By Ding Jo-Ann
(Ahmad Ismail pic courtesy of Oriental Daily)
HARDLY a year goes by in Malaysia without some kind of public dispute involving race and religion. The issue for 2010: "Allah". 2009: Cow-head protesters and Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno's whipping sentence. 2008: Datuk Ahmad Ismail and his "pendatang" slurs against non-Malay Malaysians. 2007: Lina Joy's contentious conversion out of Islam.
These have all been issues of national importance, but attempts to resolve them through dialogue and discussion have repeatedly been thwarted by politicians and non-state agents. The conversation stoppers that have been employed have been, unsurprisingly, Malay rights; the religion of Malays in Malaysia, Islam; and every now and again, Malay royalty.
Why are arguments affecting public interest constantly linked back to Islam and Malay Malaysians by the most tenuous of connections? And why is royalty being invoked even when a public interest issue, such as the whipping of Kartika Sari Dewi Sukarno, is being debated by concerned citizens?
Perhaps it is because it is convenient to hide behind topics that are deemed to be unquestionable. The "special position of Malays" under the constitution has today been rephrased as inalienable "Malay rights". Islam is God's law and hence cannot be questioned. And to "raise discontent or disaffection" towards the monarchy would be seditious.
But hasn't the whole "this is a threat to Malays and Islam" argument just been one gigantic red herring to avoid discussing real issues with real facts and sound arguments?
LimTake the 2006 Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) report, for instance. A study prepared by internationally recognised Malaysian academics revealed that bumiputera equity ownership could be as high as 45% and not 18.9% as claimed by the government. This was more than the 30% bumiputera equity target under the New Economic Policy (NEP).
Asli's then research director, Dr Lim Teck Ghee, also said there was clear evidence that bumiputera wealth had accrued in the hands of an elite group. His study advocated new policies to ensure sustained economic growth and more equitable distribution methods.
The study was soundly lambasted by the government, which declared that its methodology was wrong. Asli's president Mirzan Mahathir withdrew the report, and Lim resigned in protest.
As the "this is a threat to Malay rights" argument began, the factual debate on the matter ended.
"[Asli] should correct the facts and figures because it could confuse the Malays," said Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Mohd Rustam.
"Let's not draw up a report that triggers anger [among many people] and then simply concede to having made mistakes. The damage is done already," said then Umno Youth deputy head Khairy Jamaluddin.
"I am very sceptical about the study which has been carried out by a particular race. They (the race) usually have their own agendas," said Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science professor Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin
"If we make baseless statements it just hurts people's feelings. Why would we do something like that?" said former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Amid the furore, the real issues raised by the report were completely lost.
What was the government's methodology in calculating corporate equity ownership? Why was there a big discrepancy between the government's figure and Asli's? Why couldn't the government make fully public the methodologies, classifications and assumptions it relied on?
Certainly, it was far easier for Umno leaders to use the red herring of "Malay rights" than to actually justify and rectify its policies about the NEP. And that they did.
Mahathir (Pic by Samsul Said @ Flickr)Or take the 1999 Suqiu memorandum by a group of Chinese Malaysian organisations, which the cabinet reportedly accepted unconditionally prior to the general election that year.
The memorandum called for the introduction of needs-based instead of race-based affirmative action. It also called for reforms to improve women and indigenous people's rights, to curb corruption, and for the abolishment of the Internal Security Act.
However, a few months later, reports said Suqiu was apparently intent on "abolishing Malay privileges". Then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad compared them to communists and extremists in his national day speech on 31 Aug 2000. Demonstrations were held to force Suqiu to retract its statements.
Any chance for rational debate on their proposal's merits was thereafter lost.
It is becoming more apparent that the "threat to Malay and Muslim Malaysians" argument has really short-circuited our nation's thinking process.
When Sisters in Islam and other women's groups questioned whether it was fair, humane and just for Kartika to be caned for consuming alcohol, it was declared an insult to Islam. How showing compassion is insulting to Islam is, of course, never quite explained.
When civil society tried to organise interfaith dialogues to promote better understanding and harmonious living among Malaysians of different faiths, it was also an "insult to Islam".
When pop band Michael Learns to Rock was scheduled to perform in Malaysia during the fasting month, Umno's rival, PAS, branded the concert an insult to Islam.
And of course, when Catholic paper Herald sued the Home Ministry for banning the use of "Allah" in its publication, it was an insult to Islam.
An insult to Islam? A threat to Malay rights and the position of Malay royalty? Is that the best we can offer out of the contentious issues we face as a nation?
Holding on to power
When can we move beyond the constructed fear that non-Malay, non-Muslim Malaysians are hell-bent on threatening Islam and Malay rights, and that, by extension, the position of Malay royalty is also threatened?
Do our political leaders believe that by repeatedly silencing different views through fear-mongering rhetoric and feudalistic attitudes, they can hold on to power forever? Wouldn't it be more sustainable for power to be maintained through citizens' genuine support for government policies and actions?
(Pic by Amparo Torres @ Flickr) For now, in the name of Malay rights, Islam, and Malay royalty, dissenting voices are being silenced. Problems affecting minority rights are dismissed. And long-festering differences are swept under the carpet of Malay superiority.