Racial Polarisation the foremost Malaysian problem in the 1980s

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Petaling, Lim Kit Siang, to the Malaysian Economic Association in University of Malaya on Friday, 17th July 1981 at 8 a.m. on “Urban Politics in Malaysia”
Racial Polarisation the foremost Malaysian problem in the 1980s

This week saw the retirement of Datuk Hussein Onn as Prime Minister, and the assumption of office b the fourth Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed. The Conferment of Tunship on Datuk Hussein Onn is most fitting, and is a case where the recipient bestows as much honour on the title bestows on the recipient.

Meanwhile, everyone is speculating about whether there is going to be a major Cabinet reshuffle on Monday. But whatever the new Cabinet line-up, the basic problems of Malaysia in the 1980s remain unchanged, namely, the building of a united Malaysian nation and people, the elimination of poverty and the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, the protection of human right and democratic freedoms from government encroachments, the establishment of a incorrupt, competent servants, and the defence of the sovereignty and territorial integrity from external designs.

But the foremost Malaysian problem in the 1980s is the grave problem of racial polarisation which, if unchecked and arrested, will destroy all nation-building efforts and everything else that goes with it.

This is why, despite the view of Datuk Musa Hitam as expressed in an interview that he disagreed that racial polarisation was serious, when I made a courtesy call on Dr. Mahathir yesterday to congratulate him on his appointment as Prime Minister, I also took the opportunity to express my concern about the serious situation of racial polarisation in the country.

Racial polarisation is particularly pronounced in the urban areas for it is here where the different racial groups come face to face with each other in their competition for educational opportunities, jobs and other community resources all of which seem to take on a racial dimension.

Urban politics in the 1980s must aim towards defusing such increasing racial polarisation in the urban areas, and not towards their aggravation.

For instance, after the 1978 general elections which established the DAP’s legitimacy as the leading party in the urban areas, UMNO Ministers expressed concern about racial polarisation and one Minister even went to the extent of stating that the government would take steps to overcome the trend of voting along communal lines.

It is sad that there was no serious attempt to identify the causes of racial polarisation in the country. It is political dishonesty at its height to claim that those who voted for the DAP are communal while those who voted for the UMNO, are being non-communal.

If the UMNO Minister who said that the government would be taking steps to overcome the trend of voting along communal lines in the urban areas to be accomplished in five or six years’ time was merely thinking in terms of the Malay rural-urban mobility which had accelerated greatly since the NEP leading to a rapid increase in Malay urban population, without giving any thought to the deep-seated causes of racial polarisation, then the net result is not less, but even more acute, polarisation.

It is most tragic that the young generation of Malaysians, who are totally-Malaysian-born and Malaysian-oriented, with no links or associations with any other foreign country, whose senses, sounds, sights and experiences since childhood have been completely Malaysian, are probably the most polarised and alienated.

For instance, a Malaysian Chinese student abroad feels closer to his Malay and Indian compatriot, as they have more things in common, than to a Hong Kong Chinese, Taiwan Chinese or even Singapore Chinese student. There is that instinctive identification of himself as a Malaysian first and Chinese second.

But when at hone in our own country, he is repeatedly reminded that he is Chinese first and Malaysia second, whether in terms of university places, government job opportunities, the application of licences, permits or low-cost houses, and a whole range of daily-life experiences.

Similarly, a Malay is reminded since childhood and by all the resources in the command of the state that he is a Malay first and Malaysian second, that he must join the UMNO if he is not to betray the Malay race, and that he must think, act and conduct himself as a Malay. In fact, recently a senior UMNO Minister said in an interview that he did not want the Malays in Malaysia to become like the Malays in Singapore, but the Malays in Singapora regard themselves as Malays rather than as Malaysians!

Malaysian nation building is probably the most complex in the world, and cannot be achieved within a short span of time. But with each decade of nationhood, we should weaken the affinities of race and strengthen the national bonds uniting the various races in the country.

Such national bonds can only be found if the various racial groups come out of their respective racial shells and build a common overarching national identity as a Malaysian.

Otherwise, racial polarisation will grow apace with each racial group cohering and identifying more and more with members of their own race.

I hope that the new Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, and his deputy, Datuk Musa Hitam, will give this serious matter of growing racial polarisation priority attention, for it impinges on every aspect of national life, whether economic, educational, social, cultural or even political.

I will not be wrong to state that every Malaysian, regardless of race, want Malaysia to succeed, and the test of political leadership will be the ability to harness such good will and good intentions among all Malaysians to build a united, peaceful and progressive and Prosperous Malaysia, instead of allowing Malaysia of becoming not only a house divided, but worse divided along racial lines.

So long as racial polarisation remains unabated, and there is a high premium on one’s racial attributes and prowess rather than as a Malaysia, then it will twist and distort political perceptions and development, as:

1. it will disseminate the zero-sum mentality that what one community gets must be at another’s expense, leading to such regular Suhaimi extremism as imposing control on the economic
grwoth of non-Malays;

2. retard the evolution o class interests regardless of race, as poverty, homelessness, social and economic deprivations, know no race;

3. downgrade the importance of ensuring incorruptibility and integrity in public life, and even in mainintaing a democratic system and free society.

DAP’s Future

When I was asked to speak to you tonight, I was also asked to talk about the DAP’s future.

Five months ago, many will describe the DAP’s future as very bleak, with DAP monopolising the newspaper front-pages every day. (It us a indication of the Alice in the Wonderland type of situation that where you do not read about the DAP, especially in the NST, then things are doing fine for DAP; but when we appear on the front pages, then you can be assured that things are bad. It would appear that we only arouse ourselves to maim and maul ourselves, otherwise we do nothing)

But things look rather different now. The DAP has had its show, and it is now for the other parties to have theirs.

Be that as it may, there is no doubt that what happened in the DAP a few months ago represented the most serious attempt to wreck the DAP in our 15 years of struggle. There was the internal subversion to destroy the political credibility and image of the Party, as well as the external campaign to buy over the DAP MPs and State Assemblymen.

The Politics of Money will become a new political phenomenon in urban politics in the general elections, not with the use of money, but the scale of money being used.

Last week, Gerakan President, Dr.Lim Keng Yaik, said that a Gerakan branch chairman was offered $50,000 to go over to MCA. You can imagine the price for a State Assemblyman or MP to defect, which recently was pegged a $300,000 and $500,000 respectively. The prices may have gone up, for like stocks and shares market, they vary from time to time.

I believe the DAP will be able to weather this inundation of big-time money, because whatever the internal party troubles and turmoils, the Party as a whole has stood steadfast these past 15 years by our political objectives, and that in the final analysis, it is the DAP’s overall record that must be judged, and not the treachery or defection of this or that opportunist.

I do not want to predict how the DAP will fare in the next general elections which may be held in 10-12 months’ time, but it will probably be the greatest test for DAP since our formation, which will have an important bearing not only on our own future, but the political future of the country as well.