This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 28 - October 4, 2015.
WE have recently witnessed two peaceful rallies — Bersih 4 (Aug 29-30) and Red Shirts (Sept 16).
I supported Bersih 4 because of its five clear objectives: clean and fair elections, clean government, the right to dissent, strengthening parliamentary democracy and saving the economy, which is part of the struggle in building a better future.
The Red Shirts have the right to rally too. But I did not support it because they did not have a clear objective. The only objective was that it was to be a counter-rally to Bersih 4.
When you compare the arguments of those who supported Bersih 4 versus those who supported the Red Shirts, it is very clear that the first group is more substantive. But my real concern is that the two rallies have highlighted two elements that are negative to our narrative of truth and justice.
The first is double standards. We can see the double standards in how the government and the police addressed the two rallies. They used recycled, poor arguments and intimidation against Bersih 4 but not against the Red Shirts. In fact, they gave the Red Shirts the green light to rally.
The second element, and this is more important, is heightened racism. The pro-Reds Shirts, including certain segments in Umno and the government, highlighted that Bersih 4 was dominated by Chinese. It is true that the majority of the participants were Chinese, but they were not dominating. Of the seven individuals from the organisers who were questioned by the police, the majority were not Chinese.
The fact is that Bersih 4 was multiracial in its organisers, participants and supporters while the Red Shirts rally was an all-Malay affair. An all-Malay rally does not make it racist, perhaps only racialist.
According to Dr Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, “racialism” is the promoting of race as an elementary classification of humans in public discourse. This may expressly inform government policy making or it may not, but the idea of race — however unclear — is accepted as a relevant part of much social interaction. A racialist is therefore someone who is conscious about race, and is accepting of it as an unproblematic notion. This does not make him a racist, but is a condition for it.
A “racist” in turn is someone who feels or shows disdain for others based on their racial affiliation. This may be by virtue of prescribed traits and prejudiced observations. Whatever the case, he or she sees racial divisions as moral ones. He need not think that his own race is most superior but he does tend to judge people by race. Thus, a racist individual is always a racialist.
But racist remarks and actions were clearly seen before, during and after the Red Shirts rally. Examples include the burning of the effigies of two Chinese leaders, attacks on Tun Dr Mahathir and the claim that “I’m racist, Islamically” by three Umno division leaders.
Umno must make a stand on this, otherwise, people may construe that the party condones it. This is very important because of late, there has been a lot of concern among the people that Umno and the government are moving more and more towards the right on issues and policies that involve race.
Which brings us to an even more important question — the subject of The Politics of Race (a book by Jill Vickers and Annette Isaac). It is about how state-sanctioned race discrimination occurs, and how governments use laws, policies and state institutions to make, administer and remake race to win elections and stay in power.
Because the politics of race is so embedded and ingrained, most people do not see it happening. If they do see it, they may not think it is wrong. Some are willing to accept it while some actually like it because it serves their interests.
Governments also institutionalise discourses that support the politics of race, hence the political science term “democratic racism”. It means a race regime that includes a racialist ideology as well as norms and practices that permit and sustain peoples’ ability to maintain two apparently conflicting sets of values.
But we should evaluate the politics of race, for example, by asking the following:
1. How systematic racism and race conflict originate in government.
2. How, through complex combinations of laws, policies and practices, other races have been governed through a race regime.
3. How other races are demanding inclusion, racial justice and fair share.
4. How the government responds to such demands.
5. How the people are reclaiming their fair share.
It is now time to form a “coalition of minds” that go beyond partisan politics in putting a stop to the politics of race and develop a new multi-racial political thought.
For a long time, our country has been governed by the politics of “consociationalism” — which emphasises the bargaining power between races. It is now time to move towards “centripetalism”, which is genuine multi-racial collaboration towards a more sustained system of parliamentary democracy.
Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO of Global Movement of Moderates and former deputy minister of higher education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd.