Finding common ground

It is not enough to say that we have Malay friends, that we dutifully attend Chinese New Year open houses every year, or that we admire kolams during Deepavali and spend a moment thinking vaguely of our siblings in E. Malaysia during, for example, Kaamatan.

It’s not enough to claim moral superiority over bigots by saying “I eat every day at the mamak’s with my friends of all races and it’s very mesra and muhibbah. It’s only racists in Umno/Perkasa/DAP/PAS/PKR [insert bogeyman here] who want to memecah-belahkan the Rakyat/Ummah/Community [insert own tribe here].”

What is the point of all this when in private or among “our own kind” we entertain and sometimes encourage the opposite idea? Malays are lazy, greedy, over-sexed and bodoh sombong despite (or maybe because of) having everything handed to them on a platter. Chinese are racists who, not content with making debt slaves of the Malays, are trying to appropriate for their dirty pig-eating selves fundamental guarantees of Malay political independence and religious expression. Indians are untrustworthy drunken wife-beaters fit for nothing but the estates and the legal profession. (We can ignore Lain-Lain entirely because they are invisible and do not matter.)

Some of us like to prattle on about some ancient fictitious Golden Age of the recent past where racism was unknown in this land and everyone walked down the street arm-in-arm singing happy songs about each other. We “remember” the time when we recognised no difference in creed, colour or tongue for we were all brothers and sisters under the same British sun; and now we self-righteously deplore the depths to which we have fallen since.

We look fondly on the story of Lat and Frankie and apply it not to our own lives (for those of us lucky enough to have had such a friendship) but to the country as a whole without thinking for a moment that maybe such friendships are possible only as a result of similarities in social class and language unity (English), rather than stemming from any deep wellspring of equal, sincere and universal regard for shared humanity.

Outside the urban centres we were perpetually at one another’s throats. Is it any wonder that the Putera-AMCJA alternative constitution failed so spectacularly to resonate in the hearts of anyone outside the broad Left? Or that the Rakyat in fact ran in the opposite direction towards the same race-based political parties we accuse today of having divided the country worse than the British could ever have done?

Why, even when articulating opposition to Partai Perikatan/Barisan Nasional do we inevitably flock to other exclusivist parties such as Partai Islam or the (notionally inclusive) DAP and Parti Gerakan?

And despite our complaining so loudly about inequality, racism and systematic religious oppression, we still haven’t found another way to express our hopes and fears in anything but the language of our enemies: Ketuanan Melayu, Malaysian Malaysia,Kerajaan Islam—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the definition of our utopia is in direct opposition to those of our enemies.

(Take gender equality as a neutral example. There is a tendency to approach it from an exclusively feminist perspective, given that more or less attention should be paid to it in direct proportion to how much or little women have been oppressed in our community. But if the discourse is strictly exclusive to women, how does that differ from the discriminatory practices of men?)

We are daily given cause to go to war. The latest incident involving Joshua Wong has dragged up again the whole business of keeping silent about sensitive issues (sorry guys, you need to be logged in to Malaysiakini to read it. I will post a free-access report later, if I find one).

The problem with race-based parties is that the practice of consensus is a zero-sum game: a community gains something only at the expense of another. After a while, some things inevitably become taboo. Race, religion, political ideology, gender, education. This is because people are at first reluctant to jeopardise a fragile balance achieved through consensus—a noble enough reason, but within a generation reluctance turns into fear and the reasons for that fear become lost or obscured by “rights” and “privileges”.

We have to take a step back and find some common ground where it is safe for us to talk about these things. It has done us no good to keep silent: we have done this for 53 years and look at the result. Still the same. No, worse.

Two years ago I was intensely pissed-off by Syed Hamid Albar in Parliament (this was when I was still a correspondent) claiming more or less that Israeli oppression of Palestine was an issue exclusive to Muslims. I wrote my weekly column on this subject and was spiked by my colleagues who feared to offend the Home Ministry because I had quoted from the Qur’an (I am not Muslim). I understood their reasons: annual printing licences being at best a tenuous thing and too many people in the office needed their jobs to feed their families.

I withdrew the column for that week, and sent it to a fellow who published it on his blog. That fellow is a PAS Member of Parliament, and you can still read my original story on his page. However important and meaningful that gesture was to me personally, I am aware that it is sadly a bit insignificant in the broader scheme of things.

But if nothing else it proved to me that we must encourage ourselves to tear down the walls that separate us, even by a fragment of a brick at a time, and to do that requires just a bit of courage—not just to help yourself, but to help the fellow on the other side of the wall.

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