My Say: Starting a new conversation of hope for the New Year

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WHEN you are in the company of like-minded people, it’s easy to believe your interpretation of politics is right, however obtuse or absurd.  Such an illusion of validity is most evident at political conventions.  

 Under the glare of television cameras, political delegates rile the crowd from the bully pulpit.  1Malaysia and moderation fly out the window as ethno-religious centrism reinforces the groupthink.

Prejudice begets more prejudice. And so, we become what we think — not as Malaysians but exclusively Malay, Chinese and Indian, with conflicting interests. Politics of negativity feeds the mind with cynicism and deepens the distrust between the majority Malays/bumiputeras and the estimated 22% Chinese and 7% Indian population. How are the minorities a threat?

 The out-of-context inter-racial attacks from all political fronts, however irrational, are unquestioningly reported and unthinkingly slanted in the status quo media. Foreign visitors would be baffled at the dirty hands in racialising the politics of negativity instead of rationalising for a politics of hope.  Yes, a new politics of hope.  That’s what we need in the New Year.

 I remember in July 2004, lounging in an apartment in Denver watching PBS news, when I first heard of Barack Obama. Then an Illinois state senator running for the US Senate, Obama was delivering a keynote address at the Democratic Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts.

Citing those “who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters and negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes” he added: “Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or a politics of hope? I’m not talking about blind optimism here … [I’m talking about] hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope: In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen.  A belief that there are better days ahead … that as we stand on the crossroads of history, we can make the right choices and meet the challenges that face us.”

I feel we have left that crossroads.  We are swerving further to the extreme right.  Politicians and communal groups have taken the low road, each with their own blind spots in stoking ethno-religious tension when addressing the deteriorating education standards, unequal access to socio-economic opportunities, and abuse of ethnic privileges by the politically well-connected.

Historians attribute our racial division and occupational segregation by ethnicity (the Malays in agriculture, the Chinese in commerce, the Indians in plantations) to the legacy of the British colonialists’ divide-and-rule via the Malay aristocracy to keep the races apart so as to maintain social harmony and protect the colonial government’s economic and political interests.  

The Japanese Occupation of Malaya during the Second World War further polarised the country by using the Malay paramilitary to fight against the Chinese resistance groups.  The seeds of inter-racial discord were sown during the colonial times.  That’s history now.

Today, are there no visionary leaders capable of weeding Malaysia from the inter-racial constructs of the British-Japanese imperialists, and replace the old way of thinking with the new and progressive?  Are there no reformist leaders capable of charting a new roadmap to steer the country towards a fresh era where religious and racial diversities are treasured rather than trashed around as insidious threats to national security — and hence the need to keep the Sedition Act?

 Writing in his book The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006, p.63) Obama said: “Sometimes we need both cultural transformation and government action — a change in values and a change in policy — to promote the kind of society we want … I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion … we ignore cultural factors at our peril.  I also believe that our government can play its role in shaping that culture for the better — or for the worse.”

True, Obama has faced policy battles from the conservative fronts, and is going through some bad patches back home.  According to US media reports, Obama’s approval rating has dipped lower (around 40%) than George Bush’s did in his second term.

Even so, Obama exudes the fundamental values that our leaders lack.  He said during his visit here that countries would be better off in the long run if they respected the rule of law and basic freedoms “even when it drives you crazy, even when it’s inconvenient”.   

In our context, things have gotten worse since my upper secondary school and university days —from race relations and influx of foreign labour to ad hoc urban planning and systemic corruption. And, that’s not counting the rising cost of living, rising city crimes and choking traffic jams that are driving commuters crazy.

True, baby boomers who have lived through the 1969 race riots are resigned to the political reality that the racial privileges and special rights stipulated in Article 153 of the Constitution will remain to be so. The quest for political reforms, fairer and merit-based access to socio-economic opportunities will, I hope, be taken up by the millennial generation, politically enabled by online technology.

With the New Year approaching, I rest my hope on the 20-somethings who would be voting for the first or second time in the next general election to shift from the “First World infrastructure Third World mentality” to a progressive mindset that focuses on a new narrative of hope and possibilities, one that returns Malaysia Boleh to its true spirit from what it has become — fodder for social satire.

My wish for the New Year is to see new young leaders emerge from all sides of politics who will define their agenda not on the basis of race and religion but on the basis of needs, merits, fairness for all and public accountability.

We need dynamic leaders who are bold enough to promulgate policies relevant to the daily lives of all Malaysians.  What could be more welcoming than to see a group of 25 Malay public intellectuals and former civil servants taking a public stand on Dec 8 to reject the Islamic extremism stoked by “supremacist NGOs”, which “have led to the deterioration of race relations, eroded citizens’ sense of safety and protection under the rule of law and undermined stability”. I know that Perkasa and their ilk don’t represent the Malay neighbours I grew up with and the Muslim friends I have made. 

Beyond religion, what could be more relevant to achieving the 2020 goals than to review the affirmative action policies to cater for the needy and harvest the best brains from the fields of education, economics, urban infrastructure planning, law and justice, public administration, research and development. 

I believe fundamental change in the system will only happen when rational and intelligent voices from within the dominant Malay population and other races take a public stand. There’s hope.

I greet 2015 with the hope that politicians, the media and the people will hear the clarion call from concerned and rational Malaysians.  Let us be audacious enough to start a new conversation beyond race and religion.

Eric Loo teaches journalism at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia. He worked as a journalist and taught journalism in Malaysia from the late 1970s to 1986.

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 29, 2014 - Jan 4, 2015.