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Reclaiming the race debate

THE national unity debate is an unresolved one, but one that Malaysians must not tire of if they are to prevent race relations from being hijacked for political ends.

Recently, Malaysians showed they haven’t given up. Over 400 people attended a public forum on race relations by British anti-racism activist Dr Aneez Esmail on 16 June 2009 in Kuala Lumpur.

The multiracial crowd at the public forum (Lead pic on home page ©

Questions and comments from the floor came fast and furious, and at the end of the forum Aneez said he could sense that Malaysians had a “huge desire to talk about race” but that they were “constrained” in doing so.

But what is constraining us? And why hasn’t the debate gone beyond the rhetoric of Malay Malaysians being under attack by everybody else, about the unfairness of the New Economic Policy (NEP), or about the ills of vernacular schools?

Aneez spoke at the public forum and a subsequent roundtable on 18 June, both organised by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute for Ethnic Studies (Kita). One theme emerged consistently: that for a paradigm shift to happen in the race debate, the concept that every individual has “multiple identities” must be embraced.

Avoid singular identifiers

“You are never just a ‘Chinese’ or just a ‘Malay’,” Aneez told the public forum. “Just as I am more than just a British citizen, and more than just a Muslim. My multiple identities are shaped by my experiences, my work, and a variety of influences.

“The danger of defining ourselves by a singular identity locks everyone into fixed positions,” he said.

A classic example is Datuk Ahmad Ismail‘s singular identity description of Chinese Malaysians as immigrants, against another singular identity label of Malay Malaysians as natives of the land.

“The debate is not about who came here first, but the political value attached to this claim. The race debate has become about singular identity polemics because there is political legitimacy and economic value when you define yourself according to race. Ethnic identity has been hijacked by politics and is now difficult to separate,” said Kita’s Assoc Prof Dr Ong Puay Liu, who presented on identity issues at the 18 June roundtable.

Aneez Esmail
But the political and economic value of using singular identity labels is short term; it fractures the nation in the long run. Whereas embracing the multiple identities of each person will uncover more commonalities.

“A rich Malay [Malaysian] will have a totally different life experience from a poor Malay [Malaysian], even though they both have a singular identity as Malays. The poor Malay will have more in common with a poor Chinese or a poor Indian [Malaysian],” said Aneez.

As such, when talking about racial unity, the layers of identity within a single person — gender, religious belief, sexuality, marital status, income level, personality, work experience, as some examples — must all be taken into account.

What results then, is a humane approach towards national unity and institutional policies, like affirmative action, that emphasises needs over race.

Other familiar hot potato issues in the national unity debate were discussed at the roundtable as follows.

Class-based affirmative action:

The roundtable acknowledged that it was the abuse of the NEP, and not the NEP’s aim to eradicate poverty irrespective of race, that was the problem.

There was also the view that the Federal Constitution, which protects the special position of bumiputeras, need not be changed. What was needed was a return to its true spirit which includes protecting the legitimate interests of other communities.

Ultimately, the roundtable called for affirmative action to be applied equally to all who needed it.

Social activist Juana Jaafar put forth a proposal for “positive discrimination” by institutionalising quotas for non-Malay Malaysians in the civil service and corporate sector under the 10th Malaysia Plan, which begins in 2011.

Race-blind institutions and political parties

The roundtable said public policies must not be based on ethnicity or religious belief. Hiring, firing, promoting or granting of approvals should not be determined by such “singular identities”.

“As long as there is structural differentiation along racial and religious lines, national unity is a delusion,” said Ong.

Ragunath Kesavan
Bar Council president Ragunath Kesavan said race- based political parties were a form of institutionalised racism which bred “chameleons” — politicians who said one thing in a multiracial setting but stoked the communal feelings of their constituents.

A common language?

When a roundtable participant suggested that mother-tongue education inhibited national unity, Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Malaysia deputy secretary-general Datuk David Chua defended vernacular schools.

“Vernacular schools subscribe to the same education curriculum which teaches history and nation-building. Bahasa Malaysia is taught alongside other languages, so concern over vernacular school pupils’ command of BM is hardly the issue.

“Isn’t it better if one can be tri-lingual? And pupils of other races are also studying in Chinese[-language] schools,” Chua told The Nut Graph.


The government has said “no” to having a Race Relations Act, and Ragunath agrees — but only because such a law would mean “another law in the hands of the establishment to abuse” on top of the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act and other repressive laws.

However, Aneez said legislation in the British experience was necessary as it provided the framework for equality to be enforced. Further amendments to the UK’s Race Relations Act in 2000 made public bodies duty-bound to be proactive in promoting racial equality.

Beyond race, what is needed are laws on equality in all areas — gender, sexuality, religion and disability, for example. The UK’s Race Relations Act has been “superseded” by the more recent Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is empowered to investigate wider areas of discrimination.

In the Malaysian context, where discrimination is enshrined in the Federal Constitution, Ong believes it is still possible to work within its confines by turning to other provisions that uphold freedoms, such as of other religions (Article 3), and the interests of other races (Article 153).

“And yet,” she laments, “it still boils down to interpretation, which affects implementation. And there are many caveats within the constitution to some of these provisions.”

Unending debate

While happy that discussions on race were now more open than before, the roundtable also asked, what next?

“Are our hopes for the country or for our own communal group?” she says, a question that is as much for ordinary people as it is for politicians who respond to their constituents.

For the government and legislators, it is about separating cultural identity from public policy. Ethnicity cannot solely determine public policies.

And for the roundtable crowd — academic institutions like Kita, non-governmental organisations and activists — it is time to move beyond dialogue with the like-minded to preach to the unconverted. Perhaps the next roundtable will see politicians, civil servants, and the editors of certain newspapers participate in a much-needed dialogue about race and identity.

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4 Responses to “Reclaiming the race debate”

  1. walski69 says:

    In my book, there are only two races. One of them being the Human Race. Which we all belong to, last time I checked.

    Discussing the second one, however, is always where the debates begin – usually revolving around whether breaking Ferrari’s dominance in Formula One (as has been witnessed this season) is a good thing or not.

    Everything else “race” related is noise …

  2. I think Aneez hit the nail on the head when he was talking about social class. Politicians use race to get the public to forget about class. So it appears that the rural Malay Malaysian farmer and Najib want the same thing. What is good for the goose is not always good for the gander.

    Until a multi-racial group becomes stronger than a communal one, we’re going to have to keep dealing with race in this way.

  3. Collin Abraham says:

    Thank you for this posting, especially since I was unfortunately unable to attend due to poor health.As you might be aware, I have managed to put out some publications/articles on what I consider to be a pivotal causal dimension in race relations which the class factor. I am glad that some prominence was given to this at the debate.

    This comment therefore is an appeal for books articles etc in all languages to be re-published particularly where there is a strong social historical perspective. In this way a poor farmer, small own-account worker and rubber tapper will realise that what unites them vs the “rest” is that they are in the same class position.

    With respect, and in all humility, I have to say that my book titled “The Finest Hour: Malaysian-MCP (Malayan Communist Party) Peace Accord in Perspective” does try to put this message across.

    Indeed an Inclusion has been published in the Blackwell (Oxford) Encyclopedia on “Protest and Revolution” (March 2009).

  4. “The government has said ‘no’ to having a Race Relations Act, and Ragunath agrees — but only because such a law would mean ‘another law in the hands of the establishment to abuse’ on top of the Internal Security Act, Sedition Act and other repressive laws.”

    It’s clear that K Ragunath is not agreeing with the fact that the government has said no.

    But he doesn’t get to cast doubt on the entire rule of law on the one hand and, on the other, take the Brickfields memorandum all the way to the top. It’s having no faith in the political system and simultaneously wishing the same system to do what you want it to. What is he trying to prove?

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