Malaysia has been independent from British colonial rule for 59 years, but we still lack freedom in other areas of life.
We are not free from racial politics.
As an ordinary citizen who was born after Merdeka, I didn’t choose the race-based political system that has been in place for almost six decades since independence.
The idea of creating a government based on race, instead of ideology (conservative/ liberal), just doesn’t make sense, as if we’re supposed to have certain exclusive rights by virtue of our skin colour. Perhaps the formation of political parties based on ethnicity was necessary back then during the pre-Merdeka years, but the conditions during the transition from British colonialism to independence no longer apply now.
Implicitly, we recognise that racial politics don’t work anymore, but some of us still hold secret prejudices about those of other races. We hear of discrimination against Malays in some private companies, as well as discrimination against non-Malays at government-linked corporations (GLCs).
My ethnic Chinese friend told me that in the private company he works at, the Chinese dominate middle and top management. The Malays are only department admins.
But he also told me that he had failed to get an entry level position in the communications department at a GLC, despite having 1.5 years’ experience in the field. The job went to a Malay fresh graduate instead who couldn’t speak good English.
Then there is the continuation of race-based affirmative action policies that fail to address the impoverished non-Bumiputera. In terms of education, even though Malaysia supposedly abolished racial quotas for entry to public universities in 2002, we still hear reports of non-Malay students not getting their desired courses despite scoring perfect marks in their exams.
As ordinary citizens, if we truly want Malaysia to move beyond race-based governance, we must be prepared to acknowledge and eradicate our prejudices, shed our privileges and embrace equal rights for everyone. The poor need help, but the upper middle class and the wealthy don’t need privileges.
Political parties themselves still cling on to old beliefs that “rural” and “unsophisticated urban” voters, in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s words, want the “comfort” associated with Umno’s racism.
I refuse to believe that most Malaysians, “rural” (as if they’re a homogenous group) or not, will automatically vote for a candidate just because she comes from a party that’s exclusive for their ethnic group. I believe that voters care about things like health care, public transport, and human rights, and would actually be interested in a candidate’s stand on various issues (beyond corruption).
We are also not free in our religious practices.
Christians here aren’t allowed to call their god “Allah”, even though fellow believers in the Arab world are free to do so. The authorities occasionally seize the Malay translation of the Bible and other Christian religious materials. Muslim women get arrested for not wearing a tudung or for wearing so-called “tight” clothes during Ramadan, while some Muslims are labelled “deviant“ just because of their liberal beliefs.
We need to liberate ourselves from narrow-mindedness and learn to trust those of other faiths. Genuine goodwill won’t come from ad hoc interfaith dialogues or walks, but only from years of mingling, going to school together, and living in the same community so that we’ll be truly comfortable with each other.
Unfortunately, this will only be more difficult as our communities become more segregated and our children no longer have friends of other races.
We are not free either in saying what we want.
A senior citizen gets arrested just for sharing a picture, in a WhatsApp group, that supposedly insults the prime minister. A music video lampooning religion getsNamewee handcuffed, while a Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) senior official with a “Datuk Seri” title who’s accused of corruption gets to cover his face and have his hands free. How can offending someone be treated as a more serious crime than stealing millions from the people? Offending someone should not even be criminalised at all.
The point about freedom of speech is not so much that we want people to go around saying stupid racist things; it’s about giving such people the liberty to say what they want so that this same freedom extends to others who have articulate ideas that will help society progress. We can’t draw the line between them because what’s offensive to one person may not be offensive to another.
We have had almost six decades of self-determination to decide how we want to steer the country. We’ve made progress in some areas, but we lack (and even regress) in others.
Independence is not just freedom from colonialism; it’s liberty in thought. And we still have a long way to go before truly embracing such freedom.