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No more playing the race card

(© Julia Freeman-Woolpert /

ARE things really so bad that Malaysians need a Race Relations Act? Some might say it’s the politicians who need to be legislated, not the average Ali, Ah Chong and Muthu who, even if not the best of friends, would refrain from making racial slurs in public.

But such a law has been proposed, and we are now grappling with the question of what form or shape it would take. Some argue that until constraints like preferential policies for Malays are resolved, the law would not be anti-discriminatory and, therefore, pointless.

Others, mainly those from the government, envision the law as one that places limits on statements concerning race and is proactive in building better ties among the people.

What this piece of proposed legislation will look like is still speculative as the idea was only recently mooted. But things have reached a point where many feel that racial integration, interaction and discourse have to be protected by law or be left to the wolves.

Dealing with tensions

According to MCA Youth chief Datuk Liow Tiong Lai, who was the first to announce the proposed act on 14 Sept 2008, the cabinet identified it as a possible solution to deal with future tensions caused by racist statements.

Liow: The act must not silence non-Malay groups
The cabinet, says Liow, who is also the health minister, began discussing the matter after the furore caused by the “pendatang” and “penumpang” remarks by (now former) Bukit Bendera Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Ismail during a ceramah on 23 Aug in the run-up to the Permatang Pauh by-election.

The remark, which was reported by a Chinese daily and picked up by the other media, triggered a firestorm of protests from the Chinese community and political parties, including Gerakan and MCA, which ultimately pressured the Umno supreme council on 10 Sept into suspending Ahmad for three years.

“The cabinet talked about it and agreed that Malaysian politicians should stop playing the race card. Whatever the Chinese community says about Malays, the Malays will find out and whatever Malays say about Chinese, they will know because of the internet,” Liow told The Nut Graph in a phone interview.

Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal said at a press conference on 16 Sept that the race relations act would be “more specific” in dealing with uttered words rather than the current broad ambit of “posing a threat to the country” under the Internal Security Act.

Whether this means that the ISA could supplement the future race relations act is unclear; even the home affairs minister doesn’t have it quite figured out yet.

“Generally, the idea is to create an environment of good relations between the races on the basis that our diversity is our strength. What I know from acts in other countries is that they put down the principle and basis for good race relations, and if there are breaches, there is the penal punishment for it,” minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said at a press conference on 18 Sept.

“The act will also be comprehensive in that it will build positive race relations. It should not just punish but shape a harmonious Malaysian society.”

Syed Hamid and Shafie’s ministries are working together to draft the act.

Thinking before speaking

It’s fine, if not a little factitious, to pass legislation telling Malaysians to get along with each other and instituting programmes for them to work at being harmonious.  

Syed Hamid
Syed Hamid: The act will not be solely punitive but will promote
racial harmony
But it’s worrisome if the proposed law could end up regulating speech to the point that communities will be unable to speak up for their interests.

“The act should not silence the non-Malay races to speak up for their own concerns; that would be wrong and better not to have the law at all,” Liow says.

Gerakan Youth chief Datuk Mah Siew Keong holds a similar view. “The proposed act should stop people from going overboard with race rhetoric but balance is also needed so as not to curb democratic space for people to raise their views or concerns,” he tells The Nut Graph.

Mah says the act should not be the sole solution in governing race relations, but instead should be complemented by other means such as the code of conduct for Barisan Nasional politicians, which was proposed by Gerakan acting president Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon on 3 Sept.

The act, which could define efforts to strengthen inter-racial harmony, could also supplement other laws, such as the Sedition Act, Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958, and the Education Act, as reportedly suggested by foreign minister and Umno supreme council member Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim on 20 Sept.

A jarring contradiction

In the Malaysian context, debate on the act will inevitably stumble over what to do with the New Economic Policy (NEP) and the special position of the Malays enshrined in the Federal Constitution.

Syed Hamid said race relations laws in other countries will be referred to in the process of drafting the act. He specifically mentioned the United Kingdom Race Relations Act 1976.

P Ramasamy
P Ramasamy wants meritocratic policies first
However, the British law is clearly anti-discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, ethnicity and national origin. It covers the fields of employment, provision of goods and services, education and public functions.

Asked whether such a model would be feasible for Malaysia, Syed Hamid said: “It’s too early for you to say it’s not suitable.”

Two academics, one now a politician, argue that the only kind of race relations act worth implementing is one that truly guarantees the equality of all Malaysians.

Prof Dr P Ramasamy, the Penang deputy chief minister and DAP deputy secretary-general, says new policies that ensure meritocracy in civil service recruitments, government contracts and education must first be in place before introducing a race relations act.

“Their (the government’s) idea of a race relations act seems self-defeating from the start. Only with fair policies can you then have a legislation that people can resort to.

“My starting point on how to improve race relations would be to ensure that all Malaysians have equal rights,” the former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) political scientist tells The Nut Graph.

Universiti Malaya law Associate Prof Dr Azmi Sharom concurs. “It is pointless unless you deal with the big issues of employment, education and government treatment. And you cannot deal with these until you decide what you want to do with the NEP.

“The danger here is that once we start talking about this, you’ll end up bringing in Article 153 (of the Constitution that protects the special position of the Malays), and that will be misconstrued as hate speech. So given this current context, a race relations act could do more harm than good,” Azmi says.

Azmi Sharom: The act may do more harm than
good (Source:
When will the country reach a stage when these things can be discussed without prejudice? MCA’s Liow feels it is important to test the waters early.

Asked about the constraints posed by the NEP to the act, he says: “Policies can change over time. Nothing is meant to be stagnant. People are now more globalised. We should look forward rather than maintaining the status quo.

“I expect this debate to be controversial, but we must look ahead. It’s still early, so it’s good to have debate and public input on this proposed act.”

A middle way?

Race relations should take a conciliatory approach and on this premise, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria thinks the NEP should not be a constraint.

“The NEP in its essence is about poverty eradication, irrespective of race. The special position of the Malays in the Constitution is not about ethnic superiority, but their being disadvantaged in certain areas. And while race is a key factor, inequality is also a class issue,” says Denison, who is also principal research fellow at UKM’s Institute of Ethnic Relations.

He observes that the race-related complaints which have come into the open do not begin in direct opposition to the position of Malays, but are only later distorted as such.

“Non-Malays only raise questions when their own rights are violated in cases of demolition [of temples], custody and property rights in a marriage, and claiming the body at the point of death,” he tells The Nut Graph in an interview.

Therefore, the proposed act should allow for a race relations tribunal or commission with legal powers to hear, mediate and resolve racial disputes. Denison proposes that the government set up a consultative committee to explore this option.

He envisions the tribunal as a mechanism to address the grievances of those who feel marginalised or abused because of their race. It would have the power, like the Consumer Claims Tribunal, to hand down decisions.

Denison proposes a tribunal to mediate racial
dispute (Pic courtesy of Denison Jayasooria)
Disputes such as the right of the Bar Council to hold a forum on the impact of conversions on non-Muslim spouses, allegations concerning the azan issue made against Seputeh Member of Parliament Teresa Kok, teachers using racial slurs on their pupils, racist speech by politicians, even grievances raised by the Hindu Rights Action Force are some of the cases which could be heard by the tribunal, Denison explains.

It would give both sides in a conflict the chance to be heard and, in the process, the tribunal could promote better understanding and education of cultural differences. It could also be an avenue for Malays who complain of discrimination in private sector companies run by other races.

“The scope of the tribunal would have to be worked out in relation to existing laws and to other procedures related to the internal disciplinary measures of government departments. But the idea is to resolve conflict from the start, because after that, a lot of it is not really race-related but it becomes a matter of pride or saving face,” Denison adds.

This would be similar to the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality, which has the power to conduct formal investigations besides doing research, education and providing assistance to any organisations on managing race relations. Other examples Malaysia can look to include the New South Wales’ Community Relations Commission which has a crisis management plan to deal with communal tensions; and the Race Relations Conciliator office in New Zealand which has procedures to handle complaints, and also to promote appreciation of human rights.

With no shortage of progressive models to emulate, the question is whether the political will in Malaysia is strong enough to see it through.

(Source: Department of National Unity and Integration)

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2 Responses to “No more playing the race card”

  1. D Lim says:

    Why bring a race legislation in after all these years of playing the race card? To change public perception of current race politics? At the end of the day, it is the actions of the politicians which count, whether they are conciliatory or divisive. I am very very skeptical and will reserve judgment until something concrete has emerged.

  2. bob teoh says:

    Good piece Debbie, with so much work going into it. The question is: Will another piece of legislation mean anything when Umno lawmakers and politicians themselves are the source of racists remarks?

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