THE POLITICS OF RACE
By Malik Imtiaz Sarwar & Michelle Gunaselan
It is not insignificant that in almost any discussion about public life in Malaysia, be it the state of the civil service, the education system or economic development, to name a few areas, the matter of race will invariably feature. Race, its implications and its consequences permeate through our lives, and shape them, in a way that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
To some, this may be a matter of pride or satisfaction for reflecting the so-called success of a race-relations model aimed at addressing iniquities between the various ethnic communities. Others ask how else are we to govern ourselves in a way that ensures that the interests of the various ethnicities are sufficiently protected. And yet to others, the current floundering state of Malaysia is proof enough of the damage that an undue emphasis on race in public policy has wrought.
Whatever the case, this is an issue of critical relevance to us, so much so that some would argue that race relations policy in this country, such as it is, puts our continued sustainability in doubt. This is a viewpoint that is not devoid of basis. The influence of race-based decision-making, either directly or indirectly, is so far reaching that in some quarters meritocracy has for some time been viewed negatively and rejected as a basis for action. This has had an impact not just on our identity and cohesiveness as a society. On a more practical level, though race does not define merit one way or the other, we no longer have the best and brightest Malaysians where the nation needs them the most. As a consequence, the proverbial system has become so inherently incapable that it undermines our continued ability to compete in an increasingly challenging world even as it has led to a fracturing of Malaysian society.
That political orientation has taken on the character it has underscores the conclusion that it is vital for us to urgently scrutinize race-relations and look for alternative solutions to concerns that have shaped the way things are. It is no coincidence that the battle lines between the Pakatan Rakyat and the Barisan Nasional have been drawn along the issue of pluralism. The former’s increasingly popular reformist advocating of a fairer and more accountable system for all Malaysians, or ketuanan rakyat, echoes calls by civil society for a Bangsa Malaysia driven rejection of race politics in aid of greater democratization. This stands in stark contrast to the conservative re-articulating of a questionable race dynamic, ketuanan Melayu, that the latter has clung to since independence. More than anything, this face-off, coming as it does on a rising tide of civic empowerment, points to Malaysians being ready and eager for a constructive reappraisal of the matter.
We all know that the politics of race has always been the bedrock of Malaysian political culture in the last six decades. The success of the early Alliance and then the Barisan Nasional coalitions comprising race-based parties was due in large part to the electorate’s acceptance that Malaysian power-sharing was based on the negotiation between races.
Politicians and their parties fighting for the rights and interests of their race have been the ideological orthodoxy all these while. Nobody would think of calling any ministers or political parties ‘racist”, because racism was perhaps deemed politically correct.
Things must have really changed when we witness in recent days the great Malay nationalist icon Dr Mahathir Mohamad and senior Umno cabinet minister Mohd Nazri Abdul Aziz trading personal insults in public, calling each other “racist”.
All of a sudden, the terms “racist” and “racism” have become bad words, as they should be long ago. The question is: What makes a person a racist, and what is racism?
Wikipedia gives the following definition of racism:
“Racism is the belief that race is a primary determinant of man traits and capacities and those racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race. In the case of institutional racism, certain racial groups may be denied rights or benefits, or get preferential treatment.
“Racial discrimination typically points out taxonomic differences between different groups of people, although anyone may be discriminated against on an ethnic or cultural basis, independently of their somatic differences. According to the United Nations conventions, there is no distinction between the term racial discrimination and ethnic discrimination.”
Earnest Gellner would argue that there are differences between the idea of “race” and “ethnicity”, the former emphasising on the mythical bond of blood ties and the latter relying on common cultural heritage. But that is another topic for another time.
Emergence of racism
Looking back in history, the first time that racism first assumed political significance must be when European powers encountered strange peoples from other cultures in far away lands at the beginning of empire building a few hundred years ago.
It also coincided with the beginning of the emergence of the modern nation-states and the fall of the old empires in the European continent.
The technologically and militarily superior Europeans were certain to be Eurocentric in their judgement of these so-called “barbaric, primitive, and pagan races” in Africa, North and South Americas, and finally Asia, New Zealand, and Australia.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Social Darwinism was already in vogue in Europe, with thinkers trying to apply the Darwinian theory of natural selection to human races and individuals, when the theory was originally used in reference to animal and plant species. Fortunately for our human species, this faulty theory is all but abandoned today.
Then, in late 19th century Europe, Dr Francis Galton practically invented the science of eugenics, the study of selective breeding so as to improve the human stock.
Eugenics gained a respectable following in the 20th century, and the core idea of the genes somehow determining the moral and intellectual character of the human individuals was accepted en masse by Hitler’s Nazi ideology.
That is the underlying philosophy of racism – that some races are superior to others by virtue of their superior genes.
For fear that their superior German Aryan blood may be polluted by the inferior blood of the Jews and other minority groups, Hitler ordered his Final Solution that saw the genocide of six million people.
Partly because of the global guilt over the holocaust, the United Nations formed after World War Two made it a point to pass the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and made it morally incorrect for any nation or groups to persecute or discriminate anyone based on creed, religion or race.
But the political appeal of primordial tribalism was still too great to be resisted. As an instrument for mass mobilisation, as an anchor for personal identity, and as a mythical pointer to the collective destiny of the community, “race” hits at the nadir of our guts immediately.
After World War Two, the survival and glory of the race were the rallying cry of many groups in those former colonies of the Western imperial powers all over the world. They used the ready-made ideology for their brand new nationalism in Africa, Asia, and South America, alongside the revolutionary slogans of the communists.
Out of Africa II
It was thus that the early founding fathers of Malaysia were drawn into the power of racial equations, and Malaysian politics has always been racial since then.
The person who laid down the theoretical groundwork for the Malay nationalism as narrated by Umno is none other than Dr Mahathir Mohamad through his magnum opus ‘The Malay Dilemma’.
In his article ‘Racism: Towards Year Zero’, Dr Kua Kia Soong has this to say about Dr M’s theoretical work:
“Mahathir is obviously not familiar with the philosophy of the social sciences; otherwise he would have known that ‘race’ as a concept has been discredited in social science years now and any social scientist worth his/her salt would not dare to air such racial theories in respectable centres of learning.”
Kua is right of course. Not only is racism banished from the social science, it is also exiled to the margin in politics in developed liberal democracies, and ultra-right nationalist groups seldom get the public support to take government power.
The tenets and dogmas of racism have also lost much of their credibility because of the advance in the physical science, especially in the science of genetics.
Until today, there is no scientific proof that our genes have any determination over our intelligence, our moral character, or our mental capabilities. I would even posit that scientists will never succeed in this mission impossible as long as humankind cannot resolve Rene Descartes’ bifurcation of the human individual into mind and matter.
In contrast, recent studies in genetics have shown that the genetical differences that determine the physical variations among the various races are negligible in our collective genome!
Two recent studies also show that all human races are descended from a small band of homo sapiens in the plains of Africa.
One study named Out of Africa II traced the footsteps of all humans to a small group of new human beings in Africa slightly more than one million years ago. Through archeological and other evidences, they trace human’s migration over land bridges made possible by climate conditions from Africa to other parts of the world.
The other theory called the Eve Theory takes advantage of the fact that the chromosome materials are transferred unchanged from the mitochondria of the mother to the daughter. By studying and comparing the mitochondrial genes of all women all over the world, these scientists claimed that they can trace the ancestry of all human groups to one woman in Africa, whom they named Eve.
This is the latest paradigm concerning the origin of our human species.
It exists only in our minds
In short, “race’ and “ethnicity” are cultural construct; they exist in our language and our mind only. They do not exist objectively like the sun or the moon, or like the living species called homo sapiens.
That is not to say that the terms “race” and ‘ethnicity” have no meanings and should be discarded. They have rich meaning in our cultural history, and have allowed us to build up a beautifully diverse depository of cultural and historical narratives that form our collective human civilisation.
But as the ideological basis for political action, the temporary success of racism and racial politics is exceeded only by their intellectual and theoretical poverty. They may prevail for a while, but in the long run, racial prejudices and racial hatred will not be able to stand the test of historical time.
The sooner Malaysian politicians, community leaders, public intellectuals, commentators and opinion makers veer away from racist and racial conversation, the better it is for the democratic future of all Malaysians.
After all, we are all brothers and sisters of one human race.
SIM KWANG YANG can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OTHER TOPICS UNDER PROJECT MALAYSIA:
Headline: Communal Representation and Its Evils by Michelle Yoon
Michelle Yoon is a second year architecture student in Auckland, New Zealand. Other than her assignments and the regular part-time jobs she undertakes, she jots down her thoughts regularly at http://malaysianpolitics.wordpress.com/. She believes in a Malaysia that can go beyond the usual “tolerance” to achieve a truly unified and diverse society.
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