This article is written following the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit XII and focuses on Session 1 entitled The Malaysian Dilemma: The Future of Race-based Politics.

by Arveent Kathirtchelvan

Going to the Malaysian Student Leaders’ Summit XII induced mixed emotions. From last year, the experience was expected to be about average but I guess that’s par for the course for conferences such as this. This year, though, the environment was different, a new Malaysia with a greater hope for honesty and transparency. I hoped it would translate to the content of summit itself, especially to Session 1 whose title, ‘The Malaysian Dilemma: The Future of Race-based Politics’ that saw a panel of speakers seemingly well-suited for the discussion.

These were Datuk Dr. Asyraf Wajdi, Youth Chief of UMNO, Wan Fayhsal, the Deputy Chairman of the Bureau of International Affairs for Armada PPBM, Syahir Sulaiman, the Head of Strategy for PAS Youth and YB Steven Sim Chee Keong, the Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports. Even the moderator was Dina Zaman of Iman Research whose work includes ethno-religious relations, socio-political risk, perception and public opinion. No one else could be more suited for this session.

Unfortunately, the points and arguments raised were too on-the-surface at best and insipid at worst. Particularly jarring was an issue with the demarcation between the relatability of individuals with a particular race and the same with Malaysian society. This is an old question and was worded as it always was before; ‘Are you a Malay first or a Malaysian first?’. It was hoped that the speakers would see through the historic meaning behind the question, as the terms Malay and Malaysian as used in it are loaded. As Datuk Dr. Asyraf and Wan Fayhsal started to make their points, however, it became clear that this question was misunderstood.

What had happened was, the term Malay was focused on and taken to mean a personal identity that had to do with the civilisational definition of what a Malay was. It was as though by putting forward the question at hand, it was somehow asked of the speakers which one is more important to them, their personal identity as a race or their identity with respect to other Malaysians. This was not the case as the question focuses solely on the latter; that is the identity of Malays with respect to other Malaysians, whether they see themselves as alongside other races or separate from them.

It is a given that personal identity is in integral part of an individual and every Malaysian deserves to know and have theirs. Even the Indians and Chinese have strong cultural links that do not translate to national ones. In other words, Indians and Chinese identify with their racial elements, including superficial elements, such as clothing and food, and deeper elements of character, like how to treat guests, but have no desire to extend that identity to India or China as they feel Malaysia is their home.

This shows there is no interconnection between personal identity and the feeling of belonging together as Malaysians. To be fair to the speakers, this is exactly what they had pointed out but I feel it was disingenuous to simplify the question to one that is trivial. A better approach would be to recognise the usage of racial and religious overtones to undermine certain Malaysians’ claim to their own nation. As can be seen amongst Malaysians on the internet before and directly after GE 14, until now, an unease at greater non-Malay participation within Malaysia’s administrative offices. Where does this come from? Why is it felt that only Malays could take care of Malays in a political sense? More importantly, why does the governance from these officials felt to be not in line with how Malaysia should be? In fact, the speakers could have then extended this question to include how non-Malays tend to live in closed off communities as well, further demonstrating how much work there is to be done in bringing Malaysians together.

Simply put, the question does not imply a cultural homogenisation akin to Indonesia, nor does it necessitate the loss of a race’s or civilisation’s roots. It is a simple question of perceived position within the social strata of Malaysia. But this type of squirreling has been seen before to justify an organisation’s claim to power in the past. For example, UMNO has said time and again said that if Pakatan Harapan was to form the government, Malay rights and protection would not be upheld, further legitimising their claim to power. This is a fear-mongering tactic that even intellectual Malays rely on as justification for race-based protectionism. The reality is much less terrifying. Identity politics is unnecessary for the safeguarding of one’s identity. Malays can remain Malays, Chinese can remain Chinese and Indians can remain Indians. But for unity they must see each other as equals and work on the issues pertaining to the country as a cohesive unit rather than squabble about their own circle of influence.

This is not to say there are no racial problems, however. Malays continue to make up most of the B40 and there is a high involvement of Indians with crimes. But these are socio-economic issues and trying to solve them by empowering a whole race makes little sense. It would be much more straightforward to solve the underlying causes of a race’s misfortunes rather than placating them with empty platitudes. For example, a brilliant observation made by a participant during this session was that the housing discount benefits received by Bumiputeras help those who can actually afford them rather than those who would need them. This further exacerbates the separation of classes and economic inequality within the Bumis themselves. If, instead, these kinds of benefits were based on socio-economic considerations, more Bumiputeras who actually need it would be helped. Simply pointing to past tribalism and scriptures to justify the need for race-based politics shouldn’t fly when it is inefficient and ineffective. Moreover, this also ignores the glaring race supremacy rhetoric often used to justify these policies.

Moving on, Wan Fayhsal also mentioned that UMNO and PPBM should not be seen as race-based political parties, but parties who are ideological, focusing on Malay nationalism and Malay conservatism. Unfortunately, Wan did not elaborate on what is meant by these two terms, so it is difficult to understand from what perspective he is seeing these two parties bringing value to Malaysian society. Hence, what could have been a worthwhile thread of thought to listen to is reduced to another example of using complex jargon to sound meaningful. Leaving this aside, where does Malay nationalism fit into Malaysian society? It is a strange thought to focus on, where nationalism focuses on the identity and culture of a nation, yet the notion of Malayness is thrust into it. Does this mean Malaysia as a nation should be defined through the lens of Malays alone? How relevant is this in a multicultural society where different races are not immigrants but are born and bred here?

In the past, Malay nationalism was essential to band Malays together to fight off colonisers and build a free, sovereign nation. In this sense, UMNO was definitely a positive force once before. However, the notion of a Malay nation now needs to be treated carefully to include equal ownership for non-Malays and, essentially, this is not a Malay nation anymore, it is one of equal ownership. Without this, the notion of Malay superiority will always arise. Wan Fayhsal’s PPBM should be careful not to be blind to the failures of consociationalism, especially when they have such a recent example in BN and UMNO. Where they can fit in is in bringing the Malay community that now sees politics in a racial lens closer to one where values and ideology matter more than the colour of one’s skin. A cosmopolitan Malay does not need a political party based on his race to thrive.

In closing, there’s a lot of work left to be done and our intellectuals should tackle that workload with honesty and sensitivity to the underlying issues so the questions asked are not answered for the sake of answering but are used to explore deeper underlying assumptions present within society. Major props to the surprisingly good Syahir who was very clear in stating the desire to move forward from race-based politics and also the importance for parties like PAS to focus on showing their work in governance rather than only hukum. It was a refreshing macro outlook that is different from the usual, insular arguments we are used to from PAS. Best of luck to them in governing Kelantan and Terengganu. YB Steven Sim was good as well in representing the non-Malay, non-Muslim view but it was clear the focus of the arguments were on the representatives from UMNO and PPBM, both of whom, sadly, disappointed.

The content of this article is comprised solely of the writer’s own opinions and does not reflect the stance of CEKU as a whole.

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