Race relations in Malaysia: The background

Playing the race card
by KK Tan

tives of the NEP, fully understanding that, if unaddressed, social and ecoRACE – the final frontier. It’s when nomic inequalities along racial lines different racial groups vie for mas- would destroy our society and that it tery over the rest. Racial or ethnic was in the interest of all to uplift the conflicts, if not resolved or managed economic status of the Malays. The properly, can often result in human controversy, however, was sparked suffering, wastage of resources, by the implementation of NEP polistagnant or negative economic cies by overzealous officials who growth and social backwardness of interpreted the rules according to the countries concerned. their whims and fancies. Another Playing the race card has often group, largely politically well-conworked, which is why it is being nected bumiputras, used the NEP used so frequently whenever there as a means to enrich themselves. is the slightest opportuWhile the NEP had nity and when diversion, been a partial success Beyond divide and rule, and in fulfilling its objecscapegoats are needed. tives, its implementation Race The main justification created serious misgivA new perspective used for racism or racialings not only among ism has always been the many non-bumiputras perceived superiority of one’s own but even among those in the burace. miputra community who felt they There is no such thing as a ge- were being marginalised. netically superior race as there is The misgivings, frustration only one human race. All humans and outright sense of injustice today are descended from the same engendered by the often capricious species of Homo sapiens that origi- implementation of the NEP only nated in Africa about 150,000 years served to further fuel the already ago. The exodus from Africa to the fraying balance of race relations rest of the world began around in a political system where parties 60,000 years ago as explained in were based on race and ethnicity. the National Geographic documenThe system had served the tary, The Journey of Man: A Genetic nation reasonably well in the first Odyssey, by Dr Spencer Wells, a decade after Independence, even to renowned geneticist. We all share the extent of subsequently enlarga common origin and are related at ing the ruling coalition to include some point in prehistory. ostensibly multiracial parties. But Some races might appear to be the fundamental philosophy of more culturally “advanced” in their governing through race-based historical evolution and develop- components meant there was little ment due to an earlier acquisition room or opportunity for the growth of knowledge in areas such as of genuine multiracial parties. agriculture, maritime travel and And it soon became apparent weaponry, better access to resources that ethnic-based political parties, and raw materials (often by force) which may be useful in championand sometimes, plain luck such ing the cause of their races, would as their geographical positions of also inevitably provide a sanctuary having availability of water and food for extremist elements who would supply and the absence of natural not hesitate to become “champions disasters. Cultural advancement, of of the race” as they sought to gather course, is purely subjective. electoral support to move up the Let’s talk about racial unity or party’s leadership ladder. rather disunity in Malaysia. The While some may view the fedproblem in Malaysia is more about eral governing coalition as a single racialism or communalism rather multiracial party, the March 8, 2008, than overt racism. We are very general election demonstrated that much a culturally, ethnically and an increasingly educated and wellreligiously diverse society, yet the informed citizenry no longer accepts richness of our diversity, instead of this paradigm. In fact, the elections being promoted as a strength, has and their aftermath appear to have often been exploited for parochial shown that the federal coalition is political objectives. merely the sum of its ethnic parts, The bedrock principle governing rather than a multiracial whole. Rerace relations in this country has inventing these race-based parties been the “social contract” which into genuine multiracial ones will was agreed upon by our nation’s take some doing, given the network forefathers just before independ- of their power bases and structure ence. There has been much debate developed over the years. There is, of course, another, recently on its various interpretamajor factor impacting on race tions. What is clear and stated in the relations in Malaysia. Yes – religion. Federal Constitution is the provision Race and religion are closely interof special position of the Malays twined in Malaysia. The sensitivity with which issues and other indigenous people and the position of Islam as the official related to religion are handled by religion. The other races, however, the authorities play a major role in would be granted full citizenship determining whether race relations and enjoy freedom of worship and in Malaysia settle at a level of amity and respect – or serve to further other universal rights. In 1971, the New Economic undermine the delicate social fabric Policy (NEP) was drawn up, with of our multiracial, multi-religious, a policy thrust aimed at eradicating multi-cultural and multi-linguistic poverty regardless of race and re- land. The cabinet’s decision last structuring society to do away with week on child conversion sent a identification of race with economic positive signal on how such issues function. The NEP also made clear should be handled in future. that no race should feel alienated or be left behind, and it was to be implemented through the adoption The writer is the CEO of a thinkof affirmative action policies. tank and strategic consultancy firm The majority of Malaysians based in Kuala Lumpur. He can be accepted the principles and objec- contacted at

The problem in Malaysia is more about racialism or communalism rather than overt racism. We are very much a culturally, ethnically and religiously diverse society, yet the richness of our diversity, instead of being promoted as a strength, has often been exploited for parochial political objectives.”

Race relations in Malaysia: The current scenario appears on Monday