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Malaysia: Normalising the Unacceptable Januari 12, 2008

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.

By: Farish A. Noor

The dangerous thing about sectarian politics is how it becomes normalised so
easily and quickly. Taking a leaf from the book of Speer and Goebels, the
old Fascist maxim proves itself true time and again: Once the public is made
to realise that they are impotent and unable to affect change, the ruling
elite can hoist almost anything upon them. One affront leads to another, and
the common tactic is to follow-up a public outrage with yet another that is
even more outrageous. Hence when politicians issue their sexist slurs and
the the media reacts to them, the tactic often favoured by some is to reply
with a racist slur even more unpalatable to most right-minded adults.

We have seen this strategy employed so often by now: The rise of the extreme
Hindu right in India was a case of leap-frogging from one insulting comment
against Muslims, Christians and other minorities to the next. Likewise the
shift to the right that is seen in Europe today was occassioned by extreme
right-wing politicians vying for media attention and out-doing themselves by
playing to the gallery.

Malaysia of course is no exception to the rule and during the past five
decades the tone and tenor of Malaysian politics has been set by the
standards of racialised communitarian politics that is divisive to the
country. Again and again we have seen Malaysian politicians come to power by
playing the race – and now increasingly religion – card above all else,
pandering to their own communities at the expense of the rest. And over the
past three years in particular the country has witnessed the rising of its
politiical temperature thanks to the amateurish pyrotechnics of loud
politicians standing on the soapbox to play to the communitarians in their
midst. The precedent was set three years ago when the leader of the Youth
Wing of the ruling UMNO party – Hishamuddin Onn – brandished a keris – the
traditional Malay dagger – in a symbolic act of defiance that many regarded
as frothy bravado and little else. In the context of multi-racial Malaysia
where racial sensitivities run deep, such gestures can have the effect of
antagonising the non-Malay and non-Muslim communities further and deepening
the racial divide that already splits the country in many ways.

At this years General Assembly of the UMNO party the leaders of the UMNO
Youth Wing were once again seen playing with their toys in public, claiming
that their gesture was intended to symbolise UMNO’s fighting spirit (odd to
say the least, considering the UMNO did not engage in armed struggle against
the colonial powers of the past but rather opted for a more docile form of
negotiation instead) and commitment to the country. Needless to say the
expected reaction has ensued, with many members of the non-Malay and
non-Muslim communities worried about the growing assertion of Mlalay-Muslim
dominance in the country.

Ironically, the spin-doctors of UMNO have been hard at work to justify the
symbolic unsheathing of the keris and the hysterical screaming and yelling
of slogans that often follows. Cognisant of the fact that the juvenile
antics of the party’s leaders are under scrutiny, at this years UMNO
assembly the leaders of the party went to great lengths to explain how and
why the keris was unsheathed and brandished in public on stage. The UMNO
party’s deputy leader Najib Razak went as far as claiming that the waving of
the keris should not be interpreted by the non-Malays as a declaration of
war, but rather as the party’s defence of the Malay race. Where, pray tell,
is the difference?

No matter how hard the spin-doctors of UMNO try to pass off this episode as
another harmless escapade in the party’s sorry history, the fact remains
that racial and communal tensions are high in the country at the moment.
While the ethno-nationalist Malay communitarians of UMNO claim that their
party is merely there to defend the Malay race, the fact remains that this
defence of ‘Malayness’ is couched in terms of a rhetoric and discourse of
Malay supremacy. Furthermore the non-Malays of Malaysia are left with the
stark reality that while UMNO caters primarily to Malay demands, dozens of
Hiindu temples have been demolished all over the country and the non-Muslim
NGOs of Malaysia are increasingly vocal in their defence of the rights of
non-Muslim citizens.

But UMNO’s hotheads have been caught in a trap of their own making. During a
previous assembly the very same leader of UMNO Youth was challenged by an
UMNO delegate who asked him : ‘Now that you have unsheathed the keris, when
will you use it?’ This is the real context against which such puerile and
shameless theatrics are being enacted: of a party that is becoming
increasingly insecure, defensive and unsure of its future, edged and goaded
by irresponsible politicians who have let the genie of communitarianism out
of the bottle and are now unable to put it back in. One is reminded of the
likewise violent symbolism of the extreme right wing BJP and RSS in India,
whose leaders brandished Indian swords – tulwars and shamsirs – before their
supporters and potential voters, and who later claimed that they were not
responsible for unleashing the racial and religious terror that swept across
states like Gujarat.

Mlalaysia’s politicians would do better to grow up and behave like matured
adults who can deal with real issues such as corruption, abuse of power and
the crisis of confidence in the judiciary rather than playing with knives on
the stage. The growing income disparity in Malaysia, the low ranking of
Malaysia in the press freedom index, the brain drain which is leading to the
loss of thousands of intelligent and educated professionals; are all real
problems that need real solutions put forward by sincere politicians with
real intelligence. Leave the knife in the kitchen, and try to manage the
country instead: That would be sage advice to Youth leaders who should have
grown up long ago.



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