Moving Past the Issue of Race

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”-Martin Luther King

62 years ago, Dato Onn Jaafar took a bold political step forward and proposed that UMNO open itself to members of other ethnicities. The United Malays National Organisation was to become the United Malayans National Organisation. Sadly, his vision was far ahead of his times and was rejected.

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Since the inception of Malaya in 1957 and the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, the political narrative of our country has been one of race. Campaigns, parties, social movements rely on appealing to ethnocentric sentiments to remain relevant.

Post 1969, this narrative hardened and played on fears of ethnic violence. To a large extent, it has reinforced barriers between Malaysians, and created a siege mentality of ‘us versus them’.

The issue of race has puzzled, haunted and fascinated me my entire life. As a child growing up in a Chinese vernacular school, I was shocked to see how some students treated Malays and Indians. Babi, keling and other callous words were thrown about by children as young as ten.

All Malaysians have witnessed this kind of blatant racism, whether by eyewitness, hearsay or personal experience. And many of us are guilty of it. As a collective, we certainly are: stereotypes are perpetrated by parents complaining of racism while being guilty of it all the same, careless comments or dark thoughts in our heart of hearts, generalizing or signing off people based on their race. No one race can blame the other and absolve itself of its own complicity.

We cannot wash away our sins in these matters. Race-based political parties like UMNO, MCA and MIC survive because of simple economics: where there is a demand, there will be a supply. These parties are both the cause and effect of our divisions: they are borne out of our own tendencies to divide ourselves and exploit them by emphasizing how we are different.

Race based parties imply that only Chinese can help Chinese best, only Malays will properly serve the interests of Malays, ad infinitum. By being explicitly race-based parties, they state they are their race first and Malaysian second. Insert quotes/ policies here The result has been a vicious cycle of spiraling communalism, of fear mongering and hate-inciting.

For perhaps the first time in the history of the nation, Malaysians have a viable alternative to race-based politics in Pakatan Rakyat. Admittedly, parties like DAP and PAS are still dominated by Chinese and Malays respectively. However, the fundamental difference is that DAP and PAS are at their hearts parties based on ideology and not race. In the past four years, we have seen a trend towards genuine multiracialism in these parties. DAP has Dr Ariffin Omar as vice chairman and Zairil Khir Johari as Asssitant National Publicity Secretary. The PAS supporters club was founded by a Chinese and  is fielding three non-Muslim candidates for the coming elections.

Now, I am not a diehard PR cybertrooper. I do not think PR are angels, and I believe that even if they come to power the rakyat should and must monitor them ever so closely since power tends to corrupt. I am also acutely and painfully aware that in many campaigns these parties continue to capitalize on racial tensions.

But the main reason why I am supporting PR is because they represent a shift, however minor, away from racialism and towards nationalism. Names indeed have power, and not having a party constitution explicitly based on race paves the way for further racial integration down the road. And as such, I am also staunchly against any move to dilute PR’s policy, non-race based brand of politics by capitulating to Hindraf demands.

In the 1990s, Mahathir famously condemned the apartheid regime of South Africa as a form of racism, oppression and neo-colonialism. (insert reference here) Here’s what one of South Africa’s greatest fighters for equality had to say:

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights.-Desmond Tutu

Come this General Election 2013, Malaysians have a chance to change the political narrative from one of race to one of policy.

To move beyond an archaic, apartheid-like system that emphasizes distinctions instead of commonalities. To go past judging and governing a nation based on identity politics and move on to policy/ ideology based politics.

I urge all of you to seize this day.

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A young Malaysian who attempts to take on the thorny (and occasionally horny) realities of Malaysian politics and its woes in his own tiny, smelly way. A person who has heard the twin arguments of "You youngsters don't care about anything else except Justin Bieber", and "You youngsters shouldn't get involved in what is too advanced for your age" and wants to disprove them once and for all ( especially the Justin Bieber part, ugh!) Read more of his posts at, or tweet him @duriandemocracy.

Posted on 17 April 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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