Racial Polarisation – What is the solution

Speech by Parliamentary Opposition Leader, DAP Secretary-General and MP for Kota Melaka, Lim Kit Siang, at the forum organised by PUSPITA (University of Malya Non-Hostelite Students’ Union) at Dewan Tunku Chancellor, University of Malaya on Saturday, 24.11.1984 at 8 p.m. on ‘Polarisasi Kaum-Dimanakah penyelesaiannya?

Racial Polarisation – What is the solution

On 13th July 1984, the press reported a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Musa Hitam, in Segamat who expressed concern over the present trend of segregation and polarisation among children if unchecked could spark off a confrontation of the races in the future.

Suddenly, everybody seemed to have discovered the problem of racial polarisation for the first time, and for over a month, the subject of racial polarisation was the the most popular subject of discussion, with newspapers running reports and articles about racial polarisation in the schools, in the university campuses, the civil service, with various proposals about how to solve racial polarisation ; but as the subject became the national topic of the day, in early September, the subject suddenly disappeared from public view as if the problem of racial polarisation had already been solved.

It would appear that in mid-July, a magician popped ‘racial polarisation’ like a rabbit out of thin-air, and for six weeks the rabbit of racial polarisation’ was romping all over the stage, but suddenly by September, the magician again waved his magic wand, and the rabbit of ‘racial polarisation’ disappeared back to thin air.

Racial polarisation in Malaysia is too serious a problem to be threated so lightly, and it is for this reason that I must commend PUSPITA for its initiative in organising a forum to bring back the problem of racial polarisation to the centre stage where it should always remain until it had been resolved.

Racial polarisation in Malaysia first became most acute in the 1970s, and my comrades and I in Parliament had in the 1970s sought to qrouse the awareness and concern of the Government to this problem, but not to much avail.

I remember that when on June 9, 1980, I moved a motion in parliament to debate the Carbinet Committee Report on Education chairmed by Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, I had said that ‘education has become the most divisive issue in the country, and instead of contributing to national integration, has the opposite effect of causing national disunity and further racial polarisation.’

I also referred to studies in Malaysian schools which showed that a common syllabus, common medium of instruction, common examination and a common roof need not necessarily lead to a greater national unity, but could instead exacerbate ethnic relations

When on July 16, 1981, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed was sworn in as Prime Minister, I made a courtesy call on the same day to congratulate him on his becoming Prime Minister, and one of the issues I raised with him was my concern at racial polarisation in the country.

I must confess that I have never gained the impression that the government was seriously concerned at racial polarisation, and Datuk Musa Hitam’s statement about racial polarisation in July this year which sparked off six weeks of media attention before the local press switched off their interest on the subject, appear to be an aberration rather than representing mainstream government concern at the subject which must rank as one of the biggest national problems and deserve national concern, awareness and solution.

Racial polarisation is worsening day by day. In the universities, repeated studies have shown that ethnic integration has worsened rather than improved, and some UKM students interviewed in August this year said they had not made a single friend from another race even though they were in their fourth year on campus, and could not even recall a name of a student of another race.

Racial polarisation in the civil service has seriously undermined government standards and performance, leading to mass resignations by civil servants embittered by the injustices and inequalities of such polarisation.

We cannot begin to come to grips and work out solutions to be problem of racial polarisation unless we can pinpoint its causes, for otherwise, the cure can be as bad as the disease.

For instance, after Datuk Musa’s statement on racial polarisation, the political secretary to the UMNO Youth Leader and Agriculture Minister, Dr. Ibrahim Saad, in a paper presnted to the Fourth National Convention on Education attributed the cause of racial polarisation to non-Malay parents sending their children to Chinese and Tamil schools.

If this is the analysis, then clearly the solution the solution is to be found in the closure of Chinese and Tamil primary schools. Any Malaysian of ordinary common sense, without a doctorate, would be able to tell Dr. Ibrahim Saad that the result of such closures is not to alleviate the problem of racial polarisation, but to aggravate it to crisis point.

This is one example where those who express concern about at racial polarisation not out to find solution to overcome it, but as an excuse to further their policies which could make racial polarisation an even more intractable problem than before.

Another instance is the reported study by the Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ISIS), after the Musa statement, on race relations by examining the effects of vernacular primary schools on national unity. Again, why this picking on Chinese and Tamil primary schools, when the problem of racial polarisation in national primary and secondary schools as well as universities are more acute.
Racial Polarisation arises from the failure of nation building to Malaysian-ise the people, regardless of race, by creating in them a Malaysian national identity transcending ethnic loyalties.

In my view, racial polarisation is caused by the failure of the nation-building process to create a Malaysian national identity and consciousness transcanding the ethnic loyalties of all Malaysians, regardless of race. In other words, although we are a Malaysian nation, recognised internationally and a full member of the United Nations, we are still a long way from being a nation of Malaysians. We are merely Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans and Ibans – and even more so, because of the worsening racial polarisation, as compared to Merdeka in 1957 or the formation of Malaysian in 1963, with very few Malaysians.

The entire government machinery, the media, television and radio, are harnessed to maintain the political power structure which is based on the Politics of Race, with UMNO, MCA, MIC in Peninsular Malaysia telling the Malays, Chinese and Indians that they must organise and mobilise politically in strict ethnic terms as Malays, Indians or Chinese, and not as Malaysians, and UMNO leaders even go as far as to denounce Malays who join multi-racial parties as ‘traitors of the race’ or not being Malays, which is as serious as what PAS is accused of by UMNO / alleging that members of UMNO are kafirs.

In fact, every year the UMNO General Assembly is held, ethnic consciousness is heightened and Malaysian consciousness diluted, taking racial polarisation up a few octaves.

Almost every subject is given ethnic connotations, including non-ethnic issue like corruption, abuse of power and misuse of trust. The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, himself denounced those who wish to have a full-scale public accounting of the $2.5 billion Bumiputra Malaysia Finance loans scandal in Hong Kong as motivated by the objective of destroying the Malay leadership. This is a classic case where corruption, abuse of power or breach of public trust is being used to fuel racial polarisation.

Malaysian are aught from their first day in school, that they are not one common people, but different and separate – the bumiputra and the non-bumiputra. Non-Malays, regardless of how many generations they have been here, as regarded as ‘bangsa asing’, as people whose loyalty is always doubted and distrusted.

Only a few days ago, in the Malacca Assembly, an UMNO Assemblyman referred in these derogatory terms to the non-Malays, although illegal Indonesian immigrants who had just landed on Malayan shores would not fall under this term of ‘bangsa asing’ and could within a short space of time, graduate to be a ‘bumiputra’.

During my parliamentary experience, I had more than once had my loyalty questioned, not because of any act of disloyalty to the country, but because I was carrying out my parliamentary duty to speak up in Parliament the political, economic, educational, cultural and religious aspirations of the voters who elected me.

I was also once told that if I did not like the Barisan National policies, I could leave the country. Because UMNO MPS now know that my stock reply is to tell them if they do not like to hear what I had to say in Parliament, they themselves could leave the country, such as this country is as much mine as theirs tauntings have stopped, but not such mentality!

This propensity to doubt the loyalty and the lack of commitment to the nation is the greatest cause of national disunity and racial polarization, for by now, the overwhelming majority of the Malaysian non-Malays are Malaysian born and bred, who have no other country apart from Malaysia. In fact, we already have a whole generation of young Malaysians who are the products of the National Education System.

This suspicion and distrust must end if we want to inculcate Malaysian consciousness and identity among all Malaysians, but unfortunately there are many ways to cast doubt on one’s loyalty.

One way is to daub the ‘communist’ or ‘CPM’ label, which by extension make the person concerned a stooge or fifth-columnist of Communist China. This tactic was used only two days ago by the Malacca Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Abdul Rahim Thamby Cik, who said in the Malacca State Assembly that the CPM is making use of the Bukit China to incite harted against the government, and by implication, suggestion that those who oppose the Malacca State Government’s Bukit China plan are either communist-sypathisers, agents, or stooges, and disloyal to Malaysia.

Such irresponsible political ploys, which virtually cast doubt on the loyalty of the an entire community as 553 organisations and some 300,000 people had signed their opposition to the government’s Bukit China plan, is highly reprehensible as they worsen racial polarization.

When I was in Australia in 1980, where there are many Malaysian students as well as students from Hong k\Kong and Singapore, I was struck by the fact that there was virtually nothing in common between the Malaysian Chinese students and the Hong Kong or Singapore Chinese students, and Malaysian Chinese students feel closer to Malaysian Indian or Malay students.

This is the best proof that the young generation of Malaysians have come to think and feel of themselves as Malaysians, but why is it when they come back, instead of fortifying their Malaysian consciousness, the reverse take place, with ethnic consciousness becoming more pronounced?

The whole gamut of the government’s nation-building policies must be held responsible for spawning and fuelling racial polarization in Malaysia, for the government has failed to work towards a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation as enshrined in the Malaysian constitution, and to distribute the fruits of the country’s economic development equitably.

Racial polarization in schools, universities, public life and social relations cannot be resolved unless national policies which spawn it are reviewed and altered.

The New Economic Policy for instance is the greatest cause of racial polarization in the 1970s and 1980s because of its policy of bumiputraisation- making every Malaysian conscious that he is either a bumiputra or a non-bumiputra, resulting in the creation of a new class of bumiputra rich without lifting the Malay poor from their poverty.

The National Education Policy, with its restrictive places for local higher education opportunities for deserving students and unequal treatment for mother-tongue education, is another major cause.

The National Cultural Policy, with the ‘One Language, One Cultural’ proclaimed in Parliament in Oct.1982, and the three principles of the National Cultural Policy which virtually dismisses in practice the contribution of non-Malay cultural contributions, is the third factor.
The Political System with the entrenchment of the Politics of race by UMNO is the fourth factor.

But recently, a fifth factor has emerged on the scene which have the potential of being the most divisive cause of national unity and racial polarization- namely religious polarization.

So far, as a multi-religious nation has been spared the religious strife which had convulsed other multi-religious nations, but the events of the last two years throw disturbing signals that in the late 1980s, the 1990s and in the 21st century, religious polarization either manifesting itself in racial polarization or by itself could pose the greatest threat to national unity.

Before the 1982 general elections, the word of Islamisation was hardly seen in the newspapers. But in the last two years, it has become a daily usage, making the accelerated pace of the process of Islamisation in the economy, education, administration and other spheres of national life, in utter disregard of the views, fears and sensitivities of the non-Muslim communities.

The UMNO in government appears more concerned about competing with PAS which wants an all-out Islamic state, then in holding firm by the constitutional provision of Malaysia as a secular and multi-religious nation.

Government respect, tolerance and goodwill towards the rights and practices of the other religious in the 1980s seem to have declined greatly as compared to the first decade of Merdeka.

In the early days of nationhood, the government sponsored the formation of an Inter-Religious Organisation to promote inter-religious understanding, harmony and goodwill. In this new era of Islamisation, it is quite impossible to get the government to agree to sponsor a dialogue between the various major religious groups in the country or to revive an Inter-Religious Council with major religious groups represented to serve as a permanent organization with the responsibility to promote inter-religious respect, harmony, understanding and tolerance although this should be the concern of every religion in Malaysia.

In April this year, the Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikkhism organized a seminar on ‘Common Building’ but the organizers had great difficulty in getting adequate participation by the Muslim groups.

Today, I attended the launching of a book which published the proceedings of this seminar on ‘Common Religious Values for Nation Building’, at Hotel Hilton PJ, but although Tunku Abdul Rahman was scheduled to perform the launching ceremony, he did not do so. I understand that at the last minute, he was prevalled upon to stay away on the ground that the book on the proceedings of the Seminar is somehow anti-Islam.

I find this morning’s incident most ominous for it seems to portend that religious polarization has in fact arrived in Malaysia, where there would be less and less room for moderates or those who hold the middle ground- especially to stand up by the Constitutional guarantee that Malaysia shall be a secular and multi-religious nation, with Islam as the official religion.

Religious polarization will intensify racial polarization as in Malaysia, as the Muslim and non-Muslim communities are largely coincident with Malay and non-Malay divisions.

Malaysia must not be caught in a vicious circle of racial polarization and religious polarization feeding and reinforcing each other. We need more Malaysians who are prepared to veer away from the racial, religious or cultural hegemony of others, and the full acceptance of Malaysia as a multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious nation on the basis of the Constitutional guarantees to other religions, languages and cultures, while Islam is the Official Religion and Bahasa Malaysia the official and national language.

All Malaysians must be inculcated with the overarching Malaysian consciousness and identity which transcend racial origin, religion, mother-tongue or cultural root, for although Malaysians do not have a common past, they must have a common future and destiny. In this regard, Malaysians should stopped being divided into Bumiputeras and non-bumiputeras, for all are sons and daughters of the Malaysian soil.

We should work for a economically and socially equitable system whereby the poor, the unprivileged and the backward, regardless of race, are given the wherewithals to lead a full and meaningful life as Malaysians.

The solution sound simple, but it is always the simplest solution which is the most difficult of achievement. For a start, there must be recognition by an increasing body of Malaysians that racial polarizations, and religious polarizations, pose the greatest threat to national unity, and we must have the capacity to sit down together to study, identify the problem and propose solutions that can be implemented in each sphere of our national life. But I am sad to conclude on the note that I do not think the Government is prepared to do even this.