In the period leading up to the last general election, Malaysians were told that race relations were a priority and that we would see a lessening of racial politics in the governance of this nation if Pakatan Harapan (PH) were allowed to install a new government in Putrajaya.
This was implicit in the coalition’s stated commitment to inter-racial and inter-religious harmony. Its manifesto further declared, unequivocally, its desire “to work with everyone to pursue a continuous agenda of reform in order to create a future that is better and beneficial to all — developed, peaceful, harmonious — that is guided by shared values such as knowledge, liberty, truth, social and economic justice, pride, civilisation, unity, merit-based society and democracy”.
The apparently worsening state of race-relations in this country has led many to conclude that this was an empty election promise, and that the current government is no better than the previous one in its willingness to exploit race and religion for its own political advantage. The flashpoints of the current heightened state, and the focus of the discussion, are the controversy surrounding Zakir Naik and the introduction of khat (Jawi) in national schools.
I think that we owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at the situation we are in.
Race relations have been in an alarming state for more than two decades now, as race and religion increasingly became political currency. As corruption increased, and governance became nothing more than a means to an end for a corrupt political elite, nation building was effectively ignored. The marginalised became even more so, a large section of the Malay population figuring amongst them.
A valuable vote bank, this latter group was placated with employment in the civil service and financial incentives, measures aimed at buying support rather than sustainably alleviating their burdens. This was justified on the basis that these measures were aimed at protecting them from “the others” who were hell-bent on taking control for their own selfish needs, and who were intent on undermining Islam.
Who amongst us has forgotten, or forgiven, the naked manipulation of race and religion by the Barisan Nasional (BN) in the 2013 general election? The election campaign, one of the most virulent we had seen, featured full-page proclamations in The Star that a vote for the DAP was a vote for PAS. The irony is not lost: PAS has now tied up with Umno and BN and they are attempting to placate non-Malays about their political intentions. We have to be honest with ourselves. Race relations had hit an all-time low during Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s leadership. This was a prime minister who, pushed into a corner, endorsed Utusan Malaysia’s vile headline “Apa Lagi Cina Mahu” even as he castigated the Chinese community for the political tsunami it had brought about.
Against this backdrop, it would not be fair to characterise race relations as having worsened since the PH took over the federal government.
However one looks at it, the current administration practises a more open form of government, one that has deviated from its predecessor’s brutal suppression of painful truths. The continued use of the Sedition Act, which I am opposed to, does not detract from this truth. An objective assessment of the use of that Act since GE14 shows that it is only statements against Islam and the Malay Rulers that have been made the subject of police investigations.
This more open form of government has brought into the open issues that were previously kept hidden behind a veil of authoritarianism and anti-democratic laws. This has stimulated valuable public discussion about things that hitherto were treated as sacrosanct. It is heartening that amongst those expressing outrage over Zakir Naik and the use of khat are a significant number from the previously silent majority, allowing viewpoints to be seen as issue rather than race or religion-centric. This clash of opinions is essential for participatory democracy to flourish in this country as it reflects a willingness to evaluate, as suggested by Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Shah, “based on rationality and facts, and not on sentiment and emotion”.
This process is not going to be without its problems. Malaysians are finding their voices, even as we come face to face with the reality that we do not necessarily say the same things, notwithstanding our cultural or religious similarities. Furthermore, after a long period in which we existed in a fictional reality held together by constraints that suited the self-serving agendas of a political elite, we are finding out what the true reality of Malaysia is. That reality, in my view, will surprise us as we discover how much this country, and our fellow Malaysians, means to us.
To quote the Sultan of Perak further, this journey of self-discovery, one that will lead us to a more mature democracy, is not going to be without its “growing pains”. Change has to be managed and there will, quite understandably, be those who will resist it for reasons of their own.
This will give rise to the kind of hate speech we have been recently hearing.
I believe that there is a need for the government to recognise that the freedom of expression guaranteed by it is essential to the establishment of the mature democracy that we aspire to. Having said that, I equally accept that unbridled hate speech in the public domain is a threat to public order and the security of this nation. This is more so for the fact that race and religion are easily harnessed for political end, and there are those who seek to further a sectarian agenda.
This is dangerous as the link between hate speech and violence is well established by experience across the world. The risks are simply too great to be swept aside, more so given the speed and extent of publication that social media allows.
The government must therefore take steps to address that risk.
To an extent, the answer lies in constitutionally consistent hate speech laws, laws that proscribe abusive or threatening speech, or writing, that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation. The Sedition Act does not fulfil this need. It is unconstitutional, not least for removing due process and the right to fair trial, and does not fairly and reasonably bar hate speech by anyone against everyone.
Such laws are, however, not enough. The government needs to recognise that those who seek to incite require a fertile environment to succeed, one in which there are fears to manipulate. Hate speech thrives on disenfranchisement and resentment caused by more complex root causes. Such speech is more usually the manifestation of such fears as the marginalised lash out.
The government must therefore acknowledge the existence of a trust deficit amongst Malaysians, one that has left them vulnerable and scared. Some fear being left behind, unable to compete in a newly declared meritocracy. For them, race and religion are the last bastions of hope. Others fear that political agendas will come to dominate and the government will revert to type in its efforts to persuade the majority Malay voter base of their political relevance.
It is unsurprising that the Zakir Naik and khat issues are perceived as political flashpoints. Looked at from one angle or the other, they speak to all these fears, and are grounds for more. The naked attempt by the Umno-PAS pact to exploit this situation has engendered concerns that PH will cave in and resort to race and religion to sway a wavering Malay voter base, even if that has the effect of undermining non-Malay support.
The efforts by Bersatu to increase its Malay-centric influence, including the acceptance of former Umno members, further fuels that worry, as does the deafening silence of coalition partners on racially slanted attacks on the DAP and its ministers.
The need to rid us of the politics of race and religion cannot be overstated. As tempting as it may be to resort to race and religion for political gains, this strategy only defers what needs to be done, even as it furthers sectarian agendas. With the establishment of the government by PH, many had thought that such strategies would become a thing of the past. This meant a lot to many a Malaysian, who thought that it was time for something new. The disappointment expressed by so many over the way in which the Zakir Naik and khat issues were handled speaks to the hope that many had felt.
The government must stay the course and show us that there are better ways of doing things. Policies, economic or otherwise, aimed at improving the quality of life of Malaysians, the Malay community included, are clearly preferable. Such policies fit comfortably within a worldview of Malaysia that many share — Malaysians have no difficulty with the implementation of genuine affirmative action programmes designed to help the less fortunate amongst us. I was heartened to read of the special Cabinet meeting over the Malaysia Day weekend and the Shared Prosperity Vision 2021-2030.
Policies that assist Malaysians transition into the future are crucial to the well-being of this nation. It is vital that the marginalised, Malays amongst them, feel that they have not been forgotten and that they will be aided in the journey forward. This is important to re-establish the community ties that were in place at the time of Merdeka.
In this vein, it is central to any vision of shared prosperity that the government faces up to what United Nations special rapporteur Professor Philip Alston has said about the poverty line in Malaysia. The truth should not be sacrificed at the altar of expediency. Some Malaysians live with the effects of generational poverty. We cannot afford to downplay the wider implication of hardcore poverty on society, amongst them, extremism of one form or the other. Civil society has been saying for a while now that the government must show the political will to face up to the issue.
It is equally critical that the government demonstrates its leadership on this subject. It must reach out to Malaysians regularly to explain and show how it is seeking to transform their lives for the better. After all, the government exists to serve the people of this country.
Malik Imtiaz Sarwar practises law in Kuala Lumpur and is an opinion leader on constitutionalism and the rule of law.