Quarrels will not end when it is always about race

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 27, 2019 - June 02, 2019.
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WHEN a Chinese puts up an ad seeking Chinese-only tenants to share with other tenants at his apartment, he is accused of being racist. But to the Chinese apartment owner, he is being realistic, taking into consideration, among others, halal and haram issues should a Malay share his premises with other tenants who are Chinese.

When a Malay apartment owner puts up an ad seeking Malay-only tenants, he is also accused of being racist. But to the Malay, he is being realistic, taking into consideration the fact that non-Malays would be subject to certain conditions — again with regard to halal and haram issues.

A Chinese firm recruiting only Mandarin-speaking individuals is definitely seen as racist. But the firm would justify its action by saying it has business dealings with China, Hong Kong and Taiwan where Mandarin is the main language of communication.

I would say the reasons for being selective about race in these cases are justified. But no matter what the justifications, we can be accused of racism and bigotry. This is not to say that we do not have bona fide racists among us. Of course, we do.

But just who is who? It can be a challenge to tell the real racists from the perceived ones — the folks with all the justifications.

When we hear of a bad accident with many casualties, our first thought is whether the victims are of our kind. As if it is only sad when the victims are of our race. In such an instance, are we being racist?

The Malay newspapers would probably carry the story on page one if the victims were Malay while the Chinese newspapers would give the story prominence if the victims were Chinese. So too would the Indian media. Is the media being racist as well?

We now have a controversy over remarks made by Education Minister Maszlee Malik. As we know, he defended the matriculation quota system, which reserves 90% of the intake for bumiputeras. He then linked the subject to job opportunities, saying that if the quota system is to be reviewed, so too should the requirement for proficiency in Mandarin as a condition for job-seekers.

For good measure, he threw the perceived wealth of non-Malays into the mix, saying they could well afford private universities. So, we now have a raging controversy.

This article is not about Maszlee and whether he is right or wrong. In fact, this is not about the minister at all. But if you ask me, the quota system is discriminatory (although I am reminded that the quota system is part of the special rights of Malays and bumiputeras as enshrined in the Federal Constitution) and financial means is not related to any particular race or community. But then, no one is asking.

Hence, this is about stating what the controversy has led us to, which is, generally speaking, Malays supporting Maszlee and non-Malays attacking him. A divide right across the middle involving ordinary Malaysians, academics, activists and the media.

And political parties, naturally, are all on board. Ideology and affiliation have been set side. We have the Malay parties of Pakatan Harapan and Barisan Nasional on one side and the Chinese parties of PH and BN on the other.

Which is really not surprising. Our political parties, being race-based, must be seen as fighting for the race their represent. Perhaps out of sincerity or just playing to the gallery for political mileage.

Whatever it is, there is nothing wrong in taking care of the interests of the respective races. But then, this problem is endless. Take employment. We have non-Malays asking what is wrong with non-Malay companies taking in the “nons” when the civil service continues to be Malay-dominated.

And we have questions like who started this in the first place. It all boils down to a “if you can do it, so can I” attitude. Tit for tat.

To me, it is not wrong to help one’s own race but it must not be a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Coming back to the matriculation debate, Sunway University political analyst Wong Chin Huat believes the outcry over Maszlee’s handling of the debate points to the prevailing racial divisions in the national political discourse.

To overcome this situation, Wong calls for a reconfiguration of our political reference points. That is clearly the sensible solution.

But then sadly, most things in Malaysia are about race. The words of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, which I quoted previously, put the issue into context:

“The fact remains that Malaysians are still concerned about race, although they talk a lot about unity and being Malaysian.” That is the reality we must face.


Mohsin Abdullah is a contributing editor at The Edge. He has covered politics for over four decades.



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