AUG 28 — It has been more than 50 years since our independence. Yet, today, we are still apparently debating how race fits (or doesn’t fit) in with our nation.
In our pre-independence days, the notion of race was probably somewhat irrelevant. We found a common enemy in the British or even the Japanese. Race then was immaterial. It was principally “Us” against “Them”.
Today, when the government even considers or decided — depending on which news report you go by — to remove “race” from official forms and document, it is big news.
No doubt, some saw the proposal/decision as a good thing. Sadly, it is not. Not when there was a caveat, or rider, printed in practically each and every report I read, that Bumiputera privileges are to remain. There are three points that I wish to make in this regard.
Firstly, there is great value in affirmative action programmes in transforming the economic and educational opportunities of its recipients. This is all the more true specifically when it is well thought-out and appropriately implemented. This was the case originally in Malaysia. Yet, somewhere along the line, we somehow appeared to have lost our way.
So much so, today, we are left to question why the privileges are applied only to one segment of the community. If we are truly intent in forging a colour-blind nation, we must keep in mind that poverty, for one, has never been and will never be the exclusive province of one particular race.
Secondly, we must recognise that any affirmative action programme ultimately is a response to a statistically evidenced state of inequity. In other words, for any affirmative action programme to continue, it must be backed up by statistical data. Yet, from the news reports on the present move, none has been presented to justify the insistence that the privileges should remain.
If we are genuinely intent on addressing the race question in some meaningful way, as the proposal/move suggests, then our affirmative action programmes need to be more egalitarian and even handed in their scope. Otherwise, we are wasting our time on mere cosmetics.
Thirdly, if we are truly intent on forging greater national unity, let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the root cause lies with any affirmative action programme. It does not.
Ultimately, all affirmative action programmes are given life by policies drawn up by our politicians. The apt question to ask therefore is whether our present political system “breeds” political leaders attuned to needs of all Malaysians irrespective of their race. Let’s consider this question from the perspective of the party presently making up the federal hovernment, i.e. the Barisan Nasional.
Clearly, the coalition is made up of a number of component parties. Umno supposedly represents the Malay interest, MCA the Chinese and MIC the Indians — all clearly pointing to the fact that our nation’s political battle lines are drawn along ethnic lines.
Of course, some might rightly ask what is wrong with such a formula. Well, what happens when we start demarcating political concerns along ethnic lines is that our political representatives are “trained” to look at issues from race-tinted lenses. Umno can’t talk about “Indian” issues as it is within MIC’s domain, MCA can’t tackle “Malay” issues as that is within Umno’s domain and so on and so forth.
Unfortunately, this is not merely confined to intra-party politics or inter-coalition politics but sometimes manifests itself in government policies. That the special privileges continue to be applied in its present form, long outliving the 15-year shelf-life period recommended by the Reid Commission, constitutes the best evidence of this assertion.
Fundamentally, the race question is actually not as complicated as it is made out to be. For Muslims, the answer to the race question is found in Surah Al-Hujurat verse 13:
“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other).”
This Quranic position is by no means unique and is in fact shared by the major faith traditions of the world.
If we look for earthly inspiration, there is perhaps none better than the knockout blow dealt by Martin Luther King to the race question. This was what he said on the occasion of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964:
“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism … that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”
Which is why for all its simplicity, it is more than a little strange that 50 years later we are still working out how to deal with the race question. No doubt there is May 13 in our nation’s history. But, to my mind, it is exactly because we experienced May 13 that we need to rise above the question of race and treat all Malaysians as fellow citizens and fellow human beings — socially, culturally, economically and politically.
After all, for every horror story that we may have heard about that dark blot on our nation’s past, I am sure you will find an equally compelling counter-narrative about families who sheltered or warned someone, who no doubt looked little a different to them, but ultimately was just as human as them.
This at the end of the day is the answer to the race question — we may all look different from one another but we are all human just the same.
Each of us deserves, as human beings of equal stature and dignity, the fullest space and opportunity to be all that we can be.
So, to the powers that be, let it be more than just a proposal/decision to remove “race” in some silly form.
Selamat Hari Merdeka!
This post is dedicated to the late Yasmin Ahmad, a wonderful soul who recognised that we are all just human and kept reminding us of our humanity. Merdeka will certainly not be the same without her.
(Malaysian Insider: 28.08.2009)
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