Complaining To Obama; Distorting The Truth

Chandra Muzaffar

The views expressed, and the stances adopted, by a number of local politicians and activists in the midst of President Barack Obama’s official visit to Malaysia at the end of April raise some important questions about their understanding of the nation.

Taken as a whole, it appears that these public figures had chosen to complain to the President of the United States of America about various challenges facing Malaysia ranging from human rights and religious freedom to governance and integrity. They wanted Obama to “demonstrate concern about what is happening in Malaysia …” In their view, such concern would have been “consistent with US democratic ideals and its foreign policy of promoting freedom and justice.”

US foreign policy in reality has been more concerned about perpetuating its global hegemony than promoting democracy as borne out by its activities in a variety of nations from Chile and Nicaragua to Iran and Indonesia over the last so many decades. Any honest observer of international politics would admit this. To invite such a hegemonic power to help promote democracy in Malaysia is demeaning. It stains and sullies the dignity of our people. It denigrates and disparages our honour as a nation.

To convince Obama that he had to come to the rescue of Malaysian democracy, an Opposition politician, DAP Secretary-General, Lim Guan Eng, even suggested to Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, that based upon the popular vote — the three opposition parties together, (the Pakatan Rakyat)   obtained slightly more votes than the ruling Barisan Nasional — the Leader of the Opposition, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, should have been the Prime Minister! Surely he knows that in the first-past- the – post electoral system it is the number of seats won and not the votes polled that determines who or which party forms the government. In the US which operates within the same sort of electoral system, there had been occasions when a candidate secured the presidency even though he had garnered less popular votes than his rival, as happened in 2000.

It was not just misrepresentation about the electoral system. It was also alleged that there was “widespread fraud” in the last General Election. And the man who made that allegation in an article in The Washington Post on the day that Obama landed in Kuala Lumpur was the fabricator of that infamous lie about 40,000 Bangladeshis being flown in to vote for the BN.

If distortions and lies were not enough to persuade the US President to act on behalf of the complainants,  another Opposition politician attempted to appeal to Obama’s conscience as an African-American by invoking the legacy of the civil rights movement in the States while implying that minority races in Malaysia are also “extensively discriminated politically, socially and economically.” By drawing this parallel in his Open Letter to the President of the United States of 26 April 2014, Tony Pua, the DAP Member of Parliament for Petaling Utara, has revealed how intellectually shallow and superficial he is. The circumstances that gave birth to the civil rights movement in the States bear no comparison to the situation of the minorities in Malaysia.

The movement which grew and expanded in the nineteen fifties and sixties was a legitimate response to the massive segregation and discrimination of the African-American population in almost every conceivable sphere of public activity. The African-American, invariably at the bottom of the heap, found that he had hardly any access to schools, libraries, public buses and even churches in many parts of the country simply because of the colour of his skin. In much of the southern United States he could not even vote until 1965! He was the victim of an oppressive, inhuman system that privileged the “White.”

Contrast this with the socio-economic, social-cultural and socio-political environment of the minorities in Malaysia, especially the largest of them, the Chinese community.  Since Merdeka, the Chinese have remained the dominant element in the middle and upper strata of the socio-economic ladder. They own 70% of public-listed companies, 69.4 % of business complexes and 71.9% of all commercial and industrial estates. More than 80% of the wealthiest Malaysians come from the community. In this regard, it should also be emphasised that there are some poor and disadvantaged Chinese and a huge percentage of marginalised and disenfranchised Indians.

Returning to the position of the Chinese, the Chinese language and Chinese culture have a pervasive presence in the country, sustained by a Chinese language school stream, a thriving Chinese media network and Chinese cultural activities that go down to the grassroots through clan associations and sub-ethnic groupings. Through the generous conferment of citizenship on the eve of Merdeka, the Chinese, Indian and other minorities play a significant political role at both Federal and State levels. It is a role which in the case of the Chinese has been buttressed by the community’s economic strength and reinforced by a whole spectrum of civil society organisations.

Pua would only be able to appreciate all this if he is prepared to come to terms with the history and evolution of our multi-ethnic society. It is very different from the US. Malaysia belongs to that category of societies that became multi-ethnic in its present form largely because of colonial rule. It was Chinese and Indian migration and domicile mainly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries serving British colonial interests which transformed Malay Sultanates into multi-ethnic societies. It was a transformation over which the Sultanates had hardly any control. In the end, it produced the divided economies and social systems — one indigenous and Malay and the other non-indigenous and non-Malay — that independent Malaya inherited in 1957.

Integrating the two is the cardinal challenge that faces the nation today. Many of the major issues confronting us in the realm of ethnic relations pertaining to the Special Position of the Malays and the indigenous communities of Sabah and Sarawak and the New Economic Policy (NEP) and even to religious rights and to the nation’s identity, revolve around this challenge of integrating interests, attitudes, emotions and worldviews associated with these two historical processes, one Malay, the other non-Malay. There are of course other issues that go beyond the Malay-non-Malay dichotomy linked to governance and integrity that also demand just solutions.

In their writings and interviews in connection with the Obama visit, Pua and his friends had highlighted some of these issues.  These are legitimate concerns which should be addressed. But these are our concerns. It is for us to work out the remedies, however difficult it may be.

There is no need for us to appeal to some external power for help. There is no justification to petition some global hegemon. We are not servile supplicants.

 Dr. Chandra Muzaffar is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.