WHEN Barack Obama first broke into the US presidential race, there were mixed reactions. Many people were entertained by his personality, charisma and progressive ideas of change. Some were turned off by his flashiness and pop-star quality. There were those who believed that an [African American] president would never happen.
I was one of those who hoped Obama would win. I believed America was ready for change, to see beyond the colours of ethnicity. I was impressed with his optimism for his country and his progressive ideas. I wasn’t entirely sure he would be the next American president, because like everyone, as much as I hate to admit it, I thought his skin colour would prevent his victory.
Barack Obama (© realjamesso16 / flickr.com)
The racial barrier was shattered on 4 Nov 2008, when Obama became president-elect. By January 2009, [an African American] president will be sworn in. A new era is achieved in the West, and the example is an inspiration.
Where does Malaysia stand in the tide of change? Sometimes I reflect on Malaysia with a hint of pessimism. I grew up with love, loyalty and respect for the country where “tanah tumpahnya darahku” (literally “land my blood spills on”). But today, it takes great perseverance to feel patriotic.
Politicians fight to the death over the concept of ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy). Some students rallied against the proposed 10% intake of non-bumiputera into a local university. Employers still put up employment adverts for “Chinese only”. [Low-income] Indian Malaysians are marginalised.
Religious authorities invade the privacy of individuals. Inter-racial relationships are still regarded with negativity by some. Meritocracy is not practised widely. Racial integration may be beyond its infancy, but is still weak at the core — this is evident from the yearly intakes at government-run varsities.
Recently, a fatwa was declared that Muslims are not to practise yoga because some aspects of yoga, such as chanting, are against Islamic principles. Women are discouraged from being expressive and outspoken, or displaying any conventionally masculine tendencies. Women are also sometimes blamed for the sexual crimes committed on them.
Speaking up against the government risks incarceration under the Internal Security Act. Open political discussions often end with incivility. Open religious discussions are almost non-existent or dominated by particular groups.
Varsity students are not encouraged to be more independent with their ideas or thinking. We are poor at being analytical when faced with adversities — especially if it is related to religion.
Despite architectural feats like the Twin Towers, Malaysia is still regressive when it comes to issues of race
(© ramasamy chidambaram / sxc.hu)
There is a crisis with the nation’s identity due to certain quarters’ insecurity about the national language. Speaking English is akin to betraying your own identity and nationality. Therefore, despite the majestic settings of the Twin Towers, it is a great irony that Malaysia is proudly promoted as a nation of progress and modernity to outsiders.
There are voices ringing for change all over Malaysia, and every year the cries get louder. We all have own our ideas of what the new Malaysia should look like. Are we ready for a new Malaysia where merit and character count for something, and not gender, ethnicity or religious belief? Are we prepared to put a non-Malay or a woman in the prime minister’s seat if that person can deliver to the people?
However, there are two setbacks that hold even the most ambitious and outspoken Malaysian back. One, our infamous apathy. Deep down, we are hoping and expecting that someone else will do the dirty work. We want someone else to voice out for us, to clean up for us. We are reluctant to take some civic responsibilities, even if it is for our own benefit.
The other flaw is our poor rationalisation skills and lack of objectivity. How many times have we skirted around an issue and resorted to ethnicity and religion as the strength of the argument? How many times have we been distracted by petty issues and lost sight of the real issues that matter? How many times have we stymied progress by suppressing people’s freedom of making their own choices? How many times have we lost sight of our common goal for the greater good?
It has been 51 years since Independence, yet we are still not free from the trappings of prejudices and the tyranny of the so-called moral guardians. Malaysians are generally discouraged from thinking for themselves and making their own decisions. We are discouraged from criticising the authorities, even when the situation demands it.
The majority of the American people have made their choice. It doesn’t matter anymore if Obama is black or white. Colour is a thing of the past. Character and personality are in. It is present and here it will stay to shape the future.
It is a pity the same cannot be said about Malaysian politics. There was uproar over a politician calling Malaysians of Chinese ethnicity “pendatang” (immigrant). A keris (dagger) was brandished as a misguided gesture to defend Malay supremacy. Petty issues about multilingual street signs become heated debate.
When crime is rampant, instead of examining how society has collapsed so much and so rapidly, politicians blame it on Western decadence or weakened religious values. The newspapers are tightly monitored and censored.
It is ironic that while Malaysians are obsessing over moral and religious values by placing them on an unrealistically high pedestal, we have forgotten how to be gracious, tolerant and understanding towards our own fellow citizens or anyone who is different from us. We have neglected to disregard gender, faith and ethnicity. The fact that we were all born in the same country and belong to the same nation seems meaningless with the endless squabbles over whose ethnicity deserves more than the other, and whose religion is superior. Equal opportunity is slowly fading into a myth.
Ordinary Malaysians want change. But how can we achieve change when prejudice is rooted firmly in our social foundation? How can we look beyond the ethnic barriers when we firmly believe in the stereotypes that we form of each other?
How can we get things to move forward when the very people we have elected into office are too self-absorbed with their own importance? The precious time they could have used to become more productive for the nation is idled away with mud-slinging at each other. Their policies are for our best interest, or so they claim.
The sad truth is Malaysian politics are a luxury that only benefits a certain class of people. Ordinary Malaysians are fast becoming bored with the endless rhetoric and propaganda.
In the meantime, Indonesia has recently passed an anti-racial discrimination bill. Racism is now considered a crime in Indonesia. All too often, Malaysia looks down on Indonesia as the poor backward cousin. Today, Indonesia is ahead of Malaysia when it comes to deterring racism.
As Leontyne Price once said, “Accomplishments have no colour”.