Sunday, December 14, 2008

Dr CHANDRA MUZAFFAR: Ways to understand the other

by Dr Chandra Muzaffar
NST - Sunday, 14 December 2008 14:31

What should be clearly understood by all is that as a result of the extraordinarily generous conferment of citizenship upon a million Chinese and Indians on the eve of Merdeka, the political landscape changed drastically.

IF the ethnic temperature in the country has increased in the last few months, it is partly because few of us bother to explain to our own community the concerns of the "ethnic other".

If the influential stratum in each community makes a sincere attempt to understand and empathise with the other, it may be possible to reduce mutual distrust and forge better inter-ethnic ties.

Chinese and Indian Malaysians who have some knowledge of the ethnic situation in the country and command some moral authority should try to convey the following seven-point message to their communities.

One, the Malaysia that we know today did not emerge suddenly from the ocean after the vast majority of Chinese, Indians and other non-Malays decided to settle down permanently in the country at the end of World War 2.

This nation has a history that has shaped the present as it will mould the future.
The Malay rulers who were at the apex of sultanates that existed in one form or another for hundreds of years embody that history.

So does the Malay language, the lingua franca of the archipelago since time immemorial, which endows the region -- the whole of Nusantara -- with its cultural identity.

Islam is not just the religion of the Malays but was also the basis of law and administration in the region's pre-colonial kingdoms.

The sultans, the Malay language and Islam, as many non-Malays know, are three vital pillars of the nation that are integral to the Malaysian Constitution. They are crucial ingredients in the collective consciousness of the Malays and help to define the character and identity of the nation.

Two, contrary to a view expressed in some circles, the formation of Malaysia in 1963 did not in any way nullify the simple historical truth that the nation had evolved from a Malay polity.

In fact, amendments to the 1957 Constitution provide the Yang di-Pertuan Agong with the authority to appoint governors to Sabah and Sarawak while Article 3(3) makes him the head of Islam in those two states.

Malay, needless to say, is also the sole official language of Sabah and Sarawak. More significantly, like the Malays, the natives of the two states are also recognised in the Constitution as indigenous people or Bumiputeras.

Three, logically, indigenous Malay kingdoms of the pre-colonial period should have evolved into a Malay nation at the time of Merdeka. This did not happen mainly because the British colonial administration which had facilitated the huge influx of Chinese and Indian migrants into the country in the 19th and early 20th centuries changed its policy immediately after World War 2 and insisted that Chinese and Indians be granted citizenship.

Why there was a change in policy and why the Malay rulers and the Umno political elite, who were at the helm of the Merdeka movement, acquiesced with the British are beyond the scope of this article.

What should be clearly understood by all is that as a result of the extraordinarily generous conferment of citizenship upon a million Chinese and Indians on the eve of Merdeka, the political landscape changed drastically.

To illustrate this point, in the 1955 election to the partially elected federal legislature, only two out of the 52 seats had a Chinese majority. But in the 1959 parliamentary election, when the number of seats was doubled to 104, Chinese majority seats increased to 39.

By sharing their land with the non-Malays, a people who through the normal course of events should have formed their own Malay nation-state became a community among communities.

The Malays had made a significant concession on the identity of the nation. It is this concession, almost unprecedented and unparalleled in the annals of nation-states, which leading Malay scholars and writers have described as a "huge sacrifice".

It is a sacrifice that has seldom been appreciated by the Chinese and Indian communities.

Four, viewed against this backdrop, the accommodation of the Chinese and Tamil languages in the nation's life is also without precedent.

There is hardly any other society in the world that allows the mother tongue of its non-indigenous communities to be used as a medium of instruction in the national school system. Chinese and Tamil are also part of the official information and broadcasting system.

These unique features of the Malaysian nation have not won accolades from the champions of these two languages.

Five, if non-Malays acknowledge the foundation of this nation and the remarkable accommodation of their languages, cultures and political rights, they would have no problem accepting Malays as the nucleus of the national political leadership. And indeed, in the last 51 years the moral legitimacy of this Malay nucleus has never really been questioned by the non-Malay masses.

It should be distinguished from ideas such as Ketuanan Melayu which has been erroneously translated as "Malay supremacy" and has no basis in the Constitution.

Six, again it is because of the unique circumstances surrounding the emergence of the Malaysian nation that the special position of the Malays and other indigenous communities has been entrenched in the Constitution.

The community that agreed to the accommodation of the non-Malays was an economically disadvantaged community in 1957 with 64 per cent living below the poverty line.

This is why "special position" was conceived at the outset as an affirmative action policy applicable to specific sectors of society. Whatever the abuses, the policy has succeeded to a great extent in transforming the socio-economic status of the Malays.

Seven, nonetheless, since Malays and other indigenous communities continue to lag behind in business, there should be a concerted, organised endeavour on the part of outfits such as the Chinese Chambers of Commerce to provide meaningful assistance to the former to enable them to establish sustainable enterprises.

While it is true that a lot will depend upon the Bumiputera entrepreneurs themselves, it is unfortunate that strengthening their position in commerce and industry has never been part of the agenda of what is undeniably an eminently successful business community.

Just as non-Malays should show some understanding of the Malay position, so Malays with moral weight should try to develop empathy within their community for the legitimate concerns of their non-Malay co-citizens.

Malay empathy could express itself in relation to the following seven issues.

One, Malays should understand that while a big segment of the Chinese and the majority of the Indians served the interests of the colonial economy, a lot of them were also marginalised and exploited by the colonial power structure.

The Indian poor in particular in the plantations and in the public works sector were exploited mercilessly and subjected to various indignities.

Like the Malays who were robbed of their land, the Chinese and Indians were also victims of British colonialism. They shared a common bond of pain and suffering that most of them were not even aware of.

Two, after three or four generations of domicile, non-Malay citizens in present-day Malaysia want to be accepted as equal partners in the building of the nation.

In their quest for equality and justice, they are no different from the descendants of other immigrants, such as Bangladeshis or Pakistanis who had settled down in Britain decades ago and who today want to be treated like any other indigenous British citizen.

It is a legitimate aspiration which the Malaysian Constitution takes cognizance of. Article 8 not only states that "all persons are equal before the law" but also prohibits discrimination, "except as expressly authorised" by the Constitution.

Three, in this regard, the application of the special position of the Malays and other indigenous communities does not need to violate the principles of equality and justice if law and policy are aimed solely at helping the needy and the deserving, and, if at the same time, the concept of "the legitimate interests of other communities" in the Constitution is also directed towards assisting the needy and the deserving among the Chinese, the Indians and other non-Bumiputeras.

In other words, it is possible within the framework of the existing Constitution to be fair and just to everyone regardless of ethnicity.

Such an approach, the Malays can rest assured, will not jeopardise their well-being.

On the contrary, if one endeavours to be just and fair to everyone, it would be easier to curb the abuse of the special position by the rich and powerful which has been detrimental to the interests of poor and powerless Bumiputeras.

Four, being just and fair to everyone also means ensuring that non-Malay, non-Muslim Bumiputeras from Sabah and Sarawak are provided ample opportunities for progress and advancement qua Bumiputeras in government, politics and the economy.

More specifically, their mobility should be accelerated in the federal, civil and public services and also in the police and the military. There have been times when the state's commitment to improving their status and their well-being has not been as strong as it should be.

Five, as with the non-Muslim Bumiputeras, the scope for emplacement and promotion for non-Bumiputeras in the bureaucracy should also improve.

The present government under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has already begun to take concrete measures in this direction. In the police and the military, too, there are some attempts to encourage non-Bumiputeras to play more prominent roles.

Six, as with their role in public institutions, non-Malays have some legitimate grievances about the lack of recognition of their contributions to the development of literature and the arts.

Malay leaders and Malay society as a whole should be more forthcoming in rewarding the accomplishments of these non-Malay writers, artists and singers, especially when their medium of expression is Bahasa Malaysia, the language of the land.

Seven, Malays as Muslims should appreciate that integrating non-Malays into the public service and the nation's cultural milieu and ensuring that justice is done to the non-Muslims who live in peace and harmony with Muslims in no way undermines Islamic ethics.

Indeed, the Islamic perspective on humanity as embodied in the Quran is uncompromisingly universal and inclusive.

When Islamic civilisation was at its pinnacle, it was this all-embracing, integral outlook that prevailed, which is why ideas and individuals from so many different religious and cultural backgrounds contributed to its triumph.

Malays have nothing to fear from a universal, inclusive approach to society and its challenges, especially since the socio-economic position of the community is bound to get stronger over time while the nation's demographic trend will witness an even more pronounced shift towards the community in the coming decades.

For Malays to understand the non-Malay situation and vice-versa and for each to communicate their ideas to their respective community, the media has a critical role to play.

It is perhaps the only channel through which a balanced perspective on our ethnic problems and their solutions can grow and develop.

One hopes that the media realises how important its role is in promoting inter-ethnic understanding.

Indeed, understanding the other is one of the vital prerequisites for our survival and success as a nation.

About the Author: Dr Chandra Muzaffar is president of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST) and Professor of Global Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia

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