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Is It Racist to Talk About Race?

Is it racist to talk about race? Yes, it is. And for Muslims, not only are they racists, but also “fasiq” and “munafiq”. [See Raja Petra Kamaruddin's posting here]. As Muslims, they have to be fair and just and treat others equally. They cannot talk about themselves being Muslims, assert their identity or fight for their rights. As majority of Muslims in this country are Malays, they also cannot talk about themselves being Malays, assert their Malay identity or fight for Malay rights. If they do, not only are they racists, but also fasiq and munafiq. Perhaps, Benedict Anderson has to come up with a whole new book on this new form of religio-nationalism.

Going by this logic, then this country was built by the “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. Our forefathers who talked about Malay interests, Chinese interests or Indian interests when they negotiated for independence back in 1957 were “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. [Well, perhaps, non-Muslim Chinese and Indian leaders should not be capped under the same category of “fasiqun” and “munafiqun” I guess, unless there are equivalent concepts in Buddhism and Hinduism]. Not only that, the Malays who attended Malay College of Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) - an elite school specially built for the sons of Malay aristocrats and royalties - were also “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. The list will go further down to include all Malays who received scholarships from the government, worked in the civil service or secured government contracts [Again, non-Malay/non-Muslim tycoons who received awards of multi-billion ringgit worth privatization projects should not be capped under the same category, unless there are equivalent concepts under their religions].

Again, if there are equivalent concepts of “fasiqun” and “munafiqun” in Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Taoism and Sikhism - going by RPK's logic - the non-Muslim Chinese and Indians who attended Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools are also “fasiqun” and “munafiqun”. The same goes to non-Muslims who promote the rights and interests of their respective religious communities. The Chinese educationists as well as the members of Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism (MCCBCHST) will be shocked to find that they are actually in the same category as those people in ABIM and PAS. The same goes to supporters of UMNO, MCA, MIC, Gerakan, PPP and DAP. PKR supporters too, I believe, are not spared from this trap.

Pheww … then we suddenly realize that almost everybody in this country is racist, fasiqun and munafiqun. So, let’s talk about race - and religion - anyway.

I’m not trying to be sarcastic about this. My point is, it is not wrong to talk about race or to promote the interests of one’s ethnic (or religious) community as long as it remains within the confine of the law and is done with full respect and understanding of other communities’ concerns and needs.

We also have to come to grasp with political realities of our Malaysian society. This society was built not so much on the sweat and blood of territorial fighters, but on the compromises achieved by different ethnic communities who believed that for them to share a home they called Malaya, they should - to certain extent - forego some of their “redemptive rights”.
Let's have a short journey to history.

In the formative years of modern Malayan society, different ethnic communities who inhabited Malaya held different visions about their place in the new state that they would give their loyalty to. Achieving communal compromises was therefore not an easy task.
The Malays believed that they were the original inhabitanst of this land and they should therefore have the final say in determining the terms of the communal compromises. In a memorandum sent to the Cheeseman Consultative Committee on the Constitutional Proposals in 1947, the Malay Association of Ulu Terengganu said:

Malaya is a Malay country which has been acknowledged to belong to the Malays from time immemorial. Therefore, (the position of Malay language) is extremely important and must be given priority …. If the Malay language is not given preference, the Malay race may be regarded as not being in existence and it means that this country does not belong to the Malays … the religion of Islam should be included in the proposals otherwise Islam may be endangered by Christianity and other religions

The Ceylon Federation of Malaya said:

The Ceylonese community came in large numbers to assist the development of Malaya … They had made Malaya their permanent home … and …with traditional loyalty and conservatism have given their entire lives exclusively to the service of Their Highnesses and the British administrators, while other races ventured into vocations of great gains, namely, planting, mining, trading and industry.

As such, the federation argued, it would only be appropriate if the residential requirement for Malayan-born Ceylonese was relaxed, the interests of Ceylonese government servants and of those in other employment should not be jeopardized, and the Ceylonese community be represented in the Federal Legislative Council.

In asking for generous citizenship requirements, the Indian Association of Terengganu claimed:

Men’s memories are short and hence the tendency is to regard Indians as unwelcome intruders whose contribution to Malayan economy is nil and their only contribution is to the English language of the word “coolie” which has found a place in school text-books … the Malay community may be excused for short memories but the Raj cannot dispute the contributions of India and Indians to the extension of its influence in this part of the world from the founding of Singapore in the early part of the nineteenth century to the liberation of Malaya a few months ago.

The Chinese also claimed that they too had contributed a lot to the country and therefore should be given more rights. Two Chinese leaders, HS Lee (later Tun) and Leong Yew Koh (later Tun), who sat on the Cheeseman Consultative Committee argued that the Chinese and Malay population were about equal, and by reason of their early association with Malaya, a great number of Chinese had as good claim to be regarded as the sons of the soil as the Malays.

They also argued that as the Chinese had to pay about 70 percent of the total taxes in the country, they had borne a greater burden in the country’s economic development. Apart from that, they reminded that the Chinese had made a noble contribution toward the defence of Malaya and borne the brunt of the Japanese fury and terrorism during the Japanese occupation. This, they said, was the price for, as well as the symbol of, the Chinese community’s loyalty for the country. As such, the two Chinese leaders demanded that the number of Chinese representatives in the Federal Legislative Council should be about equal to the number of Malay representatives. All Malayan-born Chinese should also automatically acquire Federal citizenship.

Even a multi-communal coalition of Malay left associations, radical-nationalist political parties, Chinese-based associations and trade unions called PUTERA-AMCJA, apart from demanding a united Malaya inclusive of Singapore, self-government through a fully elected central legislature for the whole of Malaya and equal citizenship rights also talked about race and religion. They demanded that the Malay Sultans should assume the position of fully sovereign and constitutional rulers; matters pertaining to Islam and Malay custom should be under the sole control of the Malays; and special attention should be given to the advancement of the Malays. [The last three demands were proposed by PUTERA, a coalition of Malay left associations].
By the time Malaya gained independence in 1957, a formula of communal compromise was agreed upon by the leaders of the Alliance parties. The main thrust of this formula was the preservation of special position of the Malays and the safeguarding of legitimate interests of other ethnic communities.

While moving the constitutional proposals for the independent Malaya in the Federal Legislative Council in July 1957, Tunku Abdul Rahman spoke about the communal formula which laid the basis for the Federal Constitution:

A formula was agreed upon by which it was decided that in considering the rights of the various peoples in this country no attempt must be made to reduce such rights which they have enjoyed in the past. As a result you find written into this Constitution rights of the various peoples they have enjoyed in the past and new rights, in fact, accorded to new people whom it was the intention to win over into the fold of the Malayan Nation. I refer to the Citizenship rights. It is a right which has given the Malays very grave concern and fear. Nevertheless because of their desire and anxiety to put Malaya on the pedestal as an Independent Nation, they are prepared to give that right to the new people.

There was no smooth sailing for the formula though. A Chinese legislator remarked that the Constitution created two classes of citizens. He argued:

The second class citizens may say that since we are only entitled to three-fourths of the special privileges, therefore, we in the like proportion will bear only the three-fourths of the responsibilities. I say that in time to come it will create discord and dissatisfaction … I think that all the Chinese and the non-Malays will agree that a greater share of the privileges must go to the Malays until they reach parity of wealth with the non-Malays … [but] if the provision is put in the permanent part of the Constitution it will tarnish the fair name of our country. The world would say that in this country you have one law for one race, another law for another race.

An Indian legislator joined the fray. Arguing that no majority groups in any country in the world sought protection under the country’s Constitution, he warned:

This special position of the Malays has acted to the detriment of the Malays – not the non-Malays. The non-Malays have improved because they are not given a special position … if the Malays had had competition, keen competition, from the other communities, they will be as much forward economically as the other races.

Defending the Malay special privileges, a Malay legislator, Encik Ghafar Baba (later Tun) said:

It should be noted that even the proposals by the Alliance have not satisfied the entire Malay masses of the Federation. There are sections among them who have claimed that as natives of this country they deserve things far greater than what had been decided by the Alliance, but to be fair to the other races the UMNO had to steer a middle course; … Sir, I am surprised to learn that some sections of the population are demanding for equal rights in addition to their demand for relaxation of the present citizenship law … to these people I would say that their action is nothing but merely directed to arouse the anger of the Malays … this (further) relaxation, if carried out, would reduce the Malays to a minority in their own country in a few years time.

To this, Tan Siew Sin (later Tun) of MCA said:

The Malays cannot be expected to give up what they already have in the same way that they do not expect the other communities to give up their existing rights. Far more important, however, is the indisputable fact that as a race the Malays are economically backward and well behind the other races in the field … It has also been asked why it has not been explicitly stated that this provision is only temporary. I would remind our critics that the Malays are a proud and sensitive race. They are also an intelligent race, and I know that they appreciate the significance and implications of this provision far better than most people realize. I have no doubt in my mind whatsoever that when the time comes, the Malays themselves will ask for its abolition, but this is a matter which we must obviously leave to them to decide.

Lashing out at the critics of the communal compromise, V.T Sambathan (later Tun) of MIC said:

We hear it spoken, Sir, of first class and second class citizenship. Is the first class citizen one who is badly provided with roads, has leaky roof over his head, cannot even get a doctor on a rainy-day even if his child is badly ill? Is that person, be he in the kampong or estate or new village, the first-class citizen or is it he who has a bungalow in the Federal Capital, one possibly in the Cameron Highlands and a couple more at a seaside resort who is the first class citizen, I ask … An unbalance exists and it exists for various reasons. It may be that colonial rule, with all its defects, its sins of omission, has rendered these things so. Freedom with its new outlook and an economy based for the purpose of helping the people will certainly solve most of these problems.

Looking back in retrospection, all that had been said by our forefathers some fifty years ago are still not far off from us now. We are still listening to the same arguments, the same concerns, the same polemics. Racial (and religious) interests, alongside with the more "expressive" issues of human rights and freedoms, will continue to be one of the main planks of political discourse in multiracial and multireligious Malaysia. We can't terminate those concerns, but with a bit of wisdom we can surely manage it well beyond expectation. May be it is time for us, the children of this blessed land, to once again embrace the spirit of tolerance, compromise and mutual respect, as was examplified by our forefathers, so that we can move forward with vigour and resilience as one united nation.
By: Marzuki Mohamad, Phd. (marzukimohamad.blogspot.com) 
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