Race to the top


IN my last article I highlighted the multi-racial composition of the Negeri Sembilan football team, arguing that state affinities can help, rather than hinder, loyalty to Malaysia more broadly. If we start by embracing diversity in our local and state communities, then we can do so at national and global levels too.

Sadly, we were soon reminded of the racism still infecting Malaysian sports and political parties, when our women’s singles shuttler S. Kisona – wearing our national colours for the Sudirman Cup in Finland – was crassly attacked on Twitter. Thankfully, the social media backlash against the commenter was swift. The Badminton Association of Malaysia were “utterly appalled” by the “dreadful remark”, while other politicians joined the condemnation. Police reports were made, and the offender has now resigned from his political party post.

Flimsy defences were invoked, citing strong emotions at Malaysia’s loss, and references to non-derogatory usages of the offensive word. The former is not an excuse for racism, and the latter must be assessed according to intent. Words can indeed have different meanings in different places, but here, the word was paired with the most asinine stereotype of our athlete’s ethnic background – making it clear that the supposedly local, non-derogatory usage was not being intended. Worse still are the attempts to cite places such as the Masjid Kapitan Keling in Penang (truly a beautiful building which I have written about separately) as a license to use the word. Without proper historical sensitivity, such usage is in fact doubly insulting.

As I observed with respect to the n-word in the United States of America, even if words evolve in meaning through time and place, a politician with a national profile should have the wisdom to avoid such racially-charged vocabulary.

In recent days thousands of police reports have also been made against an ustaz for excerpts of a speech implying that Malaysian Buddhists and Hindus want to kill Muslims, making reference to conflicts in other parts of the world experiencing inter-religious violence. All I will say about this is that I know other ustaz who cooperate with Malaysian Buddhists and Hindus to uplift all our communities, who acknowledge so many Buddhists and Hindus who have contributed to the country, and who understand that Malay culture itself has long had connections to Buddhist and Hindu civilisations: for instance, any ustaz who preaches in Malay uses words derived from Sanskrit.

Comfortingly, last week’s khutbah in mosques throughout Negeri Sembilan was about fighting corruption, and began with the reminder that enjoining good and forbidding wrong (amar makruf, nahi mungkar) is not only for the benefit of Muslims, but the whole of society.

Instances of individual racist acts or individuals are easy to identify, and are rightfully condemned by the majority. And even those uncomfortable with the idea of “structural” or “institutional” racism cannot deny that history and government policies have played a major part in allowing this kind of racism.

What is far trickier is agreeing how best to eliminate such racism.

Some prioritise economic solutions, using institutions to explicitly build intellectual and skills capacity for certain groups, or having Government-Linked Companies pursuing explicitly race-based agendas, or requiring at least 51% Bumiputera equity in freight forwarding companies.

Others pursue visible representation in public bodies, arguing that the top echelons of government, the civil service, parliament, the judiciary, listed companies, universities, police and armed forces should be diverse, and quotas or incentives should be deployed to achieve this.

Education is often given a special focus: ensuring an racially inclusive curriculum (especially in history and civic education) and diversity in each school normalises acceptance, the theory goes.

Legally-minded activists might call for amending the Federal Constitution (presuming they don’t think our federal setup is a recipe for racism in the first place) and other laws to explicitly remove any reference to favouritism based on race.

For each route, there are of course well-intended people who don’t agree. They will say the risks of economic intervention are too great in perpetuating corruption (and besides, any intervention should be needs-based, not race-based); or that quotas will result in incompetent cronies being appointed; or that no amount of legal rewordings will actually stop the appalling numbers of deaths in police custody.

The reality, as with any advocacy, is that all aspects need working on simultaneously. Even so, no one single individual or party, however well-intended, will have all the solutions. That is why political competition is important.

Civil society will build on its role too. At IDEAS, through our #TanpaPerkauman and #KitaBukanKami campaigns, we hope to normalise conversations about our most difficult issues, leading hopefully to understanding, healing, and a Keluarga Malaysia to be proud of.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is Founding President of IDEAS