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Unity through division

WE need more division in Malaysian society. We need it to foster oneness.

It may be pessimistic to think that the goal of inter-ethnic harmony will never be achieved otherwise but the fact is, large-scale relations in our society are still organised exclusively along communal lines.

Discount badge, 10% for government servants, 7% for bumiputerasOne need only look to the proposed “unity” talks between Umno and PAS, and the latter party’s about-turn on bumiputera quotas, despite the Pakatan Rakyat (PR)’s stated aim of dismantling the New Economic Policy in its current form. Ethnicity remains the operative framework which governs politics at the federal level, even between parties with different ideologies.

It is undue emphasis on this single component of our identities that stifles the growth of a truly Malaysian consciousness. Ultimately, we cannot escape from this narrow and all-too-familiar racial lens when interacting as a group, even though we might profess otherwise as individuals. Undoing racial groupthink, especially one as well-entrenched as ours, is difficult. It is certainly very unlikely, if not impossible, for this to come about through platitudes and feel-good campaigns like 1Malaysia.

This type of top-down call to progress assumes that we are capable of sweeping change, that we can replace wholesale our existing paradigm with a new one. Unfortunately, the reality is that societal change this big almost always occurs in incremental fashion. To dismantle an established order takes time and persistence, what more when the hypocrisy of those promoting it is obvious for all to see.

Of course, when the impetus for change is great and constant, such a task appears achievable. Nowhere is this more evident than in the run-up to the 2008 general election. PR deftly capitalised on the groundswell of resentment at the Barisan Nasional (BN)’s misrule and helped translate that into votes which went towards denying the BN government the supermajority it was accustomed to. It was a glimpse of a Malaysia not riven by race, and there was real hope for change.

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Rais Yatim giving a speech, 2008
Rais Yatim (© Wan Leonard /
Fast forward 15 months, and the opposition coalition appears to have lost steam. One could argue that it would have unraveled much sooner had the Perak crisis not forestalled the current state of affairs by once again providing PR with a common cause to rally around. Lacking that same pre-election urgency and a raison d’être other than their mutual contempt for BN, the three disparate component parties have drifted apart. PAS has returned to its default setting — ethno-chauvinism — even going as far as to propose that the non-Muslim PAS Supporters Club be divided along ethnic lines.

It becomes clear then that it is not possible to get people to change their mindset simply by telling them to think differently. This is particularly true when there is no hint as to what the alternative might be. So how do we move forward from here? The answer is not something new. Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has already intimated the way forward. Whenever he rails against the malfeasance of BN “cronies” and argues for equitable and race-blind distribution of government aid, he nudges the way forward. That way forward is, of course, class consciousness (with apologies to Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Utama Dr Rais Yatim).

Ian Buruma
(© Larry D Moore
/ Wiki Commons)

It is true that Anwar never mentions class directly. In an interview with Ian Buruma, Anwar said he disliked the word “class” due to its Marxist connotations, an understandable concern in a country that has seen its fair share of communist-perpetrated violence. Yet it remains a very real thing, and cognizance of it offers us a way out of the morass of communal politics in which we have been mired for the past 52 years.

Disguising inaction

It may seem counter-intuitive to propose that we foster the imposition of a new kind of division over the existing one. Yet, only through this class disunion will we be able to achieve ethnic concord. If race is the column of our self-identification, then class is the necessary row that cuts across it. And until we are able to successfully add this new parameter to our one-dimensional matrix of social relations, we will always be in danger of mistaking class issues for race issues.

As it is, this tendency to misidentification has been, and continues to be, well exploited by the powers-that-be for political mileage. The most obvious example, of course, is Umno’s consistent framing of social inequality as a racial issue when it is clearly a function of class. It is this sort of racial bigotry that finds expression in blanket policies which penalise whole communities in the name of equity. Meanwhile, it obscures the true nature of the problem — equal access to opportunities for social advancement — and at the same time disguises government inaction as action.

We remain trapped in a cage that looks suspiciously like the one the British built around us during the colonial era. It is strange that, while we now recognise their divide-and-rule strategy as an insidiously clever way to control the local population, we are unable to see those selfsame bars around us now. We may have swapped masters but the system remains the same, and the only ones who gain from sustaining it are those that stay in power by availing to deep-seated prejudices we currently have no alternative to.

The rest of us only stand to lose. For that reason alone, if nothing else, we must begin to learn to see ourselves in a new, class-conscious light. Favicon

Yow Hong Chieh holds a BA and believes we need to cut the cake differently.

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