“Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss.”
– George Orwell
Maybe irrelevancy is conducive for rediscovering one’s cojones, but Gerakan Youth deputy chief Andy Yong’s contention that the Malays do not need their crutches any more deserves attention, more so because it comes at a time when the Umno state has demonstrated that non-Malay voices in its coalition do not matter.
However, we do have to unpack this statement. While politicians like to bandy the term “meritocracy” around as a panacea for all that ails this country, I do not think that “reconsidering” Article 153 necessarily means embracing meritocracy as a replacement to race-based policies. Furthermore, Yong uses two very different concepts – “meritocracy” and “egalitarianism” – when attempting to solve the racial component of Article 153.
Defining those concepts is beyond the scope of this piece but what is important is the fact that this late in the game, Gerakan is attempting to resuscitate old ideas that Harry Lee famously battled a long time ago. Mind you, I am no fan of the late Singaporean strongman but Article 153 has damaged the Malay community to the extent that most young Malays I talk to who either support or oppose the article are engaged in a toxic battle of identity that will eventually destroy this country.
Moreover, while it is easy to dismiss – threaten, harass and intimidate – non-Malays who question this particular article of our constitution, it is worse for Malays who oppose or argue against it. As race and religion are intimately entwined in Malay politics and identity, the idea of jettisoning one or the other, or even discussing such, is verboten to the majority of voting Malays in this country.
In addition, let us be honest, this idea of affirmative action for the majority is really constitutionally-sanctioned discrimination and racial supremacy, which is anathema to any kind of functional democracy.
However, what is unsettling is that everyone knows this, most certainly those non-Malay component parties of BN. This is why Yong, in an attempt to point out the hypocrisy of Harapan and Bersatu, also exposes the hypocrisy and mendacity of BN that the majority of Malaysians supported all these years.
When Yong claims – “That is to say even if Pakatan Harapan or Bersatu were to lead the federal government, discriminatory policies will remain under the so-called compromise of Article 153” – he is acknowledging that the system is built on discrimination and nobody, certainly not BN or the opposition, is willing to change that.
Which is why I keep saying this – “I would argue (and have) that there is not really a sense of ‘ketuanan Melayu’ in the general Malay community but rather a ‘ketuanan Umno’ that has been the dominant expression of ‘Malay’ nationalism.”
(An example of this would be the 12 percent Umno discount in my article ‘Not all Malays are created equal’ – “I know a few former and current influential Umno members and the difference between the two is that the latter are completely out of touch with the conflicting sentiments of the average Malaysian but more importantly of the average Malay. You could chalk this up to the divergent Umno cultural differences or maybe as I have argued before that sycophancy is rewarded in the so-called Umno Baru. Nowhere is the ‘class’ difference more apparent than in the recent expose of land deals by the Pakatan Rakyat administration in Selangor, where nobody is shocked to discover that Umno groupies are given a 12 percent discount when they purchase property “cultivated” by Umno.”)
Therefore, while Yong cynically uses the opposition’s lack of cojones and willingness to pander to Umno’s lowest common denominator, what is lost is the reality that the financial scandals of this country are merely the symptoms of the disease and not the disease. By not addressing the issue of Article 153, and all that it has wrought, all the opposition is doing is treating the symptoms and not the disease. On the other hand, maybe that is the point – keep the game going instead of inventing a new one.
At the crossroads
This is why I found prisoner of conscience Anwar Ibrahim’s piece in the Guardian fascinating. Well, to be precise that paragraph where he presents the stark choices before us. He says – “This has put Malaysia at a crossroads: it can either return to its rightful place as a shining political and financial star in a developing world desperate for such successes; or it can descend to the role of yet another Muslim-majority country with a failing democracy and economy.”
The first road, the one of success there is nary a mention of race and religion. Indeed, those concepts are anathema to a functional society. What binds us and makes us stronger are not ideas such as race and religion but other ideas that inspire, cultivate and nurture a cohesive society with majoritarian values that reflect a willingness to embrace instead of reject.
The second road, the road of failure that seems more likely with each passing election cycle, is clearly defined as a “Muslim” failure. Anwar may as well have said “Malay” failure because race and religion are not mutually exclusive when it comes to the majority in this country. Perhaps he was being politically correct or perhaps, drawing attention to another failed “Muslim” state would elicit the kind of international concern that gains traction in publications like the Guardian.
It matters not. What is important is the acknowledgment by the man who has been part of the system, ignited a complicated compromised rebellion and is paying the price now, drawing attention to what ultimately will decide the fate of this country. This of course is the idea that the kind of Islam promulgated by this regime is failing this country and that policies meant to “elevate” Malays are in reality subjugating them to a kleptocratic regime.
While the deputy prime minister warns non-Malays not to interfere with Islam and various Umno potentates cautioning everyone not to challenge Malay rights, it becomes imperative that we do just that. We have to move the conversation beyond the Umno paradigm, but unfortunately, this will never be.
As a British diplomat once said in an unguarded moment, there has been too much investment by everyone in the Umno/Malay identity. Everyone* benefits from it, so besides a violent Islamic struggle, there will no real change, he said.
(*And by everyone, he also meant foreign governments and multinational companies.)
I would argue that for some Malays, race-based policies is not a “crutch” but a “limb”, and abandoning them is akin to amputation.
S THAYAPARAN is commander (rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.