Amid UiTM furore, Malaysians told to have ‘honest’ talk about race

Human rights lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said the Bumiputera-only UiTM regularly crops up when the issue of race is raised in Malaysia, but said reactions alone to such issues are not helpful. — Picture by Firdaus Latif
Human rights lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said the Bumiputera-only UiTM regularly crops up when the issue of race is raised in Malaysia, but said reactions alone to such issues are not helpful. — Picture by Firdaus Latif

KUALA LUMPUR, June 2 — Malaysia needs to start a candid discourse on race and religion instead of postponing the uncomfortable conversation to a better time that may never come, said a lawyer while controversy rages over a call to open Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) to non-Bumiputera.

Human rights lawyer Fadiah Nadwa Fikri said the Bumiputera-only UiTM regularly crops up when the issue of race is raised in Malaysia, but said reactions alone to such issues are not helpful.

“Because we don’t need reactions, we need honest conversations about all these difficult issues. When are we going to talk about all these issues?

“Because before the election, we were told ‘don’t talk about all these issues, race politics, don’t talk about it, let’s change the government first’,” she told the forum, noting that the reason given to discourage such discussions after a change in federal government was the need to then focus on the 100 days of Pakatan Harapan in power.

Fadiah noted that many people’s lives are affected by a lot of the issues which are deemed controversial and too sensitive to discuss in Malaysia.

“A lot of people are discriminated on a lot of grounds — race, gender, religion, nationality. If we don’t talk about these issues, that means we are allowing oppression. So we have a responsibility to talk about all these issues,” she said.

But she said such dialogues would also require Malaysians to first internally examine themselves.

“But we have to be honest with ourselves — if we have internalised a lot of resentment and hatred,” she said, adding that the change that Malaysians go through should not just stop at a change of government.

“We also have to change the oppressor that is planted deep within us.

“Because the government is not going to do that for us, they might use that against us — because division is necessary to maintain power,” she said.

She listed various sensitive topics that must be discussed, apart from race and religion, which included structural inequality and the position of the homeless and poor.

“When we talk about investment, economic development, what does it mean to the indigenous people for example? They can’t live their lives because we impose our definition of development on them at the expense of marginalising their lives and their future,” she added.

She was part of a panel discussion titled “Malaysia’s Democratic Wave: Expecting the Unexpected” held at Universiti Malaya, with the other panellists being University of Nottingham Malaysia’s Prof William Case and International Islamic University Malaysia’s (IIUM) associate professor Khairil Izamin Ahmad.

The discussion was part of the “Post-GE14 Conference: Making Democracy Deliver” organised by alternative history project Imagined Malaysia, along with organising partners Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and Universiti Malaya’s Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMcedel).

Also at the same conference was a second discussion titled “Is democracy a 'weapon for the weak'?”, in which Universiti Malaya senior lecturer Rusaslina Idrus spoke about the Orang Asal or indigenous community of Malaysia.

Rusaslina noted the combined Orang Asal community from Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak was an estimated four million people or about 13 per cent of the Malaysian population.

“We know that the Orang Asal have been historically marginalised and oppressed. It's time we redress this past injustice and recognise Orang Asal rights in Malaysia,” she said, adding that lip service was insufficient and mechanisms should be introduced to secure the community's rights and address structural inequality.

Having noted a need for society to change its mindset by viewing the Orang Asal community as “equal partners” and citizens of the country, Rusaslina also urged the public to show support to the Orang Asal community.

“We as the public need to step up. The Orang Asal came to attend Bersih rallies, women's rally, GST rally.

“Where are we when they are out at the blockades? Where are we when they are out defending our green lungs?” the trained social anthropologist said.

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