“Race is there. You're tire of hearing about it? Imagine how f***ing exhausting it is living it.”
- Jon Stewart
Everyone knows what I mean when I say Malaysia will never have an Obama. However, in case some do not, what I really mean is that Malaysia will never have a non-Malay prime minster. Someone from the minority will never be prime minster.
It is even more insidious; someone from a minority will never want to seek the highest office in the land, will never dream of seeking the highest office in the land and would no doubt be told never to even admit to having this dream, because even making this a political objective would invite a whole host of problems from the establishment and the opposition.
This really is not so bad. Or is it? There are many countries in the world were religious and racial minorities live in peace with the majority and sublimate their impulses for egalitarianism for pragmatic peace and economic stability. Indeed, there are examples where minority religious or racial communities oppress the majority and we all know how that turns out or at least we should know, if we bother discovering what goes on beyond our small pond.
Most opposition supporters talk about justice, equality, transparency and universal human rights and have no problem claiming that Malaysia should emulate Singapore. Oppositional politics in this country is not based on any real policy differences but rather based on the numerous corruption scandals that plague the Najib administration. It is merely the politics of opposing.
My own writings on race has most often been outlier as far as establishment or opposition propaganda is concerned. While I have always been critical of identity politics, I have sometimes, especially when in rant mode, fallen into that trap, when faced with the shenanigans of the Umno establishment and the opposition.
As I wrote in ‘Opposition politics: Our brand is ignorance’ - “As has been well-documented in the alternative media, matters of principle that Pakatan supposedly represents is secondary to vanquishing the ruling coalition. The priority here is kicking BN out first and then maybe attempting to address real questions of policy later.
“In other words, in spite of our captive minds - like prisoners who have learnt to adapt to their confinement - we have subverted the racial game that Umno has forced us to play for so long using the language of multiracialism, all the while remaining true to our racial pedigree and only paying lip service to principles which are supposed to be the basis of this alternative front.”
Nowhere is this clearer when it comes to the issue of race. Two recent pieces that essentially deal with identity politics exposes the festering wound of racial politics in South-East Asia and the politics of racial compromise that is considered normal in many countries in the region with diverse racial and religious populations.
The first one has Kholilullah Pasaribu, a researcher from Indonesia’s Association for Elections & Democracy, claiming “If someone said, ‘I am Chinese and I want to vote for Ahok (Jakarta governor Basuki ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama) because he is Chinese or Christian’, that is okay”.
Well, no, that is not okay and probably why politics in Malaysia and Indonesia are filled with the kind of overt racism that is supported by people who think that race-based politics is okay as long as elections are “clean and fair”.
The politics of race
This is the exact opposite of what rational, fact-based decision-making is all about and why someone like the late Christopher Hitchens (and yes, I am being cheeky using Hitchens in this piece with Obama in the title, considering how the writer felt about the current president of the United States or Potus), correctly points out the alarmingly stupid things supposedly intelligent people say when it comes to the politics of race:
“People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with. One does not banish this spectre by invoking it. If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of 'race' or 'gender' alone, then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favour for the identical reason. Yet see how this obvious question makes fairly intelligent people say the most alarmingly stupid things.”
The problem with this kind of thinking is evident in the corollary point where the activist said, “But if someone else said ‘he (Ahok) is a Christian and a threat to our religion’, that is wrong.” And therein lies the rub. This kind of thinking, this demonising of the other is the logical conclusion of voting along racial or religious lines. When race or religion becomes an issue, then people will politicise their choices organically drifting into stereotype and bigotry.
It is even worse when racial and religious preoccupations are embedded in our constitution. This is why Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman’s contention that Malaysia’s way forward is “a hybrid of identity- and policy-based politics” is myopic and further evidence that establishment and oppositional politics is morally and intellectually bankrupt. In other words, an egalitarian Malaysia devoid of identity politics is a dream deferred, maybe forever.
The American conservative (and one of the more insightful political commentators around) David Brooks wrote an amazing piece about ‘Identity politics run amok’ for the New York Times that should be essential reading. In a piece discussing the corrosive effects of the Trump campaign, Brooks offers two points on how identity politics distorts politics, politics that Syed Saddiq rightly quotes, “will never ignore you”.
The first point - “First, it is Manichaean. It cleanly divides the world into opposing forces of light and darkness.”
Rationality went out the window a long time ago. Appeals to emotions are the standard rhetoric. Us against them are buried beneath the propaganda of change or stability. Our constitution is compromised but nobody wants to admit to the fact because to do so would invite charges of treason or sedition. Instead, we assure ourselves that our fight for equality is justified. PAS had its ‘mahafiraun’ narrative, the DAP, its apartheid rhetoric, and PKR its righteous anger of being expelled from paradise. Nobody is interested in nuance because it gets in the way of the narrative that the Najib regime must be stopped at all cost.
The second point - “Identity politics is inherently the politics of division. But on most issues - whether it is immigration or the economy or national security - we rise and fall together.”
What have we witnessed in the political landscape of Malaysia? The Umno establishment’s rhetoric and political agenda consists of demonising the opposition while the opposition does the same, calling establishment supporters racists, ignorant and detrimental to the concept of a cohesive Malaysian polity. Any criticism of the opposition is most often met with ad hominems (racial and religious) and claims of treachery and bribery, while the Umno state wields its power to threaten and coerce compliance.
As Brooks writes, “Human beings are too complicated to be defined by skin colour, income or citizenship status. Those who try to reduce politics to these identities do real violence to national life.”
There is something very wrong with our country. Identity politics is embedded in our constitution, our politics and unfortunately it is our national weltanschauung. If we do not make the transition soon, all we will have is the cold comfort of knowing that dethroning Najib is only the beginning of our problems.
We may never have an Obama, but the road we are travelling we will continue producing our share of Dutertes.
S THAYAPARAN is Commander (Rtd) of the Royal Malaysian Navy.- Mkini