The normalisation of racism in Malaysia

JUNE 24 — In a week that saw Nik Abduh advising Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to spend his remaining years on the prayer mat seeking forgiveness, I thought I had seen my fair share of ludicrous remarks for the week at least. 

Nik Abduh has taken over his late father’s place as the purveyor of silly comments, it seems. He told Tun Dr M that the latter’s time was short and so he should spend it in worship. How does Abduh know how much time anyone has left? And why should anyone spend it solely on the prayer mat when he could be helping society? Is Abduh saying Islam is only practised on the prayer mat? If so, he should withdraw from politics and spend it on the prayer mat himself.

But even Abduh’s comment could not overshadow those by the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) or National Civics Bureau in terms of ludicrousness. BTN used to be very sheepish about its institutional racism. After all, being racist is a shameful thing. 

Around six years ago, one of its officers was caught using derogatory racial epithets to describe Malaysian Chinese and Indians. At the time, the usual excuses were given. Misquoted, misunderstood etc. Though I doubt anyone actually believed those excuses at the time, at least there was a sense of shame about it.

Fast forward to the present and BTN is actually saying that racism is good to bring about unity! There were no more excuses or being sheepish about it. This is a blatant, audacious and brazen proclamation: racism is a good thing!

I had to read the headline a few times to ensure I got it right; it had occurred to me that language may have betrayed them. Perhaps they meant “racialism” instead of “racism.” “Racialism” is the focus upon a particular racial group to benefit them but does not entail oppressing other racial groups. Call it cultural empowerment, if you will. Perhaps BTN meant this instead of racism.

Except they did not.

They actually meant racism. They contrasted this racism with the fact that other races had their fair share of human rights (notwithstanding child abduction and bodysnatching for the purposes of religion, of course). They even said that most of the wealthiest people in the nation were Chinese as if this somehow absolves us of the sin of robbing others of educational and economic opportunities.

Apparently, they had lifted this concept of racism from the Arab nationalist tendencies of “asabiyyah” which was discussed by ibn Khaldun. Perhaps, in their uncritical approach which accepts anything Arabic as “Islamic”, they failed to understand that Ibn Khaldun was a sociologist and not a theologian. 

Khaldun’s ideas were not necessarily Islam. In fact, the Quran does not condone any kind of racism or even nationalism. It sees our cultural diversity as a means of recognising one another (49/13) and that human disunity only came out of exploitative tendencies. That should sound very familiar to the BTN and their overlords, Umno.

Let us now take a rational perspective. Can racism actually bring about any benefit? The proof of the pudding is in the eating and after nearly 50 years of affirmative action supposedly benefitting the Malays, even our leaders admit that they have grown used to their crutch! Instead of developing our competitive capacities in the wider world, we have chosen to create a controlled environment full of jaguh-jaguh kampungs. Kings of the small pond who would get devoured in the wider world.

These racist policies have had a terrible effect on the Malay mindset. We have come to have a privileged mindset and a sense of entitlement. Who could forget the speech last year by a young Malay woman bemoaning her struggle to make it once she graduated? Her sense of expectation is a depiction of the mindset Malays tend to have. This does not tally with our competitiveness at all and our lack of skills, especially in English, has been made into comedy material.

Racism must be also blamed for our current lack of national cohesion. Despite people seeing this as an increase in religious consciousness, Malays have not become more religious. Rather, they have mistaken another kind of racism (pseudo-Arabic racism, to be precise) for piety. Now, we even have organisations shamelessly peddling Islamisation while claiming their Malay rights!

Having said the above, I am all for cultural empowerment and activism. I see Malay culture, like all cultures, as a treasure trove of wisdom and human experience. But its access should be for everyone, not just Malays. It is not an excuse for nationalism let alone racism. We in Malaysia are fortunate to have many cultures in one melting pot. Instead, we have chosen to be governed by racists who will tout their racism to exploit even their own people. We need to dismantle BTN and work towards national unity at the grassroots level.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.