SO it would seem Malaysians can look forward to having yet another piece of legislation in their lives in the brand new year of 2012. This time around, the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has promised it will introduce a Race Relations Bill, to be tabled in Parliament in March.
The Race Relations Bill, according to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, is meant to replace the Internal Security Act (ISA). Presumably, this is in keeping with the prime minister’s Malaysia Day promise last year that the ISA would be abolished and replaced with new legislation.
But what exactly is the BN’s intention in introducing a Race Relations Act? And can we really trust that the government of the day knows what it is doing and has the people’s best interest at heart?
Yes! No! Yes!
Malaysians actually have little reason to trust that the BN knows what it is doing. In fact, the administration has been veering from one position to another, like a drunken teenager behind the wheel, regarding the need for a Race Relations Act.
The BN mooted the idea for a Race Relations Act in September 2008. Then Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Mohd Shafie Apdal stressed that the cabinet was united about having such a law because race relations were “not a small matter to be taken lightly”. The bill was meant to be co-drafted by Shafie’s ministry together with the Home Ministry.
Then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said the bill would be consistent with the constitutional guarantee that all persons were equal before the law. Syed Hamid, like Shafie, stressed that the cabinet had unanimously agreed on the necessity for a law to govern race relations.
But within four months, the cabinet had a change of heart. In January 2009, Shafie announced that the government was opposed to a Race Relations Act. “Race relations is something that cannot be forced upon the people through legislation … That’s why everyone in the cabinet agreed there was no need for such an act,” he announced, adding that many experts also had misgivings about such an act.
Sounds definitive, right? But fast forward three years later, and it would seem the cabinet is yet again pulling out a Race Relations Act from its gunny sack of solutions for the nation. At the end of last year, Nazri declared the need for such an act “to combat racial extremism” and promote interaction and mutual respect among the races.
And when the federal opposition raised concerns about having such a law, guess what happened? They were rapped for their failure to understand the need for it.
Any well-adjusted person who values his or her own safety would not get into a car driven by someone drunk who veers from one edge to another. And if we don’t trust a drunk driver to get us safely to our destination, why should we trust a government that acts like one?
A higher bar
Nazri has also said that Malaysia’s Race Relations Bill would be modelled after the UK’s Race Relations Act. Others have also suggested that the BN’s Race Relations Bill will be top-notch because it’s modelled on the UK’s law.
That’s funny. It’s funny because the UK’s Race Relations Act has already been replaced by the Equality Act 2010. The UK decided that it was not enough to have an act that governed only racial discrimination. It decided that it was far more important to talk about equality not just from a racial point of view, but also from the perspectives of age, disability, gender, religion, belief and sexual orientation.
So what’s really happening is this: BN leaders today talk about preventing race-based discrimination through a Race Relations Act and pretend that it’s ahead of the game by modelling UK legislation. But surely that is disingenuous when even the UK decided that its Race Relations Act was outmoded and needed to be replaced with legislation that sets higher standards for equality and justice.
And yet, we are expected to buy into the BN’s proposal and cheer the ruling coalition on for being far-sighted enough to replicate the UK. Like I said, it’s funny season. And it’s just the start of the new year!
Malaysia already has equality set as a benchmark in Article 8 of our Federal Constitution. Article 8(2) even prohibits discrimination “against citizens on the ground only of religion, race, descent, place of birth or gender”. And we do already have enough laws, and open-ended laws at that, to sanction and penalise those who stoke racial fires and threaten violence against a person or community of a different race or religion.
So, why the need for another piece of legislation when the government already has what it needs to prevent race-based discrimination and foster good race relations?
The bread war
The truth is, the BN, especially Umno, will not act against racial, and by extension religious, discrimination. It has not and will not – not in the foreseeable future – taken to task those who demand for Malay supremacy in their construct of the social contract. It has not and will not sanction Utusan Malaysia, which it owns, for the racist falsehoods and vicious conjectures it spreads about non-Malay and non-Muslim Malaysians. It has not and will not replace affirmative action based on race with affirmative action based on need. It will not remove the quota system for Malay Malaysians and bumiputera even though there are limitations for such quotas in the Federal Constitution.
Perhaps one of the most current examples of just how much people feel the state is discriminating against non-Malay Malaysians is evidenced by a racialised marketing campaign’s success in promoting Massimo bread over Gardenia loafs. So strong was the belief that a Chinese-owned company was being discriminated against that a call to boycott Gardenia loafs actually worked.
Racial discrimination and the sense of inequality among citizens are deep-seated issues that are a result of more than 50 years of BN’s race politics and an Umno hell-bent on ketuanan Melayu. Clearly, what is needed is an overhaul in the system and not just a new legislation that is suspect in intention and unknown in content.
And yet, to undo the years of racial discrimination it has itself upheld and expanded, the BN is only capable of offering us breadcrumbs for solutions. Surely, we could do so much better as a nation than to settle for just crumbs.
Jacqueline Ann Surin is not surprised the BN is trying to come across as offering just what the nation needs to prevent racial discrimination. It used the same modus operandi of being “saviour” when it offered churches money and was suddenly open to interfaith dialogue after some places of worship were torched over the use of the word “Allah” two years ago.