Food on the table more pressing than race

By Sheridan Mahavera (NST)

Dragging a cow’s head to protest against the building of a temple was the most provocative episode yet in a series of racial flare-ups SHERIDAN MAHAVERA asks whether Malay sentiment is turning away from moderation and tolerance towards bigotry and chauvinism.

THE most important question in the Section 23 temple controversy is not just whether anyone in the cow-head incident will be punished but whether the 211 residents who attended a town hall meeting with the Selangor government on the matter were a cross-section of the Malay majority.

If the answer is "yes", Malaysia has a real problem. It would mean that even after 52 years of living side by side, most Malays are still not tolerant of those of other faiths.

A "no", on the other hand, would indicate that the centre is tolerant. While that would be assuring, the fact was that two-thirds of Section 23 (population 300) was at that meeting. Of the 211, about 100 shouted expletives and called the Selangor government officials unprintable names.

The Section 23 scenario offers scant cause for optimism. Taken together with other recent spikes in inter-communal tension elsewhere in the country, it looks like the ethnic concord that has kept Malaysians together continues to fray.

Malay sentiment is said to be moving from tolerance of others to seeing them as a threat. The angst stems from perceptions of having to accede more and more to the demands of non-Malays.

This is the perspective of groups such as Pekida (Islamic Missionary and Welfare Association) and Pewaris (Ummah Solidarity Council), two organisations purportedly speaking on behalf of the Malays.

It's not just about houses of worship, or giving more opportunities in education and business, they say. Neither is it about the slaughtering of that sacred cow of Malay supremacy ("ketuanan Melayu"), privileges and rights.

Pekida president Jamaluddin Yusof thinks many Pakatan Rakyat state government decisions are worrying for the community. These include giving out 999-year leases for Chinese new villages in Perak, not giving out more business opportunities for Malays in Penang, and constructing temples in Malay-majority areas in Selangor.

But Jamaluddin insists that the organisation is not ultra-chauvinist: "We understand that Malaysia is a plural society with many ethnicities and we cannot deny them their rights. 'Ketuanan Melayu' does not mean that we deny the rights of non-Malays to education and business."

Yet they fear that the Malays will one day cease to be tuan (masters) and become hamba (slaves). "I am afraid that if we are not careful, we will lose power in the 13th general election," says Jamaluddin.

However, there is little data to indicate that most Malays agree — or even that race relations are at the top of their minds. In a nationwide opinion poll by the Merdeka Center in June, 31 per cent of the 1,067 individuals questioned (56 per cent of them Malays) said that economic issues such as jobs, inflation and declining incomes were their most important concerns.

Twelve per cent said social issues such as illegal racing and problems among youth were the most important, and 10 per cent cited crime and public safety.

Racial issues came next to last, with only six per cent of respondents saying they were the most pressing problem in the country. Of that six per cent, only one in six — 13 individuals — cited the erosion of Malay rights as a concern.

Merdeka Center director Ibrahim Supian says these findings accord with those of past surveys suggesting that racial rhetoric does not strike a chord among the Malays.

"Blue-collar and white-collar Malays are more preoccupied with stagnant salaries while food prices keep going up or they worry about their kids messing with drugs."

Professor Mansor Mohd Noor of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Ethnic Studies Institute thinks the problem is that politicians have gotten used to — and good at — playing the race card. "Both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan politicians have trapped themselves into seeing everything through an ethnic lens," he says.

By stoking hot-button sentiments among communities to gain votes, he says, politicians fuel the rise of chauvinism. Mansor stresses that moderate Malaysians must play their role to check their leaders' race-baiting.

That's easier said than done. Ibrahim points to a disturbing trend uncovered in many of their surveys — only a third of respondents claim they understand the cultures and attitudes of other communities.

"So about two-thirds of Malaysians really have no understanding of other races, and this makes it very easy for groups and politicians to come in and rile them up."

This may explain why about 200 residents from Section 23 turned up at the stormy town hall meeting. It took a small group of boisterous individuals (some of whom were at the cow-head incident) to rouse their milder-mannered neighbours.

Shah Alam member of parliament Khalid Samad says opposition to the temple was slowly incited among residents over many months. Most of them were misinformed, he says, and those who dared speak up against the extremists were told to shut up.

Khalid believes that the Malays are easily inflamed because of prejudice indoctrinated by concepts such as "ketuanan Melayu". "There is nothing Islamic about denying the rights of other faiths," he says, "yet Umno wants the Malays to believe that by being prejudiced, they are being Islamic."

Most critically, says Mansor, the temple issue, along with those such as the economic and social woes of Indians, the Orang Asli and Penan, should never have been framed as demands from one community to another. "The temple issue is a problem of managing places of worship, and the claims of the poor should be seen as just that, not as those of poor Indians or poor Malays.

"Places of worship for non-Muslims are a basic right and it is unbelievable that after more than five decades, we still do not have comprehensive guidelines about building them.

"This whole issue and how it has blown up is a failure of management on the part of our administrators," says Mansor.

But if administrators are too busy scoring political points, or even if they do get their act together, it still falls on the ordinary Malay to stand up against ethnic extremists.

"If you allow extremism to rear its ugly head," Khalid says, "those who would otherwise be reasonable will not be and they will take over and force their opinions on you."