Malaysiakini Opinion

Reforming racism: We need bridge-building, not exorcisms

Nathaniel Tan  |  Published on  |  Modified on

COMMENT | Malaysia finds itself standing face to face with an unprecedented opportunity - a blank canvas, on which we must decide what to paint.

Option one is to repaint the picture that was there before. Option two is to start afresh, and seize this chance to transform and evolve our national narrative.

Perhaps the most central question at the heart of our social fabric is the question of race.

While we often hear talk of politicising race, the Malaysian story has been defined by the racialisation of politics - resulting from the overwhelming power and influence of race-based parties constantly making every issue about race.

Having a new government at the helm for the first time ever, we must ask ourselves: Do we want to continue this obsession about race? Or do we want to leave it behind forever?

If it is the latter, we must ask ourselves a more difficult question - what is the best way to deracialise Malaysia?

Are urgent exorcisms what we need?

One approach that seems quite popular in this euphoria, is to rush to burn down all vestiges of institutional racism - to perform an exorcism, as my esteemed fellow columnist and friend Kua Kia Soong colourfully puts it. 

This approach prefers words like “eliminate” or “get rid of”, and strikes me as a somewhat heavy-handed, top-down approach.

It would appear that Hindraf 2.0 (apparently not to be confused with Hindraf, or the Human Rights Party) is employing a similar line of thinking, calling for the institution of government-imposed quotas for Indians in areas such as government contracts, license allocation, and university admissions.

The funny thing is, if you replaced “Indians” with “Malays” in that sentence, you will have the exact same racist system that we were apparently fighting in the first place.

Replacing racism is not about replacing the race in the sentence, it is about replacing the words “government-imposed quotas”.

Kua’s more-balanced article similarly calls for the doors of bumiputera-dominated institutions to be flung open, as a remedy to their endemic “complacency and mediocrity”.

A ‘stupid’ spade vs a ‘challenged’ spade

There is a lot of value in calling a spade a spade. As Bersatu strategist Rais Hussin says, it is after all a time for honest politics

Whether you call a spade “stupid” or “challenged” undoubtedly has no bearing on the fact that the spade remains a spade.

It does have a bearing, however, on how the proverbial spade is going to feel about you.

I know it’s fashionable to make fun of political correctness, but sometimes there can be many benefits to foregoing an aggressive approach in favour of a patient and subtle one - not least of which is the fact that it may actually promote, rather than detract from, your actual goal.

The biggest bogeyman line Umno has played for years and decades is that the opposition wants to take all your Malay rights away.

It is a simple tune, but it has been strikingly effective.

Just imagine the optics if one of the first things the new government does is to open Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) to non-Malays, or shift quotas for bumiputeras to other races instead.

The happiest people in that equation will not be the non-bumiputeras, but the Umno ultras - for whom Hari Raya will apparently have come early.

Especially without the need to be shackled by any pressing electoral concerns, this gives those ultras all the ammunition they could possibly have dreamed of to go off on their racist, fearmongering rants - telling everyone they were right all along, and the (former) opposition are in fact puppets of the Chinese working to take everything away from the Malays.

The backlash from UiTM alumni in response to Hindraf 2.0’s call to lift racial restrictions for UiTM admissions is but a mere inkling of what else may come.

This is not moving forwards. This is moving backwards.

Hearts and minds

Ultimately, most of us share similar sentiments to Kua and others with regards to the end goal of what Malaysia’s institutions should look like.

I think a little patience in this process can go a very long way however.

I believe that ultimately, what really matters has little or nothing to do with government quotas at all.

What really matters is the heart and minds of the rakyat.

I watched a talk by British educationist Kenneth Robinson recently, and was struck by a point made regarding how change can be made.

Speaking about education, Robinson argues that effective change cannot be made from the top down by a government in command and control mode, but only from the ground up. 

I believe this applies prominently to the question of racism in Malaysia.

From the ground up

My (Robinson-inspired) view is that the government can encourage change, and create the climate for a united Malaysia, but that ultimately, it is the racism in individuals - more so than in institutions - on which change pivots.

In other words, obsessing about immediate change in the policies of our institutions may be putting the cart before the horse.

Given our history and sociopolitical context, perhaps the wiser approach is a softer one - one where the government’s first priority is to create an atmosphere in which Malaysians of all races feel first and foremost that they are not under threat of any sort.

This involves helping Malaysians across the board see one another as fellow Malaysians, rather than the BN-encouraged view of ourselves as opposing races always in competition.

Ultimately, while an institution can have racist policies, only individuals can be racist. The real battleground for any genuine reforms regarding racism will always be in the hearts of each such individual.

Once we win the battle there (and it may take some time), the deracialisation of our institutions will be a natural, easy process - and one, more importantly, that will be led from the ground up, rather than imposed from the top down.

Our hidden beauty

We all know just how badly we have thirsted for change, for so very long.

That said, having made it this far, I think we owe it to ourselves and our children not to “tergopoh-gapah” (be haphazard).

Now is not the time to try and burn down all the things we hate, just because the people we preferred won the elections.

Now is the time to reach out to those who feel they lost the elections, and find out how we can bridge the divides that have separated us for so long.

Doing so requires patience, and reflection regarding how we can change not only the external hardware of our nation, but the software of the people that shape it.

If we can do that, then I believe the new painting on our still-blank canvas will finally reflect all of Malaysia’s true, hidden beauty.


NATHANIEL TAN is eager to serve.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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