The Tragedy of Racial Politics

An end to racial politics in Malaysia is something worth striving for. Being able to see each other as fellow Malaysians instead of another race that you are somehow competing against should do well for mending the divided and fragmented societies of ours. Unfortunately, the prospect where Malaysians will see beyond race, in politics and their lives, may never come, as things stand. 

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Race and the making of Malaysia

The feature of the race-based political arrangement of this country was a compromise between the rivalling ethnic nationalism and interests of the larger ethnic groups. The British practice of divide and conquer did much to condemn Malaya into this state of division we still see today. The ethnic community leaders and the withdrawing British seemed to see that the only way a fledgling Malaysia is to keep its peace is for the representation of its communities along racial lines. Despite the criticism, Malaysia did gain its peace – the arrangement worked, for the most part. But it is a negative peace, peace in the absence of violence. The absence of violence, however, does not guarantee that peace will last. The possibility of racially motivated violence stemming from ethnic divisions remains, and in 1969 and 2001, it erupted.

Our history shines on one fact: how the Malaysians see themselves – how they identify – shapes the politics of our country. Fortunately, 63 years after living together in this small corner of the earth, and a lot of state-led nationalism, created a shared identity – an imagined community consisting of various ethnic communities. It has become so pervasive that the first thing that comes up when imagining Malaysians is one of those pictures where people wear traditional costumes, taken straight from a textbook. The unique feature of the Malaysian identity is that it is often paired with, and rarely superseding one’s ethnic identity. This is reflected in our politics; how else do politicians get away with declaring themselves by their race first, Malaysian second?

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The curse of racial politics

Post-independence, major political parties – United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) – exploited the divide by branding themselves as representing their respective ethnicity’s interest; and by doing so, perpetuate the divide.

It’s hard to fault them for doing it, it is the easiest and most logical strategy to garner enough electoral support to get themselves into power. Ethnic tribalism exists, and they merely work with what they had. The politicians are aware that their political survival relies on the perpetuation of this divide, and it is in their interest to maintain it. Perhaps this is among the reason why in nation-building, a Malaysian identity which radically departs from what we have today – an American-styled national identity – was not adopted.

Politicians, in the effort to consolidate their support among supporters, fed and developed a siege mentality among them: “Our people’s interest is on the line,” “they want to take away our people’s culture”, “We will be overtaken by ‘them’.” Such rhetoric serves to maintain anxiety among their supporters’ minds.

Fear is an effective driver to stick with one’s tribe, and make one see their political leaders as the only defender against the onslaught that threatens their standing.

This maintains the divide among the people(s), perhaps making it even starker.

The cycle, our cage

Readers can see in this the forming of a cycle. An awareness of being a people separate from other people, even if they are fellow citizens, has shaped Malaysian politics to be racially-based. Politicians perpetuate this divide by encouraging a narrative of being victimized, and by doing so, ensure that this awareness is perpetuated.

We see the strength of this cycle in parties that are in theory, not race-based. Despite being Social Democrats, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) had to take up ‘Chinese issues’, lest they lose their support among the largely Chinese base. Parti Islam S-Malaysia (PAS), a formally Islamist party took up ‘Malay’ issues, albeit with an Islamist framing.

The pull of racial politics remains strong and becomes the cage where the status quo is encouraged, and any deviation is severely punished by way of being ousted from power. In fact, opposition parties similarly found themselves perpetuating this divide, stirring up anxiety among their voters – it is, after all, profitable to do so.

The tragedy of racial politics

A tribalistic people(s) and opportunistic politicians made moving towards ending racial politics improbable. History, once again, shines a light on this.

In 2018, Barisan National (BN) Coalition lost to the Pakatan Harapan (PH) Coalition. To be clear, the Pakatan Harapan Government did not even make ending race-based politics their goal. Among the coalition partners is Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (BERSATU), another Malay nationalist party of the same DNA as UMNO. To win power, one must work within the cage of racial politics.

In a bid to regain power and support among ‘their people’, many within BN intensified racial politics, serving further the fears of being ‘dominated’ by ‘the other’ in their own country, whipping up ethno-religious sentiments to stir up anger and anxiety. The then-ruling government was accused of being anti-Malay, anti-Islam, and liberal. All this only serves to rile up distrust of ‘the others,’ all but guaranteeing the entrenchment of racial politics, accompanied by deepening radicalism.

One superficial step forward, two steps back: This is the tragedy of Malaysia. Racial politics will continue on as long as the chain that perpetuates it is unbroken: that means having the political will to avoid the easy path of employing racial politics; that means reshaping the Malaysian identity itself. 

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Breaking the cage

Mahathir’s ‘Bangsa Malaysia’ and Najib’s ‘1Malaysia’ was a step in the right direction, but not far enough to truly end racial politics. As of yet, it is hard for Malaysians to imagine themselves as exclusively Malaysians, unpaired with their ethnicity.

I’m reminded of the Balkans when looking at Malaysia. The people of the Balkans were almost all South Slavs – the same ethnolinguistic group, but they decided to instead pronounce and amplify what made them different, and use these differences to form ethnicities – the centuries of bloodshed and distrust did not help. When Yugoslavia fell, ethnic nationalists killed and tore the country apart to the point of committing genocide. Despite the promise of a homeland to their people, the nationalists doomed the people they claim to protect and champion to death and trauma. No one won the Yugoslav wars, only the people lost.

History provides an invaluable lesson. We must forge a stronger Malaysian identity, building upon the national identity fostered by previous governments. We must put an end to the practice of stoking ethnic nationalism for the sake of electoral victories. However, there is no room for optimism, the allure of inflaming racial tensions has grown as race-based political parties are trying to carve out what remains of their support base: with the cage made harder to break, a Malaysian Malaysia is ever more unlikely.

Written by Yap Per Hung