The Malay Mail Online
September 19, 2013
SEPT 19 — Enforcement officers attempt to demolish parts of a Hindu shrine. The row over the use of the word Allah intensifies. Sermons proclaim that the social contract is non-negotiable. More travellers die in express buses. A headmistress in Shah Alam asks her Chinese pupils to go back to China. The prime minister hopes that Utusan Malaysia continues to prosper. It comes to light that some schools are installing CCTVs in toilets.
Rewind to approximately three years ago. A temple is to be relocated. People bring a cow’s head and desecrate it. A High Court judgement allows Christians to use the word Allah and a firestorm erupts. The NEM is revealed, roundly criticised for diluting the social contract and promptly shelved. More travellers die in express buses. A headmistress in Johor asks her Chinese pupils to go back to China. Utusan Malaysia continues its rhetoric. There are calls in Terengganu for 1 Malaysia toilets to be used by both sexes.
While it looks like that in addition to road safety and privacy, in the area of race and religious relations there is no change, in reality it points to a deterioration rather than stasis. Instead of broad social cohesion punctuated by a few incidents of chauvinism, the situation seems to be turning on its head.
Instead of a gradual levelling of the playing field and an emphasis on merit and needs over communal privilege given the steady economic rise of Malaysia, what is being witnessed is growing stridency in asserting the permanence of majority privileges fuelling rising discontent among the minority.
But is this deterioration in race and religious relations in Malaysia mirrored elsewhere? Are the economy and public policy impacted by this, even the wider political system?
After the last elections, the electorate is evenly divided in terms of their support for the two major coalitions, but there are significant deviations in terms of race, age, income and geography. There is a definite hardening of attitudes between the races, with stereotypical representations of a majority community under attack on one side and a victimised minority on the other being given prominence. Issues of justice, education and electoral fairness are also coloured by the same lens.
The political elites, especially in Umno awaiting elections, are retreating into a racial cocoon, with the very concept of BN seemingly reduced to a sideshow with the pathetic showing of MCA and MIC at the hustings. The reported return of PAS to leadership by the ulama is the opposite side of the same coin. However hard as DAP tries, its history leads it to be painted as a Chinese party.
The economic scenario is not exempt either. All economic indicators point to a worsening of Malaysia’s macroeconomic position, national and household debt ballooning largely due to domestic factors and stocks and currency declining largely due to external headwinds. In this scenario, instead of working towards more prudent spending, reducing corruption or promoting growth oriented investment, racial issues are hogging the headlines. Some groups want preferential rentals on the basis of race from mall owners or racial quotas in the award of Petronas contracts, while others want casinos closed and the redevelopment of heritage markets like Jalan Alor on racial lines.
Race and religion clearly are defining the current discourse to the point of becoming a reference of sorts for almost every debate of national importance. The key to real transformation in every area of Malaysian endeavour may lie in improving race relations on the basis of equality rather than superiority.
Privately every race can believe in its supremacy, but if the aim is to become a developed nation by 2020 where the poorest are assisted, the brightest are encouraged and innovators are feted, in public life, equal respect is a must.
Unfortunately the current national leadership seems intent on taking the country in exactly the opposite direction. The long-term consequences on the economy, society and indeed the idea of nationhood premised on unity in diversity could be catastrophic.
Of course this obsession with what goes on in toilets is a matter for another analysis altogether.