A dangerous brew – Racism and Economy

Thomas Fann

By Thomas Fann

When it became clear from the results of the last 13th General Election that the Chinese votes have largely gone to the Opposition and the 1Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak declaring it to be a “Chinese Tsunami”, a lid has been lifted and a signal has been given – it’s the fault of the Chinese.

Since then, almost on a weekly basis, Malaysians have been bombarded with statements from race and religious-focused Non-Governmental Organisations like Perkasa, Isma and their offshoots, calling for restoration of their ethnic and religious rights and often, at the same time, blaming others for the erosion of those rights. These groups are further emboldened by Cabinet Ministers and politicians lending their voices to the chorus and the inaction of government agencies like the police and Attorney-General Chamber to take impartial actions.

But when the Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob in a Facebook posting called on Malays to boycott Chinese businesses, blaming them for keeping the price of goods high and suppressing the Malays, a line was crossed. To blame a race for the impact of an actual or impending economic downturn not only defies logic but is lighting a fire to tinder.

A study entitled “Economic Scarcity Alters the Perception of Race” by two researchers which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that prejudices are not unique to individuals who participated in the study but they believe that many people are able to keep them in check under normal circumstances. Poverty or the fear of it doesn’t cause racist ideologies, but instead is a catalyst to bring these ideologies to the surface. To put it simply, people can be tolerant until they are hungry.

With the crash in the price of petrol over the past months and our other main source of income, palm oil prices hovering at the lower end, our National Debt to GDP ratio at an all-time high of 54.8% with a debt of RM614 billion and the implementation of GST on 1st April this year, there is a great concern among all Malaysians about the economy and the cost of living in the coming months. As a leader and Cabinet Minister, instead of articulating the common concerns of all Malaysians and offering solutions and sound advice, chose to politicise the issue by blaming the Chinese and the opposition.

We need to learn from history, both our own and those of other countries. When the populace faces hard times or impending hard times, they are more likely to act irrationally and even violently towards those accused of being the root of the problem. In our country, the May 13 racial riots of 1969 has as its backdrop the fear of the economically poorer Malays being displaced politically by the Chinese minority. Playing to such fears were politicians who were prepared to ignite the flames of hatred and violence in order to stay in power.

The deadliest military conflict in human history was World War 2 where between 60 to 80 million people died either in conflict or war-related diseases or famine. It could be said that the economic crisis that followed the stock market collapse of Wall Street in 1929 triggered a global recession for which Germany, already struggling to recover from World War 1, bore the brunt of the impact. It created a condition where Hitler and his fascist Nazi party could thrive and carry out their evil agenda of conquests and annihilation of the Jewish race.

The Jews which represented less than 1 percent of the Germany’s population in 1933 were blamed for their economic malaise. Laws were passed to force the Jews out of the civil service, law courts, and universities. They were made second-class citizens and were not allowed to attend public schools; go to theaters, cinema, or vacation resorts; or reside or even walk in certain sections of German cities. Their businesses and properties were seized and in November 1938, the Nazis organized a riot (pogrom), known as Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) where Jewish homes and businesses were attacked and murders carried out. Their ideology of wiping out “inferior” races was not limited to the Jews but also included other groups like the Roma (gypsies), Blacks and the handicapped. By the end of WW2, over six millions Jews and other groups were systematically killed because of the Nazi’s racist ideology.

Another example of blaming a race for economic non-performance was Uganda under Idi Amin. In 1972, Amin ordered the expulsion of the minority Asian (Indian) community within 90 days, blaming them for  hoarding wealth and goods to the detriment of indigenous Ugandans and “sabotaging” the Ugandan economy. Indians were  stereotyped as “greedy, conniving”, without any racial identity or loyalty but “always cheating, conspiring and plotting”.  Sounds familiar? The result of the expulsion was the collapse of the Ugandan economy, transforming the former Pearl of Africa into the basket-case of Africa for decades to come.

In neigbouring Indonesia as well during the turbulent years of the Asian Financial Crisis, over a thousand Indonesians were killed during riots where Chinese-owned businesses were targeted and looted. Many of those killed were the looters who were trapped in burning premises as well as ethnic Chinese and many Chinese women were raped.  Again the backdrop was the collapsed economy due to the currency crisis, rising cost of food and petrol and mass unemployment.

The reckless words of Ismail Sabri was probably an articulation of many of his kind in the UMNO who have been conditioned to believe that the ethnic Malays are entitled to unrestricted privileges and prosperity. If anything goes wrong, it must be the fault of someone else and in this case, the greedy Chinese traders.

To further compound matter, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement soon after that not only add salt to the wounds but also insulted the intelligence of ordinary Malaysians by claiming that Ismail Sabri did not target the Chinese but any traders that kept their prices high. By not censuring this errant minister, the Prime Minister might as well hold up one of those placards of Ismail Sabri’s supporters that says, “We Are All Ismail Sabri.”

The matter is not petty as claimed by Ismail Sabri and it is not over. Facebook groups that have been urging the boycott of Chinese-owned businesses and products have seen a resurgence and supporters of such ideologies are given air-time on TV to defend their racist views. The matter will not end but will continue with the next hero-wannabe making another outrageous claim. It can only end if Ismail Sabri apologises and/or resign or be sacked from the Cabinet or if by some miracle, the economy rebounds and people do not go hungry and forget this “petty” episode. In this instance, I am not a big believer in miracles.


Thomas Fann is the Chairman of ENGAGE, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to encouraging and empowering citizens to get engage with nation-building.