At the formation of Malaysia, its leaders charted a course for a nation where a multiracial society would live within a democratic framework that embodied the spirit of harmony and understanding. On 16 September 2014, Malaysia will be 51 years old. From recent developments, it seems that Malaysia is veering away from the ideals envisioned when it was first formed.
In recent years and months,Malaysians have been relentlessly bombarded with hateful statements from the likes of Perkasa, ISMA and other Malay ethnocentric groups. They have questioned the loyalty of their fellow Malaysians and suggested that the majority of non-Malays are a threat to Malays and national unity. Hiding behind the mask of race and religion, they claim to represent the voice of the majority of Malaysians particularly Malays.
Much more worrying are government ministers who pander to these groups. In efforts to gain political mileage and consolidate their waning support, they have made irresponsible statements and sowed seeds of discord among the communities, and behaving in ways unbecoming of those appointed to public office.
Blatant racism such as this has upset Malaysians at home and abroad. Many took to social media to express their disappointment at the current state of affairs. While some have blamed the media for sensationalising racial and religious issues; a portion of the responsibility should also fall on the shoulders of Malaysians for failing to take a united stand and voicing the strongest possible condemnation to these acts of blatant racism.
Moderate Malaysians are clearly, by far, the majority. Yet the shrill voices of the extremists are constantly heard simply because they have a sense of purpose, are better organised, well-resourced and have access to powers not available to moderate Malaysians. Therefore moderate Malaysians should band together to ensure Malaysia remains a viable moderate nation state.
The responsibility lies with moderate Malaysians to bring Malaysia back to the “middle” by organising themselves, and spreading the message that Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians – those who came yesterday, today and tomorrow.
Ranting on social media alone will not be enough to improve the situation, but getting organised and taking concrete action will. The failure to nip this problem in the bud by maintaining silence, or apathy or feeling of hopelessness, have allowed those with extreme views to permeate throughout society; crowding out the silent moderate majority, thereby endangering the ideals of a moderate Malaysia.
Cynics might dismiss the optimism of one individual. They argue that one person cannot change the world.
There are many examples of the power of one. The civil rights movement in the United States (US) is illustrative. One woman’s act of disobedience against injustice proved to be crucial in catalysing actions that eventually led to the ending of institutionalised racial discrimination in the US. Rosa Parks, an African American woman, was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white person, as required under the existing law then. This incident led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the first mass action in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
When the boycott began to show its effectiveness, the White Citizens’ Council retaliated with some resorting to violence. They even firebombed Martin Luther King Jr.’s house. After the attack, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the 300 angry African Americans gathered outside. Instead of anger and hate, he was calm and implored the crowd to continue with their peaceful struggle. He said, “If you have weapons, take them home; if you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence.”
History would show that the U.S. civil rights movement contributed significantly towards the reduction of institutionalised racism in the United States, though racism remains a serious problem. It laid the foundations for important reforms and inspired many other movements that fought for other just causes. President Barack Obama has paid tribute to Rosa Parks on many occasions. Indeed there would be no Barack Obama without Rosa Parks.
One should never dismiss any action by any individual as insignificant and futile. Rosa Parks was just one person, but what she did, made significant difference. There are many Rosa Parks in Malaysia. Like her, there are countless unsung heroes that have already done many things that have made a difference, and many more waiting to come forward. It is through these small actions that eventually leads to a critical mass, and snowball to major success in the future such as a moderate Malaysia.
The road ahead will not be easy for Malaysia and moderate Malaysians. For whatever flames of hatred that is fanned to damage the social fabric of the nation, moderate Malaysians should reciprocate by dousing it with calls for calmness and rationality. The first step could be as simple as sitting down and having a ‘teh tarik and roti canai’ with anyone living or working close to you – your neighbour, colleagues – of a different background, of a different view, of a different persuasion. With simple friendly exchange such as this, Malaysians could discover that they have more in common than initially believed.
Despite the outward differences, the concerns are similar in many areas such as living peacefully, reducing the cost of living, improving educational quality, reducing crime, and wanting a clean and transparent government – as countless surveys shows. This understanding will help Malaysians realise that what matters is not who they are or where they came from, but what actions they take to make things better for all Malaysians.
As a collective, moderate Malaysians have to speak up, voice concerns and continuously participate in discourses in a calm and rational manner. The problems that Malaysians are facing today are caused by perverse incentives that benefit a few but impact many through a myriad of ways such as in the interpretations of laws, policies and the implementation of the law and policies. The crackdown by the government – using the colonial era and draconian Sedition Act on law abiding Malaysians – last week is an example of such perverse incentives. Lawyers, politicians, students, academics and journalists were charged for merely expressing their opinion.
The Sedition Act, 1948, defines sedition in such a broad scope that it allows any party in power to abuse it for its own benefit. Perceived as selective prosecution, this Act is used to instill fear among moderate Malaysians against speaking up; and reinforces the prevailing culture of fear. In fact, there many other laws or policies that are just as flawed that infringes on the citizen’s basic rights and liberty. They were passed through in parliament because Malaysians are constantly distracted by the issues of race and religion.
To move forward, Malaysians should be courageous, as Rosa Parks was; move away from identity (racial and religious) politics and strive to aim for new politics based on higher order principles. Fifty one years is a short time span for a nation state and Malaysia still has a long way to go. In this journey, moderate Malaysians have to constantly remind themselves and each other that they are stronger when they stand together.
The higher order principles of freedom, social justice, solidarity and equality in opportunity, should be the guiding light that helps moderate Malaysians to navigate their way towards unity in these challenging times.
Perhaps it is time to steer away from this detour into the wilderness of extremism and back on to the charted course agreeable to the majority of Malaysians: that is middle Malaysia.
This is the personal opinion of the author. Raja Ahmad Iskandar Fareez is an Australian National University alumnus and a member of the Democratic Action Party (DAP). He tweets at @iskandarfareez