I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality – Ash (Alien)
Where do we begin? For a start let’s stop blaming former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad for everything which is wrong with Malaysia as though he is the sole architect of the mess we find ourselves in now. If you see someone setting a trap and you determinedly (for whatever reasons) walk into it, you have only yourself to blame. And this is in essence what Mahathir the predatory politician has been doing his entire career, setting traps for willing victims.
Let’s take this brouhaha about vernacular/mother tongue education systems being an impediment to national integration. First off, he right. They are an impediment to national integration. Culture (including language) in a multicultural country like Malaysia is the responsibility of the parent, not the state.
I’m sure many people would find heartwarming, stories about how a teacher from a different ethnic community in a vernacular school “taught” his or her students about their culture but the reality is, is a single teacher truly representative of a whole culture? The best way a different culture (in all its diversity) is transmitted to young children is if they are forced to deal with each “other” in a disciplined and well-run school environment.
But here’s the trap. Discover some emotive issue that would appeal to the baser racial impulses of a community and set it up as a prize worth fighting for. So “Chinese” education is the prize and for decades the MCA seemed like the champions of the community for making it a part of its agenda in the odious “power sharing” formula.
If they weren’t doing a good enough job, there was always the “chauvinistic” DAP to pick up the slack. This way Umno appeared to be the paterfamilias, keeping its wayward demanding children in line.
Instead of fighting for a national school system free from bigotry and an education system which was not merely an indoctrination tool for Umno and not the state, the Indian and Chinese leadership hooked on the Umno crack pipe of gaining little advantages over each other were content to champion individual communal interests instead of the ultimate prize of all-inclusive national participation.
Another example would be Islam. For years Mahathir baited PAS, who in turn questioned the regime’s Islamic credentials. What did Mahathir do? Crack down on the so called “extremist” thereby proving to the non-Malays/non-Muslims that only Umno could keep the Islamic boogeyman at bay. Whilst doing this he also begun an Arabisation process that has far reaching consequences that I fear that will make itself known in the not too distant future.
And what did PAS do? Instead of seizing the middle ground (like any shrewd political organisation would) it retreated further into its Islamic preoccupations. Now of course they realise their mistake and are determinedly if gingerly staking the middle ground (with the help of its coalition partners), leaving the “extremist” territory to Umno.
Assimiliation but not integration
National integration was never part of the plan. Assimilation maybe but “integration” implies some sort of harmonious embracing of a shared ethos, at least in this context. But neither Mahathir nor a significant section of the voting public wanted this (integration).
Sure, you could point to the flawed electoral process but the reality is, just as the 2008 elections demonstrated that a significant section of the Malaysian voting public wanted something else, pre-08 it was more or less wanting what Umno was pushing.
Understand now, that I am not questioning the quality of vernacular education systems (well at least not in this piece) but rather pointing out its deleterious effect on national integration. If I had a say in the education policy of a newly-elected regime, I would suggest that whatever is working in these vernacular schools be integrated into our national school system.
The genius of Mahathir is that he understood the limitations of the “power sharing” formula, which is the distribution aspect of the equation. He realised that if each community was constantly questioning the size of its share of the pie, Umno could easily appear to be magnanimous in its distributions so long as there were easily identifiable variables for each community which were defined by Umno.
It would be a mistake to consider Mahathir an average racist of the Perkasa variety. He’s far too self-aware for that. This is a man who very early caught on to the fact that there was a deep well of post colonialist racialist anxiety that could be tapped for the benefit of the political party of his choice.
He never hid behind any politically correct justifications for his policies, making the social and economic inequalities faced by the community he claimed to represent as something beyond their ability to overcome and exacerbated by the presence of “foreigners” who took advantage of their hospitality. This of course is pure rubbish but it is the narrative in which he chose to frame the racial discourse.
When he bemoans the fact that everyone is more race conscious in this new “liberal era”, where everyone throws about the term racist with impunity, what he really means is that in this era, nobody is afraid of calling Umno or him racist.
You see in the reality Mahathir and Umno have created, drawing attention to the systemic inequalities faced by non-Malay communities is a racist act. Criticisms directed towards the government or civil departments are considered racist acts because the majority of those who comprise those institutions are Malays. It was getting to the absurd level where simply being a non-Malay who didn’t support the government was considered a racial provocation.
And we are still falling into his trap. These days you find people more than willing to subscribe to the premise that “as Malaysians we are all racists in our own ways” as shorthand to dismiss any constructive objections to racists or racialist ideas.
In this way it legitimises the Umno/BN ideology as not a moral failing but as a failure of execution. It implies that the only route for a functional Malaysia is a racial one. Hence the usual BN plea of “give us more time” or “the Malays need not worry, because even in a class-based approach, the Malays are the majority” assurances from Pakatan Rakyat.
The difference is the subject matter
This brings us to Mahathir’s reminder to vote with our heads and not hate. And he’s right; the Umno regime is not like some of the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. And he is right that the opposition is spearheading a “hate campaign”. This is nothing unusual in politics. BN is carrying out its own hate campaign against Pakatan Rakyat. The difference is the subject matter of the hate campaigns.
While Pakatan highlights the financial malfeasances of Umno and whips up a certain section of the voting public into a frothing hate for BN, Umno uses its propaganda organs to either whip up racial discord or demonise individuals critical of government policies, which so far has not played well with the urban multicultural segment of the voting public but I hears it’s going gangbusters for a certain rural demographic.
But again he is right. Voting with your “head” means voting in the pre-08 pragmatic mode. It’s a vote which acknowledges the fear of the unknown, of what Umno could do if it loses. It’s a vote that basically acknowledges that (for all its corruption) Malaysia is not as bad as some of the dysfunctional third world countries out there and that we should be thankful.
It’s a vote for comfort in that you will never need to worry about fighting for your rights because your rights will be defined for you. And for some this is acceptable.
Now, voting with “hate”. I understand that Haris Ibrahim and Co’s ‘Anything But Umno’ (ABU) is more nuanced than its detractors make it out to be but for most people, hate for Umno means voting for anyone but them.
For some a hate vote is the acknowledgement of their own part in the mess this country is in. For some it’s an opportunity to finally chart a new course even if they are unsure of the captains they are voting for. They are willing to take that risk for greater rewards.
It is a tragedy that these are the only motives Mahathir and us, could come up with.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.