If Umno is not racist, why does it maintain an indoctrination agency like the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) which inculcates in young Malay minds the idea of Ketuanan Melayu and wariness of the other races? (For more on the BTN, read Dr Azly Rahman’s chapter On the Problem of Ketuanan Melayu and the Work of the Biro Tata Negara in the book Multiethnic Malaysia.) – Kee Thuan Chye on Oct 18, 2009

The raging public furore over the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) underlines the naked inability of all component parties of the Barisan Nasional (BN or National Front) to restrain and moderate the unhealthy inclinations of a former Prime Minister.

It is now known that since the late 1980s the publicly-funded BTN, also known in the English language as the National Civics Bureau, has been allegedly indoctrinating Ketuanan Melayu or racial supremacy among Malay Malaysians. Worse still, the BTN, funded by our taxes, has also allegedly been instilling hatred against Chinese Malaysians.

In the movie entitled The Power of One: Rainmaker, it was stated very clearly that ‘an ideology that attacks those who least threaten it will not outlast its own generation.’ In this instance, Ketuanan Melayu can only be justified if the Chinese Malaysians are conflated into one identity that it never was, is or will be.

Clearly, the Chinese – forget for a while about those in Malaysia – are linguistically divided into various dialect groups, economically divided into various social classes and religiously divided into as many religions as can be found in the world.

In Malaysia, it is an unstated rule for years on end since Merdeka or Independence in 1957 that there was a distinctive division between the Malaysian-born or Peranakans such as the Babas and Nonyas on the one hand and the sin kheks (or new arrivals) on the other, although the sands of time have papered over this cleavage.

Clearly, the Chinese have been dissipated along lines that mark their different dialect groups, social class and religious inclinations. So, except for their supposed cultural affinity, how does a Chinese community threaten any one when there is no community per se?

Nevertheless, according to a recent Malaysian Insider report headlined Inner details of BTN reveal past transgressions bylined Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, the BTN has allegedly been stereotyping the various races as if each is a single entity, demonizing Opposition Pakatan Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) leaders as spies for the Jews, demonizing the Opposition Democratic Action Party as a communist party with close ties to Singapore and demonizing the Opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) as Islamic militants.

Here is the classic case of naming, blaming and shaming people as a ‘group’ without any perceived member of the group present and without those named, blamed and shamed having any recourse to respond at all. Where has the idea of upholding the pride and dignity of every Malaysian gone? Awry? And why? And even so, at the very expense of each and every Malaysian tax-payer, oblivious to the fact that has been recurring for perhaps twenty or more years!

And here comes the crunch. In another report headlined Dr M transformed BTN to a super-racist agency, says former director, The Malaysian Insider quoted Datuk Johari Abdul, a former BTN director who is now the PKR Member of Parliament for Sungai Petani, as stating that ‘it was former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who transformed the BTN into a full-fledged racist indoctrination agency.’

Originally, Datuk Johari said, the BTN was headed by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, then a civil servant. Abdullah, now a Tun, left the Malaysian public service for the political arena where he eventually succeeded Tun Dr Mahathir as the 5th Prime Minister on Oct. 31, 2003. Tun Dr Mahathir was Prime Minister for 23 years from July 16, 1981.

It is well known that today, Tun Abdullah has become the arch-rival of his predecessor after being hounded out of office on April 3, 2009. Tun Abdullah enjoyed the second shortest tenure of five years and five months among the Malaysian prime ministers to date.

The 2nd Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak bin Hussein, was in office for five years three months from Sept 22, 1970 till Jan. 14, 1976. His untimely demise shortened what political observers agreed would otherwise have been a long tenure. The 3rd Prime Minister, Tun Hussein Onn, was in office for five years six months from Jan 15, 1976 till July 16, 1981.

Since Independence on Aug 31, 1957, the West Malaysian-based parties comprising the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, together with the trend-setting United Malays National Organisation (Umno), had ruled the then Malaya as the Alliance until 1963 when the federation was enlarged into Malaysia by including Singapore and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

In 1976, the Alliance, already incorporating the East Malaysian political parties since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, was enlarged into the Barisan Nasional (BN) through the inclusion of hitherto Opposition West Malaysian-based parties such as the Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia and the People’s Progressive Party.

That the Biro Tata Negara had been transformed in the late 1980s – obviously, after Tun Dr Mahathir consolidated his grip on the premiership following the resignation of his first Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam on March 16, 1986 – without even a hint of opposition from these BN components constitutes eloquent testimony to the naked inability of all component parties to restrain and moderate the unhealthy inclinations of a former Prime Minister.

This cowardly acquiescense to the existence of this ugly ogre standing in the way of our nation-building efforts for perhaps twenty years or more must be contrasted with the forthright courage of those who have exposed this detriment.

Among others in my thoughts are ordinary Malaysians such as petroleum chemist and environmental pollution-control specialist Mariam Mokhtar who hails from Ipoh and describes herself as someone who ‘values change but respects culture’ and Pas member Suhaizan Kaiat who revealed that the party had as early as 2006 pushed for a revamp of the BTN.

Ordinary Malaysians must thank other Malaysians who have courageously spoken out against the hatred and indignity that was freely spewed out during the courses they attended. Ordinary Malaysians must recall what a former High Court Judge, Datuk Ian Chin, said when he exposed the existence of a ‘boot camp’ in The Star on Nov. 29 last year.

Among other things that Datuk Ian Chin said on the eve of leaving the Bench on Dec 1 last year was that ‘former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had made thinly veiled threats against Judges at the Judges Conference in 1997.’ The former Judge said Dr Mahathir threa tened to sack Judges who did not support him, although Dr Mahathir subsequently denied the claims.

At least two more dignitaries come to mind: former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz. Both have been forthrightly courageous in wanting the revamp of the BTN. Tengku Razaleigh recalled how he was victimized and demonized when he was in the Opposition Semangat ’46 in the October 1990 general election.

Datuk Nazri, as a current holder of political office, at least has the guts to call a spade a spade, despite having to contend with the likes of Tun Dr Mahathir.

Amidst all these exchanges, what must not be lost on Malaysians is that the culture of public service that used to be the hallmark of these BN component parties has been more than compromised by our relentless march towards authoritarianism.

From the time of our 1st Prime Minister, our beloved Bapa Merdeka Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, our political leaders had begun as our protectors in a democracy. They were also the protectors of our democracy. Over the years, there has been a succession of leaders.

Have some of our leaders become our predators in an authoritarian system? Has the pagar jaga the padi or has the pagar makan the padi? Put in the English language, has the fence guarded the rice grains or has it eaten them?

As a nation, we enjoyed the checks and balances of power in our democracy, we rejoiced in the rule of law and we thrived in the doctrine of proportionality. Indeed, we Malaysians bathed in the fragrant juice of all the freedoms that democracy offered – freedom of faith, freedom of association, freedom of expression, et al.

We enjoyed the politics of consultation, compromise, cooperation and consensus just as we rejected the politics of confrontation, conflict and chaos. Our political parties were fundamental expressions of our democracy. Like all democracies, our political parties are supposed to be bottom-up democratic bodies. Have they now become top-down authoritarian outfits?

As in all democracies, these bottom-up bodies complement the role of our top-down civil service. Therein lies one of the secret intricacies of democracy. Therein also lies the way to ensure that the system does not produce the excesses of other systems that rob their people of their pride and dignity.

After March 8, 2008, Malaysians know the power of their ballot. Through the informed exercise of the ballot, we ensure that the dignity of all our fellow Malaysians is respected. This respect for fellow Malaysians must never be trampled upon, as it was trampled upon when the wind of arbitrariness blew off the candle that epitomized the life of Teoh Beng Hock.

Indeed, the dignity of any Malaysian, however humble he or she is, must always be upheld. And it can only be upheld if we Malaysians reject the hatred and indignity that the present BTN represents and put in its place the love and dignity that this nation must embrace.

Mr Stephen Tan Ban Cheng is a 59-year-old journalist-turned-lawyer with a small practice in his hometown Penang and is a keen observer of Malaysian and world politics. He graduated with double degrees in law and political science from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, at the age of 48.

4 replies on “Pagar Makan Padi”

  1. Feedback for you, author, do some research on Chinese languages, dialects and accents amongst all before you write. It helps. ;-)

  2. It is no secret that this despotic Government practises divide and rule ~ muslims against others, Malays against non-Malays. They are also a gang of thieves, robbing and plundering the country. Citizens of this country should never buy their bullshit about the NEP and Ketuanan Melayu.

    They may shout Ketuanan Melayu till the voice turn coarse and do some keris waving for dramatic effect, but in reality it is all about Ketuanan UMNO.

    This country is at an abyss. The only hope is a new Government. Voters, do what is right for the country.

  3. The common Chinese individual or even society find it hard to accept a Malay as part of the community.


    I believe this is so because the Chinese have been marginalised by the govt and that very frequently the Chinese find that they cannot qualify for this and that… because it is only for Malays.

    In situation like these, resentment and differentiation just automatically seeps into one's psyche. Hence the repulsion of the community subconsciously as this community is equated with racism , oppression and biasness.

    When the govt stops selective discrimination, such feeling will evapourate with time.

  4. The Chinese Community may once divided along regional cultural and racial lines but by the emergence od the republic and the one system of MAndarin education form China in the 1920s had within 30 years by the 50s made the various Chinese communities identify as one community. The common experience of those who came after 1920s through out the 30s of the various cultural untity movements including the shared victimisation of Japanese occupation glued the Chinese coomunity together.

    The peranakkans were the exception. Insulated from the fires of cultural chauvinism that was gaining ground inthe 50s and 60s Malaysian Chinese society,the peranakkan remained aloof to these changes. However woth the demise of the British Administration and the Preanakkans leaders choose to lead the Sinkehs, they could no longer ignore the aspiration of the Sinkeks who not just insisted that peranakkans lose their hybrid identity for political survival but assimilate completely into the CHinese Sinkek Community.

    The threat was real one that you could not imagine. You just have to ask why the BNP is begining to make inroads in Britain when Britains non white population are suc a minute portion of their population.

    The Chinese couldnt stomach having a differentiated minority such as the perananakkans and soon most have disappeared within 2 generations.

    The problem with the Chinese is that they still have problems defining their Malaysianess with their Chineseness.

    You may be able to observe that on the ground level, common malays have no problem accepting the CHinese as part of the Malaysian land scape only theit political leaders do otherwise. The common Chinese individual or even society find it hard to accept a Malay as part of the community.

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