violent anti-colonialism and anti-monarchism from the masses were Malays who sought a post-colonial system that was more people-based, who highlighted solidarity with the poor and who prioritized the eradication of poverty.
The latter lost out, as we know. But what requires revisiting today is the fact that the race-based system, which preserved the status quo of power where the Malay community was concerned, relies on unity through racial sentiments, then, now and in the future. It unites by dissociating one ethnicity from the others; and by propagating the false idea that any other alternative would be insidiously detrimental to Malay progress.
What unity through racial sentiments has done is to cause policy makers to ignore the sufferings of the less privileged from all ethnic groups, and kept politicians in office whose power base is divisiveness. Unity through racialism is a very effective way of perpetuating national disunity. Sadly, it seems to be a durable solution as well.