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Malaysia's Problem with Racial Tension
Mahathir’s abiding obsession with race
By: Dennis Ignatius
Malaysia arguably suffers from the worst racial tensions in Southeast Asia. Ethnic Malays together with the indigenous peoples of East Malaysia make up 68.8 percent of the population, Chinese 23.2 percent (this has shrunk from 1957 when it was about 40 percent), and Indians 7 percent.
As academician Brigit Welsh writes in an essay for the Carnegie Endowment, polarizing racial issues “have scuttled efforts to reach political compromises, constrained the adoption of much-needed reforms and fueled political instability. The damaging effects of polarization were evident most recently in February 2020, when sharp, identity-driven divisions contributed to the collapse of the most inclusive, secular government in the country’s history.”
There are few in Malaysia who are more to blame for this than former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. In a recent post in his blog Che Det, Mahathir gave his version of why racial tensions continue to exist when he asked rhetorically, why is it that political parties in Malaysia are race-based? He then went on to answer his own question.
Malaysians, he said, “insist on retaining their identification with their countries of origin. This is not so in other multiracial countries. The migrants from other countries, upon accepting citizenship adopt the language, culture, and loyalties to their adopted countries completely. They get fully assimilated after one or two generations. But in Malaysia, the migrants—despite being citizens—insist not only on being recognized as of different origins from the indigenous people but are physically separated through their economic functions and their political affiliations…. As long as we retain our identification with our countries of origin, politics and political parties in Malaysia will remain racial.”
In other words, Malaysia remains mired in racism because the non-Malays – “the migrants” as he calls them – have refused to assimilate with the local population. Indeed, they have, he says, deliberately separated themselves economically, politically, and physically from the indigenous people. He also hints that even their loyalty might be suspect.
It’s another way of saying that racism in Malaysia will only end when non-Malays abandon their respective identities – cultural, linguistic, and religious – and identify themselves completely with the indigenous people. In other words, he wants non-Malays to commit cultural hara-kiri before they can be fully accepted. It is an outrageous and profoundly racist assertion that cannot go unchallenged.
Whether Mahathir likes it or not, we are who we are – Malaysians of Chinese, Indian or other descent. We can’t change that, and neither should we be expected to. It is what makes us unique; it is what makes Malaysia unique. It does not, however, make us any less Malaysian. I would argue that non-Malay Malaysians have always considered themselves Malaysian first and are very proud of it. Compare that to people like Mahathir and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin who insist that they are Malay first and Malaysian second.
If non-Malays are increasingly moving in different directions, pulling apart even, it is because leaders like Mahathir have marginalized them and shut them out of many areas of national life including the civil service, the armed forces, the universities, GLCs, etc. At one time non-Malays were well represented in all these sectors but they were systematically purged. Even their contribution to nation-building was minimized. The walls of separation were not built by non-Malays; they were put there by men like Mahathir.
And how does it help the assimilation process when our politicians – Mahathir included – insist on demonizing non-Malays at every turn. They’ve been tagged with derogatory terms like “pendatang” or “migrants.” Their religious beliefs have been demeaned, their places of worship demolished or restricted. Even their businesses – built up over many decades of hard work and sacrifice – continue to be taken from them (reference the recent furor over equity ownership of freight forwarding companies). You can’t treat people like dirt and expect them to be grateful.
The double standards and hypocrisy that Mahathir displays are also stunning. Why is someone like former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi (who is of Indonesian origin) allowed to celebrate his ethnic origins but not Malaysian Chinese or Indians? Why does Mahathir go out of his way to protect a fugitive Muslim preacher from India but cannot find it in his heart to show even a little bit of respect for Malaysians, who like him, can trace their roots back to India?
As well, Mahathir rather disingenuously references migrant communities in other countries to make his case for assimilation. The fact is that in many countries migrant communities are free to hold on to their ancestry, their culture, and even their language. US President Joe Biden is proud of his heritage (Irish) as is Vice-President Kamala Harris (Indian). It is absolute nonsense to suggest that they have had to abandon their culture and heritage in order to become American. Their culture and heritage are who they are; America is where their loyalties lie. The same can be said of Malaysian Chinese and Indians.
What’s more, Mahathir himself has railed against western governments when they have imposed rules that seek to force migrant communities to assimilate. He was, for example, very critical of European governments that sought to restrict the use of the hijab or limit the construction of mosques. He is right to speak out against such racism but he ought to practice at home what he preaches abroad.
At the end of the day, if there has been a failure to assimilate, it’s because politicians like Mahathir have made it impossibly difficult. They have made national integration a one-way street; they’ve put the onus entirely on non-Malays to compromise while refusing to address their own bigotry and intolerance. Their almost daily disparagement of non-Malays, the disdain they harbor towards the so-called “migrants” and the walls they have created have done more to damage the fabric of our nation than anything else.
Our politicians – Mahathir included – need to understand the depth of non-Malay disappointment, hurt, and indignation that’s building up. Our nation is being slowly torn asunder because men like Mahathir are unable to come to terms with history and the fact that we are all Malaysians now.
When I served as ambassador, I always made it a point to meet with the Malaysian diaspora. I can tell you that the pain they feel in their hearts at having to leave their homeland is real. They left not because they did not love their country but because their country did not love them or appreciate them.
Unless you are a non-Malay, you will never understand what it feels like to be bypassed, overlooked, or made to feel like a second-class citizen simply because of your race or religion. I dare say it’s a pain that non-Malays as a whole carry in their hearts wherever they may be. It’s a pain that men like Mahathir have built their careers upon.
Dennis Ignatius is a former Malaysian ambassador and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel