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Political structure militates against racial harmony

COMMENT It is only after some major incidents of racial tension or conflicts that there emerges a chorus asking for efforts to address and resolve the elusive question of national or racial unity. This is probably true in many places including Malaysia.

The clarion calls to address problems of national or racial unity have been perpetual in Malaysia. Anyway, these are to be expected after what happened at Low Yat Plaza recently, where a simple theft of a handphone nearly brought chaos and destruction to Kuala Lumpur.

After some initial hesitation, the strong hand of the police brought the situation under control and arrests are taking place to nab the “troublemakers”.

This larger problem of a lack of racial unity must be addressed by those in power and those whom the people have given a mandate. Of course, individuals, leaders of organisations and members of the opposition are expected to mitigate the worst effects the pernicious effects of racial and religious tensions.

From the time of the May 13 incident in 1969 until today, Malaysia has witnessed a number of incidents in which race and religion have reared their ugly head. In fact, in most of these ugly incidents, religion has merely reinforced ethnic divides.

No consensus on harmony

At the conceptual level, the mere talk about racial or national unity seems to be problematic. There is no national consensus on what lines national or racial unity can be forged.

There is a fundamental difference between the BN and members of the opposition parties on how harmony could be forged.

While Umno in BN wants unity in the context of Malay dominance or hegemony, the opposition parties like DAP and PKR might want a system that does not privilege one ethnic group against the others.

PAS' version of unity is based on the primacy of Islam and it is most unsuitable in Malaysia, which is multiracial and multireligious.

The issue of racial harmony has gripped the nation from the colonial period until the present. After political independence, the formation of a racial coalition merely sought to postpone the problem.

Moreover, the organisation of politics along racial lines merely reinforced the problem of racial disharmony.

Divide entrenched in politics

The basic character of Malaysian politics has not changed even after 59 years of political independence. More and more, politics seems to be predicated along the lines of ethnicity and to some extent religion.

Given these lines of political and organisational demarcation, it is highly doubtful that the present government “trapped” in the vicious circle of ethnicity can provide answers to the perennial quest for national or racial unity in the country. 

The present ruling regime, the grand coalition of BN with the superordinate presence of Umno, is hardly in a position to resolve problems of national unity. The coalition lacks the vision, strategy and leadership that are crucial to take some “quantum” leaps in the direction of a racially harmonious society.

Moreover at the ground level, beset with financial scandals, corruption and abuse of power Umno hardly has the legitimacy to tackle national problems.

It can be argued further that Umno's dependence on race and religion to maintain its predominant position would militate against any genuine efforts to address the ethnic question.

The police arrests of some individuals for escalating the brawl at Low Yat Plaza clearly indicate they have close nexus with Umno.

Status quo needs dismantling

As for the opposition, it might have a way out of the present racial imbroglio. However, for the moment, given the dispute between DAP and PAS, the formation of an opposition coalition with the addition of new partners needs to be sorted out before the next general elections.

How can we have national or racial unity when the seeds of destruction of this noble pursuit seem to be deeply interwoven with the ideology and practices of political parties in BN? Umno, with it close nexus with extreme organisations, can hardly be trusted to address this national problem.

Unless and until the very structure of the present basis of political organisation is focussed and dismantled in an internal  political process, exhortations by politicians and members of the society for peace and harmony might be just ephemeral.

P RAMASAMY is Penang deputy chief minister II and Perai state assemblyperson.

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