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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, Picking on the Past, The Edge

Taking the legacy of systemic racialism seriously

By OOI KEE BENG, for The Edge Malaysia, 1 September 2018

The intuitive conclusion drawn by many that a sea change took place when the government in Malaysia changed hands on May 9, 2018, has its merits. But as in all functioning democracies—and nowadays I count Malaysia among them—a majority vote generally means that almost half the voting population did not give their support to the triumphant parties, and many among these would have been outright opposed to these parties.

But then, power is power; and elections come around only every four to five years. How the power that Pakatan Harapan now has is exercised in the coming months will therefore be revealing of how well they understand the need to engage those who did not vote for them; and how deeply they appreciate the sentiments that underlie the racialist politics of the Barisan Nasional.

These sentiments have to be taken seriously, not as something negative but as something informed and formed by years of racialist politics, and filled with anxieties strongly conditioned by historical factors and socio-economic realities.

No doubt the Barisan Nasional survived by exaggerating racial separation among Malaysians and perpetuating divisive concepts, but to be fair, material conditions and historical memories did—and do—exist which allowed for BN parties to play the racial card so successfully for so long. These latter features have not disappeared from Malaysian society, and definitely not overnight.

In fact, apart from identifying the origins of systemic racialism in the country, anyone keen on working towards creating a happy and healthy Malaysia, should also consider how sustained systemic racialism has affected society at large and the individual—including himself or herself—in particular.

Most Malaysians would agree that their country has not been living up to its potential—to be a middle power and icon for the Third World, to be a multiculturalist model, and to be a harmonious and thriving Muslim-majority country. If they are to aim for the stars in the post-BN epoch, then these are the goals that they should target.

To be clear, what has been keeping the country back and sidetracking its progress is not the comprehensive affirmative action programme that we know as the New Economic Policy, as such. It is instead the use by unscrupulous politicians of inter-racial distrust and fear, piggybacking on the NEP, which one should blame.

Whichever the case, a careful look at how long-term racialist politics deformed Malaysian life is required before helpful remedies can be prescribed. I attempt to provide a few below, but I am sure the thorough list is a very long one.

All are Guilty of Racialism

What then does the legacy of long-term racialism look like? First of all, race consciousness has become part of the Malaysian psyche to a very unhealthy degree. Once politicised, that mindset takes over how we explain the world to ourselves. And it makes us accept stereotypes uncritically.

Secondly, very little serious inter-cultural integration has been happening in recent times. ON the contrary, the communities had been drifting apart. Keeping the constituencies apart was after all the logic of the race-based parties. This means that each culture has been resorting to introverted measures to essentialise itself culturally. The creating of Bangsa Malaysia was nullified. In short, literal nation building has not been taking place.

Thirdly, identity politics also led to the suppression of the freedom of speech. This is a serious matter. What has actually been happening is that adult education got stunted. In a healthy society, high standard of journalism in the form of columns and essays, together with an open and vibrant university environment, are responsible for educating the people after they have left school. Suppressing the press and the universities meant that people were kept half-educated.

Freeing Academia and the Press

To reverse the downward spiral, it is necessary that steps be taken by all stakeholders to exercise of freedom of speech in the universities and to rejuvenate the culture and calling of the noble profession of journalism.

Now, racialism provides quick answers to things people experience in their daily life. That is its strength and its weakness. It is often based on what looks like empirical evidence, even if it is necessarily superficial. What we now need to do instead is to offer people longer and more profound answers that are social scientific and that provide them with historical contexts for understanding the cultural differences in behaviour that they observe everyday.

Culture changes all the time, and therefore the defining of a race cannot be an essentialistic one that is done once and for all. The social sciences should be able to convince most people of that.

Regionalism can open minds

Racialism is also sustained through nationalist introversion. Nationalism provides the narriw conceptual boundaries within which identity politics can floursih. Once we learn to see the country within the greater context of Southeast Asia, of East Asia, of Asia, and of the world, identity politics can be seen as a curiously limiting phenomenon. A question that begs to be asked at this point is: Is this why Malaysian foreign policy has not changed much since the 1970s? Has it been but a reflection of racialism’s institutionalisation on the domestic front? I wonder…

Malaysians also tend to think proudly of their society as being multicultural and multiracial. However, it might be wise to consider why Malaysian society, despite being multiracial or multicultural, is not really cosmopolitan.

A cosmopolitan society is a very amorphous entity. It is culturally dynamic, and it is defined by transforming interactions between individuals of diverse ethnic background, and not by cautious greetings between representatives of starkly separated communities.

The New Malaysia post-GE14 needs therefore to aim towards more cosmopolitanism, more regionalism, and more freedom of speech for the common man. That should be how we should define Bangsa Malaysia from now on.


Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book is “Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia”. Petaling Jaya: SIRD, ISEAS and Penang Institute, 2018.

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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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