Discrimination in the 21st century


Parties see nothing wrong with racialism and believe they are ‘practical and pragmatic’ in building a political culture along racial lines.

Zaid Ibrahim, The Star

IN Malaysia, racial and religious discrimination has become accepted as the norm, whereas it is considered repugnant in most countries. Every day, political leaders and even ordinary folks play up ethnic and religious issues as the staple diet for the country; and it’s almost unheard of that issues are discussed from the national perspective alone. We don’t talk about Malaysian problems, but always it’s either Malay or non-Malay problems.

It’s depressing that we have come to the point where rational public discussions on racial and religious discrimination will not gain any traction, and will fail to interest the public, because many are disinterested in the issue; or they have come to accept that discrimination works in their favour – we have even come to think of it positively as “affirmative action”. Otherwise, why are Malaysians so tolerant of this affliction?

Political parties such as Umno, MCA and MIC have also become accustomed to confining their work to their respective ethnic groups. They see nothing wrong with this kind of racialism and believe they are “practical and pragmatic” in building this political culture along these racial lines.

Umno rejected Datuk Onn Jaafar’s idea of a national party to cater for all Malaysians 65 years ago as impractical, and now they have to live with their idea of practical politics even if the country is moving dangerously along racial lines.

The racial-based approach is however toned down when they came together, first as the Alliance, and subsequently as the broader-based Barisan Nasional.

On the other hand, the emerging Pakatan Rakyat also suffers from the same syndrome. While its three major component parties – DAP, PKR and PAS – are not race-based in origin, it is clear that they each draw support primarily from specific racial groups. Their approach and their response to many issues are also tainted by such racial considerations.

There is, however, a terrible danger in discrimination: it induces us to believe that each ethnic and religious community can somehow develop “separately” within the single politico-geographical entity called Malaysia. We can only build a successful national soccer team by focusing on the ability and not ethnicity of the players; yet we think we can build the country using a different racial formula.

We no longer remember that the doctrine of “separate development” has another name – apartheid – and thus, championing the cause of one’s race and religion to the exclusion of all others has come to be regarded the “right” thing to do.

That such practices seem to be lauded by the electorate is a great temptation to ditch real leadership in favour of mere populism, but real leaders must be able to show the people why they are wrong. The truth, however, is that we are too accepting of discrimination.

In the international realm, Malaysia has neither signed nor ratified the United Nations International Convention on Eradication of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, despite having served twice on the UN Human Rights Council and the fact that we are currently a member of the UN Security Council.

We “play ball” at the UN but, at home, we refuse to implement international standards on discrimination: to be clear, we haven’t signed or ratified several other UN human rights instruments, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and even the Conventions against torture and the protection of migrant worker rights.

So, although we will wax lyrical about leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and others who regard racial discrimination as offensive to humanity, we also regard racial discrimination as an important feature in the social make-up of our country.

The reason for this is systemic. Politicians have distorted the correct interpretation of the law: bumiputra privileges have become “rights”, for example, and many of these privileges have come to be regarded as permanent entitlements on the basis of Article 153 of the Federal Constitution.

As matters of government policy such privileges, as with all policies, should be freely debated in Parliament, the media and other public spaces. But not in our country.

Such debates, in the current political climate are probably deemed seditious – they can certainly take a nasty turn and promote even more ill-feeling – but we should also be aware that opaque arrangements in public policy often result in abuses of power.

As citizens, we are duty-bound to ask why, after many years of affirmative action, the gap between the rich and the poor is growing wider. Bumiputra communities such as rural Malays, Kadazans, Dayaks, orang asli and others are still without basic amenities in the country – but there is no forum for us to do so openly and instead we fear that it is against the law to ask such questions.

Likewise, the MCA and MIC are stuck in this dynamic and have little political choice but to mobilise (for example) Chinese businesses to help the Chinese community while Indians community leaders help their own.

Thus we have the three largest communities in Malaysia dedicating all their energies not towards nation building as a whole, but to their respective ethnic communities in the hope that as each community progresses, so will the nation.

This may have been an effective practice in the early years of our nationhood but if it becomes a “default strategy”, then it will betray us as a nation.

If we keep clinging to this position without thought, we cannot possibly hope to realise the aspirations of all Malaysians, which is the same as hobbling oneself before a race, and this attitude is particularly damaging because many other Asian countries have already overcome their internal differences in order to compete better against the rest of the world.

Our reliance on this default position also means that there is little internal reason for the main political parties to evolve and become ideologically free of racial and religious domination.

Even the Federal Opposition parties are grappling with what to do with themselves in this regard: PAS, for example, is a religious party that will not accept the pluralist approach claimed by the Pakatan Rakyat.

PAS wants Islam at the centre of all policies, affecting all Malaysians, but the DAP, supposedly a party that believes in a secular democracy, cannot afford to detach itself from PAS because of the votes it needs in the coming general election. Where does this leave us?

If discrimination were the panacea for all Malaysia’s ills, we need not worry about it at all. If individual communities might become better off economically, religiously and socially through discrimination, then there would be a strong argument for continuing with it.

Unfortunately, discrimination is not even justifiable on practical grounds.

No country or ethnic group has prospered with such a policy. Discrimination has freed no one from oppression – on the contrary, it has frequently caused and falsely justified all kinds of oppression.

An autocratic regime will tend towards discrimination as a means of preserving the shaky hold it has imposed on the people, but throughout history such regimes have inevitably failed as they ended up exhausting their resources.

Around the world today we are faced with growing politico-religious tension, political breakdown and partitioning into inward-looking regions, but we still have a small window of opportunity for Malaysia because we have not crossed the threshold yet.

The only chance we have to reduce the power of racial and religious discrimination is for the multiracial component parties in both the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat to commit themselves to our nation above all else. They need to abandon race and religion-based political parties and evolve into something new that caters for the values of the modern world.

We must recognise that the racial policies that worked for Merdeka must now be abandoned, because the people are evolving beyond those narrow definitions.

> Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, true to his Kelantan roots, is highly passionate about practically everything, hence the name of this column. Having established himself in the legal fraternity, Zaid ventured into politics and has been on both sides of the political divide. The former de facto Law Minister at one time is now a legal consultant but will not hesitate to say his piece on any current issue. He can be reached at[email protected]. The views expressed here are entirely his own.