DATUK Ahmad Ismail is now a familiar name: his remarks about the Chinese in Malaysia resulted in his three-year suspension from Umno politics. The arrest and subsequent release within 24 hours of Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for accurately reporting Ahmad’s statement also sparked a nationwide outcry. It is within this context that a proposal was made by MCA Youth chief Liow Tiong Lai for a Race Relations Act “to govern racial relations, encourage greater unity and avoid discrimination among races in the country.”
This proposal seems to have taken on a life of its own, leading to the cabinet’s approval to formulate the Act, as announced by Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar. He said the home ministry and the ministry for unity, culture, arts and heritage will be working together to gather information to draft the Act.
The proposed Race Relations Act has elicited a range of responses, mainly positive, from those in government. Unity minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal said fundamentals of the Act were aimed at ensuring peace and harmony among the different races — the end goal of which is difficult to dispute.
Open and rational discussion
It is certainly a positive development for Malaysia to bring deep-seated issues of interethnic relations into open discussion, highlighting past and existing sources of conflict among the different races.
Indeed, this has been a necessity in the making. Since the racial riots between Malays and Chinese in 1969, the nation has never really come together in a national exercise to discuss seriously the impact of May 13 on race relations.
Statue of Nelson Mandela. Some prefer a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as in post-apartheid South Africa (Public domain)While some have called for and would prefer a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to resolve the past (such as in post-apartheid South Africa), it is hoped that the process of drafting a Race Relations Act itself will lead Malaysians towards an environment of open and rational discussion, instead of sweeping problems under the carpet as the state has been accustomed to.
However, one can only be optimistic about the Race Relations Act if certain conditions are satisfied.
First, the Act must not be used as a convenient tool to privilege the status of any one race over another. Syed Hamid has stated that the Federal Constitution would be used as a guideline, and he is presumably referring to Article 8, which guarantees equality before the law. This should certainly be upheld.
It is uncertain whether emphasis will be given to Article 153, which provides for the “special position of Malays, the natives of Sabah & Sarawak, and the legitimate interests of other communities.” If so, the Race Relations Act may set in stone the very racial inequalities that the incumbent government has been criticised for promoting.
If the Act truly prioritises equality without exception, the Malay Reservation Enactments of the States of West Malaysia and the Universiti Teknologi Mara Act would have to be revised, and it is easy to imagine a possible backlash to this. Note, however, that Article 153 includes the “legitimate interests of other communities”; hence Malays being singled out can be interpreted as erroneous.
Second, the Act, although rightly emphasising the responsibilities of different communities towards one another, should not be a silencer of open debate and dialogue. Foreign minister Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim has said the Act should be enacted to “supplement acts such as the Sedition Act, Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958 and the Education Act.”
This could be interpreted as a warning of sorts, since the Sedition Act itself cautions against making statements considered as questioning the special position of Malays. In the case of the ISA, disturbances to “national security” have been cited as reasons for arrest, even when such comments have been in criticism of actions that privilege one race over another — criticism that could ironically contribute positively towards national unity.
Third, the Act may fall into the trap of legislating the ways races behave towards one another — a fluid and dynamic relationship. The very notion of “Malay, Chinese, Indian dan lain-lain (others)” is a social construct. Historian and ethnographer Charles Hirschman in his research on Malaya found that ethnic boundaries, and the meaning of ethnicity, are extremely ambiguous. Ethnic classifications in the Censuses of the Straits Settlements and the Federated Malay States in 1881 listed up to 24 different categories, including “Achinese, Bugis, Arabs, Jawi Pekan, Aborigines of the Peninsula, Bengalis” and many others.
Map of Malaya (Public domain; source: Britishempire.co.uk)
That Malaya was a plural society is an understatement. The races in Malaysia today are a rich product of intermarriages, whose bloodlines are difficult to ascertain, and will increasingly become more diverse.
There is little truth or necessity in pointing out a “pure-blooded” Malay, Chinese or Indian in a country like ours, lest we descend into a Hitler-like enterprise of defining pure races. Racial categories blur over time, and concrete definitions become futile.
In order to avoid such consequences, and worse, a potential stalemate should these fail to be addressed, extra caution must be exercised. But these can be overcome if sufficient thought is given to the process of drafting the Act.
First, best practices from abroad should be looked at. It was stated that examples from foreign countries would be used as starting points. The United Kingdom’s Race Relations Act 1976 makes provisions “with respect to discrimination on racial grounds and relations between people of different racial groups” in the areas of employment, education, and the carrying out of trade.
If Syed Hamid’s words are to be followed, the Malaysian version should similarly eliminate discrimination in the areas of “economic, education and distribution systems.” Also, the UK’s Commission for Racial Equity (renamed the Commission for Equity and Human Rights) ensures that discrimination is minimised. In Malaysia, perhaps a Race Relations and Equal Opportunities Commission should be established in parallel to the Act.
Second, sufficient and substantial public consultation must be conducted in the drafting of the Act. The ministry of unity, arts, culture and heritage should be given priority in providing input, since national unity is the ultimate end in mind, keeping national security as a secondary priority.
Civil society, religious and community leaders, and the public should be given an opportunity to submit recommendations. When the final draft is prepared, this should be circulated widely and publicly, with time to provide feedback. One weakness in Malaysia is that legislation is drafted, discussed and passed in too short a period, and the opportunity for real debate is lost.
The ideals of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Vision 2020 have largely remained unrealised (© Hatta Affendy)Third, such a monumental exercise in having a Race Relations Act cannot be perfunctory. Malaysia is not devoid of attempts at promoting better cohesion among its races. In the past, the New Economic Policy aimed precisely at promoting national unity, but its contents and implementation have arguably failed. Vision 2020 had similar ideals, but these continue to be pie-in-the-sky, failing to materialise outside its fancy-sounding principles. The Federal Constitution itself makes for an excellent charter in ensuring equality of the races, but is often forgotten. Many of the acts that have been passed are unconstitutional, and the Race Relations Act should not fall into this trap.
Finally, the “new politics” of Malaysia this year has led us to question the relevance of race-based politics. If it is generally agreed that pushing race out of politics is ideal (leaving race to evolve within communities), then emphasis should be placed on citizenship instead.
Citizenship grants every Malaysian a right to belong to and claim equal ownership of this land. A Race Relations Act treads the dangerous line of emphasising race above citizenship, leading us back to square one.
In conclusion, for this piece of legislation to provide interethnic solutions in Malaysia, it has to be visionary, rational, and consultative. It cannot be used as a political tool, for political interests, or to advance the cause of any one group above another. Above all, equal opportunity should be granted to all Malaysians — because we are, after all, citizens of our homeland.
(© Kervin Chong)
Tricia Yeoh is the Director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies. She is a citizen of Malaysia and prefers not to tick the “race” box when filling out forms.