PEOPLE could be forgiven when watching the prime minister’s Merdeka address if they thought they had travelled back in time to 22 years ago and mistook Datuk Seri Najib Razak for Ronald Reagan. Reagan, the then US President, had urged Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. Well done for the call, Najib, never mind the lack of originality.
But who is building these walls? I use the present tense because more walls were being built even as the prime minister spoke. A new one was in fact built two days before his speech, after the globally infamous cow-head protest in Shah Alam.
Construction of the Berlin Wall, 1961 (Public domain; source: Wiki commons)
Walls are highly symbolic in politics. Driven by the fear of threats, walls offer security and protection. They are built to keep some people in and others out. Walls are the concrete expression of boundaries, which are to lay claim of entitlement and protect ownership.
The Berlin Wall was built because the East German Communist rulers wanted to keep their subjects in. They feared that ordinary East Germans would vote with their feet and leave the state of East Germany empty. They feared freedom of movement of citizens. And the Russians backed the wall because they wanted to keep East Germany and the Warsaw Pact states from going their own independent ways.
The Golden Shield Project, more popularly referred to as the Great Firewall of China, has been built for a similar reason: to protect the one-party state from free speech and free information. The ancient Great Wall of China was built to keep Hun nomads from rampaging into Han agrarian society.
Why do Malaysians build walls?
So, why do Malaysians build these divisive walls? You can’t tear down a wall unless you first address the need for the wall. The Berlin Wall was eventually torn down because Gorbachev realized that the Soviet Union just had to let go of East Germany and larger Eastern Europe.
But contrary to popular belief, Malaysian walls are not built because of the diversity in identities, or competition. Let’s just use the analogy of sports for a moment. Sports are characterised by competition, and sporting teams and their fans are passionate about their identity.
For millions of sports fans, support for football clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal is an important identity in their lives. But I doubt many would refuse to live next to, dine with, or date someone supporting another team, let alone someone who likes tennis or classical music more than football.
Of course, the majority of a particular team’s supporters won’t storm and spit at a mascot of a rival team and threaten bloodshed just to block the rival’s entry into the neighbourhood.
The protesters might wave club flags on the field, but they probably wouldn’t build walls. In this metaphorical sense, cultural identity is like a sports club flag. It is real, but does not need to be permanent or encompass every aspect of life.
A more valuable characteristic of sports club identity is that diversity and competition are very much at its core. The Arsenal fanatics may fall into depression because of their team’s disastrous defeat, but their life mission is not to destroy Man-U or convert all its supporters. In fact, it is only when you can exist alongside your rival teams that a championship can be held, and you have a shot at winning it.
Now, if religions, cultures and languages were supposed to be treasures we want to share with others, and by nature are not zero-sum games, why can’t they deal better with competition compared to sports? After all, for some people, sports are merely unsophisticated physical games.
Fear, not diversity
(Silhouettes by mzacha / sxc.hu)It is quite clear that these “divisive walls” are built by Malaysians because of fear, not a problematic diversity. Malaysians turn to their ethno-religio-linguistic communities not because we don’t share common ancestors, the same faith or the same language. We do so because we don’t feel secure being individuals. We feel that we would be threatened if we don’t have the numbers compared to “others”.
We are always in a demographic rat race, or perhaps more precisely a rabbit race of reproductivity. After all, we care so much about our own community’s reproductive rate to the extent that making love can be political rather than romantic or sexual.
When we feel frustrated by the decline of our community interests, we turn to our bedrooms and make love to produce more voters 21 years down the line, who can also alter the statistics in the next Malaysia Plan. What a wonderful alternative for democratisation or better public policy!
And is there any wonder why we are so resistant towards interethnic or interfaith marriages unless it is guaranteed that spouses and future children count as “our people” rather than “theirs”?
It’s all about the numbers. Why?
The rabbit race
Some reasons are natural. First of all, collective rights require economies of scale. If your community consists of only 50,000 people, you of course can’t expect to have an Astro channel catering to just your needs. You may not have even a Wikipedia site in your own language. So, you end up not complaining about not having your People’s Own Language (POL) class or being classified as “lain-lain” in census forms. The question is: how big is big enough to be entitled to collective rights in religion, culture and language? This question is important, because the divisive walls are not built by Penan or Orang Laut Malaysians, are they?
Secondly, democratic politics is a numbers game. If we have to divide resources by proportionality, then we need numbers, and we need walls. In fact, we will need to keep on moving our walls outwards to occupy a larger share of the territory, not unlike the Israeli-built wall in Palestine.
The third reason is arguably also reasonable but deeply problematic. We need the numbers from our own ethnic groups or our co-religionists because we are preparing for a showdown with “the others”. In this sense, the real problem with the Shah Alam cow-head protest is not about offending religious sensitivities, but the threat of violence employed.
Any mad man or woman may get up to similar antics, but there is no need for society to jump and shout. But by signalling the use of violence to draw the ethno-religious boundary — “we constitute the majority here in this area, we set the rules; you follow or be prepared for bloodshed” — we are at the edge of returning to the barbaric pre-democratic world. We would be chopping heads rather than counting heads.
Tearing them down
To tear down these walls is easy. We need only an impartial state that makes numbers irrelevant to a citizen’s right. The day a lone Eskimo Malaysian (if there were one) finds himself or herself enjoying the same rights as a Malay-Muslim Malaysian, he or she would not need to breed to advance his or her interests. He or she need not dream of a divisive wall of his or her own.
Now, is the prime minister willing to build such an impartial state that would treat everyone equally and protect everyone from private violence such as that signalled in the cow-head protest? Are the police willing to pursue the case for incitement of violence rather than the vaguely defined sedition? Is the prime minister willing to set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission to stop the conscious partisanship of our police force, which in recent months has behaved more like a police farce? If he refuses to tear down this latest wall, then he shouldn’t waste our time.
Truly patriotic Malaysians will fight to free ourselves from these walls, which the prime minister’s government and party have helped to build over the years. Selamat Merdeka!
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat is based in Monash University Sunway Campus. He is heartened by the multi-faith support for the Civil Society Joint Merdeka Message condemning violence and hatred.
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