Dec 7, 2007
Beware hazards of playing the race card
By Janadas Devan
IT WAS eye-catching: Hindraf, the Hindu Rights Action Committee in Malaysia, demanded last Sunday the appointment of a Chinese as the country's finance minister and a non-Malay as its second deputy prime minister. Too many top portfolios in the Cabinet were being held by Malays, Hindraf complained.
A few days earlier, it was announced that Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was to be Singapore's Finance Minister. Not a single Singapore newspaper bothered to note that he was a non-Chinese. Many Chinese Singaporeans may have difficulty pronouncing his name - Mr Tah-mun, they call him - but the fact that he is of Jaffna Tamil origin is a matter of profound indifference to them. He is obviously well-qualified for the job; end of story.
And as for the deputy prime ministership, two non- Chinese have held that post in Singapore's history - the late Mr S Rajaratnam, and Professor S Jayakumar, who is one of the two incumbent DPMs. Nobody ever suspected either Mr Rajaratnam or Prof Jayakumar got there because he was a non-Chinese.
What were Singaporeans talking about last week? Among other things, they were wondering if a non-Chinese could be prime minister. A survey last month had indicated that as many as 94 per cent of Chinese Singaporeans said they would not mind a non-Chinese as prime minister. But former Cabinet minister S Dhanabalan doubted the finding. Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese in the top job, he told this newspaper.
And who wrote to The Straits Times' Forum page disagreeing with him? Chinese Singaporeans! I think Mr Dhanabalan is correct, as does this newspaper's Political Editor Zuraidah Ibrahim - all non-Chinese, in case you have not noticed - but here were Chinese assuring us we were wrong.
So I'll make a modest prediction here: Fifteen to 20 years from now, a woman will be in the running for the top job. That glass ceiling will be smashed first. And 30 to 50 years from now, a non-Chinese will be in the running for the top job. For purely symbolic reasons, I hope he or she is a Machindian - a thoroughbred, kopi-susu Other.
Far from perfect
WHAT idle speculation! What luxury it is to talk in this fashion! Race relations in Singapore are by no means perfect - racism still exists - but things could be far, far worse. Take a look at Malaysia.
Why should there be a Hindu Rights Action Committee? It is unfortunate enough that Malaysian political groups should be organised along racial lines. But to find minorities dicing themselves into even smaller minorities - Hindu Indians, Muslim Indians, Tamil Indians, non-Tamil Indians, ad infinitum - reveals how extraordinarily divisive identity politics has become in the country.
Hindraf organised a march in Kuala Lumpur two weeks ago, at which demonstrators carried portraits of Mahatma Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth II. Why did they not think of hoisting portraits of the Malaysian King or of 'Bapa Malaysia', Tunku Abdul Rahman?
Why did Hindraf make appeals to India for help? And why did the Indian Prime Minister himself, Dr Manmohan Singh, feel it was his place to intervene on behalf of Malaysia's Indians?
'Whenever Indian citizens abroad or people of Indian origin living abroad run into difficulties, that obviously is a source of concern to us,' he had said.
There are so many things wrong with this picture - so many things that should sound the alarm - one does not quite know where to start.
First, the Indian government's claim of a watching brief over Indian Malaysians was deeply troubling.
For one thing, it implied Indian Malaysians did not belong where they were. 'People of Indian origin living abroad' clearly implied that India was the 'home' and Malaysia the 'abroad' for Indian Malaysians. How could Dr Singh have thought such an implication would benefit Indian Malaysians?
For another, if New Delhi can claim a watching brief over overseas Indians, Beijing can claim the same over overseas Chinese too. It does not. But if Indian Malaysians can look to India for redress, why cannot Chinese minorities in the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia look to China? How would such divvying-up of oversight responsibilities between Big Brother India and Big Brother China help multiracial South-east Asia?
The Indian government did not realise the serious implications of what it was saying, and Malaysian officials were correct to tell it to 'lay off'. Any other Asean government would have done the same.
Second, Hindraf's behaviour points to a degree of alienation and disillusionment that should worry all Malaysian politicians - in the ruling as well as opposition parties.
Malaysia's roughly 1.8 million Indians are not recent immigrants. The overwhelming majority are at least the grandchildren of immigrants. If after 50 years of Malaysian independence, a number of them are still automatically hoisting portraits of foreign totemic figures at demonstrations, there is something deeply wrong.
It points to shortcomings in Malaysia's system of preferences for bumiputeras. Now almost 40 years old, that system has shifted from being a means of uplifting Malays economically to one that serves to entrench Malay dominance. Thus, what was once perceived as a necessary leg-up for Malays - affirmative action - is now perceived by the other races as discriminatory action against them.
And because the system has lasted for so long, forward-looking Malaysian leaders are finding it difficult to reform it. The slightest indication of change - for example, in Kuala Lumpur waiving bumiputera set-asides for some businesses in Johor's Iskandar Development Region - is taken as an attack on settled policy by various Malay groups. Why is the understanding of 50 years being challenged, they demand? Why is Malay dominance being threatened?
A Malaysia unable to break free from sterile identity politics will find it increasingly difficult to compete in a globalised world.
Third, Hindraf's actions - and the reactions to them - show the fissures in Malaysia are widening, not narrowing.
'The Malays have never taken to the streets, so do not force us to do so as we will draw our parangs to defend our country's sovereignty,' a member of the ruling Umno's Supreme Council, Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Chik, was reported saying.
Bumiputeras constitute 65 per cent of Malaysia's population. But that figure includes non-Malay bumiputeras, such as the Kadazans and Ibans of East Malaysia. Malay bumiputeras alone number about 13 million, less than 55 per cent of the country's total population, barely a plurality.
An Umno-led ruling coalition that loses substantial support from Malaysia's minorities will find itself having to depend even more on Malays to preserve its two-thirds majority in Parliament. To ensure that - and with Parti Islam SeMalaysia snapping at its heels - its hot-heads may be tempted to ratchet up their 'parang' talk. That is a dangerous game.
It is urgent that Malaysia's leaders speak to, of and for Malaysia. That is the only way to cool its red-hot identity politics. Speak to, of and for Malaysia, please - fast.