I believe the time has come for us to ask difficult questions about this country and who we are when we say we are Malaysians. In the same vein, I believe that it is time for Malaysians to stop offering avenues of escape to those responsible for our well being and our collective future. We must confront the fact that something is very wrong at the heart of Malaysia.
Like many others, I was angered by some of the speeches delivered at the recent UMNO general assembly. As I considered the matter further, I began to appreciate that we may have benefited from having heard the sentiments expressed. Despite the feeble attempts to subsequently soften and explain away the obviously painful impact of the speeches, the truth had revealed itself; those who claim a virtual monopoly to lead this nation are racial supremacists and proud of it. All others, it would seem, are incidental to the vision of supremacist ideology as it was played out at the assembly.
The attempts at damage control were pitiful for the fact that they appear to have been aimed not so much at the healing of the community as a whole but more at attempting to exculpate the party. In this way, such efforts added insult to injury. The suggestion that the sentiments expressed were intended only for the party was implausible, disingenuous and clearly an attempt to avoid responsibility. From the outset it was obvious that this assembly, like others, would be heavily publicized. Like in previous years, the print media would be giving the event maximum coverage. Additionally, the assembly was to be broadcast live. These were matters known to all concerned and, I would say, factored heavily in how they positioned themselves. The extreme racism, for that was what it was, was put on display for the world to see as a miscalculated show of strength.
The justifications, offered as they have been instead of the apologies and humility we all deserve, have not gone far in convincing Malaysians that the racial extremism displayed is not an accurate reflection of how the UMNO, and as such by its own declaration the leadership, sees things.
And the way it sees things is obvious; while all of us are equal, some of us are more equal than others. I do not say this to incite disaffection. I have Malay friends who were equally disgusted by the goings on at the assembly. They show me that the attitudes celebrated at the assembly are not universally those of the Malay community at large.
Instead, I say this to lay foundation for the question of whether the Federal Constitution does provide for a privileged existence in the manner suggested at the general assembly.
The constitutional provision pivotal to any discussion of this subject is article 153. It refers to the ‘special position’ of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak and declares that it is the responsibility of the Yang Dipertuan Agong to safeguard these communities and the legitimate interests of other communities. It does not describe this ‘special position’ as a privileged status.
The founders of the nation did not at any point in time contemplate the creation of a two-tiered society such as some of some might have us believe. They contemplated the possibility that due to historical factors there might be a need to introduce certain measures so as not to allow for the dislocation or marginalizing of certain communities. This was not intended to translate into a promotion of particular communities to the detriment of others.
For this reason, article 153 recognises the legitimate interests of other communities. Further, it provides the means to ensure an adequate balance in the way protection measures are deployed. It is in this light that provision is made for reservation of positions in the public service and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and permits and licences where such are required under federal law. This balance is guaranteed further by the express declaration that the provision is not aimed at empowering the restriction of business or trade solely for the purpose of the protective measures. In short, there is no basis for wholesale reservations or quotas.
Put another way, despite suggestions to the contrary the Federal Constitution does not lend itself to any notions of a privileged existence for any community. It does however envisage a protected status for the Malays and the indigenous which allows for selective measures to be taken fairly and reasonably to a particular end. Any policy of the Federal Government aimed at achieving this end, whether the National Economic Policy, the New Development Policy or otherwise, cannot be seen as vesting greater rights than those contemplated under Article 153. Any other reading would allow for the kinds of abuses that are apparent.
The analysis offered above is not a difficult one. Article 153 is clear. It lends itself to affirmative action where such action is needed. Political expediency has resulted in the provision being mischaracterized and used to particular ends. This in itself is not surprising as politicians will operate as politicians do. What is of interest to me is how and why the characterization has been permitted by Malaysian society to perpetuate to the extent that as we come into our 50th year as an independent nation, the ‘two-tier’ notion has become so entrenched in our social landscape. And why is it that even as the notion continues to divide us, we insist on describing what happens in the country as being a part of a democratic process?
One of the principal reasons for this sad state of affairs is the nurturing of a climate of fear. Laws that allow for preventive detention without trial like the Internal Security Act, that stifle free expression such as the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act and which impede necessary access to vital information such as the Official Secrets Act have kept many Malaysians in the dark and in fear. If they have not been directly threatened or attacked, these laws have allowed the unscrupulous to demonize concerned Malaysians as being anti-Malay or anti-constitutional. They have allowed for the perversion of the social contract theory.
Additionally, a conservative Judiciary which has shied away from developing a strong civil rights tradition in our legal system has perhaps unwittingly allowed for the concomitant undermining of the rule of law. This has weakened our sense of right and wrong.
In this way, policy stereotypes have been permitted to develop and in effect become the law. Our claims to social integration are a hollow boast. Harmony cannot be found at the bottom of the gun barrel that supremacist Malay thinking is pointing at all others including non-extremist Malays.
If UMNO is serious about making amends for what transpired at the general assembly, let us hear then from its leaders of a plan by which the Federal Government intends to take us back to the spirit of protection and the dismantling of the ‘privilege’ mindset. Let us hear an admission of how the climate of fear has led to the development of racist tendencies that no amount of platitudes will help us deal with.
Until then, Malaysians should be forgiven for thinking that they have arrived at the beginning of the end.