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No need to let bigots dictate policy

By OOI KEE BENG, for The Edge Malaysia, 23 October 2017.

A nation starts building itself long before the nation-state is established. There were Germans before Germany was established, and there were Italians before Italy was founded. There were definitely Malayans with a sense of being Malayans before Malaya was founded in 1957.

Where the emergence of a nation is concerned, the state tends to construct clear communal and ethnic categories with which it is able to manage and manipulate the identity building in the country. These become like Lego pieces that stick together in exact fashion but with the borders hardened. At the social everyday level, however, society builds cohesion the way one bakes a cake—the ingredients have to mix and they have to be loose, both in essence and in definition.

There is tension between these two sets of dynamics, and the two have to battle for dominance. In the case of Malaysia where race and religion decide much of how its citizens describe themselves and institutionally relate to each other, there is what may be seen as a state capture of society.

Allow me to air some thoughts about some key words first before I get down to talking about how we can limit the knee-jerk racial discrimination that infects the country.

Let’s start with “discrimination”. To “discriminate” is a strange word. It means having the ability to notice subtle differences, (which seems a positive thing), but it also means to think disapprovingly of and to act unfavourably towards things and people considered different (which is not a positive thing).

Discrimination therefore is not only about noticing a difference, but also about noticing a difference deemed negative. It is hard work, and it is continuous work. It is also collective work, and being collective work, it easily becomes political work.

But what difference? It can’t be any difference. In almost all cases, it is about difference from whatever it is one considers to be defining of oneself. we harbour no discrimination against a bird because it has wings; we harbour no prejudice against a shark because it can swim in deep waters and grow new teeth endlessly; we do not dislike a frog because it can croak. These are about elements and characteristics that we do not take on as characteristics of my selfhood.

It would therefore seem that discrimination is a self-centred cognitive process. It is about us, not about others. Others are merely tools in our efforts to find an existential comfort zone.

Then there is “prejudice”. What is it? Well, for one thing, when one prejudges, one is technically simply being a little hasty. One is judging before one has all the facts. One is not necessarily biased; one is simply in too much of a hurry. But that is not what we mean when we say someone is prejudiced. We do not assume a time in the near future when the prejudiced person will revise his opinion based on new information; new experiences perhaps, but not simply new information.

A prejudiced person is generally considered bigoted, and not simply lacking in information. We ascribe malice to him, not ignorance.

Now we come “bigotry”. The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a bigot as “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially one who regards or treats the members of a group (such as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance”. When we think of extremists as bigots and when we don’t is a question to ponder.

One last word to consider here is “bias”. Bias simply considers emotions or processes that lead to unfair practices and results. Not much to problematize there.

Now let us talk about Malaysian society. Let me take a short cut by considering the New Economic Policy. This policy was a bold move that tried to balance not only leftist and rightist thoughts. It tried to rectify historical conditions that had come to a head, and these concerned long-distance immigration, hasty colonial retreats and damage control, modern economism, the emergence of nation states and national economies from colonial bits and pieces.

In its attempt to abolish poverty, it was a leftist policy. It saw how the modern globally-connected national economy that all Malaysians had to function within was biased against some and favoured others. In that sense, it had a crude class perspective. At the same time, it was rightist in that it adopted racial categories as a central and inherent bias.

This paradox clothed the NEP’s historical imperative, which was to break the connection between profession and race. It was trying to remedy the long-term effects of the augmented plural society left behind by the colonialists. And out of all that, it was hoped that nation building, state building and country building would somehow occur.

One can argue today whether we overreacted to the 1969 riots or not. After all, the fighting did take place largely in Selangor, not throughout the country; and yet, the diagnosis was for the whole diverse country, and the remedy engineered to fix the problem was applied to the whole diverse population.

What was clear was that the architects of the NEP knew the gamble they were taking. Would the NEP propel the country out of its post-colonial enigmas, or would the ethnocentrism it needed to encourage for the moment be triumphant in the long run? The measures were drastic but necessary, they thought; but a time limit was needed so that the patient would not die of an overdose. A twenty-year limit was thus put on the NEP.

When the NEP was thought up, religion was not considered a national political issue, and huge oil revenues had not started filling the state coffers yet. I believe these, among other factors, changed the whole equation. And so, we have ended up in a political situation that is highly divisive, that encourages ethnocentrism and that has begun to erase the nation-building accomplishments that had been made already in the final years of the British era.

We are now assumed to be a nation of defensive communities. Many of Malaysia’s founding fathers did predict that communalism, more than communism, was the great enemy of the country. They were right.

But perhaps the remedy for the excessive communalism that has now taken a hard-line religious turn, is not to insist on unity but to diversify diversity even more.

We have to be more discriminating. We should notice and acknowledge differences, not as differences between groups first of all, but within groups. The paradox lies in us realising that the more we allow Malaysians to express their non-collective identities, the less they will feel the need to define others in order to define themselves. Embracing difference and embracing diversity come from our homes and our schools defining our young through their individual experiences, and not through politically charged group images.

My cultural rights as an individual are not my ethnicity-based rights alone, whatever those are. In fact, my individual rights—and these can be clearly defined as cultural without being ethnic—are of greater importance to me, and more descriptive of me, than the abstract cultural or ethnic rights that others may define for me.

All a person wants, really, is not be subjected to biases all too often. And what he fears most of all, is to have such biases institutionalised.

There will always be bigots, but they do not have to be allowed to dictate policy. The reasons why they exert so much influence on politicians and on our public discourse are what we need to expose and to oppose.

This article is based on a speech given at the 7th Non-Discrimination Conference at the Petaling Jaya Hilton on 21 September 2017.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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