New Malaysia, ready or not

Time to dump leaders who are hindering, not helping the country's progress
New Malaysia, ready or not

Protesters gather during a rally organised by Muslim politicians against the signing of the U.N. anti-discrimination convention (ICERD) at Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 8. Thousands of banner-waving Muslims dressed in white rallied in the Malaysian capital demanding protection of their rights, at a time of growing racial tensions in the multi-ethnic country. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

When Malaysia was formed in 1963, the overriding concern of its leaders was Malay racial domination. As the country with a pronounced multicultural make-up grew older, racial discrimination became baked into the national psyche.

Back then, the Malays were unsophisticated, poor and in danger of being overwhelmed by the minority but more industrious Chinese and Indians.

The creation of a new social contract followed bloody race riots in 1969. It was to help the bumiputras (a term for Malays, tribal groups of Sabah and Sarawak and other indigenous ethnic minorities) gain economic and social parity. When that was achieved, it was to end.

A rapid transformation of Malaysia's economy and society followed. The economy boomed. Wealth and social gains followed, literacy soared, life expectancy and incomes rose, and urban migration became more pronounced.

Malaysia continued to balance on a race-based political tightrope that attempted to interconnect as well as promote participation of all races.

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However, corruption became rife, economic realities bit hard and policies that had dictated how the country would be guided began to fall apart.

The ending of the six-decade rule of the Barisan Nasional alliance government in May by a reform-minded Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, led by 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, pointed to swift change.

But no, the old policies have evolved into a sense of entitlement among those who were only meant to be temporarily assisted.

Malaysia's recent backdown from ratifying the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) was an exhibition of narcissism and inconveniently exposed the jingle "Malaysia Truly Asia" as being a fairytale of a flourishing multicultural society.

On Dec. 8, a rally organised by opposition parties, the Islamist party PAS and the United Malay National Organisation and a coalition of Malay NGOs, showed racial prejudice is alive and well.

Tens of thousands of Malays flocked to downtown Kuala Lumpur to celebrate the government's decision not to ratify ICERD. Many were clueless about the convention, showing that they remain easily manipulated by their leaders.

But even if those at the all-Malay rally did not understand the U.N. treaty, they sent a strong signal that their demands, no matter how unsound, cannot be downplayed in the New Malaysia.

Nonetheless, government prioritising of Malay supporters, at the expense of equality and civil liberties, will be done at their own peril.

A recent survey by pollster Merdeka Centre showed that concerns over race and religious issues have grown since the election, with about 21 percent citing those issues as a concern compared with 12 percent in April.

From almost as soon as Mahathir's reformist government announced its intention to link Malaysia to the handful of U.N. conventions it had yet to sign, it was clear that they would be pawns in the country's racial politics.

Disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak and his arrogant, careless and self-serving colleagues in UMNO had always kowtowed to Islamic conservatives, leaving a mess for the new government to deal with and for them to exploit as a path back to power.

That's not to say they are unaware of the toxic social fallout from the rally. One politician from the Islamist party PAS said the gathering was not about belittling others but about defending Malay rights and Islam.

The Malays who had gathered there, he said, "are not … anti-Chinese or anti-Indians ... We are not here to take the rights of the Chinese or Indians ... We are defending the federal constitution".

For his part, Najib, the chief proponent of 1Malaysia, a program launched in 2009 to promote unity, seemed to acknowledge his idea was drivel.

Even though Mahathir announced at the 73rd U.N. general assembly that Malaysia would ratify all remaining core U.N. human rights instruments, not all in the government alliance fully backed him.

As signs of public discontent grew, various party leaders, including prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim, decided to drop what was turning out to be a political hot potato.

The remnants of the race-based party systems are providing no leadership perhaps because they do not have it in them or maybe because they have too much at stake to abandon the old, failed vision.

These people are obstructing Malaysia, not aiding it. The country needs leaders who see the direction it should take, acknowledge the difficult steps required, and can persuade all that the journey is worthwhile. If it finds such leaders, there is no limit to how far the multiethnic country can go.

Malaysians should not be daunted by all the recent negative currents and events that have tossed them around. It is an opportunity to see clearly who they are and then reinvent themselves and, in doing so, their country.

The positive take-aways from this disgraceful, racist rally are that it was also peaceful and a mark of freedom of expression in the new Malaysia.

Since it is clear that the rally was merely for the sake of rallying, it could be used as an example to enlighten all that excessive interest in oneself is a personality disorder.

If they hope to be respected, they should first subscribe to the idea of fairness and equal opportunities for all. A better Malaysia is bound to follow.

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